Mask for the Commedia dell’Arte character Pulcinella

This mask was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia.


18th century


Victoria & Albert Museum



Pulcinella mask

Public Access Description:

This mask was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia.

This is the mask of Pulcinella, a commedia dell’arte stock character with a lecherous sexual appetite. Pulcinella is the ancestor of Mr Punch, known in the UK through ‘Punch and Judy’ puppet shows in which Punch beats or kills his wife and child. This portrayal of ‘comic’ domestic violence has shifted as ideals of gender roles and marriage changed, but is usually trivialised through humour and by presenting Judy as irritating and ugly.

Female actors played an important role in Italian commedia dell’arte, and may even have developed the improvisatory techniques that came to characterise it. Commentators struggled to categorise the female commedia actors in gendered terms, perceiving tension between their femininity (as wives and mothers) and their ‘masculine’ intellect.

Commedia dell’arte gave rise to UK pantomime, a genre known for onstage cross-dressing.  Commedia had involved some limited gender fluidity: the central character Arlecchino (Harlequin) frequently transformed into other people, including women, or into a half-male-half-female figure. But pantomime elevated cross-dressing to the status of convention: it became traditional for shows to feature a man in the role of the ‘Pantomime Dame’, and a young woman in the role of the ‘Principal Boy’. This cross-dressing had, and has, many simultaneous meanings for actors and spectators. It is transgressive and comic, but also provided an opportunity for gender-variant actors. Sexological case studies from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century demonstrate that many people who were assigned male at birth and grew up to identify as female treated onstage female presentation as an opportunity to express their gender in the way they wanted to.


Curatorial comment:

This mask was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia. This project aimed to recover the complex gender dynamics that made objects meaningful to early modern people, and to increase the visibility of women and LGBTQ people in museum collections. Research on the V&A objects was carried out by Dr Kit Heyam.

In addition to the findings noted in the Public Access Description, research on this object revealed the following:

This mask is made from leather lined with linen. The work of animal husbandry was not gender-specific, but flax-spinning to create linen thread was predominantly performed by women.

Male and female stock characters were integral to commedia dell’arte: the women were often cleverer than the men, and humour arose from the men’s competitive, inept attempts at seduction. Despite Pulcinella’s famously lecherous sexual appetite, early modern visual depictions show him in scenes that suggest both opposite-sex and same-sex activity: flirting with female characters, and riding an ass backwards while another character pumps air into its anus.

Female commedia actors attracted substantial contemporary commentary. They were idealised as goddesses with unblemished virtue, perfect physical proportions, and angelic singing abilities: commentary focused on their physical bodies in a way that commentary on male actors’ performances did not, and was often eroticised. Female actors who were married with children, like Isabella Andreini, also fashioned themselves as devoted Christian wives and mothers who were exemplars of femininity, and were described in these terms by others. But Isabella was also lauded for her scholarship and her published poetry. This dual gendered presentation led to tension between these actors’ perceived masculinity and femininity. Andreini presented herself as both masculine and feminine, while the Belgian scholar Erycius Puteanus drew a link between her ‘masculine’ intellectual creativity and ‘feminine’ procreative capacity, expressing his hope that ‘fertile with children as you are, you may also become fertile with books’.

Indeed, the prominence of female commedia actors prompted and perpetuated the fascination of humanist scholars with the figure of an idealised eloquent woman, who would surpass her gender through her intellect. Interestingly, they sometimes articulated this woman’s exceptionality in terms of the material objects associated with different genders. Italian scholar Angelo Ambrogini (Poliziano) wrote: ‘you, however, stand forth as the sole girl who handles books in place of wool, a reed pen instead of vegetable dye, a quill pen instead of a needle, and who instead of daubing her skin with white lead, covers paper with ink.’ Here, Poliziano expresses the situation of a woman taking on ‘masculine’ pursuits in terms of swapping one set of gendered material objects for another.

Commedia troupes were known by the name of their female star, and male actors married to female actors were known primarily by their role as husband. While historians previously suggested that most female commedia actors were courtesans or other sex workers, more recent scholars have challenged this view as arguably underpinned by sexualisation, misogyny and trivialisation of women’s professionalism.

When the character of Pulcinella became the puppet Mr Punch, the portrayal of his marriage was influenced by changing understandings of gender, violence and marriage. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, understandings of the relation between gender and violence shifted towards the framing of men, not women, as potentially uncontrollable. Concurrently, conflict was created within marriages as women gained increasing economic independence, and as couples struggled to live up to the ideal of companionate marriage. The violence of Punch and Judy’s marriage was thus portrayed as understandable. Punch’s wife was originally called Joan, but was altered to Judy – also slang for an unruly or sexually transgressive woman – in the early nineteenth century. This is part of a discourse in which she was blamed for provoking Punch into killing her with her ‘shrewish’ manners and ugliness, and in which the humour of the puppet show trivialised her murder. As Punch and Judy became characters in children’s books, the ‘real’ harmonious nature of their family life was emphasised, and the violence of the storyline again trivialised as harmless fun and ‘naughtiness’.

(Dr Kit Heyam, August 2019)



Key references

  • Sophie Bostock, The Pictorial Wit of Domenico Tiepolo, unpublished PhD diss. (University of Warwick, Department of Art History, September 2009), Chapter 3, ‘Introducing Pulcinella’
  • Rosalind Crone, ‘Mr and Mrs Punch in Nineteenth-Century England’, The Historical Journal 49:4 (2006), 1055–1082
  • Kathleen McGill, ‘Women and Performance: The Development of Improvisation by the Sixteenth-Century Commedia dell'Arte’, Theatre Journal, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 59-69
  • Anne MacNeil, Music and Women of the Commedia dell'Arte in the Late Sixteenth Century (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Further reading

  • Scott Cutler Shershow, ‘‘Punch and Judy’ and cultural appropriation’, Cultural Studies, 8:3, (1994), 527-555
  • Jim Davis, ‘‘Slap On! Slap Ever!’: Victorian Pantomime, Gender Variance, and Cross-Dressing’, New Theatre Quarterly, 30:3 (August 2014 ), 218-230
  • Pierre Louis Duchartre, The Italian Comedy, trans. by Randolph T. Weaver (London: G. G. Harrap & Co., 1929)
  • Kit Heyam, ‘Gender nonconformity and military internment: curating the Knockaloe slides’, Critical Military Studies: Special Issue, ‘Curating Conflict’ (2019)
  • Agnes Horvath, ‘Pulcinella, or the Metaphysics of the Nulla: In Between Politics and Theatre’, History of the Human Sciences 23:2 (2010), 47-67
  • John Rudlin, The Commedia Dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook (London: Routledge, 1994)
  • Virginia Scott, ‘La Virtu et la volupté. Models for the Actress in Early Modern Italy and France’, Theatre Research International, 23:2 (1998), 152-158