Carlo Gozzi was a member of the aristocrat-burgher class of eighteenth century Venice, the sixth of eleven children born to Jacopo Antonio Gozzi and Angela Tiepolo. Although Gozzi was not of the patrician class and therefore unable to be directly involved in governing the Venetian republic, he shared the traditional values of the upper classes and championed the conservative view in all areas, especially the theater.
Gozzi’s involvement with the theater began early when he and his brothers and sisters performed improvised plays at their summer home for the local, rustic audience. Apparently, Gozzi’s attitude toward theater audiences was influenced in part by these activities. He held a low opinion of those who attended the theater in Venice, believing that they did not represent the higher stations or qualities of Venetian life. Some critics contend that Gozzi, therefore, chose the fairy tale, or fiabe, as the basis for his plays because that was the type of puerile story the Venetian audiences could best understand and appreciate.
Gozzi had just begun a formal education when a stroke paralyzed his father, aggravating the family’s already shaky financial situation and ending his formal schooling. He studied intermittently with several priests after that, but most of his education came from his own efforts and his insatiable appetite for reading. Gozzi remained, however, basically an uneducated man, a fact that critics point out is evident in his plays, in which coarse language, improper grammar, and a varying use of dialect often appear.
Family financial problems also forced Gozzi, at seventeen, to leave home for Dalmatia and a military secretarial position with the Venetian forces occupying that country. Disdaining the bawdy and licentious life his comrades led, Gozzi immersed himself in Italian literature. He also became a poet of some repute after reading a sonnet in praise of peace at a celebration for the governor general in Zara. Gozzi became even better known for his participation in the plays that were put on periodically for the governor general; he played the soubrette, the intriguing, outgoing female servant, a rendition that he claims in his memoirs was called “the wittiest and most humourous soubrette who ever trod the boards of a theatre.” The improvisational aspects of the role attracted Gozzi. His memoirs reveal that he realized that the characters, whether Gozzi acted the parts or wrote them, provided an outlet for the emotionless, reclusive count, and he directed much of his energy toward their creation in his plays.
When Gozzi returned from service in Dalmatia, he was personally in debt and his family’s affairs were in a state of collapse. Unwillingly, he stepped in to try to salvage what was left of the family’s possessions and honor because his elder brother, Gasparo, had relinquished all such matters to his wife’s inexperienced hands while he wrote plays, most of them unsuccessful. This period in Gozzi’s life was not, however, without effect on his ideas about the theater. During this time of family quarrels and bitterness, Gasparo translated the French comedy Esop at the Court for presentation in Venice. The production was successful, and a sequel entitled Esop in the Town followed. To the latter, however, Gasparo added a scene that satirized and scolded Carlo and two other brothers for their meddling in family financial matters. Although not as successful as the first Esop production, the sequel helped introduce Carlo to the idea of satirizing contemporary figures, attitudes, and events in the drama, something that became a central device in his plays. After Gozzi’s father’s death in 1745, litigation over family finances lasted eighteen years; Gozzi ultimately received some parcels of land that provided him a small income and allowed him to devote more time to literary pursuits....
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