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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.

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History and Anecdotes

Text © Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Images by PD Art, Sailko