The masque was a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in 16th and early 17th century Europe, though it was developed earlier in Italy, in forms including the intermedio (a public version of the masque was the pageant). A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron. Professional actors and musicians were hired for the speaking and singing parts. Often, the masquers who did not speak or sing were courtiers: King James I’s queen consort, Anne of Denmark, frequently danced with her ladies in masques between 1603 and 1611, and Henry VIII and Charles I performed in the masques at their courts. In the tradition of masque, Louis XIV danced in ballets at Versailles with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully.


The masque tradition developed from the elaborate pageants and courtly shows of ducal Burgandy in the late Middle Ages. Masques were typically a complimentary offering to the prince among his guests and might combine pastoral settings, mythological fable, and the dramatic elements of ethical debate. There would invariably be some political and social application of the allegory. Such pageants often celebrated a birth, marriage, change of ruler or a Royal Entry and invariably ended with a tableau of bliss and concord. Masque imagery tended to be drawn from Classical rather than Christian sources, and the artifice was part of the Grand dance. Masque thus lent itself to Mannerist treatment in the hands of master designers like Giulio Romano or Inigo Jones. The New Historians, in works like the essays of Bevington and Holbrook’s The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque (1998), have pointed out the political subtext of masques. At times, the political subtext was not far to seek: The Triumph of Peace, put on with a large amount of parliament-raised money by Charles I, caused great offence to the Puritans. Catherine de’ Medici’s court festivals, often even more overtly political, were among the most spectacular entertainments of her day, although the “intermezzi” of the Medici court in Florence could rival them.

Further info at Wikipedia

Leonardo da Vinci and the masque

From BBC Radio 3 

To coincide with the National Gallery’s major exhibition “Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan” which will include some of the best known paintings by the great “Renaissance Man”, we reveal a lesser known, but equally astonishing aspect of his work in Milan: his splendid pageants, masques and parades which he designed and directed as Master of Ceremonies. Charles Nicholl, Leonardo’s biographer, is fascinated by these transient masterpieces, which are equally important to the development of Leonardo’s work and which the artist carefully describes in his own writing. There are also vivid eye witness accounts. In this programme he re-imagines the most brilliant, Il Paradiso, in its original setting at the Castello Sforzesco inMilan.

These ephemeral, insubstantial creations maybe dwarfed by the perennial celebrity of his paintings, but they contain in miniature that mix of art and science, of visual flair and mechanical ingenuity, which is typical of him. Comments in his notebooks sometimes suggest they were a distraction from more serious work, but distraction is a key mental process in Leonardo, a finding of unexpected new avenues to explore, and these trivial-seeming divertimenti have their own fascination; they are a counterpart to the profoundly dramatic quality of works such as the Last Supper.

Notable masques:

Il Paradiso (Leonardo da Vinci) 1490

The Masque of the Planets (Leonardo da Vinci) 1490

The Masque of Blackness (Ben Johnson) 1605

Oberon, the Faery Prince (Ben Johnson, Inigo Jones) 1611

The Triumph of  Peace (James Shirley, Inigo Jones) 1634

The Fairy-Queen (Purcell) 1692

The Masque of the Red Death (Edgar Allen Poe) 1842

Other links:

Elizabethan Masques

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