The Commedia dell’Arte. Italian Renaissance Theater.

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Commedia dell'arte Theater Costume la Comédie, Masques et bouffons, Actors of the comédie italienne.

La Comédie

The commedia dell’arte developed in Italy in the 16th century from different already existing Theater groups in the middle ages. The commedia dell’arte was spread by itinerant troupes, such as the Compagnia dei Comici Gelosi over Europe and had great influence in particular the Spanish Theatre and the British, French and German comedy of the 17th and 18 Century, such as the Viennese popular theater and the “Main and State Actions” of the German traveling theaters. The center of the commedia dell’arte in the 18th Century was no longer in Italy, but in Paris, the largest city in Europe. During the French Revolution it was forbidden in France, where commedia since Louis XIV had their fixed location and not later than the time of Napoleon this once dominant form of European theater was practically gone. It was not until the early 20th century, Commedia dell’arte was rediscovered and revived in various form throughout Europe.

Commedia dell'Arte. Isabella Andreini . Compagnia dei Comici Gelosi.

Isabella Andreini (Padua, 1562 – 10 June 1604), Prima Buffa della Compagnia dei Comici Gelosi. 16th century,

The Commedia dell’Arte

THE Commedia dell’arte, the Italian Comedy as It is sometimes called, is one of the most curious phenomena in the whole history of the theatre. It began to be noticed in the early years of the sixteenth century in Italy, and in the next hundred and fifty years it swept over Europe. It must have been known, at least by hearsay, to Shakespeare; it profoundly influenced Molière; it is with us today wherever Punch and Judy is found in a side street or a ” troupe of Pierrots ” performs upon a pier at the seaside. Painting and poetry have alike felt its impact, so that we must know something of the Commedia dell’ Arte if we are to understand either Watteau or Verlaine.

We have already mentioned its supposed derivation from the Atellanœ, the popular farces played in ancient times in the city of Atella, in the Roman Campagna. But if this is really so it implies an astounding hibernation or underground life for something like a thousand years. Yet when these farces revived again, warmed by the sun of Humanism, we find, to our astonishment, the same method of procedure and even the same group of characters. Bucco and Maccus, and the ogre Manducus, the Miles Gloriosus of Plautus, and half a dozen other masks appear again. Only their names are changed. We have called them ‘masks’ deliberately. The Atellane players wore masks, so did the actors in the Italian Comedy. If troupes of such players were performing in the squares and market places of remote towns throughout the whole of the medieval period, why is nothing heard of them? If they were not, how was the tradition preserved?

It cannot be dismissed as a self-conscious Humanist revival, as part of the impulse which led to the erection of such pseudo-classical structures as the Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza. The Humanists, after all, were first and foremost literary men, and the most striking thing about the Commedia dell’ arte was the absence of a written text. All that existed was a scenario. The actual words of the dialogue were improvised afresh at each performance. The immense amount of patient research which has gone to the study of the Italian Comedy during the last half-century has still not completely disposed of the problem. It would be out ofplace in a work like the present to attempt to follow all die controversies which have raged about the subject. Scholars of the standing of Constant Mic and Michele Scherillo have denied the ancient origins of the Commedia dell’ Arte altogether. They would seem to have been sufficiently answered by Pierre Louis Duchartre (La Comldie Italienne. Paris, 1924. An English translation by Randolph T. Weaver was published in 1929 by Messrs. Harrap.), who gives an impressive list of similarities which can hardly be accidental. His conclusions may be briefly summarized. It is known that the ancient mimes had shaven heads; the false scalps or head-bands of the Italian comedians give the same effect. Two of the characters in the Italian Comedy Harlequin and Brighella are called Zanni (Shakespeare’s ‘zanies’), a name which seems (in spite of the doubts of some scholars) to be derived from the sannio of the Atellane farces. The slapstick (Shakespeare’s ‘dagger of lath’) and the phallus are common to both, so are the short garments worn by both the Italian valets and the ancient slaves. The quaint figure of Pulcinella (our Punch) with his hooked nose and crooked back is to be found already in the Atellane Maccus. Not only that, but both are invariably dressed in white. The Italian comedians, alone among their contemporaries, wore the mask, as did their ancient counterparts.

