commedia dell'arte

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commedia dell'arte

commedia dell'arte (kōm-māˈdēä dĕl-lärˈtā), popular form of comedy employing improvised dialogue and masked characters that flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th cent.

Characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte

The characters or “masks,” in spite of changes over the years, retained much of their original flavor. Most important were the zanni, or servant types; Arlecchino, or Harlequin, was the most famous. He was an acrobat and a wit, childlike and amorous. He wore a catlike mask and motley colored clothes and carried a bat or wooden sword, the ancestor of the slapstick. His crony, Brighella, was more roguish and sophisticated, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money. Figaro and Molière's Scapin are descendants of this type. Pedrolino was a white-faced, moon-struck dreamer; the French Pierrot is his descendant. Pagliaccio, the forerunner of today's clown, was closely akin to Pedrolino.

Pulcinella, as seen in the English Punch and Judy shows, was a dwarfish humpback with a crooked nose, the cruel bachelor who chased pretty girls. Pantalone or Pantaloon was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter. Il Dottore (the doctor), his only friend, was a caricature of learning—pompous and fraudulent; he survives in the works of Molière. Il Capitano (the captain) was a caricature of the professional soldier—bold, swaggering, and cowardly. He was replaced by the more agile Scarramuccia or Scaramouche, who, dressed in black and carrying a pointed sword, was the Robin Hood of his day.

The handsome Inamorato (the lover) went by many names. He wore no mask and had to be eloquent in order to speak the love declamations. The Inamorata was his female counterpart; Isabella Andreini was the most famous. Her servant, usually called Columbine, was the beloved of Harlequin. Witty, bright, and given to intrigue, she developed into such characters as Harlequine and Pierrette. La Ruffiana was an old woman, either the mother or a village gossip, who thwarted the lovers. Cantarina and Ballerina often took part in the comedy, but for the most part their job was to sing, dance, or play music. None of the women wore masks.


The impact of commedia dell'arte on European drama can be seen in French pantomime and the English harlequinade. The ensemble companies generally performed in Italy, although a company called the comédie-italienne was established in Paris in 1661. The commedia dell'arte survived the early 18th cent. only by means of its vast influence on written dramatic forms.


See K. M. Lea, The Italian Popular Comedy (2 vol., 1934, repr. 1962); W. Smith, Commedia Dell'arte (rev. ed. 1964); P. L. Duchartre, The Italian Comedy (tr. 1928, repr. 1965); A. Nicoll, The World of Harlequin: A Critical Study of the Commedia dell'Arte (1987).

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References in periodicals archive ?
The doctor somehow was able to say: commedia dell'arte came into prominence in the 17th century and was basically to do with improvisation.
I film italiani ispirati alia Divina Commedia appartengono prevalentemente alla tradizione del cinema d'autore.
Commedia dell'arte in Italian theatre studies occupies a place comparable to that of Shakespeare in the Anglophone world, lending study of the actor a cultural kudos that it lacks in the academic environment of the UK.
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Per quanto riguarda gli argomenti, come il suo predecessore, l'intermezzo, e la commedia dell'arte, che aveva la sua origine nel popolo, l'opera buffa aveva influenze varie.
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Travel influenced Commedia defl'Arte in its very performance DNA, as troupes, many of which by this time were fully professionalized, often had to travel to provide themselves with sufficient income--although it should be pointed out that others remained in a single locale and supplemented theatrical work, by its nature seasonal, with other jobs.
Of particular interest in this essay is La entretenida (first published in Cervantes's Ocho comedias, y ocho entremeses nuevos, nunca representados), which shows the influence of both the commedia dell'arte and the plays of Plautus, who had, in Ancient Rome, already devised ingenious techniques for making a scripted drama appear improvised.
Reportedly, she teach the Divine Commedia rotely to one of her student.
Curiously including the introduction and even the notes, every chapter in a series of seventeen--appositely titled as questions such as "What Is Curiosity?", "How Do We Reason?" "What Are We Doing Here?", and "What Is True?"--is preceded, with varying degrees of aptness, by an emblematic woodcut reproduced from the 1487 printing of Cristoforo Landino's commentary on the Commedia. Each of these is followed by a brief prefatory page or two of autobiographical rumination and epigraphs by an array of writers ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Karl Marx to Margaret Atwood to Francis Bacon.
"The work will be the culmination of months of research into the tales, costumes, and characters of the Commedia dell'Arte," Blazwick says.
The commedia was originally called commedia all' improvvisa, or "comedy of improvisation," to distinguish it from commedia erudita, or "learned comedy," which was written by literati and performed by amateurs.