Arlecchino and Pulcinella, two of the most popular masks of the Italian tradition, seem to summarize many of the above mentioned elements

2003-03-05 18:37:41
Wednesday 18:38:14
March 05 2003

Arlecchino and Pulcinella, two of the most popular masks of the Italian tradition, seem to summarize many of the above mentioned elements

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Both use a black mask with a sardonic grimace that betrays their demoniac origin. Dante Alighieri, (Canto 21 of the Inferno), attributes to one of the devils the name of Alicchino, which the ancient German etymology of the name indicates as "King of Hell", and the name Pulcinella refers to the dim and subtle voice of "chick", but also to the "death who speaks", typical voice of the hooded mask.

These demoniac masks substitute the mythological characters of the Greek and Roman classics still popular in the "carnascialeschi" times of Lorenzo il Magnifico and his luxurious allegorical carts or "Triumphs". In these masks we are able to recognize, not only in the name, the gloomy influence of the Celtic and north European tradition, which is still alive in the very American "Halloween night", where the spirits of the dead, represented by frightfully masked characters, visit the living and extort offers with threats of retaliation.

The fact that these diabolical and frightful characters have been transformed, thanks also to the Commedia dell’Arte (Comedy of the Art), in comical and satirical characters, explains many things about Italy and the Italians. Long before Carlo Goldoni (with his 1700's "Arlecchino, server of the Two Masters") consecrated Arlecchino, in all the theatres of the world, as a crafty common man with inexhaustible resources, it was common to productions staged by travelling companies of actors and acrobats, during fairs and festivals in the Italian squares, to present masked characters with a grotesque or ridiculous appearance, not more with the purpose of frightening the audience, but with that, opposite and more fun, of satirizing human vices and defects. The incompetent and avid doctor, the shrewd and thievish mendicant, the rich and haughty gentleman, the coquettish and selfish maiden, the rapacious and unscrupulous lawyer, the unfaithful servant, the rough and cunning farmer are only some of the types, dressed up in ways that immediately render recognizable social or professional classes, represented in those improvised theatrical performances.

Arlecchino and Pulcinella created a team with Colombina, Pantalone, Meneghino, Zani, Brighella, Gianduia, Stentarello and many other unfavorable heroes with a boundless, comic potentiality.

If you keep in mind the liveliest Italic localism, which fed bloody wars among all towns until the end of the 1500s, and which delayed the unification of the country until less than a century ago, it is not difficult to imagine how it became common to attribute to every mask, (with derisive intentions particularly useful to gain the benevolence of the local public), attitudes, accents and dialects of the rivaling towns or of cities far away from the theatre or square where the performance was staged. The rivalry with other cities had more success with the public than any other internal or social rivalry.

The more successful characters, brought forth in this way by the creativity of the actors, soon became typical and codified. On all Italian stages, particularly active in the times of the Carnivals, the performing "masks" were recognized immediately as representatives of the characteristics, or better yet, the defects and worst vices of the diverse towns and cities of Italy; there was maybe the secret resentment of someone, but the supreme entertainment was assured for all.

It certainly wasn't-  a time of "political correctness", and, given that the opposition to the satire would have probably made it more intense and evident, every city adopted the character that represented it. This mask would often march proudly at the head of the municipal processions with the bishop and the local podestà in the shade of the city banner. Long before the contemporary showbusiness society produced the masks of "Zorro", "Lawrence of Arabia", "Batman", and other icons of our time, the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte animated the processions of the Carnival.

Naturally, at that time, more than it happens in today permissive society, any mask and costume was chosen, above all purposes, to disguise oneself while challenging, under the pretext of the Carnival, the most severe prohibitions. In his famous memories, Casanova is particularly explicit about the advantages of an effective disguise in a city like Venice, where the cheerfulness of Carnival had always been much needed and "having fun", and not being punished for that, had always been more difficult than anywhere else. Masks and costumes not always had the purpose of permiting actions that could be censored at the end of the festival. In occasions of the great Carnival balls that the nobles of the Italian cities organized, and still organize today, with great splendor, often the purpose was just the opposite. Pretending to hide oneself, one wanted paradoxically to show off their own riches, creativity and fantasy, drawing the attention of all on exhibiting oneself, thanks to the almost unlimited possibilities that a Carneval costume is able to offer.

As it can be easy to realize in Venice, as in many other Italian localities from Abano Terme to Zoagli, during the weeks of Carnival, but also in the time of Lent or during the rest of the year, the Italians would do anything to make a good impression, and luckily, they never seem to have forgotten what Lorenzo il Magnifico wrote in the "Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne":

Live Bacchus and Live Ariadne!
Each one play, dance and sing!
May your heart burn with sweetness!
No fatigue, not even pain!
What will be, will be.
Be happy, if you want to be:
Of tomorrow there's no certainty.

Source by Galleria_28

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