We wish to confine ourselves to showing how the mask was related to “the play element”, to “comic gaiety”, as well as satire, during Purim, while recognizing that, in the Italian comedy, the mask represented not only the comic, but the demonic or tragic.
By means of woodcuts in Minhagim Books, we can discern the various ways in which the Purim mask functioned. First, the mask was a means of mocking and ridiculing prestigious members of the community. Second, through their antics, the masked clowns and jesters contributed to the festival gaiety. Third, and as already suggested, the disguise enabled a person to assume “the role of another” by pretending to be someone else. Herein is a release and escape from being continuously the same person.
The masquerades, parades, and carnival festivities must have appealed to individuals of the Italian Jewish community, otherwise during the time of repression religious and civil authorities would not have required them to wear the “badge” so as to differentiate them from non-Jews. Leon da Modena, for example, was among those who would participate in a non-Jewish masquerade.
The commedia dell’arte was also called the “comedy of masks” in that masks were worn for “stock characters” given a “fixed role”. Jewish comedy was influenced by social types portrayed by the mask in the commedia dell’arte. Among the personalities adopted and made part of the Purim celebration through the mask were the paltoniere, the “beggar”; the arlecchino, the “clown”; the capitano, the “blustering soldier”; the pantalone, the “pantaloon”.
Herman Pollack, “An Historical Inquiry Concerning Purim Masquerade Attire,” Proceedings of the World Congress on Jewish Studies, vol. 7 (1981), 232-234.