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Historic Italian Traveling Comedy Troupes
Commedia dell'Arte, which flourished in Italy from about 1550 to 1750, has been and remains tremendously influential to theater.
This Lens is intended to be just an introduction to this style of comedy - it's a huge topic, covered by many big, thick books! Here we'll just touch on a few of its most important features, just to give you a taste of what Commedia style is like.
Why write this Lens? I was doing research for the musical The Fantasticks and I got caught up in the fantasy and humor of Commedia dell'Arte. Though my own production did not, in the end, use much of my research... maybe you, Dear Reader, can!
A Brief History of Commedia dell'Arte
The 16th century Italian style of comic theater known as Commedia dell'Arte was performed by troupes of professional players who traveled throughout the area now called Italy (it was many city-states in those days). Famous troupes, like the Gelosi, Confidenti (isn't that a great name?), and Fedeli, even performed in other countries and for royalty and like that. Commedia was fashionable.
This form of theater spread throughout Europe and a comÃ©die-italienne company was established in Paris in 1661.
Many Commedia elements still exist in modern theater, among them the use of stock characters, music, dance, buffoonery, and witty and punning dialogue. Its influence was seen in French pantomime and English harlequinade. Commedia dell'arte's influence on written drama helped it survive into the early 18th century. And, in fact, it's influence is still seen in shows like "The Fantasticks," the longest running musical in the United States, which ran from 1960 to 2002... and has recently been revived!
Commedia dell'Arte shows were performed on temporary stages set up in city streets and squares or sometimes erected in noble courts - perhaps for a special event like a wedding - with little in the way of sets or stage properties. Props that were used include: food, animals, furniture, weapons, and things that could get other characters (and maybe the audience? funny, right?) wet.
Commedia dell'Arte Explained!
A pithy discussion of the nature and importance of Commedia on You Tube.
Books on Commedia dell'Arte
There is a lot written about Commedia dell'Arte - deservedly so, since it, along with Greek and Roman theater, is the basis of our modern stage.
Commedia can be very, very funny.
This is a very specific acting style, will strong traditions.
Commedia has had an impact on the visual arts, especially on painters like Picasso.
This style of acting is a real specialty.
Harlequin is my favorite character. I think...
Dancing! Movement of all kinds is important in commedia.
English. My personal language-of-choice.
More Book Recommendations
- Mask Arts Company
This theater group's suggestions for worthwhile books on Commedia dell'Arte
Commedia dell'Arte might look anarchic, but this seeming chaos covered a highly disciplined framework and well-rehearsed ensemble work.
Players improvised in-the-moment comedy around an agreed upon scenario, following that rough plot, but stitching together a series of "lazzi," or rehearsed bits of dialogue and action, with moments of new, ad-libbed dialogue, as one actor responded to what another was doing or to the audience's reactions. Musical or dance was thrown into the stage business too.
Improvisation remains an important skill in many forms of performances - like Improv comedy!
Widely influential. These Shakespearean comics look (even without masks) like Commedia dell'Arte characters.
The World of Commedia dell'Arte
The relationships and characters explained from an actor's point of view.
(It helps to be familiar with the great Fawlty Towers TV show.)
Masks and Physicality
Because Comedia dell'Arte actors wore masks to signal their character to the audience, they couldn't use their faces to express their feelings... Consequently, emotions were acted using body language. Naturally, Comedia became a highly physical form of theater, with lots of jumping, tumbling, stock gags (called "burle" and "lazzi"), slapstick, and obscene gestures (always funny). Does any of this sound like a Shakespearean comedy?
All the satiric or comic characters wore masks, usually made of colored leather, while the young lovers and actresses wore none.
Venice's Carnival masks developed from the masks of Comedia dell'Arte. These masks are usually made of paper mache' - sometimes still using 18th century molds.
This are (more or less) in the traditional Commedia dell'Arte style. The more grotesque... probably the more historically correct.
Myself, I collect masks and some of the prizes of my collection are Italian (Venetian) masks in the traditional Commedia style.
I love the long-nose masks.
But this is a classic (and more wearable) style.
The stick - so elegant.
Extra cool mask with built-in hat.
This, I think, is really handsome.
A great collector's mask.
A Modern Commedia Mask Maker
Handmade leather masks for performance - made in the Commedia dell'Arte tradition.
(Check Etsy for more mask makers - it's a great source.)
- Newman's Commedia Masks
The masks, the Harlequin patterns, the parti-colored costumes, the rags and tatters, and the satire and fantasy of Commedia dell'Arte costumes has had - and continues to have - a huge influence on modern costume design.
Here is a costume for Cantarina by designer Lynn Dewart. (Click on the photo for more examples.)
Fashion Inspired by Commedia
The famous Harlequin pattern pops up in fashion from time to time.
And haute couture returns to Commedia dell'Arte for inspiration. The 2008 fashion season reflected this trend and, in its 2011 Fall show, Christian Dior also showed its influence.
