Commedia dell'Arte

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Anya Peterson Royce (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Royce, Anya Peterson. “The Venetian Commedia: Actors and Masques in the Development of the Commedia Dell'Arte.” Theatre Survey 27, nos. 1-2 (1986): 69-87.

[In the following essay, Peterson Royce traces the origins of the commedia dell'arte to popular street entertainment in Venice.]

The commedia dell'arte, which spanned three centuries from the sixteenth to the beginning of the nineteenth and nationalities as diverse as Italian, French, Austrian, Polish, and English, went through a number of metamorphoses before it attained the form we now associate with it. Very briefly, that form is based on stock characters (Arlecchino, Pantalone, Il Dottore, Pedrolino or Pierrot, etc.), improvisation around standard plots, and the use of masks. In Italy, this kind of commedia was established by the end of the sixteenth century. In this paper, I would like to explore the developments that led to this form, concentrating especially on the convention of maschere (stock characters) as it appeared early in sixteenth century Venice and the Veneto. I concentrate on Venice because it is there that these maschere first developed and were then elaborated into the kind of characterization that becomes the defining feature of the commedia dell'arte.


By the beginning of the 15th century, popular entertainment in Venice was sufficiently widespread that we find decrees promulgated by the Council of Ten setting out penalties for presenting commedia without a license. Later in the century, things had reached such a pass that we find the Council of Ten forced to prohibit “ai Ciarlitoni e Salta inbanco, di cui allora era infestrata Venezia do recitare commedie nella Piazza, o in altri luoghi della citta” [“charlatans and saltimbanques who infested Venice from reciting comedy in the Piazza or in other places in the city”] (Marciana, dal cod. It. VII. 1412 (9300): 264-65). What was the attraction of Venice for players and groups of commedia actors? In 1574 Henry III of France described Venice as the most remarkable and the richest city in the world. Venice had come to her great power as a result of her mastery of the seas and the commerce that flowed from it. Her power was certainly diminished in the international sphere by the end of the fifteenth century with the rise of what McNeill calls gunpowder empires, that is, the Ottoman empire, Muscovy, and Spain united under Ferdinand and Isabella (88). However, her importance as a center of the arts, printing, and lavish festivals and entertainment continued and perhaps increased if we are to judge by her ability to export the arts, to attract aspiring artists and scholars, to build and finance theatres, and to mount the most sumptuous entertainments seen in either Europe or the Mediterranean.

As part of a strategy for integrating civic and religious forces and for maintaining harmony between the elite and the common people, Venice had evolved numerous civic rituals that symbolized Venice's status as a republic (see Muir). These involved processions, allegorical trionfi, masquerades, regattas, solemn masses, all interspersed with performances by the precursors of the commedia artists. Sometimes these performances were improvised; sometimes they were commissioned by the associations of noble youths called the compagnie della calza because of the identifying stockings that they wore. Licensed merriment characterized the celebrations of the feast of San Marco, Ascension Day, the election of a Doge or Procurator, and other holidays so long as they did not fall in Lent. But perhaps the greatest outburst of these activities occurred during Carnival, from December 26, St. Stephen's Day, to the beginning of Lent (Molmenti, Part III, I, 143). The populace was officially permitted...

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to don masks during this period, as it was during the holidays mentioned above. “Young and old, noble and plebian, rich and poor, all indiscriminately donned the mask, under cover of which they carry on their intrigues, and which was, so to speak, a symbol of the lost equality of all Venetian citizens, every rank of life fraternizing behind the quaint and bizarre disguises” (Molmenti, Part III, I, 143). Thebauta was the most popular of the masks, perhaps because it was so effective a disguise: it consisted of a tricorne hat on top of a hood which in turn was draped outside a black velvet or silk cloak. The face was covered by a white mask. As the century progressed, masks other than the bauta became quite common, especially as itinerant players flocked to the city to take advantage of the orgy of spending and entertainment that was the hallmark of Carnival. These masks included the Magnifico and the Zanni,1 later to develop into Pantalone and various comic figures such as Arlecchino, Brighella, Scapino, Trivelino, etc.

Masquerades and comedies were to be seen year-round. Outside of Carnival and the other designated holidays, these were often not public but occurred in private homes at banquets, weddings, and other private occasions. The organizing forces behind many of these private entertainments were the compagnie della calza. The first recorded instance of such an entertainment was in 1442 for the wedding of Jacopo Foscari (Meneghetti 7).

While the compagnie mounted dances, festivals, serenades, boat races, and so forth, what they specialized in were Momarie or Mimarie, a kind of Triumph. Most of the time the subject was allegorical, though sometimes it was panegyrical. These Triumphs included dance, recitation of poetry, a procession of triumphal cars, music, buffoons dressed in different costumes, all of which combined mime and spoken words to make up the Momaria.2

The favorites in these private entertainments were the buffoons,3 especially Domenico Taiacalze and Zuan Polo Liompardi. The entertainment they provided, while not commedia plays as they later developed, already had certain elements that were important. Zuan Polo, for example, was a master of dialect and dialect humor. In the famous performance he gave between the acts of Miles Gloriosus in 1515, he incorporated Bergamasque, Dalmatian, Greek, Albanian, and, of course, Venetian. Under the pseudonym of Ivan Paulovicchio (Paulovic) of Ragusa, he wrote Il Testamento di Zuan Polo, much of it in Dalmatian (Padoan 57-57). Mime, lazzi or comic business, and song were established parts of Zuan Polo's repertoire. Zuan Polo's son, Cimador, together with his contemporaries Angelo Beolco (1502-42) and Andrea Calmo (1510-1570), carried the commedia further in its evolution and established the commedia buffonesca. In an intermezzo performed by Cimador and described by Aretino,4 we can see the skeleton of a commedia play in the situation involving the crude but sly porter from Bergamo, the old husband and the young wife.

This formula takes on still other ramifications in the work of Angelo Beolco (Il Ruzzante). Beolco was the illegitimate son of a “doctor of arts and medicine” and was raised by his father in a circle that included the university and the social elite. He began writing at a young age and became the head of a troupe of players who regularly were invited by various compagnie to provide entertainment. Marin Sanudo, in his diaries, records many of these instances between 1520 and 1526. In 1525, Beolco became attached to the household of Alvise Corner, a wealthy Venetian who had been denied a place in the ranks of the Venetian patricians and had settled in Padua (Logan 104). Beolco's plays, accordingly, are a celebration of Paduan nationalism and a condemnation of the evils of Venice. He himself played Ruzzante, the rustic from Padua who in various guises outwits the rakish soldier from Bergamo and the old roué from Venice.

While Beolco's sympathies clearly lie with the rustic, his intimacy with both the elite and the vulgar language and theatrical forms is what makes his contribution to theatre so important. His first play, La Pastoral, written between 1518 and 1520, is a masterpiece of contrast. It incorporates the form and language of the pastoral eclogue represented by the shepherds who speak Tuscan and articulate lofty thoughts. It introduces the rustic Ruzzante and his companion Zilio whose rather more mundane thoughts are expressed in a theatricalized and caricatured Pavano dialect. Finally, it includes the incipient commedia clown in the form of the Bergamasque doctor and his servant Bertuolo. While Ruzzante and the doctor both speak dialect, they are separated by the former's continual down-to-earth presentation of the real world and the latter's clearly theatrical imagery (see Dersofi and Baratto).

The contrast between the rustic from the Veneto, first from Padua then from Bergamo, and the urbane Venetian is one of the cornerstones of the commedia dell'arte. In the work of Beolco, Padua is clearly the locus of all good, most notably of the hardworking, honest peasant who makes up in virtue for what he lacks in intelligence. Venice, by contrast, is the site of vice, decadence, the greedy merchant class, and the unfeeling nobility. How is it that Beolco was so popular with the Venetian compagnie? We may deduce from the existence of two different prologues to his play La Betia, one for performances in Venice and the other for performances in Padua, that Beolco was not above catering to the tastes of diverse audiences.

It is also important to remember that, with the exception of advisors, the composition of the compagnie was youthful. Many of these noble youths chafed under the domination of elders who controlled the family fortunes, and they were certainly not above taking satisfaction in seeing those elders portrayed in unflattering ways. The particular form of the elders' vices and weaknesses is a clear indication of where the friction lay between old and young. Magnifico is portrayed as being rich but miserly, holding on to his money and forcing his offspring to live at his mercy. And, moving from money to love, closely related in these plays, Magnifico either falls in love himself with a much younger woman or wants to marry off his daughter or ward to a much older man for the profit. In either case, he stands in the way of the younger man's passion.

But if the most important character in the plays of Beolco was Ruzzante, the rustic, it was in the work of Andrea Calmo that we find the prototype of Il Magnifico, the representative of the upper classes of Venice. The title, Magnifico, was granted to the members of the patrician class and predated the use of “Excellency.” This proto-Pantalone appears first in the 1549 work of Calmo, La Spagnolas, in the character of M. Zurloto. In the first act of the play, Zurloto enlists the aid of Rosato, a peasant, to act as go-between between him and the young object of his affections. In this play, too, is the precursor of the Spanish Captain later made famous by Francesco Andreini in the form of Capitano Spavento del Vall'Inferno. Here the character is an Albanian or Greek mercenary, terrible in words and cowardly in deeds. He was probably played by Antonio da Molin, Il Burchiella, a Venetian and a friend of Calmo. Burchiella would have been quite capable of carrying on the dialogue in the mixture of Greek and Italian in which it is written since he himself composed poetry in Greek.

