From Behind the Mask

By Adrian Clarke, L.O.C.A.D. – Library of Costume and Design

Masks have been there from the beginning with Ballet, giving us such spectacular displays as the masquerade ball scene from, “Cinderella”. The use of masks evokes the notion of intrigue and mystery for it enabled ‘Romeo’ to meet his ‘Juliet’, the famed star crossed lovers to meet at that fated masked ball. They also help in the portrayal of transformation like for ‘Bottoms’ in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was turned into a donkey

The use of masks isn’t particularly unique to Ballet or to Western European Theatre for that matter. Masks are used in a myriad of ways in many cultural traditions around the world. What is unique with Ballet, is how masks were first used as an obligation and from which, what would emerge.

The obligation of wearing masks in the early ballets was inherited directly from the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ at the French Court. However, even for the Commedia it was essentially an extension from a peculiar notion of ‘Egalitarianism’ that developed during the European Renaissance. It was believed through Anonymity one could experience freedom from the pressures of society’s expectations. This is pertinent as many of these ballets were performed by royalty, nobility and commoners alike. Together, they created dance spectacles rich in symbolism relevant to the culture of the day. From behind the mask, the many actors and dancers were afforded a freedom to assume any character from any class in society or a personification of a deity without any fear of consequence or reprimand.

To understand the reason behind the use of masks in these ballets is like to understand the layers of an onion. It was complex and subtle but in saying that, their purpose was essentially twofold. The first was as for the Commedia, they helped to give an idea of the character’s role. These are purported to have developed from the masks of the obscure ancient Roman ‘Atellan Farce’, a form of comic theatre that began around the third century before Christ. The masks of the Commedia developed over the generations of actors with them grew certain traditions that held steadfast. All the characters had their own recognisable masks and costumes, stock gestures and stage business which could be relied upon to guarantee to create a laugh and put the audience in tune for the entertainment to follow. Thus, in the course of time these were crystallised in each mask an entire code or vocabulary of repertory phrases that were appropriate for the role which could be memorised and made to fill in the blanks when the actor’s wit fails. It was primarily the male characters that wore the masks, each representing an aspect of Italian life as well as the political and economic landscape of the European Renaissance. Such roles required actors to make a serious study of their parts, and take pride in their achievements. They were willing to accept the discipline which all professional Arts demands. These comedians changed forever the standards of acting with the most gifted of them making the role completely their own.

For the early Ballets such as “The Queen’s Comic Dance” their designs would take on a similar semblance as those used in the Commedia, however, drawing upon more potent symbolism taken directly from the Classical Mythology of the ancient Romans and Greeks. They were further endowed with pertinent political, religious and social references to give them a more contemporary relevance for the intended audiences namely the ruling classes of France. After all Catherine de Médicis had Ballet created to be a propaganda machine.

The second, however, was from a far more abstract notion as embraced from the ancient Venetian Republic. It came from a peculiar custom concerning public festivities like the famed ‘Carnevale Maschere’ (Masked Carnival) of Venice. The Republic of Venice would have it that all participants at such public events were expected to wear masks. It was reasoned just by wearing masks, the barriers of class distinction that otherwise prevailed were suspended. This notion for the Venetians was not a new one or any way unusual as masks were an important element of the social and political landscape of their most serene republic since ancient times. The male members of the Patricians, the Venetian ruling class, were the only ones who had the right to participate in any election to any political office when made vacant. The electoral process was always by a secret ballot which was always conducted anonymously behind white masks called ‘Bautas’ and under black cloaks. Furthermore, it was by the then Venetian law that no retribution could be exacted against anyone who wore a mask. This was a useful point of law for the actors of the Commedia when they drew the ire of the authorities in Venice.

Masks were also useful for these actors elsewhere in Italy and abroad as they could never be recognised when they had to lose themselves in the crowds when the humour of their satire was to prove too cutting for the authorities to appreciate with soldiers sent to crash the performance. During such occasions it paid not to stand out. The again the spectacle of the lively cat and mouse between the actors and soldiers was often much to the delight and enjoyment of the crowds. This is perhaps what the young Catherine de Médicis also enjoyed watching from the balcony or window all those years before?

