Commedia dell’arte (Italian pronunciation: [komˈmɛːdja delˈlarte]) is a form of theatre characterized by masked “types” which began in Italy in the 16th century and was responsible for the advent of the actresses and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. The closest translation of the name is “comedy of craft”; it is shortened from commedia dell’arte all’improvviso, or “comedy of the craft of improvisation”. Originally, it was called commedia all'improviso. This was to distinguish the form from commedia erudita or learned comedy that was written by academics and performed by amateurs. Commedia dell’arte, conversely, was performed by professional actors (comici) who perfected a specific role or mask.
Italian theater historians, such as Roberto Tessari, Ferdinando Taviani, and Luciano Pinto, believe commedia was a response to the political and economic crisis of the 16th century and, as a consequence, became the first entirely professional form of theater. This is debated though, as evidence shows that there were possibly acting unions prominent as far back as the Greek Times.
The performers played on outside, temporary stages, and relied on various props (robbe) in place of extensive scenery. The better troupes were patronized by nobility, and during carnival period might be funded by the various towns or cities, in which they played. Extra funds were received by donations (essentially passing the hat) so anyone could view the performance free of charge. Key to the success of the commedia was the ability of the performers to travel to achieve fame and financial success. The most successful troupes performed before kings and nobility allowing individual actors, such as Isabella Andreini, her daughter-in-law Virginia Ramponi-Andreini, and Dionisio Martinelli, to become well known.
The characters of the commedia usually represent fixed social types, stock characters, such as foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. Characters such as Pantalone, the miserly Venetian merchant; Dottore Graziano, the pedant from Bologna; or Arlecchino, the mischievous servant from Bergamo, began as satires on Italian “types” and became the archetypes of many of the favorite characters of 17th- and 18th-century European theatre.
The commedia’s genesis may be related to carnival in Venice, where by 1570 the author/actor Andrea Calmo had created the character Il Magnifico, the precursor to the vecchio (old man) Pantalone. In the Flaminio Scala scenari for example, Il Magnifico persists and is interchangeable with Pantalone, into the seventeenth century. While Calmo's characters (which also included the Spanish Capitano and a dottore type) were not masked, it is uncertain at what point the characters donned the mask. However, the connection to carnival (the period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday) would suggest that masking was a convention of carnival and was applied at some point. The tradition in Northern Italy is centred in Mantua, Florence, and Venice, where the major companies came under the aegis of the various dukes. Concomitantly, a Neapolitan tradition emerged in the south and featured the prominent stage figure Pulcinella. Pulcinella has been long associated with Naples, and derived into various types elsewhere—the most famous as the puppet character Punch (of the eponymous Punch and Judy shows) in England.
Although commedia dell'arte flourished in Italy during the Mannerist period, there has been a long-standing tradition of trying to establish historical antecedents in antiquity. While we can detect formal similarities between the commedia dell'arte and earlier theatrical traditions, there is no way to establish certainty of origin. Some date the origins to the period of the Roman Republic (Plautine types) or the Empire (Atellan Farces). The Atellan Farces of the Roman Empire featured crude "types" wearing masks with grossly exaggerated features. More recent accounts establish links to the medieval jongleurs, and prototypes from medieval moralities, such as Hellequin (as the source of Harlequin, for example). The first recorded commedia dell'arte performances came from Rome as early as 1551. Commedia dell'arte was performed outdoors in temporary venues by professional actors who were costumed and masked, as opposed to commedia erudita, which were written comedies, presented indoors by untrained and unmasked actors. This view may be somewhat romanticized since records describe the Gelosi performing Tasso's Aminta, for example, and much was done at court rather than in the street. By the mid-16th century, specific troupes of commedia performers began to coalesce, and by 1568 the Gelosi became a distinct company. In keeping with the tradition of the Italian Academies, I Gelosi adapted as their impress (or coat of arms) the two headed Roman god Janus. Janus symbolized both the comings and goings of this traveling troupe, and the dual nature of the actor who impersonates the "other." The Gelosi performed in Northern Italy and France where they received protection and patronage from the King of France. Despite fluctuations the Gelosi maintained stability for performances with the "usual ten": "two vecchi (old men), four innamorati (two male and two female lovers), two zanni, a captain and a servetta (serving maid). It should be noted that commedia often performed inside in court theatres or halls, and also as some fixed theatres such as Teatro Baldrucca in Florence. Flaminio Scala, who had been a minor performer in the Gelosi published the scenarios of the commedia dell'arte around the start of the 17th century, really in an effort to legitimize the form—and ensure its legacy. These scenari are highly structured and built around the symmetry of the various types in duet: two zanni, vecchi, inamorate and inamorati, etc.
