NEW ORLEANS — Masks at the Crescent City's Mardi gras blowout had an Italian flair this year, thanks to a pair of artists expert in the Florentine craft of fashioning papier-mache faces.
Their visit to the "City That Care Forgot" during its most raucous, festive season--the two weeks of Mardi gras leading up to the climax on Fat Tuesday, Feb. 16--realized a dream shared by both artisans since they began making masks 15 years ago.
The two natives of Iran are mask makers from Alice le Maschere, one of Italy's foremost mask studios, which this month is exhibiting 50 replicas of their handicraft at the State Museum on Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter.
"Carnival here is more extravagant," Goochizadeh Mamud said with help from a translator attached to the Italian consulate. "In Italy, it's a different occasion: There's no drinking, people wear costumes and play-act.
"Here there is more spending money, people exhibiting themselves and acting crazy. It's much different. We hope to learn something--a new kind of thinking. People come here to watch.
In Venice, home of Italy's major carnevale celebration, "it's quieter, more spontaneous," he said. "Everyone plays a role and participates."
University of New Orleans history professor Joseph Logsdon discovered the studio in 1983 during a trip to Florence, the jewel of the Italian Renaissance, where more than a dozen mask studios have flourished.
He spent the next five years working to bring an exhibit of the craftsmen's art to New Orleans, while the studio gained popularity throughout the rest of Europe, holding exhibits at museums in Paris; Bern, Switzerland; and Stuttgart, West Germany.
The studio's rise in popularity followed a wave of interest since 1980, when Venice for the first time in this century declared the 11 days before Lent a public holiday in response to the swell of carnevale parades being held.
"A recent Common Market survey found 70% of Europe's art treasures are in Italy," Logsdon said. "New Orleans is the oldest Italian community in the United States, and it just made sense to put them together."
Logsdon said the New Orleans tradition of masquerading finds roots in the Venice carnevale, which gained fame across Europe by the end of the 13th Century for its revelry and exuberance.
"The carnival in New Orleans evolved along lines similar to Venice because both were Catholic cities," Logsdon said.
"Catholics condone the purge before Lent, unlike the Protestants, who make people responsible at all times for their actions."
Masking during Mardi gras serves a dual purpose, Logsdon said. Hiding one's face behind a papier-mache molding allows the wearer to travel incognito or to play out a role in public that would otherwise be nearly impossible in everyday life.
"Visiting kings used to love to come to Venice during carnevale, " said Vilma Pesciallo from the Italian consulate. "It gave all kinds of people freedom to act out and do things they couldn't ordinarily do.
"It meant you could either lose your identity altogether--women, for instance, could go places where they were not allowed--or you could assume an identity--peasants could be kings and vice versa--and play out a role."
At Alice le Maschere, more than a dozen mask makers spend a few days to several weeks creating ornate, Renaissance-stylized masks of gold leaf or of lifelike resemblance to leather, ceramic or stucco.
The artisans produced two renditions of their impressions of New Orleans after hearing jazz played at the historic Preservation Hall in the French Quarter.
The result was a pair of yard-long, brassy saxophone masks with faces pressing out of the bell and the city's name in raised letters on the instrument body. One was presented to Mayor Sidney Barthelemy; the other remains on display in the museum.
A birdlike, ceramic-style mask sporting a foot-long beak is a reproduction of a 13th-Century mask worn by physicians during the bubonic plague epidemic.
"The doctors would fill the beaks with different herbs to avoid the plague," said H. Jafari Ahmad, who accompanied Goochizadeh and the exhibit to New Orleans.
"This way they felt at ease at carnevale around the plague."