This vibrantly colourful painting shows a travelling troupe of entertainers known as commedia dell’arte players. Some wear masks with comical hooked noses, two have women’s masks and clothes, and the leader carries two long torches to light their way. The image comes from the friendship album of Alexander Faber, a lawyer from the German town of Stuttgart.
What was commedia dell’arte?
Originating in Renaissance Italy, but achieving popularity across Europe, commedia dell’arte is a special type of improvised comedy. It involves stock characters – funny servants, lovers and pedants – each one recognisable by stylised costumes, masks and gestures. Italian players may have travelled through London in the 16th century, and Shakespeare drew on the tradition in comedies such as Twelfth Night and The Tempest.
What were friendship albums?
From the mid-16th century, German and Dutch-speaking students would often embark on a tour of other European cities to complete their studies. As mementoes of their travels, they began to keep personalised albums like this one. Alongside intricate paintings of costumes, landscapes, and allegorical subjects in pen and ink or watercolour, the book contains signatures, coats of arms, mottoes and dedications. Faber’s album contains autographs mainly obtained at Padua and Tübingen, in the years 1574–90.
Such albums were known in Latin as album amicorum or in German as Stammbucher. They were carefully constructed to present an image of their owners as cosmopolitan, well-educated men with wide-ranging contacts and knowledge.
At first these albums were adapted from existing printed works or put together from illustrations cut from printed books. Increasingly, however, people began to use special plain-leaved albums like this one, filled with specially commissioned paintings. The new acquaintance would often pay a professional local artist to draw (or copy a stock image) on their behalf. As a result, these collections showcase a diverse mixture of styles and levels of artistic skill.