Commedia dell'arte is notable in that female roles were played by women, documented as early as the 1560s, In the 1570s, English theatre critics generally denigrated the troupes with their female actors (some decades later, Ben Jonson referred to one female performer of the commedia as a "tumbling whore"). By the end of the 1570s, Italian prelates attempted to ban female performers; however, by the end of the 16th century, actresses were standard on the Italian stage. The Italian scholar Ferdinando Taviani has collated a number of church documents opposing the advent of the actress as a kind of courtesan, whose scanty attire and promiscuous lifestyle corrupted young men, or at least infused them with carnal desires. Taviani's term negativa poetica describes this and other practices offensive to the church, while giving us an idea of the phenomenon of the commedia dell'arte performance.
By the early 17th century, the zanni comedies were moving from pure improvisational street performances to specified and clearly delineated acts and characters. Three books written during the 17th century — Cecchini's Fruti della moderne commedia (1628), Niccolò Barbieri's La supplica (1634) and Perrucci's Dell'arte rapresentativa (1699) — "made firm recommendations concerning performing practice." Katritzky argues, that as a result, commedia was reduced to formulaic and stylized acting; as far as possible from the purity of the improvisational genesis a century earlier. In France, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Comédie-Italienne created a repertoire and delineated new masks and characters, while deleting some of the Italian precursors, such as Pantalone. French playwrights, particularly Molière, gleaned from the plots and masks in creating an indigenous treatment. Indeed, Molière shared the stage with the Comédie-Italienne at Petit-Bourbon, and some of his forms, e.g. the tirade, are derivative from the commedia (tirata).
Commedia dell'arte moved outside the city limits to the théâtre de la foire, or fair theatres, in the early 17th century as it evolved toward a more pantomimed style. With the dispatch of the Italian comedians from France in 1697, the form transmogrified in the 18th century as genres such as comédie larmoyante gained in attraction in France, particularly through the plays of Marivaux. Marivaux softened the commedia considerably by bringing in true emotion to the stage. Harlequin achieved more prominence during this period.
It is possible that this kind of improvised acting was passed down the Italian generations until the 17th century, when it was revived as a professional theatrical technique. However, as currently used the term commedia dell'arte was coined in the mid-18th century.
Curiously, commedia dell'arte was equally if not more popular in France, where it continued its popularity throughout the 17th century (until 1697), and it was in France that commedia developed its established repertoire. Commedia evolved into various configurations across Europe, and each country accultrated the form to its liking. For example, pantomime, which flourished in the 18th century, owes its genesis to the character types of the commedia, particularly Harlequin. The Punch and Judy puppet shows, popular to this day in England, owe their basis to the Pulcinella mask that emerged in Neapolitan versions of the form. In Italy, commedia masks and plots found their way into the opera buffa, and the plots of Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini.
During the Napoleonic occupation of Italy, instigators of reform and critics of French Imperial rule (such as Giacomo Casanova) used the masks of the carnival to hide their identities whilst fueling political agendas, challenging social rule and hurling blatant insults and criticisms against the regime. In 1797, in order to destroy the impromptu style of carnival as a partisan platform, the commedia dell'arte was outlawed by Napoleon himself. Venice would not see a rebirth of the Commedia until 1979.