The Commedia dell’ arte, however, was no mere revival of an ancient mode. When it springs into being again in Italy in the early sixteenth century it is pulsating with a life of its own, and soon begins to develop its own special types. It is thought that a valuable impulse may have been given by Angelo Beolco, who in 1528 presented a comedy in prose in which each character spoke a different Italian dialect. This became one of the most striking characteristics of the improvised comedy. Not only did the characters, so to say, represent a cross-section of human life, they also formed a kind of geographical survey of the Italian peninsula. Harlequin and Brighella hailed from Bergamo, Pulcinella was the sly Neapolitan, the pedantic Dottore came from the University of Bologna, Pantaloon was a ‘Merchant of Venice.’

But the astonishing growth did not stop there. From the middle of the sixteenth century onward (says Duchartre) there was a constant proliferation of characters which the famous troupes of the Gelosi, the Confidenti and the Uniti eventually made popular everywhere. Milan produced Beltrame and Scapin, brothers of Brighella and Meneghino; Naples brought forth first Pulcinella and then Scaramouche and Tartaglia; to Rome are due Meo-Patacca, Marco-Pepe, and later Cassandrino; to Turin, Gianduja; and in Calabria appeared Coviello, of whom Callot made a charming etching. In this way each town created a representative type which was its boast, and to which its jealous neighbours added a touch of caricature. And thus the various roles became stylized.

At first there were no women in the Italian Comedy at all. When they did appear they were always a little apart from the ‘masks.’ Their own mask was made as small and elegant as possible and they never crystallized into definite characters, but assumed the role of the sighing mistress or the brazen wanton as the scenario demanded. They played, so to speak, ‘straight’ parts, and so did their opposite numbers, the Lovers, the jeunes premiers of the time. Their fortune or misfortune in love might figure as the central theme of the plot, but it was the under-plot of comic characters that provided the greater part of the entertainment. Another striking distinction between the ‘masks’ and the straight characters was that the latter tended more and more to rely upon set speeches learned by heart and brought in wherever occasion offered, as when it was necessary to lament the loss of a mistress or make a formal declaration of love. Until the end ofthe sixteenth century the Italian comedians led a very nomadic life, not only because it was difficult for one small town to support a company for any length of time, but because of the almost universal hostility they encountered from magistrates and the ecclesiastical authorities. An honourable exception was St. Charles Borromeo, who protected them in Milan, but in general they had a hard life of it not only in Italy but in France. Their penetration into the latter country was fraught with such consequences for the history of the theatre (for Molière is almost unthinkable without the background of the Commedia dell’ Arte) that it is worth while to notice the first accounts of their infiltration. We know that the Italian comedian Ganassa came to Paris in 1571 for the marriage festivities of the young King Charles IX, and in the following year he took part in the celebrations of the marriage between Marguerite de Valois and Henry of Navarre. He afterwards went to Spain and played before King Philip II. So great was the enthusiasm at the French Court for this new kind ofdramatic entertainment that the royal personages themselves wanted to take a hand in the game. It is tempting to adopt Maurice Sand’s belief that the very interesting painting by Porbus (It is either by Paul Porbus, called Porbus the Elder, or by Frans Porbus.) in the museum at Bayeux represents Charles IX in the costume of Brighella, the Due d’Anjou (later Henri III) as Harlequin, the Duc de Guise as Scaramouche, the Cardinal of Lorraine as Pantaloon and Catherine de’Medici as Columbine. Duchartre, however, is undoubtedly nearer the truth when he suggests that the royal personages are playing the parts of the lovers and that the masked characters are professionals. None the less it is sufficiently remarkable that the Royal Family should have mingled with the comedians in this way, and it is perhaps small wonder that not only the Huguenots were scandalized. It was only the insistence of the King that prevented the Italians from being expelled from France.
An even more famous company than that of Ganassa arrived in France in 1577. This was the celebrated Gelosi troupe which Henri III had seen in Venice on his way back to France from Poland. Henri invited them to Blois for the opening of the States General. They played several times before the King and were even allowed to charge for admission, before returning to Florence in the following year. It was in Florence that Andreini, who had now become director of the troupe, married the celebrated Isabella, then sixteen years old. Her beauty and her talents did much to contribute to the Gelosis’ outstanding success, and they were received with enthusiasm at all the Courts of northern Italy. They made another visit to France in 1588, but were frightened away by a decree of the Parliament against them and by the troubles which followed the murder of the Duc de Guise. It is interesting to note that Henri IV had sufficiently pleasant memories of them to summon them once more to Paris for his marriage with Marie de’Medici. Isabella died of a miscarriage shortly afterwards and the troupe was disbanded.

