Friday, January 31, 2014

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: A Pulcinella Mask, c. 1670-1700

Leather Mask of Pulcinella
Naples, Italy, Late Seventeenth to Early Eighteenth Centuries
The Victoria & Albert Museum

In the Seventeenth Century, street performers, pantomime actors, opera stars and puppeteers across Europe were, unbeknownst to each other, developing a set of common characters who would eventually join into one great satirical genre populated by stock characters which endure to this day. While these characters still retain their individual identities in their countries of origin, they all married to produce, in Britain, Mr. Punch and his companions.

The main source for Mr. Punch, as we know, is his Italian cousin, Pulcinella from the Commedia dell’arte who not only gave birth to Punch, but also lent some of his puppet DNA to France’s pig-tailed Guignol. We must remember, however, that before these little fellows (with the exception of Guignol who was born as and remained a puppet) initially strutted for the delight of society as masked human actors in a tradition that is still enjoyed today.

This molded leather mask is from an Italian Commedia dell'arte troupe which performed in Naples around 1700. This black mask is immediately recognizable as that of Pulcinella. In fact he still wears a similar mask.

Pulcinella was initially portrayed as a dimwitted servant, known for his big beaky nose, hunchback, distended stomach and a prominent wart on his forehead. By the time he became Mr. Punch, he had had his wart removed and lost the black mask, but the other characteristics remained. As the Seventeenth Century progressed, the character of Pulcinella became more well-rounded. By the time this mask was made and used, he was not necessarily a servant, but rather a trickster peasant, a dentist (like his cousin, Guignol), a physician, a painter or a soldier.

As Pulcinella changed, the mask also changed. The earliest versions of the mask featured a moustache and beard which served to obscure most of the actor's face. But, by the time Pulcinella reached Britain where he would become Punchinello, and ultimately, Mr. Punch, the character donned a half-mask like this one.

Curiously, as Italian performers of the period traveled to England to seek new audiences, the retained some of the old Commedia dell'arte characters, creating a type of early pantomime called a “harlequinade” (which is great with ice on a warm day). But, Pulcinella was not among them. He, in typical Punchinello fashion broke out on his own. Ever the independent spirit, Punchinello was a star in his own right and the English embraced his shocking and amusing antics, calling him “Mr. Punch” and making him the voice of the people. Mr. Punch introduced new versions of some of the traditional stock characters, assigning them characteristics and roles which better suited his own story.

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