In the dialogue between Zurloto and Rosato, Calmo accentuates the urban-rural dichotomy by the use of different dialects. But youth and old age is another important contrast especially as the old Zurloto engages the young and attractive Rosato to be his messenger. The exchange is, in fact, remarkably similar to that between a Magnifico and a zanni that exists as a dialogue without date or author in the Biblioteca Nazionale of Florence, though this dialogue uses Venetian and Bergamasque dialects.5

A summary of the kinds of theatrical offerings to be seen in Venice and its environs up to the first part of the sixteenth century would include the momarie, mystery plays, farces, Latin drama in both the original and translation, commedie buffonesche, dialogues such as the one cited above, and mariazi. These were presented in such public spaces as piazzas and churches, and in private homes, palaces, and monasteries. Often the sets were surprisingly sophisticated. The great artists of the day were commissioned to design them as well as costumes and machines. When the Sempiterni, one of the compagnie della calza, gave a performance of Aretino's Taranta at a private home on the Cannareggio, they employed Vasari and two of his friends to do the sets. “Vasari and his companions arranged two tiers of wooden seats for the ladies and painted the sides with allegorical subjects, deities, landscapes, rivers, … round the ceiling they ran a cornice with globes of distilled water, behind which were placed lights that lit the whole chamber” (Molmenti, Part II, II,23).

The first public theatre was built in 1565 by Vasa Palladio on a commission from the Accesi, another compagnie della calza. The building was in all likelihood modeled on a Roman theatre. Palladio used the Venetian model later in the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. In that theatre,

the thirteen tiers of seats, in an ellipse, were surmounted by a row of twenty-eight Corinthian columns, carrying a loggia and a balustrade. … below the spectators, in the semi-ellipse, was the orchestra, and in front rose the permanent scene. … As is usual at the opening of the Seicento, the scene, which represented the streets of Thebes, was in full relief, and the houses of the streets, given in admirable perspective, were in immediate contact with the curtain of the background, which could be shifted by machinery as required.

(Molmenti, Part II, II, 23-24).

Shortly after Palladio built his theatre in the courtyard of the Carità, a second permanent theatre was constructed in the Corte Michiela at San Cassiano.6 From its beginning this was a theatre for commedia and, in fact, gave its name to a nearby street called della Commedia vecchia. Because another theatre was built in the same locale in the eighteenth century, this first theatre is referred to as the Teatro vecchio di San Cassiano.

Theatres in Venice multiplied so rapidly that by the end of the 1600s there were eighteen, some playing commedia, some music, some melodrama, some presenting a variety of entertainments. At any given time six or eight would be open and competing for audiences. Monsieur de Vaumorière, a French traveler, who was in Venice in 1690 or 1691, describes the offerings of eight theatres all open at the same time. Two were presenting commedia and six opera. The former were the San Moisè and the San Samuele. De Vaumorière also gives us a glimpse of the kind of commedia being performed: “The comedies are not very different from those of the Italians in Paris. As characters, there is always a Arlecchino, a Dottore, a Pantalone, etc., and the pieces themselves are simply farces and buffooneries without order. They are much freer with words than they are in France” (ms. Museo Correr Cicogna 3282). He goes on to say that the pieces change daily, that the young female players were clever and charming, and that the Arlequins and the Pantaloons could not be matched in their agility and suppleness. He also describes both theatres. The smaller, the San Moisè, had only two tiers of loges. The San Samuele, however, had six tiers with thirty-five loges in each tier. In the next century, the San Samuele became the site of the most famous commedia troupes of the day, Antonio Sacco's Compagnia de Comici and that of Carlo Goldoni.

Most of the theatres were owned by members of the Venetian nobility: the San Cassiano (1637) by the Tron; San Moisè (1639) by the Giustinian; San Fantino (1699) by the Michieli; San Salvatore (1622) by the Vendramin; San Giovani e Paolo (1639), San Giovanni Grisostomo (1678) and San Samuele (1655) by the Grimani; San Benedetto (?) by the Venier. Owning theatres for Venetian nobility was both a symbol of status and a money-making proposition. In fact, there is some evidence that the latter was far the most important consideration in that theatres that ceased making profits were sold or turned into warehouses. Theatres were treated in the same way as any other of a family's ventures. The Vendramin family papers, for example, are full of contracts for builders working on the San Salvatore, chits for repairs or items like candles, contracts with players and companies who performed there, and lawsuits against players who broke their contracts. There is a contract dated April 2, 1622, for example, between the Vendramin brothers and the Comici Accesi. It obligates the company to perform commedia throughout Carnival until the end of February. The pay was to be 300 Venetian ducats. If any player failed to appear for a performance or in other ways failed to honor the contract, he or she would be fined 200 scudi, half the fine to go to the company, the other half to the Vendramins. The players signed the contract with both their given names and their stage names (Casa Goldoni, Fondo Vendramin, busta 62, 42F, 16/4).7

The relations between the great Venetian families and the players were intimate and the imbalances thus greatly affected the development of the commedia dell'arte. It is useful to look at these relations over time. In the fifteenth century, there were three kinds of entertainers who would eventually feed into the commedia: (1) traveling players, saltimbanchi, jugglers, ropewalkers, acrobats, etc., who moved from place to place and free-lanced; (2) individual players who were engaged by the Compagnie della calza or by some member of the nobility to perform for a private occasion; (3) members of the compagnie who themselves took part in compagnie-sponsored performances. The security enjoyed by these performers ranged from very little for the first group to a great deal for the third group because they were wealthy amateurs who did not have to earn a living at performing. The middle group, while needing their wits and talents to make their way, did better than the itinerant players because they were good enough and well-known enough to be in demand. This group included such individuals as Zuan Polo, Domenico Taiacalze, Antonio da Molin detto Il Burchiella, and Cimador. Because there was competition among patrons for the services of such stars, they were assured of a reasonably secure living. But, however devoted to the arts Venice was, a living was not to be had by everyone who wanted one. This led to a nomadic life for many, consisting of travel throughout Italy and into Bavaria and Poland. Occasionally, the good players would join forces and perform together. But a number of factors mitigated against the formation of permanent companies at this time: the absence of theatres; the offers of short-term employment to individual players; and the rudimentary form of the commedia. The latter circumstance was important. The popular dialogues between Zanni and Magnifico, the buffoonery and acrobatics, and the various kinds of farces and intermezzi, all required very few actors, and when more were called for, the presentation could be got up with very little in the way of rehearsal.


Leaving for the moment the Venetian setting, let me turn to the convention of maschera, central to the structural development of the commedia dell'arte. In a 1982 article on irony in Gammer Gurton's Needle, Raymond Pentzell identifies the basis for one kind of irony as the contrast between maschera and role that allows the actor to stand back from the role and appeal to the audience on the basis of the familiar characteristics of his maschera. In the commedia dell'arte the maschera did that, in this process allowing ironic comment, but, perhaps more importantly, it provided audiences with a consistent figure so that they could follow elaborate and complicated plots presented in an improvised structure. In commedia at its height, we see three levels of relationships between the actors and the parts they play: [actor, maschera, and role.]

In this scheme, actor refers to the performing artist who has two personalities, the private and the public. In the latter, actors are seen through their work as interpreters. The former characterizes them in their off-stage lives.8

Maschera refers to the persona developed by an actor which is consistent across plays and across roles. A number of writers on the commedia and on comedy have talked about this kind of persona, though they have not necessarily used the same terminology. Allardyce Nicoll refers to it as a “cumulative personality” (122); Anthony Caputi writes: “characters in vulgar comedy are always rendered simply and boldly. … they are types, unmistakably defined by physical appearance and role” (176). Virginia Scott, writing about jeu and rôle in the Italian commedia in France between 1660 and 1688, uses rôle to speak of the same phenomenon as maschera:

Each performer constructed his own rôle, partly from tradition and partly from his own abilities and in response to the tastes of his particular audience. By and large the performer retained his rôle throughout his career and the rôle retained its characteristics. The result of this condition was the establishment of what Kenneth Burke calls a conventional form. … The rôle is not a dramatic character but a form. It consists of a set of behaviors demonstrating fixed responses to stimulae [sic]. The form of Dominique's Arlequin was as invariable as the form of an Italian sonnet or a James Bond thriller.


The final level is the part within a specific play, what Pentzell calls the “named, fictitious agent in the playscript” (208); this is what I have referred to as the rôle.

Let me provide some examples of how this structure works. In the contemporary world of mime, we have Marcel Marceau (actor), Bip (maschera), and Bip as a Lion Tamer (role). In the nineteenth century Jean-Gaspard Deburau (actor) fascinated Parisian audiences as Pierrot (maschera) in such pantomimes as Le Boeuf Enragé and Le Marchand d'Habits (roles). In the case of Deburau and Marceau, a further transformation of the structure occurs because there is so close an identification with the maschera on the part of the public that maschera becomes synonymous with person. Marcel Mauss speaks of masking and posits a kind of continuum that at the most removed or theatrical end includes mask and masquerade and the other, everyday end is characterized by the notion of person. Pierrot and Bip have sometimes been taken out of their theatrical context and made to fit the same category as it exists in the everyday world. They become the property of the public as much as of their creators and capable of stirring the deepest emotions, speaking as they did for the underdog (see Royce, Movement and Meaning). Similarily, Chaplin's tramp, while a maschera in the structure of the films, was a person in the minds of the public.

In the structure I have outlined, one may have only two levels, actor and role, rather than three. This is characteristic of the earliest precursors of commedia dell'arte, of later Neapolitan comedy, and of the Italo-French comedy of Gherardi (late seventeenth century). An example of the first is Angelo Beolco and his character Ruzzante. Ruzzante was, in fact, Beolco, and that name superseded his own. Ruzzante changed, however, from play to play. He appears as a servant in L'Anconitana, the husband in La Moschetta, the village lover in La Fiorina, and a cowardly recruit in Primo Dialogo (Lea 235). Lacking all but the barest hints of consistency across roles in his lifetime, Ruzzante ceases to exist at Beolco's death. What one sees here is a structure in which the actor's public personality (Ruzzante) has become his private personality as well and where that public personality plays different roles without ever developing a consistent maschera.