It is, however, not the history of individual troupes nor the contribution of the Italian Comedy to dramatic literature which concerns us here. It is the stylization and the persistence of the costumes which strikes and to some extent confounds the imagination. On decor we can conclude that the The Commedia dell’ Arte had comparatively small effect, although by the end of the seventeenth century it had begun to share in the general use of side-wings and back-cloths, and mechanical devices of all kinds. Indeed, it finally became so entangled with the pièce à machines that it seems natural to us that a ‘harlequinade’ and a ‘transformation scene’ should form part o fthe same entertainment. But none of this is essential to the Commedia dell’ Arte, which in its early days dispensed with decor altogether. It is, however, unthinkable without its fantastic costumes, completely individual, highly stylized and seeming to be possessed of a life of their own. The most famous is of course that of Harlequin, perhaps the most interesting theatrical costume that has ever existed. Yet when we first meet him his dress is very different from what it eventually became. The earliest known engravings show him in a long doublet laced down the front and nether-garments that are sometimes so loose that they might almost be called trousers. His clothes are covered with patches of various shapes and colours. On his head he wears a soft cap adorned with a fox’s brush or a hare’s ears, or a tuft of feathers. His face is covered with a black chin-piece. The scholars are still disputing why his mask should be black. In his hand he carries a wooden sword.

Early in the seventeenth century the stylizing of the patches began. They became triangles of blue, green and red arranged in a symmetrical pattern and separated by a narrow yellow braid. The triangles became diamonds at the end of the seventeenth century, the tunic was shortened and a pointed hat replaced the soft cap. This, with slight modifications, is the Harlequin that has persisted into our own day.
Harlequin still exists precariously, as one of the vestigial characters of the English pantomime. So does Pantaloon, but he no longer speaks and has forgotten that he was once the original ‘Merchant of Venice.’ His very name is Venetian, for it is generally supposed to be derived from piantar leone, to plant the lion, i.e. the Lion of St. Mark. The British were not the inventors of the notion that ‘trade follows the flag.’ His forebears were the old men of the Atellane farces and the misers of Plautus, his descendants, on the respectable side of the family, are Orgon and Harpagon in the comedies of Molière. The loose trousers which he wore in the sixteenth century, and which are now universal, are called pantaloons because of him. As well as these loose trousers he wore a short jacket, usually of bright red, and a long black cloak with plain sleeves. On his feet were soft Turkish slippers and on his head a little Greek cap. When he reappeared at the Renaissance the dangling, shameless phallus of antiquity was still to be seen. He had a grey moustache and a long white beard, sometimes ludicrously tufted; his mask showed a prominent hooked nose and sometimes round spectacles. Like his counterpart in Shakespeare, he was perpetually bewailing the treachery of his daughter and the loss of his ducats.

