Masques-Masks-art - 6/26/11
"Masques and Masks" by Mistress Katherine Kerr.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Masques and Masks
by Mistress Katherine Kerr
In ASXXXX, the ball at Canterbury Faire was announced as a masque. As one interested in period theatre, I immediately thought of the allegorical plays; the ball organizer, as a dancer, was thinking of dance with costume. And so I put this piece of research together as a brief introduction to the background of masques and masked balls and masks, which are inter-related.
Masques, sometimes referred to as disguisings, were relatively complex theatrical productions, usually of an allegorical nature. They were reasonably interactive, with members of the Court participating, and often finished up with everyone dancing. Some see them as a precursor development of what later became the high operatic tradition, as they had elaborate costumes, purpose-written songs, something along the lines of an uplifting libretto, set designs and significant props. The masque could, thus, be seen as the interactive multi-media event of its day. Architects and engineers were needed as much as scriptwriters and costume designers.
The first requisite for the masque was a pleasant and entertaining story in verse, preferably with mythological or allegorical characters. There was of course some dialogue and declamation, but these matters were relatively unimportant. Far more significant were the tableaux, music, the ballet, the elaborate settings, the gorgeous costumes and scenery, stage appliances, and surprises in mechanical effects. The actors were members of the aristocracy, sometimes of the royal family. They wore masks, spent huge sums upon their costumes, and lent their halls and treasures of art to enrich the scenes. Little else was required of them, as actors, but to look beautiful and stately. The success of the masque depended upon the architect, the scene painter, decorator, and ballet master. In the course of time considerable importance was given also to singing and instrumental music.
Theatre Database: Court Comedies and Masques 
Masques were popular on the Continent, with strong development of the form in Italy and also at the French Court, where the royal mistress Diane de Poitiers sponsored and starred in a number in the mid-1500s. Henry VIII's Court also had a range of what has been described as "spectacular entertainments" with a series of masques and disguisings modeled along Italian lines, introduced from Italy as early as 1512. In 1527, Henry celebrated a royal Martinmas with a masque, reported by French historian Martin Bellay, who was part of a diplomatic mission:
We were on Saint Martins Day invited by the King to Greenwich to a Banquet the most sumptuous that ever I beheld, whether you consider the dishes, or the Maskes and Playes, wherein the Lady Mary the King's Daughter acted a part.
There was a distinction between the various theatrical forms, with the events of the celebration being listed as including: "a joust; the performance of a politico-religious play Cardinalis Pacificus by John Rightwise performed by the Children of Paul's; a disguising or pageant which included a fountain with a mulberry and hawthorn tree; and four masques in which not only the eleven-year-old Princess Mary participated, but her father as well".
The early masques drew on older legends and iconic characters, sometimes with a thinly diguised political intent. Masques involving the May Queen, for example, were a means of building up national identity, emphasizing peace and prosperity and even predicting a bright future for the country. Roseblade notes that "masques were typically an 'offering to the prince' combining pastoral setting, mythological fable, and ethical/political debate. Symbolic rituals in the masque affirmed social bonds and royal power; the play itself being an offering".
The cult of Elizabeth saw her represented in various goddess forms, in masques and elsewhere, though masques themselves fell out of favour in England during her rather parsimonious reign. She was happy for her nobles to take on the financial burden of producing a number of over-the-top masques to entertain her, and smaller-scale events were part of the usual welcoming celebrations when Elizabeth went on progress.
Shakespeare's use of masque emphasized its link with the traditional festival drama that had grown up during the cult of "Gloriana" (Queen Elizabeth). These celebrations and festival-like performances established 'points of contact' between the monarch and the people. Elizabeth, on progress round the country, was often presented as the presiding genius of a country festival. It linked to the traditions of pastoral and morality play as well as carnivals in which masks were worn, as the touring Italian actors of the Commedia dell'Arte wore them.
Roseblade; The Elizabethan origins of the masque
Roseblade remarks that these "embryonic masques also brought in favourite elements of Elizabethan courtship games, featuring poor shepherds, goddesses, young nobles who suffered for love, all in a poetic, pastoral, romantic language and setting". Typical characters involved the Green Man, the Lady of the Lake, a token Savage, Titania and Oberon. Such characters could have elaborate costumes and masks for those playing the parts.
Most period masks look to be relatively simple dominos or half-face/full-face masks, made primarily out of moulded leather. The bulk of them appear to be black or brown, rather than decorated in any complicated fashion. One relatively common Italian mask for women was the bauta, which had a button at the back - the mask was kept on by clenching the button between the teeth (said to be a popular mask with husbands!). An alternative explanation is that this allowed the mask to be quickly removed and replaced when making a hasty assignation behind an arras….
The Commedia dell'Arte masks were in their familiar forms by the 1500s, but again fairly plain in terms of their decorations. One form still extant is that of the Punch puppet, of Punch and Judy; it dates back to Pulcinella, a stock character from the Commedia dell'Arte. Other common characters who had masks associated with them included Arlecchino (Harlequin), Il Capitano (The Captain) and Il Dottore (the Doctor).
