The foundations of contemporary Western theater are undoubtedly to be sought in the theater of Renaissance Italy both from the viewpoint of theatrical practices and from that of dramatic theory and the formation and evolution of dramatic genres. Yet its coming into this role of preeminence was not sudden, and many and varied factors contributed to it.
Aside from some manifestations of popular contrasti such as “Rosa fresca aulentissima” (oh fresh and most fragrant rose) by Ciullo d’Alcamo, which exploits the eternal theme of the lover who tries to prevail over the ever weaker protestations of the damsel with whom he has fallen in love—the girl finally consenting and exhorting her lover with an explicit “a lo letto ne gimo, alla bon’ora!” (It’s time to go to bed!)—or the secular divertissements provided by itinerant minstrels, university students, and occasional comedians, the European theater of the Middle Ages had been essentially a religious one. Later, this type of theater gradually acquired a more literary and professional quality, especially in Florence, where, from the late fourteenth century to the second half of the fifteenth century, the sacra rappresentazione began to be written out and performed by famous troupes, such as the Compagnia del Vangelista, while at the same time incorporating increasingly elaborate forms of staging and choreography.
With the advent of humanism and the rediscovery of the classical past, the fifteenth century began to see also the rebirth of erudite imitative creations, especially in the manner of Terence and Plautus.
In January, 1486, the erudite vernacular drama was born. On the occasion of a visit by the duke of Mantua to his future bride, Isabella d’Este, the duke of Ferrara ordered a memorable performance of Plautus’s Menchmi. Its success prompted many fifteenth century poets to try their hand at playwriting, and among the earliest examples of original secular plays written in the vernacular are a play in verse by Matteo Maria Boiardo, Timone (c. 1492), written in terza rima and translated from a dialogue by Lucian; Cefalo (1487), by Niccolò da Correggio; and the enormously more important Orfeo (pr. c. 1480; English translation, 1879), by...
(The entire section is 941 words.)