Commedia dell’arte


three musicians by picasso

Commedia [kuh-mey-dee-uh] dell’arte [del-ahr-tee]  is a form of improvisational theater that began in Italy in the 16th century. The actors often wore masks and the stories were often about the cunning pursuit of love, money, or simply food. The genre developed several stock characters that represent fixed social types, such as foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado including Harlequin (comic servant), Pantalone (rich old miser), Colombina (tricky slave wife), Pulcinella (disfigured trickster), Pierrot (unrequited clown), and Scaramuccia (roguish clown).

Stock characters can be divided into three groups, ‘Innamorati’ (‘The Lovers,’ who are never masked nor well developed as characters), ‘Vecchi’ (‘The Old People,’ often the Lovers’ parents, who get in the way of their romance), and ‘Zanni’ (‘The Servants/ Commoners,’ always hungry, and often responsible for the Lovers finding their way to the altar). Characters such as Pantalone, the Venetian merchant; Dottore Gratiano, 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 theater.

It 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.’ Here, ‘arte’ does not refer to ‘art’ as we currently consider the word, but rather to that which is made by ‘artigiani’ (‘artisans’). In fact, the term ‘arte’ was coined much later (it was originally 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 (stock character type). Italian theater historian Ferdinando Taviani has argued that 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 dating back to Ancient Greece.

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. Magistrates and clergy were not always receptive to the traveling compagnie (companies), particularly during periods of plague, and because of their itinerant nature. The term ‘vagabondi’ was used in reference to the comici, and remains a derogatory term to this day (‘vagabond’).

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 Pantalone. Calmo’s players were unmasked and 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 centered 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 (during the High Italian Renaissance), there has been a long-standing tradition of trying to establish historical antecedents in antiquity, including the Roman Republic (Plautine types) or the Empire (Atellan Farces). The latter featured crude ‘types’ wearing masks with grossly exaggerated features. More recent accounts establish links to the medieval jongleurs (jesters), and prototypes from 11th century medieval moralities (short plays with a moral lesson), such as Hellequin (as the source of Harlequin, for example).

The first recorded commedia dell’arte performances came from Rome as early as 1551. 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).’

Commedia dell’arte is notable in that female roles were played by women, documented as early as the 1560s, In the 1570s, English 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. Taviani 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. His term ‘negativa poetica’ describes this and other practices offensive to the church.

By the early 17th century, the zanni comedies were moving from pure improvisational street performances to specified and clearly delineated acts and characters. 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 (a former Parisian townhouse of the royal family of 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’ (‘tearful comedy’) gained in attraction in France, particularly through the plays of Marivaux, who softened the commedia considerably by bringing in true emotion to the stage. Harlequin achieved more prominence during this period.

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.

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 (Italian Renaissance). 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 theater 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.

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 BCE. 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 (Harlequins), 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 improvisedzed 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. 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.

The iconography of the commedia dell’arte represents an entire field of study that has been examined by commedia scholars. In the early period, representative works by painters at Fontainebleau were notable for their erotic depictions of the thinly veiled innamorata, or the bare-breasted courtesan/actress. The Flemish influence is widely documented as commedia figures entered the world of the vanitas genre, depicting the dangers of lust, drinking, and the hedonistic lifestyle. Flemish ‘pittore vago’ (‘wandering painters’) assimilated themselves within Italian workshops and even assumed Italian surnames. One of the most influential painters, Lodewyk Toeput, for example, became Ludovico Pozzoserrato and was a celebrated painter in the Veneto region of Italy, establishing commedia dell’arte as a genre of painting that would persist for centuries.


One Comment to “Commedia dell’arte”

  1. Love this post and your blog!! Keep it up :) such cool art! Check me out if you have the time!

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