Castagno posits that the aesthetic of exaggeration, distortion, anti-humanism (as in the masked types), and excessive borrowing as opposed to originality was typical of all the arts in the late cinquecento. Theatre historian Martin Green points to the extravagance of emotion during the period of commedia's emergence as the reason for representational moods, or characters, that define the art. In commedia each character embodies a mood: mockery, sadness, gaiety, confusion, and so forth.
According to 18th-century London theatre critic Barretti, commedia dell'arte incorporates specific roles and characters that were "originally intended as a kind of characteristic representative of some particular Italian district or town". The character's persona included the specific dialect of the region or town represented. Additionally, each character has a singular costume and mask that is representative of the character's role. Commedia dell'arte has three main groups of stock roles: the servants (zanni), the masters or elders (almost always old men hence their Italian name, the vecchi) and the lovers (innamorati, also known as the amorosi). Male servants and male masters (but not male amorosi) are masked and those characters themselves are often referred to as "masks" (in Italian: maschere), which, according to John Rudlin, cannot be separated from the character. In other words the characteristics of the character and the characteristics of the mask are the same. In time however the word maschere came to refer to all of the characters of the commedia dell'arte whether masked or not. Female characters (including female servants) are most often not masked (female amorose are never masked). Female characters in the masters group are rare. The amorosi are often children of a male character in the masters group, but not of any female character in the masters group, which may represent younger women who have e.g. married an old man, or a high class courtesan. Female characters in the masters group, while younger than their male counterparts, are nevertheless older than the amorosi. The servants or the clowns are referred to as the Zanni and include characters such as Arlecchino, Brighella and Pedrolino. Some of the better known commedia dell'arte characters are Arlecchino (also known as Harlequin), Pierrot and Pierrette, Pantalone, Il Dottore, Brighella, Il Capitano, Colombina, the Innamorati, Pedrolino, Pulcinella, Sandrone, Scaramuccia (also known as Scaramouche), il Somardino, La Signora, and Tartaglia.
In the 17th century as commedia became popular in France, the characters of Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin were refined and became essentially Parisian, according to Green.
The Harlequin is characterized by his chequered costume. His role is that of a light-hearted, nimble and astute servant, often acting to thwart the plans of his master, and pursuing his own love interest, Colombina, with wit and resourcefulness, often competing with the sterner and melancholic Pierrot. He later develops into a prototype of the romantic hero. Harlequin inherits his physical agility and his trickster qualities, as well as his name, from a mischievous "devil" character in medieval passion plays.
Brighella (Frenchis: Brighelle) is a comic, masked character from the Commedia dell'arte. His early costume consisted of loosely-fitting, white smock and pants with green trim and was often equipped with a batocio (also batacchio or battacio, depending on region) or slap stick, or else with a wooden sword. Later he took to wearing a sort of livery with a matching cape. He wore a greenish half-mask (traditionally olive-green) displaying a look of preternatural lust and greed. He evolved out of the general Zanni, as evidenced by his costume, and came into his own around the start of the 16th century.
He is loosely categorized as one of the zanni or servant characters though he often was portrayed as a member of the middle class such as a tavern owner: his character could be adapted to whatever the needs to the scenario might be, just as Brighella himself is adaptable to any circumstance. He is essentially Arlecchino's smarter and much more vindictive older brother. As in a stereotype of those who have risen from poverty, he is often most cruel to those beneath him on the social ladder.
He even goes so far as to kill on occasion. In later versions of his character these violent and malicious traits were lessened substantially. Pierre Louis Duchartre, in his The Italian Comedy theorizes that in France, the gentilified Brighella eventually culminated in the character of Figaro, known from the plays and operas.