Neapolitan comedy developed maschere only where it was influenced by or exported to Venetian and Tuscan theatre. The motto of early Neapolitan comedy seemed to have been anything for a laugh. Looking at two of the more famous characters to come from Naples, Coviello and Pulcinella, we can instantly see the difference between a tradition which has a developed maschera and one which does not. In Naples, Coviello appears as various social types: a father, merchant, doctor, servant, innkeeper, and captain. Yet in playing these various types, the actor playing Coviello presents no persistent or underlying characteristics. “In this uncertainty resides one of the signs of the commedia dell'arte's degeneration; what presents itself here is not a character [maschera], such as Pantalone, interpreted by diverse actors, but a part in which the actor's skill becomes of more significance than the part he plays” (Nicoll 62). Nicoll elaborates: “We must imagine a stage character quite distinct in essence from such persons as Pantalone and the Dottore, which permitted an actor to appear in various costumes, now as an intriguing servant, now as a braggadoccio, now as an elderly gentleman—and such procedure ultimately spelt death for the commedia dell'arte” (65).

Another of the early Neapolitan creations was Pulcinella.

Like all the characters created in Naples, he makes his entries not in one set role or position but in dozens. His commonest business is that of a servant, but he is also at times a peasant, a baker, a slavemerchant, an innkeeper, a painter, even the head of a household and a lover … the Neapolitan audiences were not interested in his character; rather they delighted in listening to the gross blunderings and crude comparisons uttered in a variety of circumstances, and never worried although one day Pulcinella came forward as a cowardly credulous fool and the next as a bold, vicious and successful rogue.

(Nicoll 87)

Coviello appears in a collection of scenari from the Veneto dating probably to the late seventeenth century. In the Museo Correr collection, Coviello consistently plays the role of the father along with the two other most frequent father-types, il Magnifico and il Dottore. In both dialogue and comic action, this Coviello creates a definite personality over the 51 scenarii. While the name is Neapolitan, the consistency of character is found at this point only in the Veneto and in Tuscany.9

So much for maschera as a convention that created a character consistent across plays and as a structure for irony. Maschera also serves to create distance, one of the essential features of vulgar comedy and farce as well as of the commedia. The maschera is a simple, bold characterization with few of the complexities that are part of its human counterpart. The maschere stand for the doddering old husbands, scheming fathers, wily servants, young lovers, all of whom are commonplace but more complex in the real world. As Caputi describes the relationship between maschere and human beings:

They are not without human interest: they are in love, they are vengeful, they are avaricious, they hunger, they lust, and they feel pain when they are beaten. But these traits are typically simplified and exaggerated so that we see virtually nothing of the complexity which usually accompanies them in human beings. The characters always retain a strange abstractness, “strange” because, though they move in a concrete, commonplace world and reflect commonplace needs, they are always notably reduced as human figures. This prompts the beholder to view the total image as if at a distance, prompts him to adjust to the whole, to focus the whole, as he has focused the characters.


But the maschere also facilitate the audience's acceptance of otherwise unacceptable levels of violence. In a book on Feydeau and the aesthetics of farce, Stuart Baker comments on Eric Bentley's observation that violence in farce is abstract thus robbing it of its consequences. Baker notes that

Farce characters are enormously resilient; they are always bouncing back from situations that would destroy real people. … The pleasure they give the audience is not derived from the enjoyment of the suffering of others, but lies in the freedom from pain and defiance of fear that laughter provides. It is not a quibble to say that this laughter is pitiless but not cruel. Farce may still be too strong for some, not because it asks them to feel aggressive or hostile emotions, but because of the feelings of pity and compassion it asks them not to feel.


The commedia dell'arte, throughout its history, is filled with mayhem and violence. Robert Storey describes the Pierrot of Deburau as an

expert in humiliations, in bizarre mutilations, in acts of castrating terror. In Les Epreuves he cuts off Arlequin's head (three times), shoots him, then saws him in two. He fires a candle into the eye of a sapper (Les Epreuves), a carrot into the chest of a cannoneer (Souffre-douleur). He ties old men's wigs together and sets them alight (Les Epreuves), gives a blind man billsticker's paste to drink (La Sorcière, ou le Démon protecteur), steals the crutches from the bed of a cripple (Le Songe d'or), humiliates a dandified hunchback (La Sorcière …); once, in swatting at a coy butterfly, he murders a sleeping child (La Sorcière …).


In earlier Italian commedia, Harlequin and Pulcinella were usually the instigators of violence. But whoever indulged in the mayhem, it was acceptable to audiences because of the distancing created in large part by the use of maschere.


Maschera developed as the central principle of the commedia at the same time as the professional actor emerged in companies. Professional actors organized into troupes begin to make their appearance in the middle of the sixteenth century. According to Lea, the first regular company for which we have evidence was a group of eight actors who came together in 1545 under the leadership of Maphio dei Re, detto Zanini, to play comedy for six months on the road. The compact was renewed several times although the individual members changed. The last notice we have of Maphio is in 1553 when he was killed in a brawl with a Bolognese horse-tamer. We can conclude that he made only a marginal living since his twelve-year-old daughter, who survived him, was described as pauperrima (Lea 1,256).

The earliest company with defined roles and a long period of activity is the Gelosi, who toured Italy and France from 1568 until 1604. The Gelosi was not alone for very long: it was soon joined by the Confidenti (1572), the Uniti (1578), the Desiosi (1581), the Diana (1585), and the Accesi (1590). Indeed, the second half of the sixteenth century was remarkable for the florescence of the great touring companies devoted to the commedia dell'arte. Lea describes the period from 1560 to 1620 as a period of adjustment. The companies were dependent upon the patronage of the nobility, and it was they whose tastes were served rather than those of anonymous crowds who comprised the theatre audiences. In these circumstances theatres were often inadequate to accommodate the audience attracted by a particular company. The Gelosi complained in 1572 that the stanze in Genova would hold only 150 gentlemen (Lea 1,304). Given this dependence upon the whims of a few noble patrons, in any event, players depended for their success and their pensions on not only their charm and talent but also their ability to ingratiate themselves with patrons who often ignored them, threw them into prison, forgot to pay them, stole them from other patrons. It was a precarious existence and one that inevitably led to backbiting and bitter rivalries culminating not infrequently in violence. One of the most bitter rivalries that affected several of the companies in the last part of the sixteenth century was that between Pier Maria Cecchini (Fritellino) and Tristano Martinelli (Arlecchino). Both were originally with the Accesi, but the challenge of Cecchini's Fritellino to Martinelli's Arlecchino grew too much for any one company to contain both zanni. Their rivalry forced other players to take sides and the dissension affected the Confidenti, the Uniti, and the Fedeli. The archives are replete with letters from the two rivals and their supporters each attacking the other side and enlisting the support of patrons including the Duke of Mantua and Marie de Medici. Because it was difficult to keep a company intact for more than a few seasons, the quality of performance often dropped as evidenced by the disfavor into which several of the companies fell. In 1619, for example, members of the Accesi and Fedeli admit that they had lost all public favor “and were as needy as ‘Pantaloni in gibbone’” (Lea 1,287). Cecchini at one point had so diminished a company that he was forced to play four roles himself: the Magnifico, Dottore, Fritellino, and a Florentine named Pipe.

Yet difficult though the factionalism was, players made better livings in companies than they did as individual performers. They had longer seasons, better theatres, and better contracts. Companies had large and varied repertoires, costumes, props and sometimes sets. The players in them were used to working together and, in a system stressing improvisation, this kind of harmony of action produced much better performances. An individual player, no matter how good, simply could not compete with the resources of the companies.

The rise of more or less permanent associations of players who had patrons and theatres in which to perform gradually led to changes in the structure of the commedia. Most important among the changes was the development of character from generics to maschere. By generics I mean roles like Magnifico and zanni who stand, respectively, for the wealthy, older, urban merchant and the impoverished, younger peasant. As I have already indicated, these types were the backbone of the farcical dialogues and the commedia buffonesca of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. While the sociological status was well-defined and unvarying from dialogue to dialogue and play to play, the particulars of the role did vary. Using the scheme I set out earlier in the discussion of the relationship between actors and roles, we see that these generics in early commedia were presented by actors playing roles.

The formation of the middle level or maschera occurred at the end of the sixteenth century in the context of the companies. This important development can be explained by reference to several factors, one of which was intrinsic to the genre and the others extrinsic. Intrinsic to the commedia dell'arte is the notion of improvisation. The extent to which these plays were improvised varied from company to company and author to author but some portions were always left to the devices of the actors. Any improvised form that involves more than two persons has to have certain conventions of the genre so that actors can find their way through a performance in a coordinated fashion and in such a way as to communicate clearly to an audience. Structured characters with clearly defined traits was one crucial convention. Lazzi formed another.

In the 51 scenari that comprise the Museo Correr Codex 1040, we find lazzi or bits of comic action appearing in form and in usage in ways associated with the developed commedia. In the early farces and entertainments of a Zuan Polo, lazzi were acrobatic feats designed to draw the attention of audiences. They were episodic and improvised on the spot. In the scenari of the Correr, the lazzi are much more carefully structured, both in themselves and in the part they play in the plot. Evidence for the more or less fixed structure of the lazzi is met in the fact that many are named (thirteen) and appear always in the same context10: lazzi di paura, di notte, di correre, di spiritati, di ammazar, etc. Some of these—lazzi di notte and di ammazarsi—are quite elaborate and fill whole scenes. Later, Perrucci and Adriani give us texts of lazzi and those named in the Correr collection reappear.

Lazzi also fit into the overall structure of the play in prescribed ways. The Correr lazzi fall into four categories: (1) lazzi of bargaining, often between Zanni and Magnifico; these delay the action but are still part of the play. They are usually referred to in later developments or otherwise have some effect on future action; (2) lazzi of affectionate coaxing or bantering; these occur often between Zanni and Argentina and echo the love scenes between the high characters; (3) lazzi that focus the audience's attention on something, as in, for example, con lazzi mostrar la lettera (with lazzi, show the letter) or con lazzi da il denaro (with lazzi give the money). These are usually important to insure that the audience not miss something crucial to the progress of the plot because of wandering attention; (4) lazzi that make fun of someone, usually Zanni making fun of Magnifico. In fact, it is only Zanni or other servants who are allowed this freedom. It is the license granted to the underdog.

