Clearly influenced by Plautus, whose works Giambattista Della Porta translated and adapted, the playwright and author of the no longer extant “De arte componendi comoedias” (the art of writing comedies) deftly melded to classical motifs the many elements of regional storytelling tradition. Though his declared intention was to restore the traditional classical theater, the language and spirit of Della Porta’s characters, as well as numerous references to daily life, unmistakingly point to the writer’s personal experience within the historical framework of sixteenth century Italy.
The second half of the sixteenth century was a turning point in the development of Italian drama. This had been marked by the emergence of the commedia dell’arte , which, in turn, signaled the crisis of the “erudite” drama. Because they were timely, Della Porta’s comedies were often adapted as canovacci by the professional actors of the commedia dell’arte, though it seems unlikely that Della Porta himself wrote scenari for them. Della Porta’s comedies do not encompass revolutionary innovations in content or technique; they are rather a consummate reelaboration of the Renaissance comic theater. His range extended by classical and Boccaccean themes, distinctly anticipating the controlled hyperbole of pre-Baroque theater, Della Porta was one of the first Italian playwrights to blend romantic and pathetic elements into the comic situation, in a manner that would soon become established in the new genre of tragicomedy.
Della Porta’s comic effects are heightened by a colorful and vigorous language. The speech of his characters is devoid of complex nuances and overly sophisticated literary allusions. Indeed, Della Porta employs a language that can produce the maximum reaction from an average, not particularly learned audience: a kind of bourgeois speech to be enjoyed by anyone possessing an average education, occasionally punctuated by expressions peculiar to a character that serve to define or reinforce that character. Even when, as frequently occurs, Della Porta borrows directly from the classical tradition, he does so in such a way as to isolate the lines and situations from their original context, emphasizing them in a contemporary manner rather than through the traditional interpretative modes.
There is scant information available regarding precisely when and where Della Porta produced his theatrical works, the number of which makes him the most prolific dramatic writer of the time after Giovanni Maria Cecchi. He began writing his comedies at an early age, and his first comedy, L’Olimpia, is introduced by a virginal and shy young girl—possibly an allusion to the fact that this was Della Porta’s first dramatic work—who declares that she would have not appeared in public if the Prologue had not forced her to do so. Of the more than thirty dramatic works probably written by Della Porta, only fourteen comedies and three tragedies have survived. Of the comedies, the majority of them share an obvious Plautine derivation as well as a resemblance to their more contemporary models—such as the works of Ludovico Ariosto, Bibbiena, or Niccolò Machiavelli. The emphasis, however, is on the plot rather than on characters: on the ingenium and maraviglia of fantastic complex twists and intrigues, burle and countertricks. Character development is not totally neglected, but though Della Porta’s characters do not wear the masks of the commedia dell’arte, they belong nevertheless to the large reservoir of traditional stock types. Wicked pedants, deceitful gluttonous servants, old and young lovers, boastful Spanish captains and other braggarts, witty wives outsmarting their unfaithful husbands—all are clearly recognizable, utterly stylized characters who permitted Della Porta to concentrate freely on the structural quality of his works, on the expressive language and situations clearly aimed at achieving the maximum, at times farcical, comic effect.
La fantesca, one of the most successful and representative of Della Porta’s comedies, encompasses both the Plautine and the novelesque tradition in its skillful manipulation of the many elements present in sixteenth century comic theater. Della Porta’s lively use of Neapolitan dialect and boastful Spanish, double entendres and boutades, as well as proverbs and popular sayings, is unrivaled. The plot is typically complicated by implausible disguises and coincidences, elaborate subterfuges, and amorous rivalries between fathers and sons, all of which are enriched by the spicy dialogue. Young Essandro has fallen in love with Cleria, daughter of the rich Neapolitan physician Gerasto. Disguised as a maidservant named Fioretta, Essandro enters Gerasto’s household and persuades Cleria to reciprocate the love of “her” twin brother, whom he will naturally impersonate. Gerasto, however, falls in love with Fioretta (Essandro), arousing the jealousy of his wife, Santina, and of the housekeeper Nepita. Matters are further complicated with the arrival from Rome of the pedant Narticoforo and his son Cintio, to whom Cleria had been previously betrothed. Essandro’s alert and faithful servant, Panurgo, intervenes to help his master stave off the danger. Because Narticoforo and Gerasto have not yet met, Panurgo and the parasite Morfeo successfully impersonate both Gerasto and Cleria to Narticoforo, and Narticoforo and Cintio to Gerasto, sowing at each instance discord. Panurgo and Morfeo, who behave as idiotically as possible, ultimately manage to inflame Narticoforo to such a degree that the Roman pedant hires a Spanish braggart, Capitan Dante, to teach Gerasto a lesson. Gerasto, in turn, hires another Spaniard, Pantaleone, “matador de panteras y leones” (killer of panthers and lions), to defend himself against Narticoforo. The two Spanish captains, however, rather than fighting, become friends in cowardice and together run away in the face of the abuse showered on them by the exasperated prospective fathers-in-law. After a failed attempt by Gerasto to meet with Fioretta (at the rendezvous he finds instead his angry wife, Santina), Essandro and Panurgo’s deceit is revealed. Things are about to become worse when Essandro’s uncle Apollione arrives, recognizing in Panurgo his long-lost brother, the father of Essandro. All ends well with Essandro’s betrothal to Cleria and that of Cleria’s sister to Cintio, while Gerasto promises from this point on to lead a more honest life.
Although equally indebted to the heterogenous sources regularly used by Della Porta, The Astrologer and La turca differ from La fantesca and Della Porta’s other comedies. A bitterly realistic and critical view of the world and, in particular, of Naples here is made manifest. In The Astrologer, the title character, Albumazar, speaks of Naples as a city of thieves and rogues. These comedies are also unique in that Della Porta adds to the recurrent Renaissance theme of romantic rivalry between fathers and sons a biting criticism of the sensual and often brutal behavior of the older men. In The Astrologer and in La turca, as in most of Della Porta’s comic theater, despite the exuberant and at times farcical use of the lazzi of the commedia dell’arte, a sentimental vein is accompanied by a judgmental, almost moralistic tone. Plays such as Il moro, La furiosa, and The Two Rival Brothers—which are often favorably compared to Lope de Vega Carpio’s comedies—all belong to a new tragicomic phase by means of which Della Porta succeeded in modernizing the genre, maintaining the lively tone of popular comedy while adapting to the stricter atmosphere of the Counter-Reformation.
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