The commedia dell’arte, meaning ‘the comedy of the artists’ was
a major form theatre and acting in Italy in the sixteenth century.
Performances were improvisational comedies that were performed by
troupes of professional actors that traveled the provinces of Italy
and Europe. Performers were often from one family and the tradition
of commedia was continued through the generations. Families of note
included the Andreini and Gelosi groups.
The origins of Commedia may be attributed to the Atellan farce
of Rome or the plays of Plautus or Terence or the sacred Sacra
Rappresentazione of the Middle Ages but what is known is that
it emerged from the traders and performers of the marketplaces and
carnivals of Italy. During the period 1550 – 1650 approximately
ten to twelve commedia troupes traveled the European continent.
An Overview of Commedia
- Commedia was a comedy of intrigue that used stock characters,
often masked and scenarios were largely improvisational. Performers
perfected what is known as lazzi and burla (stage business
including clever and slick dialogue and movement). Any memorised
rhetoric used by the performers was known as concetti. The
use of this stage business was intended to keep scenarios moving
along briskly so that the audience remained engaged and interested.
- Content of scenarios was often topical, satirical, political
or romantic and were full of mimicry, trickery, disguise and intrigue.
- Today, almost eight hundred scenarios still exist in outline
form only. Although this form of theatre developed without any
formal playwrights, it had an important influence on many playwrights
to come in theatre history including Moliere and Shakespeare.
The Commedia Characters
- A typical commedia troupe usually consisted of twelve performers,
one who acted as leader. Usually there were seven or eight men
and three or four women. Combined they formed what is known as
‘stock’ characters: two sets of lovers, a servant girl, a captain,
two zanni (comic characters) and two old men. Performers always
played the same characters and became so expert in the lazzi and
burla that audiences immediately recognised the characters on
- The lovers were usually portrayed as high status characters
and dressed well. They did not wear masks but wore heavy make-up.
They were often depressed or anxious because love often did not
run smoothly in their lives.
- The masters claimed the highest status and most famous
of these were:
Pantalone - employer, father, controller, highest in
status of the old men, he wore a red skullcap, red jacket, breeches
and stockings or trousers, black ankle-length coat and yellow
slippers. Pantalone wore a hooked nose mask with bushy eyebrows,
a long pointy beard and sometimes moustache. Walked with a stoop
always protecting his money which hung near his most ‘private’
Il Dottore – the philosopher who knows everything there
is to know (or at least thinks he does) was often father to one
of the lovers. He wore a long black academic gown and cap, black
beeches, stockings and shoes. His mask only covered his nose and
forehead. He had red cheeks, bulbous nose and fluffy white eyebrows.
He took little repetitive steps.
Il Capitano – Capitano swaggers and boasts about his exploits
but he is actually a coward. Traditionally he wore a uniform over
a vest, a hat or helmet with a feather and boots. His mask was
characterised by a large phallic nose. By his side, he carried
Tartaglia – an official who was bald, pot-bellied and
short sighted. He was characterised by his incessant stuttering.
He wore a grey cap, a green and yellow striped tunic and cloak,
white stockings and yellow or brown shoes. His ‘mask’ was traditionally
large green or blue glasses that covered the top of his face.
He waddled along led by his rather large stomach.
Pulcinella – On the whole Punch was portrayed as a good
humoured but egotistic, humped back magistrate or baker or spy.
He had the lowest status of all the masters and sometimes, his
lazzi could be quite obscene or distasteful. He wore long trousers,
a long white shirt, a matching hat and a leather belt which held
his stick and purse. His mask was usually black or brown with
a long nose with wrinkles and a large wart on the forehead. He
walked in a jerky fashion and had a discernible squawky voice.
- The Servants (The Zanni)
Arlecchino – the ‘catlike’ figure, agile and quick on
his feet, Arlecchino, also known as Harlequin wore a diamond patched
suit, a black beret or cap and carried a slapstick or clapper
stick. His mask was also characterised by a wart on the forehead
and often had catlike features.
Brighella – known as the head Zanni was often an innkeeper
or shopkeeper. He had a grey mask, had round eyes, a hooked nose
and a moustache. Other Zanni were Scaramuccia and Scapino.
(Reference: Crawford, J. Hurst, C. Lugering, M. & Wimmer, C.
(2003). Acting in Person and in Style in Australia. Sydney: