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 continued…