In the early days of the pandemic, I would sometimes forget my mask, usually remembering by the time I’d descended several flights of stairs, reminded by the melancholy sight of others wearing a light blue surgical, padded white FFP2, or papery black mask.
Now, the mask is one of the indispensable daily accessories along with keys, wallet and phone.
Masks are nothing new, of course. They enjoy a long cultural tradition.
They were a central part of Greek drama, defining the genres of comedy and tragedy, each signalling the universal nature of the plays, their exaggerated features also reinforcing the impression of a theatrical experience.
In addition, such masks helped to amplify the actors’ voices, ensuring that, in the two millennia before the microphone was invented, speech could ‘carry’ across a vast amphitheatre.
Fra Angelico rather surreally painted a be-masked or blindfolded Jesus, together with disembodied hands in his 1441 depiction of The Mocking of Christ.
You can still see this incredible fresco in Cell 7 of the San Marco monastery in Florence.
The practice is not confined to Europe. There is an equally rich history of masks in other cultures, including native American, Chinese and African artefacts.
The discovery by Pablo Picasso in 1907 of primitive African masks and idols at an exhibition in Paris proved a revolutionary element in the way he chose to represent faces early in his career.
The tradition of Carnevale, especially in Italian cities such as Venice and Viareggio, celebrates a flamboyant festival of mask-wearing that is at once decorative, elegant, and sexy.
One particular mask, the one with a long nose, can be traced back to the Plague Doctor. It was thought (wrongly) to protect a physician from the disease spread by ‘bad air.’
Wearing a carnival mask allowed citizens to hide their identity and social status, so it was a way of liberating people and licensing them, for at least a few days, to escape the constraints of class.
Perhaps inspired by this convention, the Italian writer Luigi Pirandello recommended the use of masks in his plays as the most effective means for the characters to keep their true selves hidden.
These days, you can even buy a Pirandello mask on the internet.
In Mike Nichols’ 1968 film, The Graduate, there is a wonderful scene involving Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman, wearing a scuba diving mask.
The perspective switches so that we see the world through his diving mask, serving comically to distance us and revealing the gap in sensibility between the young Benjamin, his parents and their friends.
Villains are often portrayed wearing a mask, especially in bank heist movies.
And let’s not forget Darth Vader in Star Wars, whose mask adds to the essential darkness of his character.
I’ve lost count of the number of Scooby Doo episodes I must have seen that end with the ‘unmasking’ of the figure terrifying poor Shaggy and the gang.
There was also a vogue for episodes of shows such as Mission Impossible and Star Trek, where a double or doppelgänger of the protagonist would be exposed, the latex mask peeling back stickily from the pretender’s face.
But it’s not just the archetypal baddy that wears a mask.
Batman is a masked crusader for good, while the whole persona of the pulp fiction hero in The Mask of Zorro requires the protagonist to disguise his face.
A mask allows a super-hero to maintain the identity of his everyday self.
It embodies the classic fantasy of transformation from normal guy into a superior being – this being the entertainment industry’s popular manifestation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch or superman.
Some people may feel a psychological need to wear a mask.
This impulse to disguise or conceal a secret was illustrated by the paintings of the Belgian artist, James Ensor.
Ensor depicted a carnivalesque underworld, and a society of people who dared not reveal their true sexual identities for fear of moral sanction as well as prosecution under the law.
Similarly, David Wojnarowicz in his 1970s photography project Arthur Rimbaud in New York employed the figure of the nineteenth-century gay French poet to show how some felt it necessary to conceal their sexuality behind a metaphorical mask.
Wojnarowicz portrayed a number of his gay friends with a life-size Rimbaud mask (as below in the subway), so taking on the French poet’s identity, and reflecting a need for them to be seen and yet remain invisible in a culture which both marginalises and criminalises them.
Then, of course, we have the mask used neither to conceal nor disguise, but ostensibly to protect.
Once more, there exists a long tradition stretching from the time of the Black Death, through to the flu pandemic of 1919…
…taking in the wearing of gas masks during the Second World War (though as you can see, it didn’t stop the protagonists partying)…
…and including masks worn against the dreadful pollution and the phenomenon of smog in 1950s London.
It has been almost impossible, as we know all too well, to go anywhere – in Italy, especially – for the last two years without wearing a mask.
The dichotomy between the traditional mask-wearing do-gooder and the mask-wearing villain has a powerful echo in the current use of the Covid mask.
The contemporary pandemic mask has become a symbol, depending on your opinion, of either the selfless and health-conscious responsible citizen or of zombie-like compliance with an oppressive government that visibly limits people’s freedom to speak.
I’m sure we all know sincere representatives of both points of view.
More recently, there has been concern about the environmental impact of generating more harmful plastic through so many discarded masks.
It’s clear, then, that masks operate in many different ways – as a means of concealment and disguise, as emblems of a secret identity, as a way of protecting oneself from the threat of pollution and the spread of viruses.
We trust that the artistic and festival function of masks will continue their long and honourable traditions, precisely because they celebrate expressions of human flourishing.
At the same time, we fervently hope that the use of masks for health reasons will soon no longer be required - precisely because they diminish what is human in us – our need for freedom, our individuality, our ability to speak, and to see children smile.
Principal & CEO
Best School in Italy - Best International School in Milan