If Pantaloon was a Venetian, the Doctor, the other old man in the Italian Comedy, was a Bolognese, and a member of all the Academies of that learned city. He did them, however, little credit, for his knowledge of Latin (which he was always spouting) was as small as his skill in medicine. Like his friend Pantaloon, he was extremely miserly and always engaging in love adventures which only resulted in the scorn of the lady and the blows of his rivals. As a caricature of an eternal type, he represents the revenge of the ordinary man against pretension to learning, of the low-brow against the high-brow, of the undergraduate against the don. For a don he is with his black, sleeveless gown which, even in the sixteenth century, was recognizably academic, with his black clothes and black shoes. His small black toque was changed in the seventeenth century for a large black felt hat, and his clothes followed the changing fashions more closely than those of other characters in the Commedia dell’ Arte. But he always remains the doctor and the don.
His mask is very curious, covering only the forehead and the nose. Goldoni says this ” took its form from a birthmark which disfigured the face of a jurisconsult of those days.” It is one ofthe traditions still in existence among the amateurs of the Commedia dell’ Arte. The cheeks were rouged, and for the greater part of his history il Dottore wore a small pointed beard.
Punch to the English mind is two things: a diminutive puppet in a side street eking out a precarious existence, marginal in both time and space, and the most august of comic journals. In one manifestation he has shrunk to a doll, in the other he has expanded into an institution, and in both he seems peculiarly English. Yet he has a long history which has nothing to do with these islands, and the strange thing about him is that, however much he may have changed his character, he has kept his shape. He looks almost exactly the same in the little terra-cotta statuettes which have come down to us from the days of the Atellane farces. He has the same hooked nose and prominent chin, the same protruding belly and humped back, in the earliest pictures of the Italian Comedy in which he is represented.

The modifications which have taken place in the costume of Pulcinella have been admirably summarized by Duchartre. He seems to have begun in Renaissance time with, a version of the local costume worn by the peasants of Acerra, from which district he is supposed to have derived. A loose blouse of white linen, caught in at the waist with a wide belt, and wide pantaloons provided the essentials of his outfit. Round his neck was a kind of collarette or ruff and on his head a white skull cap or a grey hat with turned-up brims. In later times the description might be thought to fit more accurately the costume of Pierrot, for, following the example of jupille, the famous French Polichinelle, the Pulcinella of Mazarin’s troupe of Italian comedians adopted red breeches and a jacket trimmed with green. Later in the seventeenth century cock-feathers were added to the hat. The exaggeration of the hump, the shortening of the pantaloons and the addition of striped stockings gave us the Punch we know today.
Examples of the Pulcinella mask have been preserved. They are all very similar, showing small eyes, a bump on the forehead, and, of course, the characteristic hooked nose familiar to every child. It was in the middle of the seventeenth century that he turned into a marionette, and was so successful in this new guise that we hardly think of him as a character in the Italian Comedy at all.

The name of Brighella is not nearly as familiar to the modern reader as those of Punch, or Pantaloon, or Harlequin. None the less he is an important character, not only for the part he played in the Commedia dell’ Arte, but for his Italian and French derivatives and descendants. One might say that Scapin and Sganarelle are his sons and Figaro his grandson, and these only differ from their ancestor by being a little more civilized (or having a little more respect for the law) and a little less ready to draw the knife. Brighella is the intriguing, thieving valet of all time, or rather of all times until our own.
When we first meet Brighella at the close of the sixteenth century he wears a tunic and trousers and sometimes a short cloak. On his head is a flat cap or toque, usually with a green border. He carries a purse and a dagger and wears a half mask, not black like Harlequin’s, but of an olive hue even more sinister. His characteristic sign consists of a series of horizontal stripes of green braid across the coat and the seams of the trousers. These horizontal stripes concentrating themselves on the coat and finally transferred to the waistcoat have persisted to our own day in the striped waistcoats of liveried servants. They have vanished from private houses, but are still sometimes to be met with in Continental hotels.

The Captain was another important member of the Commedia dell’ Arte, but his effect on literature (Shakespeare’s Pistol is an obvious Capitano. Some of the double-entendres which Shakespeare gives to Pistol are curiously illuminated by a glance at Callot’s engravings of the burlesque fencing matches ofS caramuccia and others) was greater than his effect on theatrical costume. For he simply followed the evolution of military dress, with a preference for that of the Spaniards. At first he wore a flesh-coloured mask with a big nose and fierce moustaches, but the later Captains discarded this and simply powdered the face. The most famous Scaramouche (one of the alternative names for Il Capitano: from scaramuccia, ‘skirmisher’) was Tiberio Fiorilli, who lived throughout the greater part of the seventeenth century. Molière himself had the greatest admiration for his powers of mimicry:

II fut le maître de Molière Et la Nature fut le sien.

