Red, white and blue. Or maybe red, green and white. Or any combination you like. In whatever country you like. Here in Orvieto, Italy, masks are mandatory. If you forget to equip yourself when leaving the house, you suddenly realize you’ve gone out half-dressed, without your trousers. So you stop and buy another one or you won’t be admitted to wherever you’re going. Every shop seems to have them, for a mask is a necessary accessory . It’s become fashionable and not just white,or black, or the skyblue one that has been distributed by the municipal authorities.
Once upon a time the purpose of a mask was not simply that of protecting oneself and others. A mask might be meant to hide who one really is, or would like to be. It could represent some otherwise invisible being, a deity or an ancestor, or create a new persona, as in the Commedia dell’Arte. A mask could instill fear or awe, as part of an initiation ceremony or Halloween.
The masks we wear today, the cloth masks that cover the lower part of the face, turn us into anonymous pedestrians. Buon giorno, salve, unidentified individuals hidden behind a mask greet each other as they pass. Now in winter, what with masks, sunglasses, scarves wound around necks, hoods pulled up, it’s hard to know who has said “buon giorno Erika”, and they may simply be saying hello to a hat, a cane and a dog.
It was supposed to be a semi lockdown for two weeks, with bars and restaurants closed and no partying. Now it’s to be till the end of the month, in hopes perhaps that Christmas can still be Christmas.
This is more or less what it’s like on a Sunday in Orvieto.
A walk about an hour ago (it’s now a bit after four), Teah the dog decides she wants to try a new route. Up a lane with steps, but there’s also a banister, to the street that leads to the main piazza. One man washing his trash bin at the public fountain. No one else. Piazza is empty. Not even the small bus that does the rounds every 20 minutes. I cross the piazza and there’s a car parked in front of the church unloading some spiky silhouettes that can be identified as Christmas trees. Further down, two people, hand in hand, amble up the Corso looking at the few shop windows that are lighted. There’s one that has its Christmas decorations out, with Scandinavian type Santas huddled around a pillow. Absolute silence. Just once or twice a humming sound announces the arrival of a car and I pull Teah over to one side. We continue to the crossing and go up to the Cathedral. Only sign of life is a family watching their small daughter chasing after the pigeons. Nobody else for Teah to observe – she’s not interested in pigeons. How boring, she must think, except of course there are always the smells. Up to the next church and then home. A few abandoned masks lie on the cobblestones, their squiggly elastic earpieces an artist’s flourish. A few are white, but mostly light blue, the cheapest kind. One can’t help but wonder as one turns into the next side street whether we will ever be able to joyfully hug each other again.