Comedia characters represented satires on particular types, easily spotted in the society of that day (or still today!), like foolish old men or "tipi fissi." Other popular types included untrustworthy servants (servants being a lot more common then than now) or cowardly military officers full of bravado. These stock characters included Pantalone, the miserly Venetian merchant, and many others, some listed below.
This idea of "types" was did not just exist in theater. Medicine of the day believed in physical and emotional types called "humors." The labels of the four humors are still used as adjectives to describe behaviors: choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine. But it was Comedia characters who became archetypes of many of favorite characters in 17th- and 18th-century theater throughout European.
You can see that the idea of "stock" characters continues in modern comedy - just watch any guys' night out kind of film: the Slacker, the Frat Boy, the Ditzy Blonde... all stock characters.
l'Arlecchino or Harlequin
Arlecchino is the most famous of the Comedia characters. His importance in the plays increased over the years, his character developing from a minor one in early plays into a major character in 18th century productions.
There are various theories about his name: one is that it developed (because of his diamond patterned costume) from a varied-colored bird called 'harle' or 'herle'; or that he was named for a prominent patron; but probably his name just means Hellechinno, or 'little devil'. (Dante wrote of a devil named Ellechino.)
He is a mischievous servant - usually to Pantalone, but sometimes to Il'Capitano, or Il' Dottore. Harlequin comes from Bergamo and speaks with that accent. He is child-like, amorous, an acrobat and a wit, who often spoke gibberish.
Harlequin wore a black mask like a cat's face, wore motley - Jester-like clothes with multi-colored patches or diamond patterns. Usually he had a long fitted jacket and trousers patched of several colors - green, yellow, red and brown - or sometimes black and white. his hat may be a beret or a felt one with a narrow brim and a feather or fox or hare's tail. Italian Harlequins wear patched clothes, but French and English ones tend to have diamond (or lozenge) patterned ones. As you'd expect of such a popular and long-lived character, his dress and props varied over time and from place to place. Harlequin could also shape-shift and disguise himself.
He carried either a wooden sword, a bat, or two sticks tied together that made a big noise when smacked around - probably the origin of the word "slapstick."
An Italian video celebrating Arlecchino or Harlequin
The Carnival of Harlequin - by Joan Miro'
il Capitano was a satire of the professional soldier: he was bold and swaggering, but really a coward, and the rank may have been self-promoted. This character had many names. He was often Spanish and might speak that language (a cowardly soldier is obviously much funnier if he's some OTHER country's cowardly soldier!). This is one of the oldest Commedia characters - traceable back to classic Roman theater. Shakespeare's Falstaff seems like a variant on il Capitano.
His dress would follow military styles of the particular period and place, though it was often over-elaborated and over-gaudy. Since his character was all bluff and no substance, he pretended to be rich but was really poor and he might wear a ragged leather jerkin, for instance, beneath his velvet or lace. He often wore a long crocodile-like mask and always carried a sword - though was too cowardly to use it.
This coward-faking-bravery is a "type" that still appears in modern comedies about war and is the main character in George McDonald Fraser's Flashman series - comic/historic novels about a Victorian War (not-so-much) Hero.
il Dottore Gratiano
il Dottore, the pedant from Bologna, always spoke with a Bolognese accent, wherever the Comedia dell'Arte troupe might happen to be playing. as part of the character. He was a caricature of learning - a pompous fraud. A quack. It's possible that this character was derived from the medicine-men (witch doctors?) of ancient rituals; the Commedia dell'Arte version, however, was a fool and a butt of jokes. Usually a bachelor or widower, if il Dottore married, he could count on being immediately cuckolded!
He usually wore a black scholar's robe. His mask usually left his cheeks uncovered - often rouged to suggest that he drank.
(The Miserly Venetian Merchant)
This character is a satiric look at a successful merchant (of Venice). He retired rich, from his business, but he's a mean and miserly personality. And he has either a young wife or an adventurous daughter.
Shakespeare's Shylock, from The Merchant of Venice could be a variant on Pantalone, the miserly Venetian with the too-adventurous daughter. And his Polonius is almost certainly based on this Commedia character.
His costume was usually Venetian, with red trousers (or pantaloons?) and a long black coat and he stood stooped, as if old, though still active.
Arlecchino's crony, Brighella, was more roguish and sophisticated than his friend - this cowardly villain would do anything for money. He came from Bergamo, like Harlequin. "Briga" means trouble, quarrel, or intrigue.
Pedrolino and the Zanni
Pedrolino was moon-struck dreamer who wore white-face... probably the ancestor of today's classic clown.
This particular illustration is described as either Pedrolini or "a Zanni." A Zanni is a clever servant and a trickster who came from the country.
"Zanni" is apparently a corruption of Giovanni, an Italian name as common as "John" in English and often used generically for a serving-man. Could this be where the English word "zany" comes from?
