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Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice October 28 2016, 0 Comments

Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice

by Wendy Drolma


After a fitful night of sleep she wakes feeling oddly refreshed. It’s not often she’s able to decipher her dreams, but this morning she is, and this small victory feels like a gift, a mysterious assurance that what she is seeking, is seeking her. Removing one sheet of white paper from her desk, she pauses and reminds herself that she’s no longer trying to organize the mess of ideas that fill her mind. She appreciates this clear, clean sheet of paper, choosing to see it as a place to fade away from the usual troubles of life. Carefully she lifts one side of the page and overlapping it to the other, forms a tri-fold, pressing each side to a crease before inserting it into an envelope. On the surface of the envelope she writes,“The Masque Speaks” and closing her eyes she whispers “Speak to me,” before placing it inside her backpack and walking the short distance from her home to the railway station.
A mask, once acquired, can be stubborn and difficult to let go of. Also, like all things of the mind, its perception is limited. Often one mask doesn't know when it's safe to speak, or what's expected. Masks must coexist with one another. To avoid being paraded around, or not showing up when most needed, each works tirelessly.
Have no fear, daily your mask transforms you from worrier to warrior.
The painting she’s on her way to see, Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice, is waiting patiently for her arrival. Completed in the mid-18th century by Pietro Longhi, it is her favorite of his works. At the center of the painting, an animal tamer stands behind a low wooden partition. To his left stand costumed spectators, one woman surrounded by three men, all wearing capes and Venetian masks. Raising a whip and the horn of an animal in one hand, the showman points with his other to a rhinoceros eating hay in the foreground. When she first saw this painting over ten years before, it was the masked courtesan in the background, attended by a woman on either side, who captured her imagination. Laced securely in powder blue corset and white gown, the courtesan appears demur, held upright, stoic and on display as she waits to be noticed. Draped across her left forearm hangs a basket containing a single white dove.
The Goose Girl dresses like a Countess and everyone is stunned by her grace and charm.
Framing her direct gaze, a black, oval mask covers the courtesan’s face. Its macabre appearance is jarring in contrast to the heightened femininity of her dress. This particular mask, traditionally called a Moretta, draws attention to her, but it also renders her mute. It is held onto the face by gripping the teeth around a wooden button that is fastened securely underneath. In order to speak she must remove the mask. This feature is thought by some to create an aura of mystery, endowing a woman with a greater degree of independence by allowing her to decline conversation with any man she chooses. Others do not share this view of the Moretta. To them, the mask is a pretense in which the courtesan is forced to hide herself in order to survive. The modern woman looking at this painting clearly recognizes this dilemma.
Your mask is not obsolete technology.  It is poetry with a gritty sense of revolution.
Hypnotized by the tree line as it undulates outside the train car window, she massages an ache that's developed in her left shoulder. This pain is one of many mysterious symptoms she’s been experiencing. She believes it is her body saying no to something and the threat of not knowing what, makes her feel anxious. She wonders what words would best describe the way she feels. With any luck, she could capture and hold them to the page like wild animals. After rummaging through her backpack and finding nothing to write with, she feels disappointed and chastises herself for traveling unprepared. Sometimes, mild frustration builds into rage, silent and gnawing, and from there into a loneliness that is more than just fleeting. It feels punishing, a kind of banishment and exile. Most people don't recognize this in her.
Choosing a mask requires precision and a reckless yearning. 
Arriving at the museum station, she stands disoriented for a moment as she watches the train pull away. Then she looks around for signs and makes her way up the staircase at the far end of the platform. She remembers that someone once told her she had x-ray vision. The memory gives her a vague sense of confidence. Though flattered, she’s never been sure of what to say about the things she sees through.
If the mask is not your servant, it will gladly be your master.
Once inside the museum she takes the white envelope from her bag, leaves the bag at the coat check, and makes her way to Room 39 on Level 2 next to Central Hall. She feels as one might, sneaking up on a long lost relative--unsure if she will be welcomed or shunned. The exhibition rooms are situated along a broad corridor. Between each room and the next, heavy double doors on opposite ends open to reveal vaulted ceilings with ornate moldings. The rich Damask wallpaper is as Baroque as the artworks displayed upon it. Entering Room 39, she catches sight of the painting by Longhi but, to savor her approach, she decides to look at the other paintings first. When she finally stands in front of Exhibition of a Rhinoceros in Venice her eyes move slowly across three centuries and settle on the long-awaiting courtesan, who unflinchingly returns her stare.
You have come like an arrow to the target, flying towards your unmasking.
Her breathing slows and her vision blurs. Shape and color begin to merge. No longer able to identify the features of the mask, she continues to stare, thinking no thoughts, just reaching into the mask as if into infinity. Taking it into her hands, she turns it over, feeling its weight and the fine grain of the leather. She smells its musky odor.  She caresses its underside and strokes the wooden button, burnished from wear. Then, as if outside of time, she lifts it to her face and takes the button between her teeth. She is, at once, the courtesan and the one standing before her. Subject and object are one: a presence that has no name and is not limited in any way.
The white dove coos. Perching on the edge of its basket, it takes the envelope in its beak and as if tethered to a fine thread flies gracefully around the room, fluttering its wings, looping up and around, weaving a message in the air. Then it gently returns the envelope to her open palm, before settling back in its basket.
Slowly she takes the mask from her face, and holding it in front of her, looks deep into its eyes. She silently thanks both mask and courtesan, and becomes herself again. Opening the envelope, she pulls out the blank page with trembling hands, unfolds it, and reads:
Shame on you for thinking I’m a Psychic.


© Wendy Drolma 2016