Extrinsic factors are several. One has to do with the existence of professional companies. In these companies, there were sufficient players so that each could develop one role instead of having to play multiple roles because one worked alone or in pairs. Again, the Correr material supports this association of maschere with individual actors. The maschere of any company fell into four categories: high male characters, high female characters, low male characters, and low female characters. Out of these categories characters sort themselves into three groups: the higher male types represented by Magnifico and Dottore; the Lovers, who form a group rather insulated from the others although they are acted upon by both groups; the lower characters like Zanni and his female counterpart. Players in any of the late sixteenth-century companies show the following patterns: two to three high females, four high males divided into two lovers and two older roles, two to three lower males or Zanni, and one female servant. Companies had to have eight or nine permanent members to fill out the parts in the scenari of their time. The pattern of names in the Correr scenari reflects this. Of the 81 named characters who appear, eight appear 21 times or more: Magnifico—50, Coviello—40, Zanni—35, Orazio—28, Capitano—22, Tartaglia—21, Argentina—49, and Flaminia—26. These present a consistency of character and of action throughout the 51 scenari. From scenario to scenario other names occur but with far less regularity. Because named maschere were often associated with only one or two players per generation, we can make a plausible argument for the association of many of the Correr maschere with players under contract to the Duke of Modena in the latter quarter of the seventeenth century.

A second instance of the external world impinging on the developing structure of the commedia had to do with the increasing complexity of the plots. Partly this was a result of stable companies and more players. The more elaborate plots required the stability of character provided by the maschere. But the elaboration of plot was also a response to the expectations of the increasingly sophisticated Venetian audience. With the proliferation of theatres audiences could expect a theatre season. It was no longer a case of crowds gathered in a piazza to watch saltimbanchi, ciarlatani, or any of the other itinerant performers. Because that kind of performance is fortuitous and one can pay or not as one wishes, one cannot demand much in the way of polished performance and complex ideas. Those performances fall in the category of passing entertainment. It is a different matter to pay money to go to a theatre. Both theatre-owners and theatre-goers expected something for their money. This expectation is reasonable for theatre audiences in general. It is true, however, that the demand for elaborate plots was greater in Venice than elsewhere and is related to the greater theatrical sophistication of the Venetians. Simple farces that highlighted a player's acrobatic or verbal dexterity rather than plot or character were the common fare in Naples well into the time of the complex scenari in Venice and Tuscany.

Thirdly, we must consider the fact that players had to make a living. Practically speaking, players were successful to the extent that they developed a maschera that was attractive to patrons and audiences. For many of them, the public and private personalities merged. They routinely signed themselves with the name of their maschera. Tristano Martinelli (1553-1630), director of the Accesi and favorite of Henry IV of France, began signing himself as Arlechinus and eventually adopted Dominus Arlechinorum. Patrons fed this kind of identification by competing with each other for the best of the maschere. Henry III, when he was arranging for a company to visit France, demanded the “wonderful Magnifico” whom he had seen on a visit to Venice. This was Giulio Pasquati, the Magnifico who appeared with the Gelosi at the Fondaco dei Turchi in Venice in 1574. Any performer has to confront the ephemeral nature of performance. Commedia actors were no different. They appealed to patrons only as long as they performed well and were forgotten or worse when they ceased to amuse. For this reason when we look at the careers of commedia players we see for many a series of maschere. Many began their careers as Lovers or Zanni and then changed to Captains or Magnificos as they grew older and lost their youthful looks or agility or both. Francesco Andreini (1550-1624) first made his name as Lelio with the Gelosi and subsequently created one of the greatest of the Captains, Capitano Spavento del Vall'Inferno. The important point here is that a well-established maschera was essential to the success of any commedia player.

Venice and the Veneto were the cradle of the commedia dell'arte, for it was there at the end of the sixteenth century that a fruitful mixture of intrinsic and extrinsic factors was fostered. The Venetian public was appreciative and sophisticated in its understanding of the arts. Venice was also one of the first centers to sustain theatres and touring companies. The differences between Venetian and Neapolitan commedia reflect the different cultural and economic status of the two cities. Long a center for publishing, Venice fostered a literature that included the commedia. In this context, the commedia grew beyond its early form of dialogue between sociological types—usually featuring an urban-rural, rich-poor, old-young contrast—interspersed with comic action and acrobatic tricks, and became a highly structured form presenting complicated plots and using the convention of maschere and lazzi. It was the kind of performance that we associate with yet another Venetian, Carlo Goldoni. Working back from the structure of the Goldoni commedia and the key convention of maschere to an early collection of scenari such as the Correr, we can document both the development of the form and the reasons for that development.11


  1. Evidence for the early appearance of these masks comes from a variety of sources. One of the more astute recorders of the Venetian scene was Tiepolo. His several canvases dating to 1765 show carnival scenes with Magnifico and Zanni. Two sources in the Museo Correr also show these masks: the raccolta Grevembroch depicts eighteenth-century dress while G. Franco's Habiti d'huomini et donne venetiane shows seventeenth-century costume. Secondary sources include Elena Povoledo's 1975 essay on the buffoon and the commedia dell'arte in the 16th century.

  2. Maria Teresa Muraro defines the Venetian momaria as a secular pantomime performance in which the movements of the actors were almost always regulated by music. A gesture language substituted for spoken explanation although the mimed action was preceded or followed by a song that explained its significance. The mime, alternating with dances, was often so close to dance that in some descriptions the two are confused (331).

  3. Elena Povoledo presents an interesting thesis about the different roles of the buffoons and the amateur actors. Early performances consisted of comic plays acted by the amateur actors interspersed with intermezzi done by the buffoons. When the first generation of buffoons began to age (Zuan Polo and contemporaries) and the second took its place, they decided to put on their own plays and not limit themselves to intermezzi. Some actors such as Burchiella, Dolce, and Armano quit the comedy and devoted themselves to the tragic theatre. The buffoons probably were associated initially with the lesser-known and less talented troupes like the Fraternali and the Compagnia del Maphio dei Re. At a later point, other comedian-authors joined forces with the buffoons and this was the beginning of the commedia dell'arte as a performative form.

  4. Aretino's description in his Sei Giornate (G. Aquilecchia, ed., Bari, 1969) is quoted in Padoan 58-59.

  5. In it the Magnifico tells Zanni he is dying of love for the fair young woman he has seen on the balcony and asks him to convey his desires to the woman in the form of a sonnet he has written. Zanni asks him four or five times if he has heard correctly—is he really in love? Then Zanni wants to know who the woman is, and there is more by-play as Magnifico tells him. More argument takes place when Zanni wants his scudo in advance, and finally the Magnifico relents and gives him the scudo and the sonnet. Zanni reads the sonnet and says that it was written by Petrarch. Magnifico denies it. Magnifico tells Zanni to tell the young woman that he is rich and a liberal spender. Zanni is incredulous but finally goes off on his errand. When Zanni returns, Magnifico tries to find out what his love said but Zanni launches into a long description of how kind she was to him giving him white bread and cheese to eat and promising a cake the next time he came. Magnifico finally demands to know what she had said about him and learns that Zanni forgot both his errand and the sonnet. In fact, he used the sonnet to wrap some fish.

  6. This theatre was constructed on property owned by Alvise Michiel in the quarter of Santa Croce in the parish of San Cassiano (see Mangini).

  7. By 1769, the Vendramins are even more meticulous in spelling out all the conditions as evidenced by their contract with Antonio Sacco and his company. In this contract dated August 28, 1769, Francesco Vendramin and his sons engage the services of Antonio Sacco and his company for a term of six years, ending with the end of Carnival 1776. During that time Sacco must produce comedies, tragicomedies, and tragedies according to his discretion and must not substitute any other company to fulfill his obligations. All artistic decisions are to be made by Sacco with the Vendramins promising to aid him in litigation against transgressing company members and to provide the funds for restoration of the theatre. His pay was to be 1000 ducats and 500 correnti paid in two installments, the first at the beginning of the novena of San Natale and the other at the end of Carnival. The company was also given the proceeds from five boxes, a condition also specified in the contract. Given the nature of the Vendramins, one assumes that these specific boxes were chosen for the reason that they were less desirable. Although a year's notice was required to break the contract, the fact that Sacco signed another contract in 1780 would seem to indicate that he was treated adequately (Casa Goldoni, Fondo Vendramin, busta 62, 42F, 16/10).

  8. For some actors, public and private become difficult to untangle. I think that a public personality develops early in a career as a way of drawing attention to oneself. Once one is established, it becomes less important especially as it constrains what one can do but by this point the public expects, even demands, it. Unlike some performers, Marceau seems to handle the situation very well, although I suspect the identification with his maschera and public personality is very strong. He signs his letters with both Marcel and Bip and adds the flower which is Bip's symbol.

  9. In the Italo-French comedy of Gherardi's day (significantly, after Domenico Biancolelli's death), the original device of having a stock character disguise himself as someone else but with this ploy clearly known to the audience changes to having the character become someone else. As Nicoll puts it, “in such a play as Esope (1691), … Harlequin does not dress up as Aesop, he is Aesop, just as in Arlequin Phaeton (1692), he is Phaeton, Octave is Apollo and Mezzetin Momus” (183). In fact, in Esope, the Aesop/Arlequin character is the typical older, grasping father with a young attractive daughter (Colombine) whom he wishes to marry off to his own advantage rather than in accord with her desires. In the standard commedia plot, Pantalone is the father, Colombine and Harlequin are lovers or conspirators who help the lovers. They represent two different levels essential to the structure of the plot. If, on rare occasions in the standard form, Harlequin plays a father, it is clearly in disguise and for some devious purpose.

