“Senore, colombina stucco o colombina rombi?”, the shopkeeper in mask asked me to choose which among the masks for men will I don on. I decided the colombina vivian red with leaf design. This day would be a vibrant masquerade for me, I told myself in the hysteria of Carnival. The one I chose was a mask for men intricately decorated with a gold braid around the edges with two black tapes to attach to the head. The shopkeeper would have given me directly the stucco silver as I was wearing a dark suit, but this one turned out better for me. For all purposes, I felt comfortable with it, and I felt stylishly Venetian in my appearance.
I looked at my wife. She was a stunning romantic presence in her finely chiseled masquerade Venetian Jolly mask. She put on this female mask declaring loudly, “I am now a Jester!”, and made some amusing movements; nodding her head sideways then twirling it vigorously with equally entertaining laughter and the jingling of small bells attached to the mask. As a response, I wondered, if she was able to ascertain anything with my awe. Jesters in the middle ages acted innocuously in a childlike bramble, which by now was what she was imitating. People in those times treated the jesters’ braggadocio not with disdain but with a symbolic acknowledgment equaling that of the power of the king. Maybe so, because as I looked at my jester wife, she did a just homage to this dazzling mask of the Carnival season.
We continued to walk under the Venetian skies, restaurants from Cantina do Mori to Osteria al Sacro, some fully occupied others only a couple having some sip of Siennese wine. What was that again, yes, cicchetta fried fish, shrimp, vegetables! My mind was in a gustatory zone. A couple with their prosecco just sat there, people watching, sympathetic to some couples pushing their prams along the narrowed lanes. At a particular turn, a literary scene from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Aschenbach contemplating of beauty appeared. How passionate was the Italian movie director Visconti in filming Tadzio here with the perfect light and perfect turn of the face? Then suddenly forgotten right away as some boisterous men were trying to haggle themselves in the multitude of people all wanting to have a pose at Rialto Bridge. Yes, Shakespeare’s Antonio in the Merchant of Venice, competed too for some full focus of attention.
“I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.”
I looked again at my wife, the Jester mask, the latter colored in the elaborate art of varying tints of red from carmine to crimson. It has gold floral lines with slender geometric patterns daintily painted on the coral pink cheeks and a light orange-red forehead. My wife’s now new thin lips were the most delicate and curviest, obscenely and entirely drawn blood red lips; always taunting of seduction and piercing venomous smile. Her new black brows in redolent arch became the thickest with the heavily colored glittering lust red starting from the root of the tear ducts to the farthest corner of the eyes. All they exude is heart-breaking melancholia with exceeding physical beauty of woman seemingly distant. Her new Duchess nose defined the feminine, perfect lines and the delicate smallness of a face that in itself could be a finely sculpted nasal cavity of a fairy or a nymph. Along the edge of the mask, grew a stark boundary with Burano laces in imperial red in itself littered with more intricate gold designs. The mask hair reigned in crowning splendor covering her dark flowing hair. Five towering dainty long triangular serpentine waves with small gold globule bells at each end connected with a pearl-colored corn-sized bead. They evoke of a fierce Medusa, restive and slithering, in queenly bravura. As she moved, the jingling sound of the small bells reminded me that she was a jester, stunning in her black dress. Everything about her became a secret and a puzzling mystery and masquerade desire.
Masked tourists and locals met, basking in the world of anonymity and celebration as an expression of saying goodbye to meat during the Lenten season. They were in volto, joker, bauta, salome designs, colors ranging from silver blue to silver pink and from gold green to gold blue. All were heading to the masquerade in San Marco Square.
Venice, you wear the face of a thousand masks. You are the seductress of the Adriatic. As we walked through the labyrinthine streets, starting from Guidecca to Dorsoduro, I felt coldness. I looked at her, touched her chin, ephemerally elegant in the afternoon dusk. What I saw jolted me with a brief shivering atavism. What pang of solitude was there behind the mask? I saw what remained. An authentic mirror of an authentic soul. Her eyes. The mask, a living entity, its tentacles are trying to grip the sea that clasps and closes like the most bottomless shell. I thought I was suddenly losing grip of the blatantly familiar and the emotional grazing ground of a loved one. Venice, a city whose water has the clarity of vision, a clarion of music, and the verity of life. Venice, a city whose history has the feverish tinge of power and domination, beyond the eyes can see. All these flooded like several competing layers of aquamarine pigments that my eyes can fathom, also behind my mask. My mind went back to the crowd of people, now in San Polo. Venice continued to float in my mind like the gondolas that were too proud in ignoring our gaze.
Together we continued onward to San Marco with the confusing lanes, the vast colors of Carnival printed and overpowering in its intensity. Is this the moon and the sun pulling us towards the center? Are the arms of this city too enchanting with our masks? We were seeing a cinematic carousel of scenes from Commedia dell’arte, the early form of Italian theatre during the 16th to the 18th century. Was that Arlecchino, the servant in his jacket and trousers too fitting that he looked awkward in his gait? Yes, there was Il Capitano, the indigenous loner in his maverick military uniform, laughing the dire threat of madness. Pantalone, the old rich man with a black cape, walked hand in hand with black and white costumed Colombina, the energetic servant. Il Dottore, in elegant robe and Pierrot in white garb with monstrously large buttons, were both pressing in their conversation. They all wore masks, and I had a heyday in the swim lanes of medieval origins of pretenses.