He's a masterful liar, and can make up a spur-of-the moment lie for any situation. He is an inveterate schemer, and he is good at what he does. If his plans failed, it was almost always out of luck on behalf of the other characters. When he's a servant, he will either serve his master devotedly or look for every opportunity to ruin and take advantage of him as he happens to see fit—whatever will gain the greatest advantage for himself and himself alone. He is fond of money, but spends it rapidly, and tends to be especially fond of the drink. To quote Duchartre again: "Brighella believes in no one but the hangman, he respects nothing and loves nothing but his own pleasure." In fact, he has few good qualities save for his ability to entertain the audience.
His character is usually from uptown Milano or Bergamo, and in the original Italian would often speak with the local accent. He could be very witty and fond of wordplay. He is also an accomplished singer, dancer and musician, and sometimes would play the guitar on stage.
Pierrot (French pronunciation: [pjɛʁo]) is a stock character of pantomime and Commedia dell'Arte whose origins are in the late seventeenth-century Italian troupe of players performing in Paris and known as the Comédie-Italienne; the name is a hypocorism of Pierre (Peter), via the suffix -ot. His character in postmodern popular culture—in poetry, fiction, the visual arts, as well as works for the stage, screen, and concert hall—is that of the sad clown, pining for love of Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin. Performing unmasked, with a whitened face, he wears a loose white blouse with large buttons and wide white pantaloons. Sometimes he appears with a frilled collaret and a hat, usually with a close-fitting crown and wide round brim, more rarely with a conical shape like a dunce's cap. But most frequently, since his reincarnation under Jean-Gaspard Deburau, he wears neither collar nor hat, only a black skullcap. The defining characteristic of Pierrot is his naïveté: he is seen as a fool, often the butt of pranks, yet nonetheless trusting.
Pantalone, or Pantalon de' Bisognosi (full name including family name), Italian for 'Pantalone of the Needy', is one of the most important principal characters found in commedia dell'arte. With his exceptional greed and status at the top of the social order, Pantalone is "money" in the commedia world. The character of Pantalone is entirely based on money and ego, for he has the highest regards for his intelligence, "but at every step he becomes the butt for every conceivable kind of trick". With little else to occupy his thoughts after a life as a tradesman or merchant, Pantalone is the metaphorical representation of money in the commedia world. Pantalone is usually the father to one of the lovers, another stock character found in commedia. He is driven to keep his child and their respective lover apart. Pantalone is presented either as a widower or bachelor, and despite his age, makes numerous passes at the women within the commedia world, "though he is always rejected". Pantalone never forgets a deal and his merit is based on actions, not words.
With his sinister and often inhumane treatment towards his fellows, Pantalone is perceived to be a pivotal part of commedia. His importance is represented in almost every commedia production; often placing him at the beginning of the comedy. In a commedia comedy, many zanni or lazzi routines will begin by an action delivered by Pantalone himself.
Il Dottore or the Doctor (usually called Dottore Balanzone, Dottore Baloardo, or Dottore Graziano) is a commedia dell'arte stock character, one of the vecchi or old men whose function in a scenario is to be an obstacle to the young lovers. Pantalone and Il Dottore are the alter ego of each other, Pantalone being the decadent wealthy merchant, and Il Dottore being the decadent erudite. The Doctor is a local, angry, disruptive busybody who doesn't listen to anyone else from any of the fields that he claims to know about, which is many (medicine, law, etc.). He is traditionally portrayed as having been educated either in Bologna or Padua, which since the Renaissance had two of the most prestigious universities of Europe. He is often extremely rich, generally with "old" money, though the needs of the scenario might have things otherwise. He is extremely pompous, and loves the sound of his own voice, spouting ersatz Latin and Greek. His interaction in the play is usually mostly with Pantalone, either as a friend, mentor or competitor.
He is typically depicted as an elderly man who only knows nonsense. He makes many cruel jokes about the opposite sex and believes that he knows everything about everything. He is an obese man that enjoys the bottle and eating to excess. His mask is unique in that it is the only mask in commedia dell'arte to cover only the forehead and nose. It is sometimes black, or else flesh-toned with a red nose.