  10. The discussion of lazzi is based on work done by my research assistant, Donatella Schmidt, who has been working systematically through the 51 scenari of the Correr codex 1040.

  11. Archival research in Venice was made possible by a fellowship from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. Preparing a version of the paper for presentation to a group of colleagues and responding to their questions clarified a number of issues. Other colleagues at Indiana University shared their special areas of expertise. Those to whom I am grateful include Marvin Carlson, M. Jeanne Peterson, Henry H. Remak, and Samuel N. Rosenberg. My research assistant, Donatella Schmidt, provided invaluable aid in interpreting the Correr material and the Adriani manuscript. The mysteries of yet another set of archives were clarified by the kind staffs of the Museo Correr, the Casa Goldoni, and the Archivio Marciana. My thanks as always to my husband, Ronald R. Royce, who shared the research and offered fruitful ways of looking at the problem.

Works Cited

Published Sources:

Baker, Stuart. Georges Feydeau and the Aesthetics of Farce. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981.

Barratto, Mario. Tre Studi sul Teatro. Venice: Neri Pozza Editrice, 1964.

Caputi, Anthony. Buffo. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1978.

Dersofi, Nancy. Arcadia and the Stage. Studia Humanitatis, vol. 14. Madrid: Ediciones José Porrúa Turanzas, S.A., 1978.

Lea, Kathleen M. Italian Popular Comedy, 2 volumes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934.

Logan, Oliver. Culture and Society in Venice 1470-1790. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1972.

Mangini, Nicola. I Teatri di Venezia. Milan: U. Murisa editore, 1974.

McNeill, William H. Venice: The Hinge of Europe 1081-1797. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Meneghetti, Gildo. La Bulesca, commedia cinquecentesca inedita. Venice: Stamperia Editrice Gia Zanetti, 1952.

Molmenti, Pompeo. Venice, its individual growth from the earliest beginnings to the fall of the republic, 3 parts. Trans. by Horatio F. Brown. London: John Murray, 1906-08.

Muir, Edward. Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Muraro, Maria Teresa. “La Festa a Venezia e la sue Manifestazioni rappresentative: Le compagnie della calza e le momarie.” In Arnaldi, Girolamo and M. P. Stocchi, eds., Storia della cultura Veneta: Dal primo quatrrocento al concilio di Trento, v. 3, LLL. Vicenza: Neri Pozza Editore, 1981.

Nicoll, Allardyce. The World of Harlequin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Padoan, Giorgio. La Commedia Rinascsimentale Veneta. Vicenza: Neri Pozza Editore, 1982.

Pentzell, Raymond. “Actor, maschera and role: An approach to irony in performance.” Comparative Drama 16 (1982), 201-26.

Povoledo, Elena. “Le Bouffon et la commedia dell'arte dans la fête venétienne au XVIe siècle.” In Jacquot, Jean and E. Konigson, eds., Les Fêtes de la Renaissance, v.III. Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1975.

raccolta Grevembroch. Gli abiti de Veneziani di quasi ogni età con diligenza raccolti, e dipinti nel secolo XVIII, Venezia, Museo Correr cod. Gradenigo-Dolfin 49, 4 vols.

Royce, Anya Peterson. Movement and Meaning: Creativity and Interpretation in Ballet and Mime. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Ruzzante [Angelo Beolco]. Teatro. Text and notes by Ludovico Zorzi. Torino: Giuluo Einaudi, 1967.

Scott, Virginia. “The Jeu and the Rôle: Analysis of the Appeals of the Italian Comedy in France at the time of Arlequin-Dominique.” In Mayer, David and K. Richards, eds. Western Popular Theatre. London: Metheun and Co. Ltd., 1977.

Storey, Robert. “The Pantomime of Jean-Gaspard Deburau at the Théâtre des Funambules (1819-1846).” Theatre Survey 23 (1982), 1-29.

Manuscript Sources:

Correr, Cicogna Collection 3282, Lettres sur les carnavals de Venise par Monsieur de Vaumorière, 1691 or 1692. (Museo Correr, Venice). Codex 1040, collection of 51 scenari (Museo Correr, Venice).

Goldoni, Fondo Vendramin, busta 62, 42F, 16/4 and 16/10 (Casa Goldoni, Venice).

Marciana, cod. It. VII. 1412 (9300). (Archivio Marciana, Venice).

Kenneth Richards and Laura Richards (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Richards, Kenneth, and Laura Richards. “Antecedents” and “The Emergence of Professional Companies.” In Commedia dell'Arte: A Documentary History, pp. 11-19, 32-40. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, the critics give the early history of the commedia dell'arte, beginning with its limited connection to classical sources and its more likely origins in the popular entertainments of the Venetian Carnival.]


A number of very early comments on the commedia dell'arte, dating from the sixteenth century, assume a derivation at least from Roman times, but although they have the apparent advantage of being contemporaneous with the development of the drama itself, they nonetheless carry little real authority, since Renaissance writers were ever ready to find sanction for the interests and activities of their own age in supposed classical precedents. The precedents concerning the commedia dell'arte were rather tenous: certain general similarities perceived between the stage figures and comic business of the Italian Renaissance improvised drama and those of early Italian and Roman popular mime and comic entertainment.1

Not least of the problems involved in seeking to establish such classical derivation is the sheer elusiveness of this early popular theatre. Next to nothing has survived in the way of play text fragments or written records of the activities of these entertainers, and most of our knowledge is drawn from scenes depicted in extant fourth-century Italian vase paintings; these last, while fascinating and suggestive, are fraught with interpretative difficulties. Farcical parody of Greek tragic drama evidently flourished in Magna Graecia, performed by comic actors called phlyakes. These parodies appear to have included the antics of slaves and old men, and were concerned with the adventures of braggart hero-figures like Herakles.2 Devisers of Atellan farce took over elements of Doric theatre and parody of the myths of Attic drama in fashioning their own distinctive and local popular comedy which was widespread in Campania about the third century bc, and was the stock in trade of travelling mimes who set up their trestle stages in streets and market places.3 From Campania they appear to have migrated to Rome, their multiplicity of masks gradually coalescing into four characteristic masked types: Maccus, a gluttonous fool; Dossenus, a crafty hunchback; Bucco, a comic braggart; and Pappos, a ridiculous old man.

The temptation to link these four principal figures with what eighteenth-century and later commentators identified as the four principal masks of the commedia dell'arte—the two vecchi and the two zanni—has remained attractive to some modern scholars, and indeed a link with antique entertainment was made by late sixteenth-century observers, as the following indicates:

I would never number among plays those things peddled around by such miserable and mercenary creatures as call themselves Gianni of Bergamo, Francatrippa, Pantalone and similar buffoons, were we not able to liken them to Mimes, the Atellanae and the Planipedes of the ancients.4

This comment, however, merely perceives a general likeness, and significantly looks to classical precedent in order to give rather reluctant endorsement to the modern comedy. Luigi Riccoboni, in his Histoire du Théâtre Italien (1728), likewise remarked connections with early southern Italian farce and classical histriones, connections which seemed all the more plausible at the time he wrote as they appeared to be supported by recent archaeological discoveries at Herculaneum.5 Riccoboni was of course writing at the height of the neo-classical period, and was seeking too, in a sense, to give the weight of classical prestige to a theatre he himself still practised. His arguments were by no means jejune, and in discussing derivation he was alert to possible Renaissance as well as classical influences. Derivation from Roman comedy was assumed, too, by the highly influential nineteenth-century historian and recuperator of the commedia dell'arte, Maurice Sand, who probably followed Riccoboni in his Masques et Bouffons (1862), and the case has been given qualified support by several more recent commentators, including Allardyce Nicoll.6

Certainly some of the resemblances and correspondences identified between Atellan farce, later mime entertainment and the Italian improvised comedy are striking, and there are clearly similarities between them in costuming and masking. For those scholars disposed to make sharp distinctions between the literary and improvised drama, it has been tempting, too, to see the commedia erudita and the commedia dell'arte as the Renaissance equivalents of, respectively, the Roman literary togata and palliata, and the more plebeian entertainment provided by the atellanae and farsae.7 Unfortunately, however, the evidence for such similarities tends to be more general than particular, and the plausibility of the case is the more difficult to accept when so much concerning the characteristics of the Atellan popular theatre remains itself highly conjectural. Not least important in that regard is the problem of the possible connections between the work of such early entertainers and the later Latin scripted comedy. Readily available to at least some of the sixteenth-century professional players were of course the extant comedies of Plautus and Terence, which they could have encountered in printed texts or stage productions. The plays of Plautus in particular are decidedly performer-oriented, and provide numerous pointers to possibilities for actor improvisation on which the Renaissance professionals could, and quite certainly did, capitalize.

Difficulties are further compounded by certain similarities scholars have perceived between the figures of the improvised commedia dell'arte and those of the Turkish puppet theatre, the Karagöz, for which direct descent from classical times has similarly been claimed.8 Unfortunately the transmission of popular theatrical forms in the Near East is equally elusive. It may well be true that modes of both popular and more sophisticated performer entertainment migrated to Italy, and more particularly to Venice and its territories on the lower Adriatic, after the fall of Constantinople in 1543, and that the confluence of these and native Italian kinds helped to generate the improvised drama of the professionals. But the nature, extent and importance of the random and panic-induced cultural displacements from the old Roman empire in the East are virtually unchartable, and important sources of possible record in the Levant remain unexplored or inaccessible. So elusive are the tracks of classical popular theatre influence through the so-called Dark Ages, that modern scholarship on the commedia dell'arte has largely turned away from such enquiry. It cannot, though, simply be dismissed out of hand, and could well be re-opened in the future, although as yet no really persuasive, let alone unchallengeable, evidence has been adduced to establish a definite transmission of stage figures, costumes or comic strategies from the early Italian period, through the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, and on the whole current scholarly opinion considers the case not proven.

