Commedia dell'arte

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Karel Dujardins set his closely-observed scene of a travelling troupe's makeshift stage against idealized ruins in the Roman Campagna: dated 1657 (Louvre Museum)

Commedia dell'arte, (Italian, meaning "comedy of professional artists") was a form of improvisational theater which began in the 16th century and was popular until the 18th century, although it is still performed today. Traveling teams of players would set up an outdoor stage and provide amusement in the form of juggling, acrobatics, and, more typically, humorous plays based on a repertoire of established characters with a rough storyline, called Canovaccio.

Troupes occasionally would perform directly from the back of their traveling wagon, but this is more typical of Carro di Tespi, a sort of travelling theater that dates back to antiquity.

The performances were improvised around a repertory of stock conventional situations, adultery, jealousy, old age, love, some of which can be traced in Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence. The dialogue and action could easily be made topical and adjusted to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, mixed with ancient jokes and punchlines. Characters were identified by costume, masks, and even props, such as the slapstick.

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Antoine Watteau's commedia dell'arte player of Pierrot, ca 1718-19, traditionally identified as "Gilles" (Louvre)

The influence of the Commedia

Thus, the commedia dell'arte, with its stock situations and stock characters and improvised dialogue, has shown the way to many other forms of drama, from pantomime and Punch and Judy - which features debased forms of the commedia characters (see below) - to the modern animated cartoon, situation comedy, and even professional wrestling. Richard Strauss used several of the characters in his opera Ariadne auf Naxos. The characters and tropes of the commedia have also been used in novels, notably Scaramouche, the 1921 historical novel by Rafael Sabatini, but also in more recent sword and sorcery and literary works, such as Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories that culminate with the Guardian prize-winning The Condition of Muzak.

Aspects of commedia dell'arte also passed into the silent tradition of mime. The Bohemian actor Jean-Gaspard Deburau (1796 -1846) brought the new forms of mime to Paris in the 1830s. He standardized the French image of Pierrot.

The characters

Many male commedia dell'arte characters were depicted by actors wearing masks, although the Amorosi (or lovers) did not wear masks. Female characters, however, were usually not masked, until the 1800s. Unlike their English contemporaries (see Shakespeare), commedia troupes usually employed female actresses for female roles. The theatrical device of men in women's clothing and wigs, en travesti, was used for humour.

In some cases, the characters were also traditionally considered as respectively representing some Italian regions or main towns. Often they are still now symbolic of the related town.

Character List

Following is a list of the original Italian characters, with other English or French names, or descendant characters (in parentheses), and the towns/regions to which they are eventually associated:

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Arlecchino (Harlequin)
  • Arlecchino (Harlequin), is Pantalone's servant. He is extremely poor. The famous Harlequin costume, with its lozenge pattern of red, green, and blue diamonds, is a stylised representation of clothes that are so old and patched as to have lost their original colour and material. If he were a character of today, he would be on minimum benefit/wage (frauding of course!), or in the US, working three jobs. He is a peasant with no instruction (he can't read or write), who has left his native Bergamo to seek his fortune in the city of Venice, as it grows rich from its commerce with the orient. This often causes amusement, as no-one can understand his dialect. He is an acrobat and a clown, he carries a baton which he sometimes uses to bash other characters, leading to the modern term slapstick. Harlequin is not really a villain; he just tries to get by. There are three types of Harlequin mask, the cat, the pig and the monkey (some say the bull too). The lozenge costume has given its name to the fashion motif, the mask to a shape for eyeglass frames: see Harlequin.
  • Brighella (Figaro, Molire's Scapin), Bergamo, a money-grubbing villain, a partner of Arlecchino. He is a self made man, who has become comfortably off by starting his own business, despite humble beginnings. He is often the proprietor of the local tavern. He is a ladies' man, who has a lot of success with them. If he were a character of today, he would own a flashy car and have lots of flashy clothes and jewellery. He's a typical Latin macho man, with all the charm that involves, and all the drawbacks.
  • Columbina (Colombina, the Servant, Columbine, Harlequine, Pierrette), Venice, maidservant to the Innamorata and lover of Arlecchino, usually involved in intrigue. She is rather intelligent.
  • Il Capitano (the Captain), boastful he-man soldier, but a coward underneath
  • Il Dottore (usually called Dottore Balanzone or Dottore Graziano, the Doctor), Bologna, The Doctor is the local aristocrat, who went all the way to Bologna to read for his degree. He is extremely rich, with "old" money. He adores food and good wines, thus he is a little round...
  • Gianduia, Turin, a well-mannered Piedmontese peasant.
  • Innamorata (the Lover), the leading woman, who wore no mask (see innamorati)
  • Innamorato (the Lover), the leading man, who wore no mask (see innamorati)-his partner is also called a lover.
  • Isabella (Lucinda, Cornelia, Silvia, Rosaura), Pantalone's daughter. She is very headstrong, flirtatious, sensuous, and articulate. Men are constantly falling hopelessly in love with her. She loves to tease and test the men. Her father always tries to control her life by arranging meetings and agreements with inappropriate overaged gentlemen suitors.
  • Mezzetin, a French figure, painted by Antoine Watteau
  • Pagliaccio (the Clown), a forerunner of today's clowns. The opera I Pagliacci centers around a commedia troupe.
  • Pantalone (Pantalon de' Bisognosi, Pantaloon), Venice, a rich and miserly merchant who is the father of Isabella. He also employs Arlecchino and treats him cruelly.
  • Pedrolino (or Pierino, Vicenza, and most commonly nowadays known as Pierrot a dreamer with a white mask, now considered the French version of a clown).
  • Pulcinella, Naples, a hunchback who still chases women, he was the model for Punch in the English variation Punch and Judy.
  • La Ruffiana (old woman), usually a mother or gossipy townswoman who intrudes into the lives of the Lovers
  • Scaramuccia (see also Scaramouche), a roguish adventurer and swordsman who replaced Il Capitano in later troupes. Was the servant for another character. He wears a black velvet mask and black trousers, shirt and hat.
  • Zanni, Venice, a threadbare old servant from Bergamo.

The Commedia today

Commedia dell'arte has experienced periods of dormancy and revival since its inception. Commedia had all but disappeared till it was revived by Giorgio Strehler at the Piccolo teatro of Milan. Current American commedia dell'arte troupes include The Dell'Arte School in Blue Lake, Tutti Frutti in San Francisco and i Sebastiani in New England.

Related subjects

See Carlo Goldoni's A Servant of Two Masters

See also: Clown, Jester

Additional resources

  • This page ( has pictures of masks and more character descriptions.
  • The Innamorati by Midori Snyder is a novel with the commedia as its central conceit. ISBN 031286924X
  • A certain version of The Love Of Three Oranges is subtitled "A Play For The Theatre That Takes The Commedia Dell'arte Of Carlo Gozzi And Updates It For The New Millennium" and may be of interest. Authors Carlo Gozzi and Hillary DePiano. ISBN 1411610326
  • A great primary source for Commedia dell'Arte scenarios is Flamino Scala's Il Teatro delle Favole Rappresentative, translated into English by Henry F. Salerno as Scenarios of the Commedia dell'Arte. ISBN 0879101334
  • The Commedia dell'Arte by Kenneth Richards and Laura Richards provides a good overview of Commedia dell'Arte. It also provides many original documents in translation including scenarios, lazzi and descriptions of characters, players and companies by contemporaries. ISBN 0631195904de:Commedia dell'Arte

fr:Commedia dell'arte it:Commedia dell'Arte ja:コンメディア・デッラルテ


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