Le Maschere di Carnevale Posted by on Feb 18, 2009 in Culture

Here in Italy the Carnevale (Carnival) period is reaching its euphoric climax, so I thought it might be appropriate to write a few words of explanation.

The word Carnevale originally comes from the Latin “carnem” (meat) and “levare” (remove, put away) with reference to the banquet that preceded the beginning of Lent, the period of 40 days during which the eating of meat used to be prohibited. Today Carnevale takes place over a period of about 2 weeks immediately preceding Quaresima (Lent, lit. 40 days) and is celebrated in many Christian countries, particularly Roman Catholic ones. It’s a time of celebration and irreverence when all social rules are broken and people can laugh at the authorities without risk of punishment, because, as the saying goes, di Carnevale ogni scherzo vale (during Carnival any joke is allowed).

Carnevale has a long history probably reaching back to the Middle Ages when, thanks to use of carnival masks, peasants and lords alike could mix together without being recognized. ‘Masquerading’ is still the characteristic of the modern Carnevale, with children dressing up as the latest cartoon characters, and adults satirizing TV celebrities and politicians, but the old traditional maschere are still very popular, having become the symbol of Carnevale. Although the literal translation of maschera is ‘mask’, maschere are in fact actual representations of characters or personalities. The traditional maschere date back to the Commedia dell’Arte (lit. Comedy of Art), an improvised comedy popular in Italian theatres of 16th-18th centuries, which featured familiar ‘stock’ characters. Almost every Italian town has its own characteristic maschera, but some of these have become well known throughout the whole of Italy thanks to Carlo Goldoni, the most important play-writer of the Commedia dell’Arte, and to the Teatro dei Burattini (a popular puppet-theatre portraying the maschera characters).

Here are a few of the most famous maschere:

Pulcinella is Neapolitan and has got all the stereotypical traits of his home town: he is pigro (lazy), extrovert, opportunist, always hungry, and especially chiacchierone (very chatty), so much so that we use the expression il segreto di Pulcinella to mean a well known ‘secret’. He is dressed all in white with a very wide shirt on the top of baggy trousers and a pointed hat, representing the traditional costume of the poor peasants. The name Pulcinella, which in some cultures has been transformed into Punchinello, is the origin of the English name ‘Punch’, the famous star of the ‘Punch and Judy’ puppet show.

Pantalone (‘Pantaloon’ in English) is one of the most important characters in Goldoni’s plays. He is an old, rich Venetian, grumpy, wise, prudent, and avaricious, who often falls in love with women much younger than himself with predictable comic results. He wears a red shirt over red pantaloni (pantaloons or trousers), a black or red hat and black sleeveless coat, and has a pointed beard.

Dottor Balanzone represents the successful layer: fat, boring and ignorant. He speaks a mixture of Bolognese dialect and Latino maccheronico (broken Latin), ridiculing the sages of the Universita’ di Bologna (the oldest University in Europe). His name comes either from balanza (in Italian bilancia, ‘scale’) symbol of justice, or from balla colloquial for bugia ‘lie’.

Colombina (Columbine) is the most popular female maschera. Her name comes from colomba (dove), the name given to a young woman who is innocent and naive or is pretending to be so. Pretty, lively, furba (cunning) and chiacchierona, Colombina represents the typical servant who is always lying in order to protect her young mistress. She is usually engaged or married to Arlecchino.

Arlecchino (Harlequin) is certainly the most popular and best loved Italian maschera. Born in Bergamo Arlecchino is a servant who is furbo, bugiardo (liar) and simpaticissimo (witty). He wears a multicoloured patchwork costume made up of many diamond shaped pieces of fabric.

You can find pictures of maschere di carnevale on this site: Maschere di Carnevale

Buon divertimento!

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  1. Bede Squire:

    I have just recently looked at your blogs and find them very interesting. I have used Word of the Day to extend my Italian knowledge for some years. Your comments on Italian life and culture flesh out what I already know. I am getting as much “Italian Immersion” as I can at present as my wife and I will be spending 2 months in Florence from the end of April. Cordiali saluti.
    Bede Squire

  2. Melissa:

    Quanto mi piace la comedia dell’arte! Essendo una grafica mi piace molto la storia e i costumi dei tutti i personaggi di quel vecchio stile di intrattenimento. Ho anche una passione per le maschere italiane e ho una piccola collezione. Mi piace di piu’ le maschere con i lunghi nasi, ma anche quelle carine di Colombina!

  3. Emily Scerri:

    salve, mi piace e tu storia e io adoro italia.
    graze hums demiso tu di colombina assignmente e decorate.

  4. Dee:

    thank you this has been very helpful.
    just a question though, what do you mean by ‘stock’ characters? did Caro Goldoni invent these characters?

    • serena:

      @Dee Salve Dee, sorry for the delay in my reply. By ‘stock’ characters I meant some of the simple fixed characters, such as the lazy servant, the gossipy maid, the grumpy old man, etc. that actors and play writers used, just like in the ‘Punch and Judy’ puppet shows. N.B. ‘Punch’ comes from the Italian character ‘Pulcinella’!

      Carlo Goldoni didn’t invent them, but rather developed these ‘basic’ characters. He is the most famous ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ writer because he was the first to write complete plays and not just rough plots.

      Saluti da Serena

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