There is beauty. Venice has golden hairs that extended to the nooks and curves of the lagoon. It puzzles you profoundly with a despair so overpowering. It reveals its secrets as you sweat in mocking desperation. It whispers and deserts you like a woman who suddenly appears and hides from the expressive doors of houses abandoned by the Venetians. Goethe captured it all when he said that “Venice can only be compared to itself”.
“Do you feel the fingers of the mask?” I asked my wife, shouting in the golden lights that seemed to fall from above as we reached the center of festivities, San Marco Square.
“Yes, I feel it. Very much alive.” She answered with a wave of a hand relishing the very end of spectacular fireworks that lit the sky, stalking the cosmos of a world in revelry.
This new sensation we shared both excited and frightened me. This mask attached to my head had started to fit comfortably to the contours of my face and became a natural appendage of disguise. The temptation of anonymity in a sea of a multinational and multiracial swamp of humanity in the floating islands became a refuge and an asylum for me. My face wanted to shriek, to whisper, to shout, to scream yet, no echo nor single words emanated from a mouth and teeth nakedly exposed and untethered. There is the Lazarus of my eyes, thorough, limpid, and sentient into the darkness of a dream. Boris Pasternak understood it well in his poem.
And the secret of life without root
I understood as the day surfaced:
My dreams and my eyes had more room
To grope on their own through the mist.
And like the foam of mad blossom
And like the foam of rabid lips
Among glimmering shadows broke loose
The chord that knew no fingertips.
Mortality, and death. This is an expression of this mask, and its craftsmen, called mascareri, knew it too well. The bells that rung the processional and sepulchral music are the arrangers of its requiems, their hymn. I looked at the dark face of St. Mark’s Basilica, in its Italo-Byzantine splendor. This is the face that I saw with my piece of mask; doomed death. This is the vision and dream of creative geniuses building lasting architectural displays over slime, mud, and sand of inhospitable geography. Will they continue to succeed defying the face of imminent mortality? Venice is an unconsoled city of Thomas Mann where death and dying is his palimpsest theme in his opus after reflecting Mahler’s thirst for the ultimate orchestra of his grand musical vision. I was gorged by the small tentacles of the mask that is starting to establish roots on my epidermis and mandible. In this archaic chaos, there was the image of a metaphorical hourglass, decaying flowers, bubbles, and the skull, all appearing in the Gothic façade of the Doge’s Palace. They all symbolize the fragility, transience, finitude of life, and the certainty of death. Or these were nails penetrating the marrow of my weary bones, death retaliating or reminding what man’s portal is into eternity?
It was all an amalgamation of emotions. I retrieved my gaze into the excitement of the crowd. There were dozens of couples in the middle of the square, dancing the masquerade. Women in their most fanciful costumes, cloaks, wigs, elaborate gowns, and feather masks, and men in their most refined manner moved with grace in the baroque ball. The rhythm was inviting and embracing. The notes and the chords were so near and so compelling in their lyrical poison. Opulence and enchantment were the backdrafts of the night. There was also the spectral image of the macabre on how people moved around in the square. I felt intense fear. The men and women in their fancy attires danced with wild abandon. The hems of their gowns flowing on serpentine pattern across the tiled square. Prima donnas in coiffed hairs in slo-mo laughter and drunkenness. A visceral movement to where, I was not sure, as there were salons with palatial interiors not far from the square; some dressed as counts and countesses sipping cups of Turkish coffee and slipping amatory notes.
There is a bedeviled beauty in Venice’s mastery. Mastery of an imagined prelude to Verdi’s La Traviata performed at La Fenice Opera House exclusive to the elites of the gentry crowd. There is mastery of poetic death from tuberculosis of the heroine Violetta in Act III with Alfredo carrying the lifeless body. As Edgar Allan Poe said, “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”. As I watched the towering Campanile di San Marco of Istrian stone, I imagined myself there at the top alone and admiring in massive loneliness of a doge about to lose the immense naval power of Venezia to the conquering Turks of the Ottoman Empire. Venice, you of whom the Mediterranean declared as the glorious mercantile capital, what happened to your vaunted mastery, a gondolier may ask. He who descends from a proud family of gondoliers, together with the rest of more than four hundred of this island city, will always find mastery in their unique style of rowing, standing up and facing forward. In their distinctive blue and white striped shirt, they will always embody mastery, “not a spilled drop of wine from a full glass while rowing”. There glided three gondolas under the Rialto Bridge, impinging on the tapestry of time for this eldest trade of the city that dated back a thousand years. Robert Browning saw this too in his reflections along the canal in the area of Campo San Moise, before meeting his death in 1889, an ode in his death bed on mastery.
I took off my mask. My wife too. In the alleyway where darkness lurked Bob Dylan’s words “no one is free, even birds are chained to the sky”, grabbed us with a tidal force from an exploration into the mask’s forbidden world. It is a world of freedom to poke at the powerful, of transgressing without being caught, of trifling humankind’s foibles, of putting inertia for the world’s intolerance and rigidity. Its motifs from death to beauty, from eloquence to mastery, music to gondolas allow us to recreate a world according to our obsessions, according to our allusions and pursuits. Venice, its mask and pathos will forever be a mysterious riddle in lucid sight for all of us to interpret, explore, and come to terms with.