Visitors look for carnival masks in a salon of the Venice art Mask workshop.-AFP photos

In a quiet studio in northern Albania, artists delicately paint, gild and bejewel tens of thousands of Venetian masks that revelers around the world have been donning for carnival season. Some 50 staff hand-craft the one-of-a-kind pieces from their factory in lakeside Shkoder, which exports up to 30,000 masks around the globe every year. "At first every (mask) is a mystery, you have to be patient to do it, but you can't wait to see the final product," explained Nora Gjonaj, a 41-year-old artist who has been working in Albania's Venice Art Mask Factory for two decades.

The masks range from relatively simple eye-coverings to towering, ornate head pieces, with costs running from 20 euros to 1,500 euros ($21 to $1,620) in the showroom next door. While most of the masks are destined for the Venice market-whose carnival was suddenly cancelled this year amid a coronavirus outbreak-others are shipped off to some 40 other countries, including France, the US, UK and Australia. The company also gets orders year-round from those attending masquerade balls, as well as filmmakers and theatre producers looking for costumes. Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, for example, famously wore two of the studio's masks in the 1999 Stanley Kubrick film "Eyes Wide Shut".

Gold, feathers and pearls

The studio was founded in 1997 by Edmond Angoni, a 64-year-old Albanian who worked in Italy before returning home to open his own shop. "Each mask has its own beauty, magic and mystery," he told AFP. The artists start by building a clay mold which they fill with plaster to create the base of the mask. That piece is then smoothed over with paper mache. A series of other meticulous steps follow, which Angoni says set his pieces apart from their mass-produced counterparts.

"We put a lot of emphasis on the artistic side of the masks, treating them with passion and love like works of art," he said. The mask showroom is also becoming a attraction of its own for tourists who can peruse the dizzying display of faces, including luxury masks adorned with silver and gold leaf, feathers, diamonds and pearls. Interested visitors can purchase a mask-or simply don one of the disguises for the three-euro entrance fee. - AFP