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Sofianopulo's Masks: Unmasking the Depths of "Maschere"

Cesare Sofianopulo's (1889-1968) oeuvre is rich with disguises, duplications, deceptions, metamorphoses, and a plethora of deviations. However, none of his paintings are as astonishing and bewildering as "Maschere," created in 1930 and currently exhibited at the Museo Revoltella in Trieste. Departing from his usual dark tones, Sofianopulo employs vibrant colors to quintuple his own image on the canvas, portraying himself in a variety of costumes and expressions.

The painting "Maschere" perfectly captures the artist's creative genius and emotional depth. This work not only showcases Sofianopulo's ability to assume various identities but also highlights the transient nature of life and the inevitability of death.

Each figure in the painting represents a different facet of the artist's inner world and life, prompting the viewer to question the truths behind the masks. Sofianopulo's depiction of himself as a devil, a dandy, a Caesar, a monk, and a clown unveils the various faces and roles of humanity; each one a character playing its part on the stage of life.

In the bottom left corner of the painting, he depicts himself as a devil: clad in a fiery red costume that covers everything but his face, concealing two short horns and large, pointed ears. A black cloak drapes over his shoulders. His left index finger points to the sky, while his other hand holds a goblet. This gesture, reminiscent of Leonardo's Saint John the Baptist pointing heavenward with his right hand, evokes the carnival atmosphere of the devil's portrayal.

Sofianopulo's devil figure symbolizes the artist's exploration of his own inner conflicts and the darker aspects of human nature. The devil represents the evil within and the moral dilemmas people face. This figure is a reflection of the artist's desire to express himself through different masks. Positioned in the bottom corner of the painting, the devil interacts with the other figures. Notably, the left hand of the central clown figure rests on the devil's arm, highlighting the relationships between the figures and the overall harmony of the composition. Additionally, the devil's dark nature contrasts with the symbols of elegance and authority embodied by the other figures, enhancing the painting's dramatic effect.

Sofianopulo describes his art as "a smile of sorrow." The devil figure is one of the best expressions of this smile. The artist notes that he tries to conceal pain with a smile over the beauties and joys of life. In this context, the devil figure symbolizes the tragedies and inner struggles in the artist's life.

In the top left corner, he portrays himself as a dandy: a face looking down haughtily, with a monocle, black top hat, and coat. These are complemented by a pristine white shirt, starched collar, bow tie, boutonniere, and gloves. The dandy's gaze is more distant and aristocratic compared to the other figures dominating the painting. This reflects how the artist perceives himself and his stance towards certain segments of society. The dandy figure perhaps represents an inner part of Sofianopulo, his devotion to high culture and art. However, behind this facade of high culture and elegance, there may lie a critique of society and an irony regarding the superficiality of such a lifestyle.

In the top right corner, he appears as a Caesar. This stance, often seen in ancient Roman coins and sculptures, emphasizes the figure's power and authority. Caesar's expression is serious and contemplative, with a mysterious look as he gazes to the side. This expression suggests that Sofianopulo imbues himself with intellectual depth and leadership qualities. Caesar's attire is a blend of a pallium and a toga. The pallium, a type of cloak worn by the upper class in Roman times, and the toga, a symbol of Roman citizenship and social status, together present the figure as a noble and powerful leader of ancient Rome. The details of the attire reflect the artist's interest in historical costumes and his skill in depicting them with great precision.

The Caesar figure holds a scroll in his hand, symbolizing the laws and documents used in the governance of the Roman Empire. This detail signifies that the figure represents not only physical power and authority but also intellectual and administrative strength. The manner in which he holds the scroll reinforces his wisdom and leadership qualities.

Caesar's gaze is directed differently from the other dominant figures in the painting. This look suggests that the figure is contemplating distant horizons, perhaps the future or a grander ideal. It may symbolize Sofianopulo's pursuit of lofty goals and ideals in his own art and life.

In the bottom right corner, he transforms into a monk. The monk figure's face is smooth and calm, contrasting with the devil figure, reflecting peace and tranquility. This facial expression reveals the figure's inner peace and spiritual serenity. However, his gaze, directed cunningly upward toward the dandy figure, suggests an underlying irony or inner critique beneath the outward appearance of calmness.

The monk figure is dressed in a simple, dark-colored robe. This attire reflects the figure's spiritual and worldly simplicity. The robe symbolizes the figure's serene nature and detachment from earthly pleasures. On the monk's head is a comical and fake tonsure (the ring-shaped haircut traditionally worn by monks). Confetti rains down on the tonsure, adding a humorous touch that slightly undermines the figure's spiritual solemnity.

In the center, Sofianopulo depicts himself as a terrifying clown; his left hand rests on the aforementioned goblet, while his other hand leans on the arm of his devilish twin. His costume and ruffled collar are voluminous, in shades of blue and green. His face, almost embedded within this outfit, features a large red mouth and star-shaped eye outlines. Atop his head sits a pale green, three-pointed wig, with its tips pointing into the gaps between the surrounding figures. The artist doesn't stop with this final symmetry; the fivefold reflections of his ego form a precise "M" shape. The hands, gazes, and postures are so perfectly aligned that they stand out even against the chaotic backdrop of the masked ball.

The only detail that could disrupt this harmony is the inopportune appearance of Death above the shoulder of the artist-devil; Death is either removing or donning a mask. Much speculation can be made about the meaning of this unexpected intrusion, but Sofianopulo provides a clear explanation: "My avant-garde surrealism? This was already my feeling at that time: a sad smile over the beauty and happiness of life, a smile that had to hide pain. Two years ago, on February 2nd, a Tuesday, while the carnival raged through the streets, my father died at dinner that evening... That is why in my painting Maschere, there is also Death, the only one who can truly smile as it removes its face."

This is a captivating variation of the classic memento mori; it suggests that behind the various masks each of us wears lies the same inevitable fate.


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