Pulcinella was a dwarfish humpback with a crooked nose, a cruel bachelor who chased pretty girls. He still appears in English Punch and Judy shows,
Punch and Judy - (Pulcinella's British cousin) and His Wife
Let's call this a... um, disfunctional marriage?
The British have been laughing at puppet domestic cruelty for centuries: cartoon violence before the invention of cartoons!
More on Punch & Judy
This is a very old English tradition. Here's more on Punch and Judy puppet shows.
- The Punch and Judy Fellowship
The website of an organization dedicated to continuing the tradition of Punch & Judy puppet shows.
This rogue-ish clown/hero wore black and carried a sword, more or less a Robin Hood type. Scaramuccia literally means "skirmish." And this rebellious-hero quality made the character popular - as did the swashbuckling 1921 historical novel (later a film) by Rafael Sabatini.
Scaramouche also became a recurring, iconic, character in Punch and Judy puppet shows. He's often the owner of The Dog (another stock character). The even-tempered Punch often takes a swing at Scaramouche... and may knock his head clean off! (Therefore scaramouche can be a term used to describe puppets with stretchable necks.)
One scholar (Rudlin) describes the Lovers as, "They are in love with themselves being in love."
The handsome male Inamorato wore no mask and went by many names. The actor who played him had to be eloquent... he got all the declarations of love! The Inamorata was his female partner.
(AKA Harlequine, Pierrette...)
Inamorata 's servant was usually called Columbina and was the loved by Harlequin. Bright, witty, and into intrigue, this character had variants like Harlequine and Pierrette. The character probably started as a dancer with a tamborine in the days before women were allowed to be part of the action - a hold over from Roman theater.
As a lady's maid, she often wore an apron and was dressed better than her male counterparts, though the colors of their costumes were often coordinated as a couple, and Columbina's dress would often reflect her mistresses costume too. She often carried that original tamborine and a basket. She was the only female character to sometimes wear a mask.
We Interrupt This List... - To Show You These Fantastic Commedia dell'Arte Figurines
In 2008, to celebrate its 260th anniversary, the famous porcelain manufacturer Nymphenberg reissued a limited edition of a series of Commedia dell'Arte figures designed by the rococo sculptor Franz Bustelli in 1759 - but with newly decorated clothing, designed by sixteen internationally known present-day fashion designers including Elie Saab and Vivienne Westwood.
Commedia dell'Art continues to inspire artists of all kinds.
La Ruffiana was an old woman - either a mother or a village gossip - whose role was to thwart the lovers.
Cantarina and Ballerina
Cantarina and Ballerina were there to dance, sing, or play a musical instrument, but they often joined in the comedy too.
(I have to suspect that this is where the dancer's title of "Ballerina" comes from.)
In much early theater it was common to interrupt the story with a fairly random dance interlude. By Shakespeare's day this was sometimes worked into the play's plot - as with the fancy dress ball in Much Ado About Nothing - and, after enough time and on another continent, I suppose, you could trace Cantarina and Ballerina all the way to the American Maria of West Side Story and the Broadway Musical genre!
The origin of the Pierrot character is traced to to a character by MoliÃ¨re, the lovelorn peasant Pierrot in his Don Juan of 1665.
Pierrot's character started out as a buffoon... but, over centuries, a sad, even tragic, quality emerged in his struggles, as he perhaps became a sort of alter-ego for the Romantic artists who painted him.
Commedia dell'Arte in Popular Images - Like advertising.
There were many, many other characters. Some were local to particular regions, like Rugantino in Rome, Peppe Nappa in Sicily, Stenterello in Tuscany, Gianduia in Turin, or Meneghino in Milan. Some were a variant on a stock character, under another name.
Works Starring Comedia dell'Arte Characters - (More or Less)
Books, plays (obviously!), paintings, and operas, like "Pulcinella" by Diaghilev, Picasso, and Stravinsky... There have been many works of art based on the characters, situations, and techniques of Commedia dell'Arte. Here are just a few
- Project Gutenberg
A free download of the story "Harelquin and Columbine" by Booth Tarkington
The swashbuckling 1921 novel by Rafael Sabatini, who also wrote Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk (both made into classic pirate films).
- Murder Must Advertise
Classic English mystery detective Lord Peter Whimsy dons a Harlequin costume to go undercover.
- Mr. Punch
First the character was Puncinella, then he became the puppet Punch. Then the inimitable Neil Gaiman wrote the graphic novel Mr. Punch, then the Rogue Artists Ensemble turned that into a multi-media theater event. Not for kiddies!
Links to More on Commedia dell'Arte
- Theater History.com
An article on Commedia dell'Arte
- Delpiano.com - a Carnival website
The chapter on Commedia dell'Arte
The page on Commedia inspired masks
Their chapter on Commedia dell'Arte
- Commedia dell'Arte Stock Characters
Very thorough descriptions of the traditional characters. And a wonderful site on Commedia in general. Visit!
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
Their page on the history of this theater form.