Somewhat more plausible, although no less problematic, are those arguments which have sought to link features of the commedia dell'arte to certain figures and practices of the late medieval theatre. Quite certainly much from the medieval period fed into, and helped to shape, the later organized professional drama, but, just as with the antique materials, most of it was by its nature ephemeral, unrecorded and often unrecordable. Again, the sheer richness and variety of medieval theatre defeats such speculation. Many elements of streets and piazza entertainment were taken into the religious drama, particularly the Florentine Sacra rappresentazione, of which there is a substantial body of extant scripted record, and professional entertainers played an increasingly active part in the preparation and performance of these spectacles. That the example of the religious drama was felt in the emergence and early development of the teatro d'arte need not be doubted: the agile and scheming comic devils, opinionated elderly counsellors and pompous military men found in the religious plays have something in common with the figures of the improvised commedia dell'arte. Indeed it would be very surprising if such a widespread and preeminently theatrical form, which levied heavily on the popular and folkloric, had not exercised influence on the later professional theatre, just as it did, however indirectly, on the work of the early cinquecento playwrights. Some of the staging techniques too of the Sacre rappresentazioni may well have been exploited by the improvising comedians, as they were by the scenic designers and machinists who mounted literary drama in the Renaissance court theatres.9 That there was some influence, then, can be accepted. But again, as with the supposed classical indebtednesses, correspondences between the character lineaments, plot functions and costuming of certain of the stage figures in the religious and the improvised drama tend to be general, rather than so particular that they show a very clear line of direct derivation.


As will be clear from the above, much investigation into the possible origins of certain features of the improvised commedia dell'arte has looked more particularly to the example of popular entertainment, and has sought, too, folkloric roots. Many suggestive general correspondences are traceable between the figures, and the stage and staging techniques of the improvised drama, and those of the itinerant entertainers of Carnival, fairs and market-places. Their entertainment, like that of the later organized professional companies, appears to have spanned all social levels, and their performance places, too, ranged from the streets and piazze to the halls of the well-to-do. They likewise performed at weddings, birthday celebrations and formal banquets. These peripatetic entertainers included masked mimes, clowns, instrumentalists, singers, dancers, rope-dancers, jugglers and acrobats. At street level their activities constituted the theatrical entertainment dimension of popular culture, a field comparatively little examined by theatre historians, first because it has apparently left only few and scattered traces, and second because theatre history has traditionally been concerned much more with the theatrical concerns of what the anthropologist Robert Redfield has usefully called the ‘great’ tradition: the culture of the educated elite as opposed to the ‘little’ tradition, which was that of the mass of the people.10 The ‘little’ tradition of pre- or early modern Europe is elusive: much of it was taken for granted, it has left comparatively few written records, and such reports as have come down invariably see it from the point of view of the educated. Popular theatrical entertainment is even more elusive than other popular cultural forms, for theatre is by its nature ephemeral. Further, its practitioners were very diverse, some were amateur, some quasi-professional, some wholly committed to earning what living they could by exercising their entertainer skills. The presence of popular theatrical entertainers in medieval and early modern society was ubiquitous, yet it is signally difficult to get any secure purchase on the nature and extent of their activities and the influence they undoubtedly exercised on the work of the later organized professional players.

However, in the opinion of some scholars the contribution of these itinerant entertainers to the emergence of organized professional companies and to the gradual evolution of the improvised commedia dell'arte was crucial. We know that some performed short sketches and mimed playlets which were, in effect, quasi-dramatic shows involving one or more characters, sometimes supported by a musician or a singer who provided a comic or ironic commentary to the action.11 Other popular entertainers were themselves, or worked in close association with, travelling mountebanks, who from fit-up trestle stages sold a variety of wares, including patent medicines and perfumes, in village squares, at fairs and markets, or in the larger towns during Carnival-time.12 Colourful and garrulous, many of these charlatans were brilliant entertainers in their own right, some using not only performer skills, but stage decoration, ingenious devices and fire effects in their embryonic theatrical shows. The purpose of these shows was of course to draw audiences, the sale of the mountebank's goods punctuating or following the entertainment, indeed being inseparable from it in that even the sale's pitch was itself a show. Nor was mountebank entertainment confined to the streets; as more than one contemporary observer indicates, skilled performers could rise above trade in cheap wares to provide banquet entertainment of a high order in socially exclusive circles. A number of early commentators, particularly clerics, made little or no distinction between such mountebank performers and the lower denizens of the entertainment world, including itinerant actors: both exploited the attractions of female entertainers and trafficked in the arts of deception; both were classified by their critics as rogues and vagabonds whose activities were socially and morally reprehensible.

But notwithstanding the views of such moralists, mountebank entertainers seem to have been one thing, professional players banded into organized companies something else. Whether the latter evolved from the former, and if so how, when, and under what conditions, are matters much disputed. There may possibly be a link between these mountebank shows and what was perhaps, as Mario Apollonio has argued, the nucleus of the later, more fully developed improvised performances of the commedia dell'arte, the exchanges between Pantalone and Zanni.13 This is difficult to establish with confidence although some credence is lent to the possibility by late sixteenth-century engravings depicting comic and grotesque master—servant relationships, where the figures would appear to be the Magnifico, Pantalone, and the Capitano, both involved in antics with Zanni. But as so often with the extant visual materials, it is impossible to be sure that these engravings illustrate or reflect stage activity, their provenance is uncertain, and their dating only approximate.

Nowhere are the interpretative difficulties more evident than when we consider the connections between elements of the folk tradition and the masked figures of Carnival on the one hand, and on the other what have come to be seen as the characteristic masks of the improvised commedia dell'arte.14 Most historians of the improvised drama have assumed that the actors took their masks either from vestigial classical inspiration or from the folk tradition and the world of Carnival. But classical derivation, as we have remarked, is highly problematic, and no less so in this particular area, while none of the literary or visual evidence is conclusive. Carnival engravings certainly show that the actors' masks were popular festival guise, but none of the engravings seems indisputably to predate the formation of the commedia dell'arte troupes.15 Again, some popular literary materials, macaronic verse and the like, which certainly pre-date the companies, refer to figures analogous to the actors' masks, notably the Magnifico and the Zanni.16 But such literary traces are much less concrete than the visual evidence provided by engravings and paintings, and most of the correspondences they offer are general rather than particular. If primacy must thus be given to the iconographic evidence, this would seem to suggest that Carnival revellers took over the masks from the stage, for their visually engaging qualities and because the actors had already made them popular and familiar. It would be unreasonable of course to claim that the players conjured their masks out of the air: in devising them it is more than likely that they drew, consciously or unconsciously, on elements of the folk imagination. In their essential lineaments, however, in all that made them such a distinctive feature of the improvised commedia dell'arte, the masks seem to have been developed by the actors themselves. If this was indeed the case, then it underscores how complex were the inter-connections between popular materials and the improvised drama, and undermines even more the already less than persuasive arguments of those who, seeing the commedia dell'arte as a single artistic entity, would seek the origins of the improvised comedy and its stage figures in Atellan farce, Roman mime and medieval precedents.




The emergence in the middle decades of the sixteenth century of the organized professional acting companies, and of the new dramaturgy they evolved, was the outcome of broad and far-ranging social changes. These changes are inevitably hard to pin down: they occurred gradually, at a different pace in different regions, and by no means had a uniform outcome; they were connected with the political and economic fortunes of individual states, the widespread reverberations of the Sack of Rome in 1527 by the troops of Charles V, the moral retrenchments and realignments which issued from the sessions of the Council of Trent (1545-63), and the cultural changes which came with the firm establishment by the 1550s of Spanish power in many parts of the peninsula.

By the early years of the century the aristocratic and neoplatonic culture of the High Renaissance was beginning to break up, and the initial impetus of Italian Humanism appeared to be spent. Many scholars have remarked an increasing mood of gloom and despondency in the literature of the early sixteenth century, most readily evident in the cynical view of human nature found in the writings of, say, Machiavelli and Guicciardini, Aretino and Bruno. The seminal influence of classical example was still felt, but in much writing, too, it now tended to harden into rigid dogma and arid academicism. It was, further, gradually being overlain, where it was not actually displaced, by the very kinds of emphasis and enquiry Humanism had itself helped to generate: by the new premium set on individualism and special talent, and by new ‘arrangements of knowledge’, to use Foucault's phrase, which offered a unity that was man-centred. In the particular field of drama and theatre these were increasingly apparent in the location of dramatic action, notably that of comedy, in contemporary life, in the development of perspective stage settings replicating the familiar, and in the search for new theatre forms appropriate to the accommodation of the new coherences perceived in social and spatial relationships. Andrea Palladio's Teatro Olimpico, completed in 1585, is a particularly striking instance of the extent to which change had taken place, for it can now be seen as essentially archaeological, a throw-back to the concerns of early Humanist enquiry, and not a pointer forward to what was to come.17 The formation of the acting companies and their elaboration of a new kind of drama that exploited pre-existent skills were attempts, however unconscious, to respond to these changed and changing conditions; attempts made, furthermore, by many who were forced to find new outlets for their talents to replace opportunities gradually being closed to them as Humanism retreated from the exclusive, but socially rather heterogeneous courts, to the more rarefied intellectual and cultural atmosphere of the academies.

Precisely how and why individuals came to band together in legally constituted acting companies in order to make their livings by the regular performance of plays is far from clear. But professionals seem to have been involved in one capacity or another in late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century court theatricals, whether as advisers, stage-managers or performers. As vernacular scripted drama, particularly comedy, flourished, it accommodated to its Latin formal models much from popular entertainment: not just elements from the novelle, but the jests, tricks, satires, pasquinades and ‘business’ of the low tradition.18 The ability of comedy to root itself in immediate life, and to treat of the local and the seamy, gave it a directness and vitality which liberated it in part from slavish adherence to classical models. Some of Aretino's comedies for example, like La cortigiana (1525) and II marescalco (1527), or the anonymous La veniexiana (c1540), reveal the underlying influence of popular entertainment materials. Indeed the classical example of Plautus licensed the incorporation of such elements.

