Lombardy & the Italian Lakes

Beautifully written, evocative and informative.

Sunday Times

Good writing, amusing comment, invaluable advice.


Passionate and packed with good info.

National Geographic Traveler

The Immortal Fool – an excerpt from Lombardy & the Italian Lakes

The first recorded mention of Arlecchino, or 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, where others shared out the provinces. Groups of ten or twelve actors, run as cooperatives, could perform comedies, tragedies or pastorals to their own texts, and provide music, dance, magic and juggling between acts.

The audiences like the comedies best, with a set of masked stock characters, playing off scenes between the magnficios, 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.

‘Art’ had nothing to do with it. Arte meant a guild; it merely emphasized that these were companies of professional players. The term was invented in 1745 by the Venetian Carlo Goldoni (who wrote one of the last plays of the genre, Arlecchino, servitore di due padroni). Originally, in the 1500s, 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. Sophisticated Italians of the day deplored the way the ‘mercenary’ shows were driving out serious drama, traditionally written by scholarly amateurs in the princely courts, but in the repressive climate of the day, caught between the Inquisition and the Spanish bosses, theatre had to retreat into humorous popular entertainment. Even then the Italians found a way to say what was on their minds. A new stock character appeared, the menacing but slow-witted ‘Capitano’ who always spoke with a Spanish accent, and Italians learned from the French to use Arlecchino to satirize the hated emperor Charles V himself—playing on the French pronunciation of the names Harlequin and Charles Quint.

Arlecchino was ‘born’ in Oneta, a village north of Bergamo; they’ll show you his house there today. But he carries a proud lineage that goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. For 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 Muslim Sufi dervish. No doubt he had a brilliant career all through the Middle Ages, though it was probably only in the 1500’s 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 porters. They all seemed to be named Johnny—Zanni in dialect, which became the term for any of the clownish roles in the plays; it’s the origin of our word ‘zany’.

The name ‘Arlecchino’ seems 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.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Letters from Readers

I spent some time in the Lake Garda region this month with the help of the help of the guidebook Lombardy, Milan and the Italian Lakes... thanks so much for the excellent guidance and stimulation of the commentary.