Donato Sartori (1939-2016)

It is incredibly sad to hear of the death of Donato Sartori on 23rd April 2016. Donato has shaped the world of mask over the past 40 years. Below is a translation of the obituary written by Cristina Grazioli in the Artribune, a summary and glimpse into the life of this great artist & genius.

With thanks to Cristina Grazioli & Camilla Macdonald for translation.

Donato Sartori & Jacques Lecoq

Donato Sartori (left) with Jacques Lecoq

Donato Sartori. His name will be forever tied to the extraordinary dramatic vehicle that is the mask. Struck by a serious illness, the artist passed away a few days ago. Cristina Grazioli remembers him here.

Rilkian Prelude
Sartori’s world is a colourful universe modulated by the light and shadow of a great mask. The first image one confronts in the attempt to describe it comes from a passage from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in which the protagonist, visiting the Roman Theatre of Orange, stops in front of the majesty of the frons scenae, the speaking emblem of a lost concept of the theatre, a theatre-world and a theatre-community capable of speaking a universal language that connects the people to a celestial dimension.

This frons scenae, that ‘collects darkness at its centre like a mouth’ is compared by Rilke to ‘an ancient mask, behind which the entire universe is concentrated’ where ‘all the drama of becoming was on the other side; the Gods; Destiny’

A Familiar Story
A few days after his tragic death, this is how I thought of the world of Donato Sartori and his journey across the universes disclosed by this powerful instrument of the actor: a huge mask across which our understanding of the world traverses, a means through which it is possible to transfigure every aspect of life through a vigorous artistic creation, because for him the concept and use of the Mask went well beyond a prop in any narrow sense.

The sculptor Amleto Sartori (1915-1962), Donato’s father, reinvented the masks of the Commedia dell’Arte in the 1950s and participated in the 20th century rediscovery of Ruzante, alongside Zorzi, De Bosio and the theatre of University of Padua. As in other artistic families, his son had been his apprentice and his untimely death left him with a precious and demanding inheritance in the form of a network of relationships and collaborations that Donato cultivated and nurtured: Jacques Lecoq, Jean-Louis Barrault, Eduardo De Filippo, Strehler, Dario Fo and others.

Donato Sartori & Dario Fo

Donato Sartori with Dario Fo

In little more than a decade, Sartori’s masks had become emblematic of an unparalleled technique and an ‘organic’ conception of the mask in relation to the body and the voice of the actor. Every mask is created for a particular actor and his physical characteristics; it must breathe with him. This implies the close study of every anatomical aspect, of the mechanics and dynamics of the body of the performer.



The 60s and 70s.
Donato assumed this inheritance with devotion and questions: he was, after all, also the son of his own times. In the 1970s, he spent time in Paris where he became close to the New Realists and César and became fascinated by Tinguely’s sculptural machines. He also met the critic Pierre Restany, who wrote that Donato had surpassed the skills of his father ‘acquiring others that know air, sound, gesture and the social’ without abandoning metalwork or the ‘wonderful leather that no longer holds any secrets to him’. He lived through the political tumult of May 1968 in France and set out on journeys through which he came to know distant cultures including Japan, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Mozambique. It was in this way that he developed an artistic and anthropological relationship with the world to the Mask that he never abandoned. At the same time, he established vital relationships with art collectors and other important figures in the theatrical world.


Ferruccio Soleri interprets the Arlecchino Mask of Donato Sartori, 1963.

It was in the wake of this experience that in the 1970s Donato began to extend the technique and spirit of Mask to everything that caught his eye. In 1975 he founded the group Azionecritica that experimented with environment, happenings, installations, urban actions in conjunction with Teresa Rampazzi’s experiments in sound. Donato’s gaze was lucid; following the experience of Cavart (a collective based in an abandoned quarry in the Euganean Hills)– ‘an obsolete initiative that in place of a civic gallery preferred an alternative space, enclosed in the folds of a mountain’– he was disappointed by the difficulty of expressing something truly new. He was tormented by the necessity of creating an amalgam of the works he exhibited. Observing the transparent protection of rows of grapevines in the countryside, he imagined the creation of a fluctuating web that wrapped both people and things, garnering the disapproval of other artists who thought this would compromise the visibility of individual works. Just as the mask asks the actor to shift his centre from their face­ (the emblem of the ego­­) to their body, so spiderwebs respond to the need to foster an organic and collective spirit.

The 80s and a unique museum
This experience contained the seeds of the many Mascheramento Urbano (Urban Masks) that followed in the 1980s: fluid and changeable fabrics that wrapped and transformed buildings, squares and public spaces and the way they were seen and experienced by their users.

Macheremento Urbano, 1983

“Mascheramento Urbano” (Urban Mask) – Place Royale, Reims, 1983.

Among the many important moments in the art of Donato Sartori, this was decisive. The mask adheres to the face and body of the actor like art adheres to the world. It was not a question of repeating a practice in a different context, but the ability to translate the total vision or conception of the artist into a wide sphere of activity. This opening marked all of Donato’s activities, as an artist, student and teacher.


The Center for Masks & Gestural Structures, Abano Terme, 1999.

In 1979, he founded the Masks and Gestural Structures Centre with Paola Pizzi, architect and lover in art and life, and the set designer Paolo Trombetta. Here he deepened and honed the techniques of his inheritance, reinventing not only the forms but poetry of the mask.

Donato’s incessant research was married to a strenuous defence of tradition. In 2004 the Sartoris opened the Museum of Masks at Abano Terme, where the masks were continuously reborn thanks to the studio work and experimentation that accompanied a series of international seminars attended by artists from around the world. From 2002, invited by Umberto Artioli, Donato and Paola held workshops for students of the Faculty of Performing Arts at Padua University, offering many students the possibility to familiarise themselves with ‘Maskology’, beginning by casting masks of their own faces in the workshop of The Centre for Masks and Gestural Structures – a space rich with history and mystery.

An immense patrimony was thus generously shared. To all of us scholars and pupils, the task is to guarantee its vital continuation, learning to gather everything about the actor and the world that the mask– instead of concealing– reveals.

Further information & tribute can be found at:

A tribute to Donato & Amleto Sartori

The Museo Internazionale della Maschera Amleto e Donato Sartori

With great thanks to Donato for his passion, drive & inspiration.