There has been much dispute concerning the origin of Pedrolino, who has come down to us as Pierrot. He has now been traced back to the second half of the sixteenth century. He is a valet like several of the other characters, but more personable, more sentimental, more naive. He is much given to melancholy and is capable of love. He played without a mask but with his face heavily powdered, and his costume was similar, as we have already noted, to the original costume of Punch, but better fitting and more becoming.
His derivative Pagliaccio, however, did wear a mask at the beginning of the seventeenth century a white mask over the white powdered face; and from him are also derived the skull cap and the white conical hat worn over it, as well as the large buttons which later became pom-poms. This costume, familiar to us from the paintings of Watteau, has survived to our own day in the troupes of pierrots who still perform on English piers. (It is perhaps hardly necessary to remind the reader that, from the point of view of the Commedia dell’Arte, a ‘troupe of Pierrots’ is an absurdity. One might as well speak of a troupe of Harlequins or a company of Scaramouches,)
The women of the Italian Comedy – the Isabellas and the Innamoratas – never developed specific costumes of their own. They simply wore either a costume of fantasy, vaguely supposed to represent the ‘antique,’ or the fashionable costume of their own day.
Nor did they wear masks, except occasionally the little loup or black velvet mask just covering the eyes, but even this ceases to have any theatrical significance when we realize that, in the seventeenth century, the loup was worn by the ladies in the audience as well.

The soubrette, or maid, begins by dressing as a peasant girl and at the very end of the seventeenth century turns into Harlequina, being almost always Harlequin’s wife or mistress. Her costume is a mere echo of his, as Pierrette’s is of that of Pierrot. The Columbine of modern pantomime is simply a ballet dancer in the traditional tutu which began to assume its final shape about 1830.

Dances of Sfessania (Balli di Sfessania 1621) series by Jacques Callot, 1592 – 1635.

Characters of The Commedia dell’Arte (Gallery)

The Characters of The Commedia dell’Arte (Description)

