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The Abyss Behind the Mask

A journey into the deep roots of popular culture

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Attilio Scarpellini

On the night of 1 January 1091, a poor country priest, Walchelm, is called to the bedside of a dying man in the diocese of Lisieux, Normandy. He goes to visit him, as his office requires, in a house on the far edge of his parish. On his way back, walking around the edge of the town so as to avoid any unpleasant encounters, he hears a great uproar, similar to that you might hear from an army. Right away, he thinks it is the clan of Robert of Bellême, the cruel warlord who is sowing terror in this region, and he goes to seek refuge in a field a little way aside from the path, where four medlar trees stand. But a gigantic creature wielding a large club steps out in front of him and blocks his path; and in that very moment, the noise materialises. It is being produced by a vast multitude of individuals urging one another on, advancing on foot and carrying animals, clothing, and furniture on their backs. The walking throng is continually shouting and wailing; the priest recognises some of his recently deceased parishioners in their midst, but he has no time to stop them, for the procession continues with an array of the most disparate human types: gravediggers with their coffins, two Ethiopians with a large trunk to which a poor wretch is tied, a crowd of women riding horses, into whose saddles red-hot pins ( sic!) have been driven, but also highly esteemed men, considered almost saints, bishops, venerable abbots, nobles, lawyers, followed by an army of horsemen who, armed to the teeth, rush by as if in a war, raising pitch-black banners above their heads. They parade by the thousands, as in a long sequence shot, and at the end of their passage Walchelm thinks to himself: “This is undoubtedly Harlequin’s family. I heard that it had once been seen by many but, disbelieving, I laughed at those who told of it, because I had never seen any sure evidence of such things. Now, however, I really do see the souls of the dead, but when I report what I have seen, no one will believe me”.

With this vision begins La famiglia di Arlecchino (2021) by Massimo Oldoni, published by Donzelli, with the disquieting subtitle Il demonio prima della maschera (The Demon Before the Mask). The text starts from a long, detailed, fantastical description, for which purposes the author turns to a few pages of Orderico Vitale’s Historia ecclesiastica, an early twelfth-century text, a concentrated “Gothic tale” so eager to specify the circumstances of the young priest’s vision-experience that, at the beginning, it even sets out its suggestive astrological coordinates: “The eighth moon at that time shone with clear light in the sign of Aries, and lit the way for their advance. The priest was young, brave and strong, agile and robust of body”. Robustness and courage enabled Walchelm to survive the fiery grasp of a giant knight, who, as proof of of the reality of what he saw, left a terrible burn mark on his neck. It has long been known that Harlequin was not an invention of Italian comici dell’arte, but a zanni of chthonic, infernal origins. Less well-known is that the chimes with which the shows were begun were a distant echo of the din of the “apocalyptic trains”, of the wild hunts that ploughed the skies, and of the demonic bands of which Oldoni finds traces in an impressive mass of medieval texts, some of them linked to the great names of the theological literature of the time — Augustine, Bede the Venerable, Gregory of Tours, and Bernard of Clairvaux. Even less well-known is the fact that the Harlequin — a “servant of two masters” as per Goldini — was originally the head of a family, or rather king of a dark clique of biotanati. This word of Greek derivation, later passed on down by Latin authors, refers to those who died a violent death, wandering beings who do not manage to die, the back-to-life who in Nordic traditions rise up from the earth to form menacing armies, as in the most classic zombie film repertoire.

At the beginning of Oldoni’s phantasmagorical excursus, a Walpurgis Night of the medieval imagination, the future mask has a name, which sounds in various versions (Harlequin, Hellequin, Alichino) in different chronicles. But he has no face, nor a costume: this is a devilish creature, “well known” to popular tradition and at the same time elusive, recognisable by the din of his processions — “this is undoubtedly Harlequin’s family”, as Walchelm tells Orderico Vitale — one can detect his presence, but hardly make out his features. Like all supernatural creatures, however, he migrates across tales and traditions: Oldoni unmasks him in all his avatars, from the Giants of the Greek and biblical worlds, the mysterious Ethiopians, whom popular superstition associates with heat, fire, and the colour black; to the mythical Norse and Celtic kings, in the jousts, macabre dances and charivari of twelfth- and thirteenth-century France. But Harlequin’s monstrous grimace also appears in the tympanums of cathedrals such as on the south portal of Our Lady of Chartres, where he is leading a sorrowful nun to Hell — he is counted among the devils in the twenty-first canto of Dante’s Inferno: in the midst of the twelve Malebranches hanging up the fraudulent souls of the barterers, there is Alichino. And, finally, where his weakened form comes to rest, in the theatre, at a time when it had only markets and churchyards for a stage — when fear of death begins to be exorcised in mockery and fiction, “transforming itself into the play of comedy and madness” — his mask takes on precise form, and indeed the precise form of a survival. From his apocalyptic epiphanies in medieval imagery, Harlequin would retain the club, the stick he hides behind his shoulders, the deformed grin ( hure) of the black mask that covers his face, as a reminder of his infernal origin, the now parodistic peal that, in French and Italian tradition announces him in the squares and courtyards, the character of the deceitful demon who turns from a king into a servant, like the “servant of two masters” in Goldoni’s play (where he is not called Harlequin but Truffaldino, precisely to distance this character from his devilish origin). And let us pause here, on the threshold of the carnivals of the eighteenth century and the courtly and romantic masks that populate the paintings of Tiepolo, Watteau and Fragonard, and which nevertheless, according to Giorgio Agamben’s beautiful Pulcinella: Or Entertainment for Children [1] still retain within themselves the apocalyptic sense of the end of “a” world. All this was long before — especially thanks to Pablo Picasso — in twentieth-century painting Harlequin became the symbol of a poetic, and figurative, resistance of the individual to the mass society now making its earth-shattering advance… [2]