At the French Court, this customary practice of the mask was readily extrapolated into Ballet. For Catherine and other members of the Royal Family, it helped with the perplexing problem of how to mitigate the issues of social convention arising from the strict protocols regarding rank and file. The conundrum was as many professional performers were from the lower classes that had been afforded patronage from wealthy benefactors. This mingling of the classes was achieved with the aid of the mask which enabled any dancer who could have been an offspring of a cheese-maker to dance alongside the King and Queen of France. When otherwise it would unlikely such an individual by polite means would have been able to be seen inside the palace gates let alone the great halls. Did this, however, gave rise to the dangerous idea of Human Equality in the face of Absolute Monarchy? One can only speculate.

Furthermore, during the mid-16th Century, the idea of public anonymity would carry over into the many ‘Masques’ (masked balls) which were often open to those who were able to afford to attend which did include many ballets performed as part of these public events. This idea of egalitarianism would also manifest in ways that were often rich fodder for the wagging tongues of gossip mongers with the idea of ‘Dangeous Liaisons’ fomenting behind the fluttering of fans and the swish of a cape.

The many masks for the early ballets would evolve from the masks of the Carnevale imported from Venice and other Italian cities. For the Carnevale there were essentially a handful of designs that developed during the 17th and 18th Centuries. All of which have become very much associated with the famed festival. Each design is known by its own name and comes with rules of its use that has become entrenched in tradition. Each design would arise from particular episodes in history, from the Venetian political landscape, or new social trends that would embody the collective memory associated with such events. Some masks were engendered and class oriented in its use like as for the ‘Bauta’, which over time would later become worn by both genders and by those who were more of the upper middle classes. The ‘Bauta’, is a white mask that covers most of the face with it only allowing the chin to be free of any restriction, thus the wearer was able to speak. By then the custom was it to be worn with a short hooded black cape and tricorn hat as pictured, fig. 02.

Others that would develop, include the ‘Moretta’ (Dark Lady) or ‘La Servetta Muta’ (The Mute Female Servant) which is a simple round black mask that barely covers the face of the wearer which was obviously a woman. It appears that it developed from the ‘Visard’ mask that was used by travelling ladies to help protect their skin from sunburn. In Venice, these were associated with a particular class of noblewomen. It would eventually lose favour with it nowadays appearing mainly as a novelty rather than a traditional design. This is due to the awkward manner of its use. It is held in place by a mouth bit, which explains why it has no mouth opening.

The ‘Medico della Peste’ (Plague Doctor), with its long beak protruding developed as a result of the ‘Black Plague’, thus emulating the protective masks as worn by the doctors treating the many victims. Despite its ominous appearance, the Commedia and revellers of Carnevale were able to find some sense of humorous irony in the midst of tragedy arising from one of the darkest episodes of European history.

The ‘Volto’, a full-faced mask encompassing the chin, the cheeks and forehead comes complete with eye holes. It is the most popular of the masks across the spectrum of Venetian society, it is also known as the “Citizen Mask”. The design is of a simple, somewhat stoic expression complete with nose and closed lips. By tradition, it is a plain alabaster white mask which has earned it the name of ‘Larva’, Latin for ‘Ghost’. Worn with a black tricorn and a full length cape covering the whole body of the wearer, thus whoever was to greet the wearer would basically see a white face appearing before them as if without a body in the dim light of twilight. Such similarly costumed figures appear in Cranko’s ballet, “The Taming of the Shrew” as lantern bearers. Nowadays, the ‘Volto’ mask is often colourful with two or three colours on one mask embellished gold detailing of florid motifs complete with beads, and crystals sometimes topped with a splay of feathers, flowers or fabric to be complemented by an equally elaborate costume of rich and lavish design.

There are other mask styles, with most of which have been borrowed directly from the ‘Commedia’. The two main variations of these are known as ‘Pante’ as from the character ‘Pantalone’, one who wears pants, and ‘Zanni’ both furnished with their own version of a long beak nose.

