NYC artisan keeps alive traditions of 15th-century theater mask-making

Stage presence — and the art of comedy — were born, many say, in 15th-century Italy. Actors wore highly stylized masks as a mark of their characters. The masks of the commedia dell'arte are still being shaped and fitted today on the corner of 14th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan by an artisan named Stanley Allen Sherman.

In Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, actors were itinerant — they moved around the countryside performing for kings and queens and courtiers and the common man.

While studying at Ecole Jacque Lecoq Theatre, Mime Movement in Paris, France, Sherman grew to love mime, the art of busking, and commedia dell'arte — that particular sort of entertainment that featured wonderful character-infused masks.

Sherman became a master mask-maker and leather artisan. His handmade masks amplify and personify the very characters we've grown to love and cherish today. Harlequin, the faithful valet; Panatolene, the aging, blustering fool; Zanni, the crazy buffoon; and Columbina, "the little dove" whose beauty is so striking, she only wears a half mask.

If these types sound familiar, it's because they are. The characters of the commedia dell'arte live today on TV, in movies, and of course on stage. Think Lucille Ball, The Honeymooners, and of course Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.

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