Is the imagery surveyed by Oldoni, drawing on a boundless supply of sources — making the meaning which we today attribute to the word “literature” seem reductive — erudite or popular? Harlequin’s iconography moves from the depths of oral narration, into which everything sinks and which itself feeds everything, to the heights of ecclesiastical chronicles and theological literature, from popular festivals to (already) bourgeois theatre, in a continuous and elusive cross-migration of motifs and images, legends and moral allegories. This is a movement that dies as soon as it rests and fixes itself in place, for its mythical memory coincides with its profanation: the mìmesis, the “let’s pretend that, let’s pretend to” the transformation of the demon into mask and character, represent the trace of a presence/absence of the world of the dead in the space of the theatre (itself residual, in an era which some see as that of its disappearance and decadence as a public institution). On the one hand, it is still evoked — the actor still has commerce with the dead, like the necromancer, and from this association stem the interdicts that pursue and haunt him up till the eighteenth century. On the other, it is no longer verifiable, because art, form, the adoption of a mimetic dress, exorcise it. Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, the comic is the infinite that remains stuck in the finite, an infinity that sub specie terrestre meets its shipwreck in the ridiculous; Harlequin, a demon who, on earth, moves among the laughter of the audience as an unfortunate loser, a constantly disappointed lover, a zombie king who has dispersed his monstrous court. His end is already consecrated, melancholically, by Adam de la Halle’s Jeu de la feuillée (1276), even while preserving his malign characteristics on stage and his infernal origin off it. Because Hell is exactly what should be laughed at. Because the festivals and charivari, with their harsh secular invectives, make fun of every power to instil fear metaphysically; that is, of every power that waves the banner of death and its ghosts. In the process of the medieval (re)birth of theatre, one cannot and must not overlook — as Allardyce Nicoll reminds us in his classic The Development of the Theatre: A Study of Theatrical Art from the Beginnings to the Present Day — the progressive separation of the stage space from the liturgical space, in which Christian drama initially took its first, timid, steps — especially on the occasion of the two great Christian feasts of Christmas and Easter. “The next stage”, Nicoll writes, “is the separation of the primitive play from the regular Church services. Partly because these dramas were growing so rapidly in extent, partly because the largest churches were not sufficiently great to accommodate all the vast concourse of people who flocked to see the plays, the drama was moved outside on to the steps of the great west door, the spectators standing in the churchyard without. Then came doubt in the minds of the ecclesiastical authorities. This thing which they had called into being was becoming too great a force in the lives of the people … until the clergy were prohibited from taking part in performances”. When the Polish actor and director Juliusz Osterwa said that “God created theatre for those for whom the Catholic Mass is not enough”, he was evoking a boundary clearly visible in the architecture of any European city, but also the never-fully resolvable ambivalence of theatre’s origin: it was born in the sphere of the sacred and ritual, and immediately separated itself from it, constituting and establishing another space which would be profane without necessarily being irreligious. (This is why, moreover, the idea of re-entering the temple, so to speak, returning to the unitary mould of the popular festival, returning to the sacred as an original dimension, almost always in an anti-mimetic key, exploring non-Western traditions, in particular oriental traditions, has been touched upon over time by a multitude of artists, not only of the stage, and theorists of the dramatic act, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Antonin Artaud, to Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, the Living Theatre, and Romeo Castellucci, without, however, ever arriving at the last Thule of a re-sacralisation of the stage, which many, Grotowski in the lead, have proclaimed impossible).

Something similar, moreover, happens to the image and the imaginary. Their viral, infesting character is always sedated by a culture that claims the primacy of a truth invisible to the eyes of the senses. That is, if the fallen myth (or god) re-enters through the window of the world, it does so in the form of a spectre, survival, superstitio. And sooner or later it crystallises into a mask, into a person: its status is that of an appearance (a play, illusion, dream, joke, legend, art, everything that the Jewish tradition, for example, confines to the dimension of the Mishnah Aggadah, marked by the loss or oblivion of the Book, of the Law). In our cultural model, images can also proliferate, and give rise to their hallucinatory infernal processions. Yet, as Gilbert Durand already pointed out in 1971, they are always summoned to justify their own minority status in relation to knowledge and truth, for their suggestive nature never arrives without mediations at the lògos, the discourse, the seriousness of thought which, quoting Heidegger, “does not tell stories”. “An entire long-standing pedagogical — and therefore scientific and technical — tradition”, writes Durand, “has evolved … in a blatantly iconoclastic manner … here, in ‘Christendom’, the disordered projection of visual images is authorised, but at the margins, in the course of the ‘recreations’, so to speak, of our pedagogies and epistemologies” [3]. That is, at the margins, on the steps of the churchyard of knowledge. The present tendency to dissolve the aesthetics of works into their political functionality, to transform them into discourse — removing from them any resistance of the signifier, any enigma, any mystery — represents nothing more than the cyclical return of a Platonic propensity that has yet to fail.

[1] G. Agamben, Pulcinella ovvero Divertimento per li regazzi, Nottetempo, 2015.

[2] In questa prospettiva lo legge N. Fano in La tragedia di Arlecchino. Picasso e la maschera del Novecento , Donzelli, 2012.

[3] G. Durand, Introduzione alla mitodologia. Miti e società , trad. it. e cura di V. Grassi, Mimesis, 2022, p. 23.