Masks in the Medieval and Renaissance Eras.
In medieval Europe and Asia, masquerade continued to play an important role as entertainment and in promoting cultural solidarity. Chinese and Japanese medieval dramatic masked plays, frequently accompanied by music, developed from their early origins in religious rituals invoking the blessings of the gods into the modern Nuo (China) and Noh (Japan) drama, which has not greatly changed in hundreds of years.
Italian Carnival masks representing Jews with distorted, stereotyped noses. From a 1642 book by Francesco Bertelli, Il carnavale italiano mascherato.
In Europe, although some ancient masking traditions continued, they were transformed by the spread of Christianity. Catholic veneers frequently covered over ancient, pre-Christian pagan masked rituals, with the timing of the rituals adjusted to coincide with major Christian holidays or, when the fit was poor, a holiday in honor of a saint was conveniently made to coincide with the ancient rite. Carnival was one such tradition, and it is well known that Carnival masks of various kinds were worn during the medieval ages. Masks might represent old women, doctors, young lovers, nobles, beggars, foreigners, or characters from the theater entertainment known as Commedia dell’Arte.
Commedia was the successor to Roman theater, masked like its predecessor but having little else in common. Like Roman masks, the Renaissance masks were made of leather lined with cloth, although due to the superiority of later craftsmen, the leather was no doubt thinner and the cloth linen. The Commedia plays were only very loosely scripted, with most of the dialogue invented improvisationally by the actors. It was invented in Italy in the 17th century, but it rapidly became popular throughout Europe, as Italian troupes visited major cities to the north and west, and local imitators and adapters sprouted in France, Germany, and elsewhere to perform the plays in the native language. For some three hundred years, the Commedia reigned as a major form of entertainment in Europe.
An engraving by Maggiotto (Domenico Fedeli, 1713-1794) depicting a Commedia performance with Columbine holding her half-mask, Harlequin, and a Venetian in a “bauta” mask.
Although not every character in the Commedia used a mask, most of the stock male characters did. The masks ensured that the characters—Pulcinella, Il Capitano, Brighella, Arlecchino, Pantaloon, etc.—would be instantly recognizable to the audience, regardless of what actor wore them. Women, in contrast, either went bare-faced or wore a velvet half-mask, as Renaissance women frequently did in real life, to protect their faces from the sun.
From the Recueil Fossard, a scene depicting the clowns Arlecchino and Zanni Corneto, with the miser Pantalone.
Because the Commedia was improvisational, like some later Roman theater, it lent itself to political commentary. In attempting to appeal to the masses, it also tended toward the bawdy. This led European religious authorities to attempt to ban it in many places at many times, but never with lasting success. The Commedia‘s ultimate demise came from changing tastes rather than religious zealotry. But the masked characters survive in Venetian Carnival, where they remain popular even today.