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Karel Dujardins, commedia dell'arte show, dated 1657 (Louvre)
Commedia dell'arte (Italian: "comedy of craft") is a form of improvisational theatre that began in Italy in the 16th century, continued its popularity in France during the 17th century, and evolved into various configurations across Europe. For example, Pantomime which flourished in England in the 18th century owes its genesis to the character types of the commedia, particularly Harlequin. While generally unscripted, the performances often were based on scenarios that gave some semblance of plot to the largely improvised format. Sometimes the performers were referred to as mountebanks because they played on outside, temporary stages, and relied on various props (robbe) in place of extensive scenery. The better troupes were patronized by nobility, and during carnival time might be funded by the various towns or citta, in which they played. Extra funds were received by donations. (essentially passing the hat) so anyone could view the performance free of charge. Magistrates and clergy were not always receptive to the traveling compagnie (companies), particularly during periods of plague, and because of their itinerant nature. The term "vagabondi" was used in reference to the comici, and remains a derogatory term to this day (vagabond). A troupe often consisted of ten performers of familiar masked and unmasked types, and included women. Outside Italy various characters evolved or were accultrated: such as Hanswurst (Germany), Pierrot (France), Perushka (Russia), and Clown (England). This phenomenon has assured the persistance of commedia to this day.


Although Commedia dell'arte flourished in Italy during the Mannerist period, the roots date to the period of the Roman Empire, and descend from Greek theatre and from Etruscan festivals, which shared characteristics with the Commedia dell'arte of the later medieval period. Paul C. Castagno's The Early Commedia dell'Arte (1550-1621): The Mannerist Context explores the aesthetic and cultural links to mannerism and maniera across the arts. Indeed, Castagno posits that this aesthetic of exaggeration, distortion, anti-humanism (as in the masked types), and excessive borrowing vs. originality was typical of all the arts in the late cinquecento.

It is quite possible that this kind of improvised acting was passed down the Italian generations until the 1600s, when it was revived as a professional theatrical technique. The first records of commedia dell'arte performances come from Rome as early as 1551. Any attempt to verify origins of commedia is problematic, involving many contradictions and various threads. For example, the performances in Rome were probably unmasked and not representative of the specific types. It was in Venice in the 1570s that the transition to masked comici can be validated. Andrea Calmo represents this transition from the unmasked Magnifico (also known as Il Capino does Graffito Graffitting) to what became known as Pantalone, the vecchio.

Commedia dell'arte was performed outdoors in temporary venues by professional actors who were costumed and masked, as opposed to commedia erudita, which were written comedies, presented indoors by untrained and unmasked actors. This view may be somewhat romanticized since records describe the Gelosi performing Tasso's Aminta, for example, and much was done at court rather than in the street. By the mid-1500s, specific troupes of commedia performers began to coalesce, and by 1568 the Gelosi became a distinct company, with a name and the logo of two headed Janus. The Gelosi performed in Northern Italy and France where they received protection and patronage from the King of France. Despite fluctuations the Gelosi maintained stability for performances with the "usual ten": "two vecchi (old men), four innamorati (two male and two female lovers), two zanni, (a captain) and a servetta (serving maid)". It should be noted that commedia often performed inside in court theatres or halls, and also as some fixed theatres such as Teatro Baldrucca in Firenze. Flaminio Scala, who had been a minor performer in the Gelosi published the scenarii of the commedia dell'arte around the turn of the century, really in an effort to legitimize the form--and ensure it's legacy. These scenari are highly structured and built around the symmetry of the various types in duet: two zanni, vecchi, inamorate and inamorati, etc.

Commedia dell'arte is notable in that female roles were played by women, documented as early as the 1560s, In the 1570s, English theatre critics generally denigrated the troupes with their female actors with Ben Jonson referring to one female performer of the commedia as a " 'tumbling whore' ". By the end of the 1570s Italian prelates attempted to ban female performers, however, by the end of the century, actresses were standard to the Italian stage. The Italian scholar, Ferdinando Taviani, has collated a number of church documents opposing the advent of the actress as a kind of courtesan, whose scanty attire, and promiscuous lifestyle corrupted young men, or at least infused them with carnal desires. Taviani's term negativa poetica describes this and other practices offensive to the church, while giving us an idea of the phenomenon of the commedia dell'arte performance.

By the early 17th century, the "zanni" comedies were moving from pure improvisational street performances to specified and clearly delineated acts and characters. Three books written during the 17th century — Cecchini's Fruti della moderne commedia (1628); Barbieri's La supplica (1634); and Perrucci's Dell'arte rapresentativa (1699) — "made firm recommendations concerning performing practice." Katritzky argues, that as a result, commedia was reduced to formulaic and stylized acting; as far as possible from the purity of the improvisational genesis a century earlier.Commedia dell'arte appeared to fade during the 18th century as new forms like comédie larmoyante gained in attraction in France. However, as currently used the term "Commedia dell'arte" was coined in the mid-18th century.

