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Commedia dell'Arte

Updated on April 2, 2014

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!

18th century Commedia dell'Arte, public domain
18th century Commedia dell'Arte, public domain

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 comédie-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 Dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook
Commedia Dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook

This is a very specific acting style, will strong traditions.

 
Harlequin on the Moon: Commedia Dell'Arte and the Visual Arts
Harlequin on the Moon: Commedia Dell'Arte and the Visual Arts

Commedia has had an impact on the visual arts, especially on painters like Picasso.

 
Commedia Dell'Arte: A Handbook for Troupes
Commedia Dell'Arte: A Handbook for Troupes

This style of acting is a real specialty.

 

Improv!

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!

Shakespearean clowns
Shakespearean clowns

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.

Venetian Masks

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.

Black V Venetian Mardi Gras Masquerade Mask Paper Mache
Black V Venetian Mardi Gras Masquerade Mask Paper Mache

But this is a classic (and more wearable) style.

 

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.)

Cantarina, costume by Lynn Dewart for Imagination Entertainment
Cantarina, costume by Lynn Dewart for Imagination Entertainment

Costumes

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.)

Christian Dior 2001 (image borrowed from Fashion and Action blog)
Christian Dior 2001 (image borrowed from Fashion and Action blog)

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.

Italian comedy costumes, public domain
Italian comedy costumes, public domain

Stock Characters

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.

Harlequin

Harlequin with Guitar, by Juan Gris, public domain image
Harlequin with Guitar, by Juan Gris, public domain image
Harlequin by Cezanne, courtesy of Wikipedia
Harlequin by Cezanne, courtesy of Wikipedia

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."

Arlecchino

An Italian video celebrating Arlecchino or Harlequin

The Carnival of Harlequin - by Joan Miro'

Carnival of Harlequin, by Joan Miro
Carnival of Harlequin, by Joan Miro
il Capitano, believed public domain image
il Capitano, believed public domain image

il Capitano

(The Captain)

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, believed public domain image
il Dottore, believed public domain image

il Dottore Gratiano

(The Doctor)

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.

Pantelone, believed public domain image
Pantelone, believed public domain image

Pantalone

(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.

Brighella, believed public domain image
Brighella, believed public domain image

Brighella

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.

Pedrolini or a Zanni
Pedrolini or a Zanni

Pedrolino and the Zanni

(The Dreamer)

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?

Pulcinello
Pulcinello

Pulcinella

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

Punch and Judy on tour in Swanage, courtesy of Wikimedia
Punch and Judy on tour in Swanage, courtesy of Wikimedia

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.

scaramouche
scaramouche

Scarramuccia

(Scaramouche)

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.)

Inamorati

(The Lovers)

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.

Columbina, believed public domain image
Columbina, believed public domain image

Columbina

(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

A figure of Mezzetino by Vivienne Westwood for Nymphenberg (image borrowed from theirs website)
A figure of Mezzetino by Vivienne Westwood for Nymphenberg (image borrowed from theirs website)

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

La Ruffiana was an old woman - either a mother or a village gossip - whose role was to thwart the lovers.

Ballerina, believed public domain
Ballerina, believed public domain

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!

Pierrot, by Watteau, public domain
Pierrot, by Watteau, public domain

Pierrot

The origin of the Pierrot character is traced to to a character by Molière, 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.

Pierrot in advertising
Pierrot in advertising
Commedia characters in France
Commedia characters in France

Minor Characters

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

Improvise Some Dialogue! - Tell me what you think about Commedia dell'Arte or this Lens.

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    • cdevries profile image
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      cdevries 5 years ago

      @Michey LM: Thank you!

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 5 years ago

      What an interesting, informative and well presented lens. Thanks

      Blessings!

    • profile image

      candidaabrahamson 5 years ago

      What a unique, innovative and informative lens!

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @dahlia369: Thank you - and thanks for visiting!

    • dahlia369 profile image

      dahlia369 5 years ago

      This page and its interesting content is quite an accomplishment, Good images and videos, fun read, thank you!! :)

    • profile image

      entertainmentev 5 years ago

      Wonderful lens! I love the beauty of Commedia dell'Arte fashions and am always intrigued by the construction of venetian masks.

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @Art-Aspirations: Thanks for visiting!

    • Art-Aspirations profile image

      Art-Aspirations 5 years ago

      This is a beautiful lens and very comprehensive. Thanks for taking the time to share some of what you have learned.

    • EMangl profile image

      EMangl 5 years ago

      What an interesting read - soo many years ago it happened but it's somehow timeless as carneval of Venice every year shows

    • cdevries profile image
      Author

      cdevries 5 years ago

      @Ilonagarden: Thanks very much for the visit! There's a LOT to Commedia dell'Arte I couldn't begin to cover... a very rich tradition.

    • Ilonagarden profile image

      Ilona E 5 years ago from Ohio

      I really enjoyed your lens! I had a passing familiarity with the topic, but no idea of the richness of the topic. Until now, that is :)