Traditional names for the Doctor include Dr. Baloardo (English: 'Dr. Stupid') and Dr. Spaccastrummolo (English: 'Dr. Hack-and-Bandage.') His costume is usually all or mostly black, sometimes with a white collar. He frequently wears a hat, and long, trailing robes. If the actor playing the role is not naturally fat then he is padded out to make him seem so.
Il Capitano (the Captain) is a masked character from the commedia dell'arte.
He is often an outsider who can maintain his claims only by benefit of the fact that none of the locals know him. He is usually a Spaniard given the fact that for most of the late Renaissance to well into 17th century, parts of Italy were under Spanish domination. He was most likely inspired by the boisterous Iberic caudillos who told tall tales of their exploits either in the conquest of the Americas or in the wars with Germany.Il Capitano often talks at length about made up conquests of both the militaristic and carnal nature in attempts to impress others, but often only ends up impressing himself. He gets easily carried away in his tales and doesn't realise when those around him don't buy his act. He would be the first to run away from any and all battles and he has trouble enough talking to and being around women.
He is also extremely opportunistic and greedy. If hired by Pantalone to protect his daughter from her many suitors, Capitano would set up a bidding war for his services or aid between the suitors and Pantalone while wooing her himself. If he is hired to fight the Turks, he will bluster about fighting them to his last drop of blood, but when the Turks seem to be winning, he will join them. When they are driven off, he will change sides again and boast about his loyalty and bravery.
He stands in a high posture with a straight back and most often has one hand in the air and the other hand on his sword or hip.
Columbine (in Italian, Colombina, "little dove"; in French, Colombine) is a stock character in the Commedia dell'Arte. She is Harlequin's mistress, a comic servant playing the tricky slave type and wife of Pierrot. Rudlin and Crick use the Italian spelling Colombina in Commedia dell'arte: A Handbook for Troupes.
She is dressed in a ragged and patched dress, appropriate to a hired servant. Occasionally, under the name Arlecchina she would wear a motley, similar to her counterpart Arlecchino (Harlequin). She was also known to wear heavy makeup around her eyes and carry a tambourine, which she could use to fend off the amorous advances of Pantalone.
She was often the only functional intellect on the stage. Columbina aided her mistress, the innamorata, to gain the affections of her one true love, by manipulating Arlecchino and counter-plotting against Pantalone, while simultaneously managing the whereabouts of the innamorato. She may be a flirtatious and impudent character, indeed a soubrette but without losing her judgment.
In the verismo opera Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo, the head troup's wife, Nedda, plays as Colombina, cheating on her husband, onstage with Arlecchino and offstage with Silvio.
Although Columbina became the dominant name (known as Columbine in France and England), other names under which the same character is played in Commidian performances include: fantesca (maid), servetta (female servant), Franceschina, Smeraldina, Oliva, Nespola, Spinetta Ricciolina, Corallina and Diamantina.
A plausible theory derives his name from the diminutive of Italian pulcino ('chick'), on account a long beaklike nose, as theorized by music historian Francesco Saverio Quadrio, or due to the squeaky nasal voice and "timorous impotence" in its demeanor, according to Giuseppe (Joseph) Baretti.
According to another version, Pulcinella derived from the name of Puccio d'Aniello, a peasant of Acerra, who was portrayed in a famous picture attributed to Annibale Carracci, and indeed characterized by a long nose. It has also been suggested that the figure is a caricature of a sufferer of acromegaly.
Always dressed in white with a black mask (hence conciliating the opposites of life and death), he stands out thanks to his peculiar voice, whose sharp and vibrant qualities produced with a tool called a swazzle contribute to the intense tempo of the show. Pulcinella often carries around macaroni and a wooden spoon. According to Pierre-Louis Duchartre, his traditional temperament is to be mean, vicious, and crafty and his main mode of defense is to pretend to be too stupid to know what's going on. In some versions Pulcinella has a brother Cucurucu.