In the 19th century, George Sand, Chopin and other literary elites rediscovered the theatre form in Nohantmarker, France in 1846. While exploring and discussing ancient forms of theatre, they discovered their interest in commedia dell'arte and constructed a theatre devoted to it in 1848. Commedia has received a great deal of attention from several 20th century theatre practitioners, including Jacques Copeau, Meyerhold, Jacques Lecoq and others, because of their wish to move away from naturalism.


According to 18th century London theatre critic Barretti, commedia dell'arte incorporates specific roles and characters that were "originally intended as a kind of characteristical representative of some particular Italian district or town." The character's persona included the specific dialect of the region or town represented. Additionally, each character has a singular costume and mask that is representative of the character's role.Commedia dell'arte has three main stock roles: servant, master and innamorata, and the characters themselves are often referred to as "masks", which according to John Rudlin, cannot be separated from the character. In other words the characteristics of the character and the characteristics of the mask are the same. The servants are referred to as the Zanni and include characters such as Arlecchino, Brighella and Pedrolino. Some of the better recognized commedia dell'arte characters include the following: Arlecchino (also known as Harlequin); Pantalone; Il Dottore; Brighella; Il Capitano; Colombina; the Innamorati; Pedrolino; Pulcinella; Sandrone; Scaramuccia (also known as Scaramouche); La Signora; and Tartaglia.

Subjects of the Commedia dell'arte

Conventional plot lines were written on themes of adultery, jealousy, old age, and love. Many of the basic plot elements can be traced back to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, some of which were themselves translations of lost Greek comedies of the fourth century BC. Performers made use of well-rehearsed jokes and stock physical gags, known as Lazzi and Concetti, as well as on-the-spot improvised and interpolated episodes and routines, called burle (singular burla, Italian for joke), usually involving a practical joke. Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punch lines. Characters were identified by costumes, masks, and props, such as a type of baton known as a slapstick. These characters included the forebears of the modern clown, namely Harlequin (English for arlecchino) and Zanni.

The classic, traditional plot is that the innamorati are in love and wish to be married, but one elder (vecchio) or several elders (vecchi) are preventing this from happening, leading the lovers to ask one or more zanni (eccentric servants) for help. Typically the story ends happily, with the marriage of the innamorati and forgiveness for any wrongdoings. There are countless variations on this story, as well as many that diverge wholly from the structure, such as a well-known story about Arlecchino becoming mysteriously pregnant, or the Punch and Judy scenario.

Commedia dell'arte's influence in art

By the late renaissance, word of the Commedia dell'arte performances spread from Italy to France, and the best actors were invited to perform outside of Italy. The expressive theatre influenced Molière's comedy and subsequently "ballet d'action, thus lending a fresh range of expression and choreographic means. The choreography also at times included on stage sex scenes involving the penis entering the vagina typical of the era. Female characters were first seen onstage with Commedia del arte and were deemed whores by British critics for their graphic sexual presence on stage." An example of a commedia dell'arte character in literature is the Pied Piper of Hamlin who is dressed as Harlequin.Picasso's painting The Three Musicians painted in 1921 shows in colorful detail commedia inspired characters.


  1. Rudlin & Crick, p. 15
  2. Palleschi: Part One
  3. Katrizky p. 82
  4. Rudlin p. 14
  5. Katrizky p. 90
  6. Katritzky p. 106
  7. Katrizky p. 19
  8. Callery p. 9
  9. Katrizky p. 19
  10. Katrizky p. 19
  11. Katritzky p. 104.
  12. Rudlin, An Actor's Handbook. p. 34.
  13. Rudlin, An Actor's Handbook. p. 67.
  14. Palleschi: Part 3
  15. Katrizky p. 26


  • Castagno, Paul C. The Early Commedia dell'Arte (1550-1621): The Mannerist Context. Bern, New York: Peter Lang Publishing (1994). Includes numerous illustrations and images.
  • Roberto DelPiano La Commedia dell'Arte 2007. Retrieved 2009-07-09.
  • A History of Italian Theatre. Eds. Joseph Farrell, Paolo Puppa. Cambridge University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-521-80265-2

Further reading

  • Darius, Adam. The Commedia Dell' Arte (1996) Kolesnik Production OY, Helsinki. ISBN 9529071884
  • Commedia Dell'arte: An Actor's Handbook by John Rudlin
  • Playing Commedia and Commedia Plays by Barry Grantham
  • The Innamorati by Midori Snyder is a novel with the commedia as its central conceit.
  • One version of The Love Of Three Oranges is subtitled "A Play for the Theater That Takes the Commedia Dell'Arte of Carlo Gozzi and Updates it for the New Millennium". The authors are Carlo Gozzi and Hillary DePiano.
  • Flamino Scala's Il Teatro delle Favole Rappresentative, translated into English by Henry F. Salerno as Scenarios of the Commedia dell'Arte.
  • The Commedia dell'Arte by Kenneth Richards and Laura Richards is an overview of Commedia dell'Arte. It provides many original documents in translation including scenarios, lazzi and descriptions of characters, players and companies by contemporaries.
  • Martin Green and John Swan's The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia Dell'Arte and the Modern Imagination discusses interpretations and adaptations of Commedia dell'Arte in 20th century literature, music, art, and film.
  • An annotated bibliography from Judith Chaffee.

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