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Posted by: Niki | 7th Dec, 2008

Commedia dell’Arte Masks

Some masks came about as interpretations of literary sources. A number of masks served as very useful

instruments in the Commedia dell’Arte. The Italian impromptu comedies first emerged in the sixteenth century and

peaked in the eighteenth century.

Many of the characters in Commedia dell’Arte have their own style of mask with unique expressions and features so that the audience could easily identify each one from another. Arlecchino represents a rather mischievous character that exhibited little intelligence and was forever hungry. The mask has a recognizable feature of a red boil or wart on the forehead symbolizing that things do not always come out right for this character. This mask is usually worn with pants that have sewn patches, a coat, and a hat with a type of animal tail attached. Arlecchino has an alter ego named Brighella, also represented in a mask. Depicted in black or green, this mask can be worn with a cloak, a hat, and a guitar. This character is associated with being devious and for taking advantage of every present opportunity in order for personal gain. Arlecchino not only has an alter ego but also a friend named Colombina, known by other names such as Arlecchina, Reef, Ricciolina, Camilla and Lisetta. This mask is usually worn with a dress decorated with patches and a type of hat. The mask is depicted as a female with sculpted eyebrows, makeup, and curled eyelashes.

Balanzone is another character that is depicted as a lawyer or doctor. This mask is associated with stoicism and wisdom. The outfit worn with the mask depends on the occupation being portrayed, either the lawyer or the doctor. The mask itself stops at the mouth, but has an additional piece of the beard descending down the upper lip. A popular mask named after Saint Pantalon is associated with the lower classes and commerce, both prosperous and declining. The Pantaloon mask entails a long nose, emphasized eyebrows, a beard, and a sad expression. Lastly, the Pulcinella mask has a long, hooked nose and can be in either red or black.[1] The mask aided in giving the characters of Commedia dell’Arte permanence, in the sense that although Commedia dell’Arte did not last through the centuries, the characters did.

The masks also “allowed free, uninhibited speech – often risqué, pointed, and tailored to the moment” for the performing actors.[2] Once donning the mask, the actors assumed the life and role of that particular character. The actor became that character through speech, movement, and appearance. The masks possessed blank expressions without any detection of any emotions. Therefore, the mask did not limit the actor’s performance, yet the mask aided in improvisation of the written scenarios provided by playwrights. The mask did not present a world separate from reality, but an alternate reality where social inhibitions were cast aside and where desire dominated.

[1] Guerrino Lovato, “Mondonovo,”

(accessed September 6, 2008).

[2] Lynne Lawner, Harlequin on the Moon: Commedia dell’Arte and the Visual Arts (New York:

Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998) 17.