From the discomfort zone: Mysterious mask

The festive atmosphere makes you feel like you’ve returned to the Middle Ages.

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Published: April 27, 2014 12:17:33 am
The romance of Venice lies in its 118 small islands separated by canals, linked by bridges. The romance of Venice lies in its 118 small islands separated by canals, linked by bridges.

A chilly wind was caressing the skin on our faces under the clean Italian winter sky of Venice. My wife and I were visiting the spectacular Piazza San Marco, about 200 metres from the mouths of the Po and Piave Rivers where the famed St Valentine’s mask festival runs for a week in February. To profess true love, lovers use masks as a ritual to surprise each other.

The romance of Venice lies in its 118 small islands separated by canals, linked by bridges. The peculiarity of the ancient Piazza San Marco is that you can sometimes walk nonchalantly there; at other times the tide raises the river by almost a metre, making the Piazza a lake. Some three million tourists from around the world come to celebrate St Valentine’s carnival when Italian men and women dress up in traditional period costumes especially available on hire at this time.

The festive atmosphere makes you feel like you’ve returned to the Middle Ages.

Masks went through periods of celebration. They were then banned around the 12th century in Venice and were officially revived in 1979 to encourage tourism. Particularly spectacular is the outstanding way women’s faces are designed with the refined art of Italy. Painters paint delicate tendrils, decorative motifs to beautify women’s faces to accentuate the city’s ancient beige stone architecture. Sometimes you feel it’s a Hollywood studio set for a historical film. On these gala nights, people wear various expressive masks embellished with soft feathers, glitter or colourful gemstones to charm the night with an unreal, glamorous touch.

Savouring this theatrical flavour, my wife and I joined the festivity in Piazza San Marco surrounded with musicians standing in front of cafés and restaurants. The speciality was waltz music with a grand piano, counter bass cello and, of course, the Italian accordion. When dressed in a sari, people would give my wife admiring glances from a distance, but when she wore Western clothes, they’d embrace her as a Latino because of her naturally crafted high cheek bones as she is of Assamese origin. She was, in fact, in high demand among the artists in Piazza San Marco who were keen on painting her face. When she agreed, she was told the session would last  two hours, during which time the artists asked me to move around here and there, promising I’d be in for an incredible surprise.

Just a few metres away, I took a seat in a musical café. The air was filled with different music groups playing tunes which, from a distance, seemed like a cacophony of music. In the middle were the face painters surrounded by sophisticatedly-dressed women, vivaciously appreciating one another’s face designs. The Piazza was indeed a place of beautiful human festivity. In many open-air bazaars and places of gaiety in the world, you will find artists painting portraits on the spot. Such artistic activity originated in Montmarte, in northern Paris, where painters with their brushes and colours are busy at work. But here in Venice, the artist works not on canvas or paper, but painting women’s faces in Italy’s typical, dramatic culture.

Sitting just in front of me was a tall, graceful 50-year-old woman. Indicating to my wife, she started talking to me, saying how marvellous it was that we’d come from another culture so far away to enjoy artistry in Venice. She enquired if I knew anything about the mask festival. Obviously, with my habit of doing consumer research continuously, I played the role of being an innocently stupid observer in the hope that I may learn many things from her. This elegantly poised woman had strong burn marks on her face, giving her a scary image. Explaining the origin of masks, she said using them in rituals or ceremonies was an ancient human practice across the world. She said the mask game started in Italy’s Sardinia before 2000 BC.

She then turned philosophical, relating how important the human head and face were in identifying a human being; the rest of the body merely enables execution. She revealed her personal experience. She was returning to Venice to enjoy the mask festival after almost 30 years. Originally from Florence, she had migrated to San Francisco after getting married. The mask festival is a game, she said, where you discover different individuals through the expression of different types of masks. Yesterday, she’d gone to a mask party where she found the man she’d fallen in love with. Both of them were wearing masks and talked for nearly three hours, so they didn’t see each other. The man was sadly reminiscing about how he was madly in love with a girl from Florence; they’d meet year after year at this mask festival when he was very young, but he had suddenly lost her.

The woman then understood that she had found her Alberto again. She silently remembered this love of hers, but she did not dare reveal herself and her burnt face to him. Jumbled images and emotions ran through her. How could she go back to her old lover who remembered her as a beautiful young person, when in actuality she was now old and physically tarnished? Slowly, she was discovering she was going deeper into dangerous mental territory. She wanted to escape, and not expose her burnt face to kill his beautiful memories. So in that swaying crowd, she quickly exchanged her mask with another woman.

When he turned back to talk to her, he could not recognise that he was addressing another woman who was wearing her mask. This is the way she hid herself from Alberto, whom she’d lost after a fire accident long ago when she’d badly burnt her face and lost her memory. Having recovered that terrible trauma, a kind American soldier she met loved her as she was, married and carried her away from the masks of Venice to a new American life.

How mysterious is the mask, she said, that she regained this lost memory of Alberto on returning to Venice and wearing the mask after 30 years. In the meantime, my wife’s face was incredibly designed and we started to walk to join a masked gala.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at

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