Opportunities for professional entertainers to exercise their skills were considerable, not least because distinctions between amateur and professional cannot always have been clear. Talent in an art or craft, particularly those allied to theatre, like architecture or literature, and perhaps, too, certain kinds of performance, was always for the culturally and socially aspirant a possible spring-board to patrician patronage or court notice and advancement. Unfortunately we know comparatively little of the early productions, from Pomponius Laetus's staging of Seneca's Hippolytus in Rome in 1486, through to the mountings of vernacular drama, like Ariosto's La Cassaria, done at Ferrara in 1508, and Bibbiena's La Calandria, given at Urbino in 1513. Such cultural activities were largely the preserve of the patrician cognoscenti, but there were opportunities too for artisans to contribute.19 Leone de' Sommi's Quattro dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioni sceniche indicate that amateur performers were by no means indifferent to, or uninfluenced by the skills of professional performers, nor to the contributions to play production of artificers. A member of a prosperous Jewish family in Mantua, de' Sommi's varied activities included playwriting (in Hebrew), stage-management and play direction, and the third of his dialoghi, written some time between 1556 and 1565, is the first systematic account of acting, staging and direction in the Western theatre.20 De' Sommi himself was neither a professional nor an artisan, and he is concerned almost wholly with the staging of the literary drama, but what he writes is a pointer to many of the attitudes and practices those on the cultural fringes of the courts were at this time taking into the nascent professional theatre.

In the court sphere professionals seem to have been centrally involved in the production and performance of intermezzi—comic and often spectacular interludes presented between the acts of scripted plays. In the course of the sixteenth century these became increasingly elaborate, their scenic effects devised by professional painters and machinists whose artisan skills tended to underscore an increasing awareness of the need for, and the value of, specialist expertise. As far as performance is concerned, the professional contribution was perhaps earliest most evident in the activities of buffoons. Productions of the literary drama were not usually isolated events, but formed part of a complex of festival activities which included balls and banquets. Solo buffoon entertainment was a feature of the latter, as, too, was the performance of plays, with intermezzi interspersed between the acts.21 In these intermezzi buffoons participated, sometimes as principal performers. As can be seen in the documents given above, Venetian buffoons like Zan Polo Lianpardi, Domenico Taiacalze and Cimador provided solo sketches, or acted along with other comedians and dancers. In fact it is in Venice and its adjacent territories, far more than elsewhere, that we find documentation which helps to chart the emergence of professional companies and the improvised drama.


Nowhere in Italy during the early decades of the sixteenth century was there such a rich coexistence of, and so many fruitful interconnections between, popular and aristocratic culture, as in Venice and the Venetian territories. Theatrical entertainment in particular was considerable and took a variety of forms, as the many entries in the Diarii of Marino Sanuto show.22 It took place, too, in a range of performance places, including the houses of the nobility and in hired rooms and halls, as well as on fit-up street stages, and Carnival in particular provided the occasion for it. In these many kinds of entertainment, and in the confluence of popular and elite traditions, may lie the beginnings of organized professional theatre. Those beginnings appear to be intricately connected with the highly original achievements of dramatists and actor-dramatists who devised dialect and multilingual comedy, the activities of amateur and semi-professional acting companies, and of individual performers the actual status of whose work, whether amateur or professional, remains problematic.

Of the several Paduan and Venetian dramatists and actor-dramatists who flourished in the early and middle decades of the sixteenth century, the most celebrated are the Paduan playwright and amateur actor Angelo Beolco (c1502-42), better known under his stage-name, Il Ruzante, and the Venetian, Andrea Calmo (c1510-71), likewise a performer as well as a writer. In the plays of both, the farcical comic tone, recourse to dialect, use of rustic characters and knock-about stage ‘business’, as well as the presence of certain specific character types, have all been seen to presage aspects of the professional improvised comedy. In their functions as actor, playwright and deviser of productions they have been taken by many, too, to provide the link between street and festival entertainers and the more extensive and regular activities of the professional acting companies.

Beolco took his stage-name from the characteristic type he introduced into many of his plays and performed himself, a boisterous, clumsy and garrulous Paduan villano (peasant) whose antics imbue the otherwise simple plots with an engaging comic brio.23 His plays, of which La Moscheta, Il Parlamento and Bilora (all of the 1520s) are perhaps the best, were devised for performance by himself and his friends, often at Carnival-time and before audiences of mainly prosperous friends and associates. They are rich in rustic mood and colour, are at times bawdy and scatological, and treat of comic incidents in the lives of peasants, whose hard lives and domestic imbroglios are handled with insight and compassion. In them Ruzante may have provided opportunities for extensive pantomime and improvisation. He is a figure of major importance, the most impressive writer of rustic and dialect drama in the period, and one who tapped an authentic vein of popular life in a simple, natural style unusual to most drama of the time. He was not indifferent to the example of classical comedy, and indeed in his later plays, like La Fiorina, conspicuously applied classical form to his peasant material. But he avoided academic pedantry and any slavish imitation of the ancients, turning the vigour of Plautine farce to his own very distinctive purposes. His links with the later improvised comedy, at least as far as his plays are concerned, are at once real and tenuous. He was not its precursor in the sense sometimes argued that characters in his plays manifestly anticipate figures of the improvised commedia dell'arte. In that regard he offers little to those seeking to establish the origins of the individual masks. In other respects, however, he was very much a precursor. The example of his work may well have offered much that was instructive to the later comedians: ways of organizing a sequence of farcical incidents in a low comedy plot line, methods of exploiting regional dialect for comic purposes, and strategies for turning scripted dialogue to the service of an essentially performer-oriented drama. For Beolco, it seems, from both the records which have come down to us and the dramaturgy of the plays themselves, was as much a practitioner as he was a writer. The illegitimate son of a well-to-do father, Ruzante had the time and resources to develop his interest in stage performance. He organized companies, stage-managed and took the lead roles in his own plays.24 There is no evidence however that he ever was, or aspired to be, a professional actor, nor even that he saw his theatrical work as of semi-professional status. He was a mere eighteen when he first formed an acting company with a group of friends, and for many years with like-minded dilettanti he performed his plays before bourgeois and patrician audiences, including those who gathered at the villa of his patron, a wealthy Venetian patrician, Luigi Cornaro.

Another, although admittedly lesser, practitioner of the commedia villanesca was Beolco's younger contemporary, Calmo, a Venetian gondolier who was perhaps more regularly an actor than Beolco, and possibly worked on a semi-professional basis. Where Beolco wrote primarily in the Paduan dialect, Calmo very deliberately employed a variety of dialects in order to define certain recognizable regional types. A prominent character in some of his plays is a Venetian vecchio, whom some scholars again have taken to foreshadow a figure of the improvised commedia dell'arte—the Venetian Magnifico—although it is not an identification that has won general acceptance. Inevitably, most of what we know of Calmo, just as of Beolco, concerns his scripted work, and even allowing that this admitted possibilities for the development of character and business through improvisation, little in the texts themselves, nor in those of other sixteenth-century comic dramatists like Strascino and Alione, manifestly anticipates the peculiar spirit, constituents and characteristics of the improvised commedia dell'arte.25 In the plays of these dramatists, as in those of Beolco, we find, not the origins of the commedia dell'arte, but a pre-history which contributed in complex ways to the emergence of professional theatre.


Where Beolco and Calmo must be considered of particular additional significance is in their performance work, for although the companies they played with were not established on a regular acting basis, their activities do seem to presage the formation of organized professional acting troupes. So, too, and perhaps even more so, does the work of Francesco Nobili, known as Cherea. Nobili was a gifted actor who had probably acquired considerable stage experience in Mantua and Ferrara before appearing in Venice about the year 1507. A year later we know that he acted there in Italian translations of antique plays, like Asinaria and Menaechmi, subsequently peforming in both private halls and public rooms, and helping to excite sufficient public interest in play productions to arouse Venetian government suspicion of this new-fangled and potentially disruptive mode of entertainment. Cherea seems to have acted quite frequently in Venice through to 1526, after which no more is heard about him save for a brief reference some years later to his being in Hungary. It is primarily from Sanuto's diary entries that we know something of Cherea's work; although these are tantalizingly brief, they seem to suggest that he was more than a dilettante. It is at least conceivable that the companies he led were the first Italian professional acting troupes. But then it is conceivable too that other groups of players whose activities in Venice (and indeed in Rome and elsewhere) have left faint traces in extant records, may have equal claim to be considered the first professionals.26 Whatever troupe merits that accolade, we can say with certainty that by the middle decades of the sixteenth century the Italian professional companies were in being: the first extant contract made by a group of players at Padua in 1545 provides a convenient terminus a quo for their operations.

How, when and why the first troupes came together are elusive matters; so too is the provenance of the performers who made up those troupes. To judge from the kinds of patronage he enjoyed and the material he performed, Cherea moved in elite circles and was a man of some culture. On the other hand, the players who signed the Paduan contract were apparently of fairly low social and cultural status. But as professional theatre evolved it tended to bridge social gaps. In so far as it is possible to generalize from the scraps of evidence which have come down we would hazard that the early professional players were in the main drawn from two spheres, which on occasions, and to a varying extent, overlapped: on the one hand, and perhaps particularly in the 1540s and 1550s, the world of popular street and Carnival entertainment; and on the other, more possibly from the 1560s and 1570s onwards, the cultural fringes of courts which were no longer as hospitable to aspirant talent as they had been in their quattrocento heyday.