  • Trivellino: He represents a stupid servant or valet. Trivellino means “man with the drilled dress.” The dress darned of Trivellino it is found only in a print of the first half of the eighteenth century and consisted of jacket and pants yellow chamois, edged with blue or green triangles of cloth and imaginatively littered with crescents and stars scarlet. His mask was black similar to that of Harlequin, with an expression that recalled to his character of a servant, of zany. Originally in the 16th century, the figure of Trivellino acted as a counterpart to the Harlequin. Both were in competition at the foolish, naive servant. He Wherein in contrast to Harlequin also devilish traits took.
  • Pulcinella: The figure was mostly a hump, often a long beaked nose, which gives him a sly expression. His original costume was held from coarse fabric in green, brown or red colors. This gradually changed to a white suit with wide sleeves and a black mask and a pointed hat. The Pulcinello is usually a kind of living newspaper. Everything that has happened over in Naples Striking the day, in the evening you can hear from him. From  southern Italy the mask of Pulcinella spread with the touring companies of the Commedia dell’arte gradually to the north. However, it is believed that it has Roman (pre-) origins in the character of the Muccus Atellanen theater. At the same time emerged from this figure related masks. In German-speaking approximately influenced and he served as the model for the figures buffoon, Kasper German or as Kasperl in the Viennese popular theater The Punch, in England for Jack Pudding, Jan Klaassen in the Netherlands, Master Jockel in Denmark or Petrushka in Russia. From the 17th century however, this figure pales more and more displaced from the stage.
  • Pagliaccio: With his yellow face mask and / or yellow floured face and his white linen, too big robe he seems to be a relative of Pierrot. Pagliaccio is a clumsy servant and copycat, bold in words, but in truth an extraordinary coward. For his mistakes, he is often punished with beatings.
  • Ottavio:  Stock character – Innamorati – “The Lovers”.
  • Orazio: Stock character – Innamorati – “The Lovers”.
  • Meo Patacca: The character was of Roman origin, and made its appearance towards the end of the seventeenth century in a poem of 1695 by Giuseppe Berneri. Here he appeared as a soldier, bully, always ready to fight and tell bluster. Its name comes from “smears” the money that was the pay of the soldier. His costume consisted of tight trousers to the knee, a velvet jacket stressed and a colorful scarf belt in which was hidden a dagger. His hair was tied back in a retina from which protrudes a characteristic tuft. Loudmouth from the terrible, face and challenge his colleague, but as soon as these are the steps in front and straight in the eye, it melts in fear.The type then passed into parodies of classical tragedies and comedies in music and many of its features are found in Rugantino.
  • La Ballerina: stock character
  • La Comédie: stock character
  • Leandre: stock character
  • Lelio: Stock character – Innamorati – “The Lovers”.
  • Harlequine: In the medieval mystery plays the character of Harlequin or Italian Arlecchino was still a devil figure. As such, it also occurs in Dante’s Divine Comedy in Hell. The later harlequin was distinguished by his impromptu jokes, fight scenes, funny dances and clown arts. Therefore, it was essential to figure and a favorite of the audience in the Commedia dell’arte. The Harlequin became the main character of the Commedia, the other characters are considered to be his followers. At the boor original, the character has become more cunning, bright, cynical, immoral, naive and awkward, sometimes speaks in a scatological language. There is always an optimistic solution to everything. He`s a lazy and  greedy womanizer, but he can also be kind and faithful. He is the favorite of children because, in many features, it looks like them. Harlequin likes to have fun and be witty.
  • The Harlequin Costume He wears a hat that does not fully cover his shaved head. His hat is decorated with a rabbit’s tail. Its high color suit was perhaps originally a miserable garment hole, covered by various pieces of fabric. In the seventeenth century, the rags become blue, green and red triangles arranged symmetrically lined with a yellow stripe. Around the waist, a rope is wound which he used repeatedly for sexual innuendo. He wears lighter flat shoes, allowing him to perform thousand spins and acrobatics.
  • Giangurgolo Calabria: The character of the figure shows in his talkativeness and his unbridled lust for recognition. He shows himself as a wealthy landowner who demands respect from others, but himself shows no respect towards others. He constantly wants to impress and is permanently on display so that it is always mocked at the end, which is also due to his physical appearance.
  • Coraline: Sisters Maria Anna Veronese and Giacoma Antonia Veronese known as Corallina.
  • Colombine: Is a person of lower social class. Mostly she plays the role of the maid or cook. It lacks any contrived element of the upper class and it is a fun-loving and self-confident character. By their dominant and seductive manner it often attracts admirers (for example Brighella) that against which she know to fight back. The character of Colombina has partially no mask and wears mostly simple women’s clothes.
  • Capitan Spezzafer: This is about the type of bullies and braggart, which occurs usually as a (former) soldier or sailor. He also occasionally uses other names like Captain Corazza, Captain Cardone Rinoceronte, Terremoto, Spezzaferro, Spaccamonti, Rodomonte who often describe it a little more closely. It is intrinsically generally the properties of ostentation, cruelty, greed, malice and pride, coupled with an extraordinary cowardice who is afraid of his own sword.

Masques et Bouffons (Comédie Italienne) by Maurice Sand (Jean-François-Maurice-Arnauld 1823-1889, Baron Dudevant, known as Maurice Sand, was a French writer and illustrator, son of famous French novelist George Sand).

Associated to:




15th century fashion history.

  1. Costumes and Fashion during the 15th century.
  2. Fashion under the Reigns of Louis XI., 1461 to 1515.
  3. German women`s costume history, 15th century.
  4. French fashion of the Renaissance from 1461 to 1574
  5. Italian 14th, 15th century fashion history.
  6. The Hennin. Headdresses history, 15th century.
  7. The Reticulated Headdress. Headdresses history, 15th century.
  8. King Henry VI. and his court. The good duke Humphrey.
  9. Historia Scholastica. Medieval room interior, 15th century.
  10. Margaret of Anjou Queen of Henry VI. and her court.
  11. The Limerick Mitre. Dresses and Decorations of the Middle Ages.
  12. The Romance of the Rose. The Art of courtly love.
  13. The Lady of Tournament delivering the Price.
  14. The lady of the castle. Medieval etiquette.
  15. Italian 14th, 15th century fashion history.

Further Reading

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