Mysterious mask

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Shombit Sengupta | Updated: Apr 27 2014, 07:41am hrs
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 m from the mouths of Po and Piave rivers, where the famed St Valentines 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 is 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 almost a metre, making the Piazza a lake. Some three million tourists from around the world come to celebrate St Valentines carnival when Venetians and Italians dress up in traditional period costumes, especially available on hire at this time. The festive atmosphere makes you feel like you have returned to the Middle Ages. Masks went through periods of celebration or being banned since the 12th century in Venice, and were officially revived from 1979 to encourage tourism.

Particularly spectacular is the outstanding way womens faces are painted in the refined art of Italy. Painters paint delicate tendrils and decorative motifs to beautify womens faces to accentuate the citys ancient beige stone architecture. Sometimes, you feel its a Hollywood studio set for historical films.

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 festivities in Piazza San Marco surrounded with musicians in front of cafes and restaurants. The specialty was waltz music with the grand piano, counter bass cello and, of course, the Italian accordion. When dressed in a saree, people would give my wife admiring glances from a distance, but when she wore western clothes, theyd embrace her as a Latino because, being of Assamese origin, shes naturally crafted with high cheek bones.

She was, in fact, in high demand among the crowd of artists in Piazza San Marco who were keen on painting her face. When she happily agreed, she was told the session would last upto two hours during which time the artists asked me to move around here and there, promising Id be in for an incredible surprise.

Just a few metres away, I took a seat in a musical cafe. 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 painters surrounded by sophisticatedly-dressed women, vivaciously appreciating one anothers painted faces. 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 always busy at work. But here in Venice, the artist works not on canvas or paper, but paints womens faces instead in Italys typical, dramatic culture. Sitting just in front of me was a tall, graceful woman of perhaps 50 years of age. Pointing to my wife, she started talking to me, saying how marvellous it was that we had come from another culture so far away to enjoy the 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 look. Explaining the origin of masks, she said that using them in rituals or ceremonies was an ancient human practice across the world. She said the mask game started in Sardinia in Italy 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 marriage. The mask festival is a game, she said, where you discover different individuals through the expression of different types of masks. Yesterday, shed gone to a mask party where she found the man she had fallen in love with. Both of them were wearing masks and talking for nearly three hours. But they didnt see each other. The man was sadly reminiscing about how he was madly in love with a girl from Florence. They would meet year after year at this mask festival when he was very young, but he suddenly lost her.

The woman understood that she had found her Alberto again. She silently remembered this love of hers, but did not dare to 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 is now old and physically tarnished Slowly, she discovered that she was going deeper into dangerous mental territory. She wanted to escape and to not expose her burnt face, which would kill his beautiful memories of her. So in that swaying crowd, she quickly exchanged her mask with another womans. When he turned back to talk to her, he could not recognise that he was addressing another woman who was wearing her mask. This way, she hid herself from Alberto whom she had lost after a fire accident long ago in which she had 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 her lost memory of Alberto on returning to Venice and wearing the mask after 30 years. In the meantime, my wifes face was incredibly designed and we started to walk to join a masked gala.

Shombit Sengupta is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence. Reach him at