Commedia dell' arte

The theatre of the masks

Giovanni Domenico Ferretti, Arlecchino e Colombina

Did the masks that the Venetians traditionally wore at Carnival become the stock characters of the Commedia dell' Arte, or vice versa? They seem to have gone hand in hand.

The first recorded mention of Arlecchino (Harlequin), came when the part was played by a celebrated actor named Tristano Martinelli in 1601 – the year that also saw the début of Hamlet. Theatre as we know it was blooming all over Europe in those times: Shakespeare and Marlowe, Calderón and Lope de Vega in Spain, the predecessors of Molière in France.

All of these learned their craft from late Renaissance Italy, where the commedia dell’arte had created a fashion that spread across the continent. The great companies, such as the Gelosi, the Confidenti and the Accesi, toured the capitals, while others shared out the provinces. Groups of ten or twelve actors, run as cooperatives, they could do comedies, tragedies or pastorals to their own texts, and provide music, dance, magic and juggling between acts.

The audiences liked the comedies best, with a set of masked stock characters, playing off scenes between the magnificos, the great lords, and the zanni, or servants, who provided the slapstick, half-improvised comic relief. To spring the plot there would be a pair of lovers or innamorati—unmasked, to remind us that only those who are in love are really alive.

The commedia dell'arte had nothing to do with ‘art'. Arte means a guild; it merely emphasized that these companies involved professional players. The term was only invented in 1745 by Goldoni, who brought the commedia to the posh theaters with his Arlecchino, servitore di due padroni. Before that, the companies were often referred to as the commedia mercenaria—they would hit town, set up a stage on trestles and start their show within the hour. Cultured Italians of the day often deplored the way the ‘mercenary’ shows were driving out serious drama, traditionally written by scholarly amateurs in the princely courts.

In the repressive climate of the day, when Italy was caught between the Inquisition and the Spanish bosses, a culture of ideas survived only in free Venice. Theatre retreated into humorous popular entertainment, but even then the Italians found a way to say what was on their minds. Along with the classic, immediately recognizable Venetian character Pantalone, a new stock character appeared, the menacing but slow-witted ‘Capitano’, who always spoke with a Spanish accent, and Italians learned from the French how to use Arlecchino to satirize the hated Emperor Charles V himself – playing on the French pronunciation of the names harlequin and Charles Quint.

Arlecchino may have been born in Oneta, a village north of Bergamo, but he carries a proud lineage that goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. From his character and appearance, historians of the theatre trace him back to the antique planipedes, comic mimes with shaved heads (everyone knew Arlecchino wore his silly nightcap to cover his baldness). Other scholars note his relationship to the ‘tricksters’ of German and Scandinavian mythology, and it has even been claimed that his costume of patches is that of a Sufi dervish. No doubt he had a brilliant career all through the Middle Ages, though it was probably only in the 1500s that he took the form of the Arlecchino we know.

At that time, young rustics from the Bergamasque valleys would go to Venice to get work as facchini, porters. They all seemed to be named Johnny – Zanni in Venetian dialect, which became the common term for any of the clownish roles in the plays; it’s the origin of our word ‘zany’.

The name ‘Arlecchino’ seems actually to have been a French contribution. At the court of Henri III, a certain Italian actor who played the role became a protégé of a Monsieur de Harlay, and people started calling him ‘little Harlay’, or Harlequin. The character developed into a stock role, the most beloved of all the commedia dell’arte clown masks: simple-minded and easily frightened, yet an incorrigible prankster, a fellow as unstable as his motley dress.

His foil was usually another servant, the Neapolitan Puricinella, or Puncinella – Punch – more serious and sometimes boastful, but still just as much of a buffoon. Try to imagine them together on stage, and you’ll get something that looks very much like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. No doubt these two have always gone through the world together, and we can hope they always will.

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