All of these masks would appear in ballets at one time or another along with those specially created for these ballets. Today, the idea of wearing masks is so alien and for some designs they appear downright scary. This however is irrelevant to us as for those in the 17th and 18th Centuries they were imbued with elements of social and political potency.

The original masks of the Commedia and Carnevale were made from various materials. Wood with cypress being the most favoured, copper or brass, and liken to those of Greek and Roman antiquity. Later, porcelain, and even glass were used which the Venetians been long since famous for the production of. Even papier-mâché was used in order to keep with increasing demands for masks. However, most convenient for Ballet, leather had become the most preferred used material in the production of masks. These started originally as simple, natural leather or plain all black or white designs. Over time the masks would become entrenched in their respective traditions with those for the Commedia with its stock characters, then those for Carnevale would acquire more decorative embellishments thus becoming the familiar elaborate creations that it is known for often complete with gold gilt detailing. Regardless of this diversion between the two, Ballet was to draw from the two traditions well into the 20th Century.

During the height of the popularity of Carnevale, mask makers were to enjoy the respect born out of public reverence that would have them enjoy a special legal status within Venetian society. With this they established a guild that issued strict rules in regards to the manufacture of masks and for those apprenticed to the craft. They would become regarded as ‘Artisans’ as opposed to ‘Tradesmen’ thus rising to a level of respect and celebrity that was originally once reserved for famed artists of the stage, literature and painting. With to the steady flow of exchange in artists between Italy and France, many of these artisans would make their way to the French Court where many of their masks would find their way into Ballet.

What is interesting, during the late 17th Century in France with the rise of the ‘Comédie-Française’, a new mask design of a simple black half- face mask would come to the fore and is very much used in many ballets today. It is what is called a “Soubrette”, meaning “Coy” in French, or “Pierette” as it was worn by the named female character being one of the French personifications of ‘Columbina’, which by the way is the other name for the mask. This style of mask was particularly made famous by the French actress of the Comédie, Mademoiselle Clarion. Its origin is debated with many assert that it is Italian, when many say it is French due to its association with that of Clarion, when others assert it is purely a 19th Century creation born out of the popular theatre of the pantomimes and harlequinades. The third assertion does fall flat as there are several lithographs and paintings from the late 17th and 18th Centuries depicting female actors of the Commedia and Comédie-Française along with those of revellers at Carnevale wearing such masks. This confusion can be forgiven as by the 19th Century it was worn by both men and women alike in the popular stage shows of the Music Halls. It is also a recognisable feature of the costumes worn by the ‘Harlequin’ and ‘Columbine’ dolls from “The Nutcracker”. Nowadays, this style is made from a myriad of textiles including rubber. Sometimes there is a subtle distinction between the intended genders by the eye holes being more rounded for the female version. It can be plain in black or trimmed in gold or silver or completely gilded embellished with beads, crystals and sequins often topped with feathers of various types. Either it is secured to the face by ties or a strap or is held as fastened to a short stick to be used as a handle by the wearer.

Most importantly the masks for Ballet came with a gift, one of the ‘Language of Gestures’ that we know today as ‘Mime’. It is one of the most unique gifts that the Commedia gave not only to Ballet but to Theatre as a whole. From the established custom of wearing masks, Mime has prevailed upon Ballet since following that famed night with the performance of the “Queen’s Comic Dance” in 1581. With each new era adding a new nuance to the language, the vocabulary would develop and evolve over the generations of dancers.

Initially it was used within the Commedia as an extension, a visual flourish to help reinforce what was being said by the comic actors. Slowly, over time, the gestures were refined as such that their meaning was clear in the action and thus required little or no added verbal explanation. With the early ballets, this did prove useful with it only helped along with use of poetic prose and the ambience of music, thus allowed those performing to focus on the technique of dance and mime without the added burden of trying to be heard over the music.

Many gestures would develop in a variety ways with some to become associated with a particular form of theatre or social forum. The latter is particularly the case with some of those incorporated into Ballet during the late 17th and 18th Centuries, were taken directly from the not-so-secret romantic ‘Language of the Fan’. This codified practice involving the fan was used by young ladies to communicate with their suitors when under the watchful guard of their chaperones. With theatre forever serving as the mirror of contemporary society would emulate this on stage.

