Masks can convey a maverick’s swagger and can carry a whiff of anti-social menace. A mask can suggest a belligerent, go-it-alone attitude, and it also obscures, hinting at a possibility of dissimulation or deception. What, one wonders, lies hidden behind that mask? The mask is a barrier between the wearer and external threats and also, potentially, a disguise, hiding one’s identity from enemies, law enforcement, spies, paparazzi—perhaps a righteous and vengeful God? Those daring few who venture furtively into the city in their masks evoke memories of the outlaws of spaghetti Westerns, bandanas over nose and mouth, on the lam hoping to outwit the hanging posse, just as we shelter in place, hoping to outlast the deadly coronavirus.
Masks and other facial coverings have also long been associated with unknown threats, whether viral or social. The laws of many medieval Italian city-states prohibited facial veils except when worn by mourning widows and banned masks except during carnivals and masquerade balls: Covering the face was suspected to be a way of hiding from the law and evading social constraints. Even if a mask did not successfully disguise one’s identity, it still offered a socially transgressive liberty. Renaissance-era Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione advised the aspiring courtier that “even though he be recognized by all … disguise carries with it a certain freedom and license.” A mask allowed the wearer to escape the constraints of their own persona and social role and become, if not anonymous, at least enigmatic.