This image sent is a blessing to me because I have amusing and clever readers who connect historical objects with present day realities.
Such is Santa Barbara reader F.R., who sent me a photo of the 25-inch mask that she collected in Venice in the 1980s — and she wonders about the history of masking and the history of her mask, which is the face of Michelangelo’s David.
I thought I would riff, as F.R. does in her email to me, about the COVID-19 masks we wear today and the mask that is the magnificent David.
This image of David from the Bible, I find, has been superimposed on various COVID masks throughout the world, and I am not talking about just David’s face as image on those masks. This is the humorous and traditional side of masks: They put an image, right on your face, of something irreverent and make us smile, or make us remember that when others cannot see our whole face, they can see what we are thinking about!
In Florence, Italy, where you will see the original David sculpture, you might know that there are two works, identical, that you might experience, both of huge David. The original is in the Accademia Gallery in Florence, where it was moved in 1910 from the outdoor Piazza Signoria. But of course, a copy was made for the Piazza Della Signoria (Duomo Square).
Before F.R. sent me her mask, I did not know that the stone of which David is carved was brought to Florence across the Mediterranean in the middle 15th century and that the huge block of marble had such great promise that two notable sculptors attempted to make a sculpture of it, all five tons of it, but failed.
In the 16th century, therefore, a competition was won between three sculptors, two of which were Leonardo and Michelangelo, and Michelangelo won the commission to sculpt something wonderful for the plaza by the Duomo.
Michelangelo worked on the huge block of marble, making David from 1501-1504, creating what some think is the grandest work of the Renaissance.
Now, how has it become an icon? And why do we see David on COVID masks? Because it is a world treasure.
For example, a full sized image of David was sent to the Dubai Expo in October, and that led to interesting cultural decisions.
Presenters crafted an exquisite replica of resin using laser scans and 3D printing, then covered the 15-foot work with marble dust, but then they had to figure out how to display it in a culturally sensitive way. So they imagined it as being shipped in a glass 18-foot crate to Dubai and having the pillars of support for the glass strategically placed for “protections.” And thus, the glass shipping container and the pillars with David inside were on display, and not the whole of David. So ingenious!
Now let us look at F.P’s venetian mask. It was worn on the top of the head at the carnival, no doubt, and is light because it is made of papier mache over a support, which today is resin. In the 16th century, the support was an armature that was made only of reinforced papier mache, and this was perfected for the stage. Papier mache artists made masks for the performers of the Commedia dell’Arte theater productions since the 16th century, then painted the faces of the masks.
The faces were fantastic, and of course DAVID was not a face seen on the theater stage in those days: We would have seen the Punchinello, the miser, and the curvy and desirable maiden. Masks since the Greek era were an element of public performance, as we see they have become today. To see but not see a face has ancient ramifications. Some masks are about disguise, some are about health, and some are about fun. But all are about what the face is and is not.
When the tradition of masking came to Venice, we see delicate silver and gold leafing as on F.P.’s David mask, made for fun and show.
Next time you despair and wonder if you will ever not have to mask up, and you think you are wearing a face diaper when you put on your COVID mask, think of the rich tradition of masking, and give yourself some heart! And perhaps order yourself the mask of David, the conqueror of the giant Goliath, to wear. F.P. has threatened to wear her David mask to Rite Aid, and I hope she does.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.