Mime continued to flourish in ballets long after when the custom of the mask was finally abandoned by the bastion of Ballet, the Paris Opéra in the 1780s. This was precipitated by Auguste Vestris, who of a famed dancing family, was asked to perform when his father, Gaetano, had become too ill to dance. Auguste agreed only on the proviso that he did so without wearing the obligatory mask so it would be known to the audience that it he who was dancing instead of his famous father. The administrators desperate for the production to be performed agreed and Ballet was changed forever.

By the Romantic era of the 19th Century the majority of the vocabulary contained within had become set in tradition and was only re-interpreted for the new audiences of the day. The early 19th Century was the height of its use and was seen as an essential part of Ballet’s drama; an integral part of any theme or story being played out on the stage with the added ambience of the music to help heighten the experience.

The ballet “Giselle’” (1841) is one particular production that has mime as an integral part of its storytelling, particularly in the first act. The gestures are instrumental to its choreography, that to omit them is to render the poetic qualities of the production impotent. These include those used in the famous prelude to the pas de deux when the young lovers, prince incognito, Albrecht and Giselle, mimic the action of plucking the petals off a daisy. A traditional game of ‘Loves Me, Loves Me Not’ that young lovers are known to play to be followed with Albrecht raising his hand above his head with two index fingers together upright in order to declare an oath of love. Then there’s the gentle rolling of the hands by Giselle as they are raised above her head, to open into a port de bras as to mean, “Let’s Dance”; Berthe, Giselle’s mother, crossing her arms at the wrists inferring impending doom; Hilarion with his hands over his heart expressing his love for Giselle; then there’s Bathilde, Albrecht’s fiancée, pointing to her wedding finger as to signify her betrothal to Albrecht to be later echoed in gesture by him in confirmation thus exposing his betrayal of Giselle which ultimately resulted in the suicide of Giselle. There are myriads of other more subtle gestures in “Giselle” that no wonder it is often referred to as a ‘Ballet-Mime’

Unfortunately, this practice would lapse during the 20th Century with it only used when some of the great classics were performed and even then, many versions had them simply omitted. In recent times there have been something of a revival in the use of mime, but on the whole most choreographers tend to regard mime as an obsolete practice that long since passed into history. Therefore, it is only in the great classics of the Romantic era like “Giselle” and “La Sylphide” do these elegant gestures continue to be seen. It is through their practice, we are reminded of the connection and debt that Ballet has to the Commedia.

This article incorporates text derived or information sourced from the following:                       “Encyclopaedia Britannica”

“Commedia Dell’Arte: A Handbook for Troupes”, John Rudin, Olly Crick
ISBN: 0415204089, Taylor & Francis Ltd., Routledge, 2001

“The History of Harlequin”, Cyril W. Beaumont, 1926
ISBN: 1906830681, The Noverre Press, 2014

“Mime, Music and Drama on the Eighteenth-Century Stage”, ‘The Ballet d’Action’, Edward Nye
ISBN: 978-1-107-00549-5, Cambridge University Press, 2011 

“Parisian Music-Hall Ballet, 1871-1913”, Sarah Gutsche-Miller
ISBN: 978-1-58046-442-0, University of Rochester, 2015

“The Magic of Dance”, Margot Fonteyn
ISBN: 0-563-17645-8, BBC, 1980.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, Italy

Uffizi Gallery Museum, Florence, Italy


Fig. 01
– Laura Hidalgo as ‘Titania’ and Rian Thompson as ‘Bottoms’ in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Queensland Ballet. Photography: David Kelly
Fig. 02
– “Nobili in Maschera” (Nobles in Mask) Lithograph of water colour by Giovanni Grevembroch, c. late 18th Century.
Fig. 03
– Detail of a painting, “La Moretta” by Felice Boscaratti, c. late 18th Century.
Fig. 04
– Stock image of a contemporary ‘Volto’ mask.
Fig. 05
– Detail of painting, “Carnival in Venice” by Felice Boscaratti, c. late 18th Century.
Fig. 06
– Illustration of mime action for ‘Let’s Dance’.