What seems additionally to have occurred in the early and middle decades of the cinquecento to give further impetus to this confluence of talents from the popular and courtly spheres was the development of a public taste for play performances at various social levels. Why, is again hard to calculate. Perhaps Humanist experiment had quite unwittingly opened a Pandora's box. What entertained academies and courts perhaps came quickly to be seen as desirable by many beyond the courts, and such theatrical activity, accomodated to more popular tastes, became self-generating: the more of it there was, the more a market appeared for it. Quite how sophisticated the taste was of this early public is a moot point. One Venetian observer sourly noted: ‘they wish to have on the stage nothing else but silly buffoons, an empty confusion of languages and little honest action.’27 But an audience was there, and the temptation increased for some amateurs to capitalize on public interest by exercising their talents as a regular means of livelihood: the skilled amateur, given the right conditions, could be an incipient professional. Judging from the entries in Sanuto's Diarii something like that seems to have happened in Venice in the early decades of the sixteenth century. High and low culture came increasingly to interconnect, the distinction between amateur and professional became ever more blurred, opportunities opened up for the exploitation of entertainment as a business, and for the practice of acting as a career, not just on a solo performer basis, or through a random gathering of solo performer abilities (a musician, a rope dancer, a jester), but by the banding together of individuals in formally constituted acting companies. There would appear to be some connection too between the decline in the quality and vitality of cinquecento Humanist-inspired scripted drama by mid-century, and the emergence of professional acting companies performing both scripted drama and improvised plays, the plots and characters of which bear close resemblance to the materials of the Humanist drama but are pitched more broadly to meet professional needs and the disparate tastes of paying publics. The superior appeal at all levels of professional and regular over dilettante and occasional performance cannot be discounted. Altogether fortuitous, but symbolic of changing times, interests and attitudes, was the fact that 1565 in Venice saw the final performance of the amateur Compagnia della Calza, whose productions had been a feature of Venetian theatrical life for decades: the name of the company that acted Antigono was soon to be that of a commedia dell'arte troupe, the Accesi.28

The introduction of actresses in the 1560s, the first record of which is the appearance in a troupe list in 1564 of a certain Lucrezia Senese, may have marked a new phase in the development of the professional companies: an elaboration perhaps of the romantic plot lines to balance the low comedy, and a calculated bid for greater commercial appeal. The arrival of the actresses seems to coincide with, or to be quite rapidly followed by, the presence in professional companies of actors better educated and more socially sophisticated than was customary among popular street and Carnival entertainers. Both appear to have been crucial to the quite rapid development of the companies and their ability to open up and exploit a burgeoning market for theatrical entertainment. The Italian philosopher and theatre historian, Benedetto Croce, argued persuasively that one of the central characteristics of these acting companies was their immersion in the market; that the kind of drama they evolved was the product of an embryonic industrial system and a mode of production that was a response to market pressures and possibilities.29 More recently, a very perceptive historian, Ferdinando Taviani, has observed that this industry developed, in effect, as theatre passed from being a species of entertainment within the economy of the festa to being an entertainment organized according to the economic dictates of the market.30 What marks off the professional companies from the performers who had preceded them, and serves to distinguish them as a wholly new theatrical formation, is the fact that they earned their living by acting plays. By virtue of that alone they were a definable social group with a particular, if variable, social position.31 Their activities were largely determined by the needs and possibilities of the market, and their status—economic, social and artistic—was conditional on the kind of place they were able to secure in it. Further, the sheer need for these professional companies to operate at different social levels, from the aristocracy of the courts, through less affluent private patrons, to the bourgeoisie and the broader populace drawn to performances in halls, rooms, streets or piazze, and to supply according to occasion and demand a wide variety of different kinds of theatrical entertainment, including comedies, tragi-comedies, pastorals, intermezzi and so on, impelled them to devise a species of production which could meet these different market opportunities and requirements without imposing impossible demands on their materials and resources—namely, the composition of their stock plays by improvisatory techniques. What emerged, then, in the middle decades of the sixteenth century was a professional theatre consisting of actors ultimately drawn from diverse social and educational backgrounds, who banded together to sell their product, plays in performance, wherever they could find paying audiences. They were the commedia mercenaria, and it is their economic motivation and their professionalism, that ultimately defines them.


  1. For a good discussion of possible classical roots and their transmission see [Allardyoe] Nicoll, Masks, Mimes and Miracles, [London, 1931] p. 214ff. See also H. Reich, Der Mimus, Berlin, 1903, and [Kathleen M.] Lea [Italian Popular Comedy: A Study in the Commedia dell' Arte, 1550-1620, Oxford, 1934] 4.

  2. See M. Gigante, Rintone e il teatro in Magna Grecia, Naples, 1971.

  3. See M. Bieber, The History of the Roman Theater, Princeton, 1961, p. 129ff.

  4. Nicolò Rossi, Discorsi … Intorno alla Comedia, Vicenza, 1589.

  5. [Luigi] Riccoboni, Histoire [du Theatre Italian depuis la decadence de la Comedie Latin, Paris, 1728], p. 23ff., remarks links with Atellan farce, and examines the differences between actors and buffoons; Winifred Smith, The Commedia dell'Arte, New York, 1912, refers to the archeological discoveries. See also V. De Amicis, 1882.

  6. Maurice Sand, Masques et Bouffons, Paris, 1862; Nicoll, Masks, Mimes and Miracles and The World of Harlequin [Cambridge, 1963,]. For the possible survival of mimes in Byzantium, see G. la Piena, ‘The Byzantine Theatre’, Speculum, April, 1936.

  7. Such arguments are advanced by [C.] Mic, La Commedia dell'Arte[, Paris, 1927].

  8. For the relationship between Karagöz and the masks of the commedia dell'arte see M. And, A History of Theatre and Popular Entertainment in Turkey, Ankara, 1963, also arguments in Reich, Lea and Nicoll.

  9. See N. Pirrotta and E. Povoledo, Music and Theatre from Poliziano to Monteverdi, Cambridge, 1982. The comic element is rarely found in Italian medieval theatre.

  10. R. Redfield, Peasant Society and Culture, Chicago, 1956.

  11. Vito Pandolfi, La Commedia dell'Arte. Storia e testi, 6 vols, Florence, 1957-61; P. Toschi, Le origini del teatro italiano, Milan, 1955.

  12. For accounts of Carnival in Italian towns see inter alia A. Ademollo, Il Carnevale di Roma, Rome, 1883; G. Renier-Michiel, Origini delle feste Veneziane, 1817; for more general studies: F. Jesi, La Festa, Turin, 1977, and J. Caro Baroja, El Carneval, Madrid, 1965. See also P. Toschi, Le origini del teatro italiano.

  13. Mario Apollonio, ‘Il duetto di Magnifico e Zanni’, 1971. See also Apollonio, Storiadella Commedia dell'Arte, p. 73ff. See also the Dialogue in Pandolfi, La commedia dell'arte, 1957, I, p. 174ff.

  14. Toschi, Le origini del teatro italiano.

  15. See [C.] Molinari, La Commedia dell'Arte, [Milan, 1985,] p. 16ff and Povoledo, ‘Le bouffon’.

  16. Pandolfi, La Commedia dell'Arte, vol. I.

  17. Ferruccio Marotti has two very pertinent studies: Lo spettacolo dall' Umanesimo al Manierismo, Milan, 1974, which includes an anthology of writings, and Lo spazio scenico, Rome, 1974. For an account of the Renaissance revolution in ways of seeing, J. White, The Birth of Pictorial Space, London, 1957. See also Elena Povoledo, ‘L'architettura del teatro in Italia dall'età greca al Palladio’, in Bollettino del Centro di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio, Vicenza, 1974, and L. Zorzi, Il teatro e la città, Turin, 1977.

  18. See Pandolfi, La Commedia dell'Arte vol. I, for examples.

  19. For accounts of the Humanist theatre see: F. Ruffini, Teatri prima del teatro, Rome, 1983; F. Doglio, Teatro in Europa, Milan, 1982; A. Nicoll, The Development of the Theatre, London, 1966, and J. Jacquot (ed.) Le lieu théâtrale à la Renaissance, Paris, 1963.

  20. See Leone de' Sommi, Quattro dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioni sceniche, ed. Ferruccio Marotti, Milan, 1968. Also in A. Nicoll, The Development of the Theatre London, 1927.

  21. G. Padoan, La commedia Rinascimentale veneta, Vicenza, 1982.

  22. I Diarii di Marino Sanuto, Venice, 1879-1903.

  23. G. Calendoli, Ruzante, Venice, 1985; a good overview in English of Ruzante's work is F. Fido, ‘An Introduction to Ruzante’, in A. Dessen (ed.), Renaissance Drama, New Series, Illinois, 1973.

  24. Calendoli, Ruzante, p. 9ff.

  25. Vito Pandolfi, Il teatro del Rinascimento e la Commedia dell'Arte, Rome, 1969.

  26. The Medici Popes in Rome were among those who encouraged the work of semi-professionals. For an account of theatre in Rome see F. Cruciani, Teatro nel Rinascimento. Roma 1450-1550, Rome, 1984; for the Venetian theatre in the early to mid sixteenth century see Padoan, La commedia Rinascimentale veneta.

  27. L. Dolce, Fabritia, Venice, 1549, cited by Elena Povoledo, ‘I Comici professionisti e la commedia dell'arte: caratteri, techniche, fortuna’, in G. Arnaldi and M. P. Stocchi (eds), Storia della Cultura Veneta, Venice, 1983, p. 388.

  28. Padoan, La commedia Rinascimentale veneta, p. 215. The first recorded appearance of the commedia dell'arte Accesi is in 1590.

  29. B. Croce, ‘Intorno alla Commedia dell'arte’, in Poesia popolare e poesia d'arte, Bari, 1957; [R.] Tessari, La Commedia dell'Arte nel Seicento [Florence, 1969], has a valuable discussion of the ‘industrial’ dimension of the players' output.

  30. Taviani and Schino, Il segreto della Commedia dell'Arte [Florence, 1982].

  31. Their professional status is indicated by the fact that they were taxed, while charlatans were not: see C. Molinari, Pier Maria Cecchini [Ferrara, 1983].


Criticism: Overviews


Criticism: Characters And Actors