Commedia Dellarte

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Commedia Dell’arte


a comedy of masks; a type of improvisational Italian theater that used a scenario with a brief plot outline. The characters of the commedia dell’arte were stock types, or “masks,” that were retained throughout the years.

Originating in the mid-16th century, commedia dell’arte inherited realistic traditions from folk farce, masks and buffoonery from carnival performances, and some motifs and plots from the humanist commedia erudita. The broad and vivid presentations of the commedia dell’arte, performed in folk dialects and full of street melodies and songs, clever lazzi (stunts), and vulgar plebeian gibes, took on a satirical orientation.

The chief roles were the “servants”—Brighella, the impudent and jovial intrigant; the awkward, childish Arlecchino; the saucy, sharp-tongued Servetta; and the rather rude Pulcinella, who was not wanting in malice or archness. Constant targets of the satire of the commedia dell’arte were the stupid, selfish, and amorous merchant Pantalone; the braggart and coward Capitano, a Spanish nobleman; and the thick-headed Doctor, a windbag. The poetic side of commedia dell’arte was represented by the idealized figures of lovers, who appeared without masks and spoke literary Italian.

The actors of the commedia dell’arte, virtuoso masters of the art of collective improvisation, developed a stage company for the first time in European theater. The most prominent actors of the commedia dell’arte were A. Ganassa, the brothers G. and T. Martinelli, and I. and F. Andreini (16th century); T. Fiorillo and D. Biancolelli (17th century); and C. Bertinazzi, C. D’Arbes, and A. Sacchi (18th century). In the mid-17th century the commedia dell’arte began to decline—under the influence of Catholic reaction the social satire in the shows was blunted, and the buffoonery became an end in itself.

The commedia dell’arte affected the development of national comedy and theater in other European countries (the Comédie Italienne in Paris). Its influence was particularly notable in the work of Molière, Goldoni, and Gozzi, and its joyous spirit resounded in the play Princess Turandot, staged by E. B. Vakhtangov. Certain features of the commedia dell’arte have been adopted by modern progressive Italian playwrights and actors (including E. De Filippo).


Dzhivelegov, A. Ital’ianskaia narodnaia komediia, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1962.
Apollonio, M. Storia delta commedia dell’arte. Rome-Milan, 1930.
Pandolfi, V. II teatro del Rinascimento e la commedia dell’arte. Rome [1969].
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.