Bear in mind that the extremely elaborate masks now often associated with Venetian Carnivale are, for the most part, 17th and 18th century. That said, the use of rich fabrics in masks, associated with the turn of the year celebrations, got to the point where some authorities issued edicts to limit the waste, regulate masquerading and control when masks could be worn.
Masques, as entertainment, really had their heyday just slightly out of period, with keen support from the Jacobean court from 1603 onwards. As previously, many of the costumes reflected court fashions, but with Inigo Jones' designs they reached new heights of extravagance and display -- low-cut necklines, false sleeves, tight bodices, and full skirts over farthingales, together with the use of richly decorated materials. Additional bling came in the form of furs, stuffed animals, jewels, flowers to produce an eye-catching array.
Inigo Jones costume design for Atalanta
This type of costume reflected the basic style of the Italian masque, and was known as à la nimphale, with "short skirts and mantles layered over diaphanous shifts, allowing the limbs to be glimpsed through the fabric, with calves visible in the hiatus between buskins and the hem of the shift" (Lesley).
The costumes were designed to be highly exotic, often representing some rather torrid interpretation of the garb of Ancient Times of Other Lands. Pastoral and Neo-Classical themes were particularly popular. This gave the ladies an excuse for diaphanous clothing, with layers that would float and lift, with bare or barely covered flesh exposed in strategic, and seldom-seen, areas such as the upper arm or calf. The see-through covering to the mid-calf was often teamed up with a skirt with a knee-length hemline. In some cases the upper body was equally skimpily clad, with some of Jones' designs showing clear indications of nipples peeping above the corsoletted torso; the latter was sometimes made more exotic with the representation of body armour topped with a highly plumed helmet that would make a centurion blush. Ladies seemed to delight in portraying themselves as fearsome warrior queens or staunch wenches of the past, such as Panthelesia or Atalanta.
Rather than masks, many of the later masquers had extremely elaborate head-dresses, involving stylized helmets, plumes, feathers and suchlike. See these Examples of Masque Costume in the late 16th & Early 17th Centuries,  on Drea Leed's site, collected from Saslow's and Strong's works on the subject.
Not only were the costumes designed to be as luxurious and highly decorated as possible, they were also intended to titillate through the use of a Renaissance impression of Neo-classical dress, hence the layers of sheer fabric that permitted glimpses of flesh, the shortened sleeves and hemline that exposed a surprising amount of leg (from mid-calf to knee), and, in some cases, a bodice neckline that dropped below the nipples.
Canterbury Faire Masque Ball
In the spirit of the period masque, I decided I'd do a version of the late-period Italian masque costume, which basically consisted of my nice satin corset, a chemise and my satin petticoat, over which I had a large rectangle of green-gold shot organza artistically draped across one shoulder in the style of a Scottish plaid. (As a Scots Borderer I am the despair of the fashionable ladies, as I find a plain plaid very comfortable and really easy to sew…). Shocking, but I did keep my hemline low in the interests of modesty, and my neckline somewhat higher than many masque costumes.
I combined that with a plain white Venetian Columbine domino, as part of the disguising - while many masque outfits had headdresses rather than masks per se, the spirit of the event encouraged the use of masks, and they're fun in any case. Besides, it's great to be able to mention that I got it in Venice last time I went there (gratuitous place-dropping, I know).
You can see what the resulting look was like here  in Southron Gaard's gallery. If we can establish a tradition, I'll add more length and layers to get closer to the period style. As a last-minute addition to the wardrobe it worked well, but does really need more work.
My stock line was "I am but a simple shepardess." The coronet on top was, of course, worn to ensure that no-one took me at my word and attempted to put me out in a nasty dirty field; this shepardess was strictly an indoor one for the Court. Henry VIII, in his disguisings, sounds as if he took umbrage if anyone failed to penetrate his disguises and pay him due royal respect; of course, you had to pretend to be fooled or he'd take umbrage (the Tudors were all like that!).
It certainly proved a very comfortable and cool costume to wear for a ball.
de Ardescote, Lady Meliora Leuedai; Mask Making 101 - A History of Masks and Instructions to Create One.
Mickel, Lesley; Glorious spangs and rich embroidery: costume in the masque of Blackness and Hymenaei;
Studies in the Literary Imagination (Fall 2003) Mohler, Frank; The development of scenic spectacle; a site devoted to the study of Renaissance and Baroque theatrical spectacle
Roseblade, C.E.; The Elizabethan origins of the masque
Saslow James; Medici Wedding 1589: Florentine Festival as Theatrum Mundi ; New Haven: Yale University Press,1996.
Strong; Roy; Festival Designs by Inigo Jones. An Exhibition of drawings for scenery and costumes for the court masques of James I and Charles I; Washington, D.C.: International Exhibitions Foundation, 1967.
Inspiration for 16th century mask
Making commedia masks
Tips and Advice for Making Masks
Full Online Tutorial on Leather Mask Making
Copyright 2010 by Vicki Hyde. vicki at webcentre.co.nz. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.