Rome, at Laocoon Gallery exhibition on Masks and Carnival in 20th century art

Through May 30, 2022, the Laocoon Gallery in Rome is hosting the exhibition La Commedia dell'Arte. Masks and Carnival in 20th-century Italian Art, featuring works by major 20th-century artists.

In ancient treatises on iconography, the personification of painting often wears a mask hanging around his or her neck, because it imitates nature as well as the masked actor the character he or she plays. To the mask, as a symbol of painting, the Laocoon Gallery in Rome dedicates an exhibition of 20th-century paintings, drawings and sculptures, where it is the subject represented: both the enigmatic mask object, inanimate subject of futurist or metaphysical still lifes, and the mask worn by the actor who gives life and voice to the characters of the traditional Italian commedia dell’arte, so many times celebrated by modern art, not only in Italy. The exhibition, entitled La Commedia dell’Arte. Maschere e Carnevale nell’Arte Italiana del Novecento, is open until May 30.

With Tiepolo’s figurative memories in mind, it is Venice, with its ancient carnivals where both the actors on stage and the audience in the theater wore masks in the theaters, that is the ideal capital of masks.

A large painting by Ugo Rossi (1906-1990), almost 4 meters long, depicts precisely St. Mark’s Square in Venice filled to overflowing with people in carnival costumes, colorful and of all shapes. Created to cheer up the bar of one of those luxury transatlantic ships that embodied post-war enthusiastic optimism, this work is meant to represent Italy as a country in constant celebration precisely to forget the horrors and destruction of the conflict that had just passed.

Venetian scenes with carnival masks were a favorite subject of artist Umberto Brunelleschi (1879-1949), a Tuscan who had great success in Paris as a costume designer, set designer and fashion illustrator. Of him we have two of his typical pochoirs with amorous courtships of couples and a study for a poster devoted to a Venetian-themed masquerade party held at the Cercle de l’Union Interalliées in Paris. In another watercolor he painted the self-portrait with mask, a study for a poster for the Paris premiere of the play La maschera e il volto, a now almost forgotten work by Luigi Chiarelli, which was a great international success in the wake of Pirandello’s influential example.

Directly inspired by Pirandello himself was the painter Giovanni Marchig. His most important work, Morte di un autore (1924), which depicts a dead playwright at his desk surrounded by all the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte in mourning, is now in the Pitti Palace. He was a charming painter, little known because he gave up painting late in his life to become a renowned restorer of old paintings, a trusted man of Bernard Berenson. Today famous mainly for owning Leonardo ’s controversial drawing La Bella Principessa. The Laocoon Gallery is proud to present a recently rediscovered 1933 work by Marchig, a portrait of a young actor dressed as Harlequin. He has his multicolored costume on but is not wearing a mask, is not on stage, and is resting with his arms folded. This time the emphasis is on the face, on the real person of the actor when he is not “possessed” by the role of his character.

Venice, the 18th century, Casanova. The famous Venetian seducer became all the rage during the “années folles.” Here he is depicted masked, with a puppet in each hand. It is in fact the elegant preparatory drawing for the cover of the play Il matrimonio di Casanova (1910), where the hero of the title becomes the puppeteer who manipulates all the characters in the plot. It was drawn by Oscar Ghiglia (1876-1945), the favorite painter of Ugo Ojetti, the most important Italian art critic of his time, who also authored the play together with Renato Simoni, a critic and playwright, who translated Ojetti’s prose into Goldonian vernacular.

Also Venice and its masked ladies are the subject of two enchanting and singular under-glass paintings by Vittorio Petrella da Bologna (1886-1951), as decorative and mesmerizing as the antique marbled papers of ancient book bindings.

There are metaphysical masks at the center of the enigmatic still lifes in the paintings of Marisa Mori (1900-1985), a student of Casorati; there are others in one of the first works by Aligi Sassu (1929), a promising futurist as a very young man, still far from the tired red horses that made him famous.

By Roberto Melli (1885-1958), a shadowy master of color, is exhibited Mascherina, a small bronze sculpture already exhibited at the Roman Secession, and a graceful watercolor for a candy advertisement, with Pierrot offering some to the moon.

Among the many is a touching illustration of Harlequin Taken to Heaven by Angels, by cartoonist Enrico Sacchetti, which belonged to the famous actor Ettore Petrolini. Also from the same collection comes a watercolor by Mario Pompei (1903-1958), who of Petrolini’s Nerone was the set designer, with a puppet house with Punchinello clubbing the devil to the delight of children.

Three portraits, in watercolor, oil and bronze, are exhibited of Ettore Petrolini, a “naked mask,” by nature more expressive than any leather, cardboard or papier-mâché face ever brought to the stage. In the first he appears disguised as Punchinello, in the second he is immortalized by Oscar Ghiglia, and finally the bronze is a replica of the bust by Kiril Todorov (1902-1987) that is placed on the actor’s grave at the Verano.

Attributed now to Mario Barberis (1893-1960), it is an original drawing for the cover of one of Pirandello’s collections of short stories, Terzetti of 1912, where a muse amuses herself by wearing one mask after another.

Angelo Urbani del Fabbretto (1903-1974) was a vernacular-inspired Roman painter and illustrator; he drew the menu and recipes of the innkeeper Giggi Fazi and invented the Pinellian nativity scene on the Spanish Steps. The masked guitti of the avanspettacolo were a constant subject of his work, represented here by small and large oils and a large still life with a harlequin costume abandoned on an armchair.

There are paper trumpets, little masks, cowbells, streamers, but it is not carnival; it is St. John’s Night, the night of the witches, the night of June 24, when until the 1960s Romans celebrated with great eating of snails and great caciara. It is celebrated in a youthful still life by Corrado Cagli (1910-1976), in encaustic, with the monuments of Rome in the background. A brief summer carnival. A small masterpiece of playful painting.

Another Harlequin by contemporary artist Pino Pascali (1935-1968), invented when he was busy producing cartoons for television commercials. Harlequin in fact was the name of a famous brand of canned tomatoes: pummarola, the commedia dell’arte. Italy all in a tin can.

For all information, you can visit the official website of Laocoon Gallery.

Pictured: Giannino Marchig, Young Actor as Harlequin (1933; oil on canvas, 69 x 54 cm)

Rome, at Laocoon Gallery exhibition on Masks and Carnival in 20th century art
Rome, at Laocoon Gallery exhibition on Masks and Carnival in 20th century art

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.