Scaramuccia, also known as Scaramouche or Scaramouch, is a roguish clown character of the Italian commedia dell'arte who wears a black mask and, sometimes, glasses. He entertains the audience by his "grimaces and affected language". Salvator Rosa says that Coviello (like Scaramouche) is "sly, adroit, supple, and conceited". In Molière's The Bourgeois Gentleman, Coviello disguises his master as a Turk and pretends to speak Turkish. Both Scaramouche and Coviello can be clever or stupid—as the actor sees fit to portray him.
The name was that of a stock character in 17th-century Italian farce, Scaramuccia (literally "skirmish"), who, attired usually in a black Spanish dress, burlesquing a don, was beaten by Harlequin for his boasting and cowardice.
Scaramouche is one of the iconic characters in the Punch and Judy puppet shows (a performative art with roots in commedia dell'arte). In some scenarios, he is the owner of The Dog, another stock character. During performances, Punch frequently strikes Scaramouche, causing his head to come off his shoulders. Because of this, the term scaramouche has become associated with a class of puppets with extendable necks.
Tartaglia is a dainty character in the Commedia dell'arte. He is farsighted and with a minor stutter (hence his name; cf. Spanish tartamudear), he is usually classed as one of the group of old characters (vecchio) who appears in many scenarios as one of the lovers (innamorati). His social status varies; he is sometimes a bailiff, lawyer, notary or chemist. Dramatist Carlo Gozzi turned him into a statesman, and so he remained thereafter. Tartaglia wears a large felt hat, an enormous cloak, oversized boots, a long sword, a giant moustache and a cardboard nose. He usually represents the lower working class but at times the middle or upper class in the commedia dell'arte. In the opera Le maschere by Mascagni, one of the characters is Tartaglia, a stuttering servant.
Tartaglia is depicted as the voluble Sgt. Gino Tartaglia, played by Charles Calvert, in the radio crime drama Broadway Is My Beat. His characteristics formed the basis of Porky Pig.
Conventional plot lines were written on themes of sex, jealousy, love and old age. Many of the basic plot elements can be traced back to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, some of which were themselves translations of lost Greek comedies of the 4th century BC. However, it is more probable that the comici used contemporary novella, or, traditional sources as well, and drew from current events and local news of the day. Not all scenari were comic, there were some mixed forms and even tragedies. Shakespeare's The Tempest is drawn from a popular scenario in the Scala collection, his Polonius (Hamlet) is drawn from Pantalone, and his clowns bear homage to the zanni.
Comici performed written comedies at court. Song and dance were widely used, and a number of innamorata were skilled madrigalists, a song form that uses chromatics and close harmonies. Audiences came to see the performers, with plot lines becoming secondary to the performance. Among the great innamorate, Isabella Andreini was perhaps the most widely known and a medallion dedicated to her reads: "eternal fame." Tristano Martinelli achieved international fame as the first of the great Arlecchinos, and was honored by the Medici and the Queen of France. Performers made use of well-rehearsed jokes and stock physical gags, known as lazzi and concetti, as well as on-the-spot improvised and interpolated episodes and routines, called burle (singular burla, Italian for joke), usually involving a practical joke.
Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punchlines. Characters were identified by costumes, masks, and props, such as a type of baton known as a slapstick. These characters included the forebears of the modern clown, namely Harlequin (arlecchino) and Zanni.
The classic, traditional plot is that the innamorati are in love and wish to be married, but one elder (vecchio) or several elders (vecchi) are preventing this from happening, leading the lovers to ask one or more zanni (eccentric servants) for help. Typically the story ends happily, with the marriage of the innamorati and forgiveness for any wrongdoings. There are countless variations on this story, as well as many that diverge wholly from the structure, such as a well-known story about Arlecchino becoming mysteriously pregnant, or the Punch and Judy scenario.
While generally personally unscripted, the performances often were based on scenarios that gave some semblance of plot to the largely improvised format. The Flaminio Scala scenarios, published in the early 17th century, are the most widely known collection and representative of its most esteemed compagnia, I Gelosi.