Commedia dell’arte is a theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful stock characters that emerged in northern Italy in the fifteenth century and rapidly gained popularity throughout Europe. The earliest known company formed in Padua in 1545, and by the turn of the seventeenth century troupes such as the Gelosi, Confidenti, and Fedeli enjoyed international celebrity. Some troupes were favored at foreign courts, especially in France, where images from the commedia became a favorite theme of artists such as Jean-Baptiste Joseph Pater (1695–1736) and Antoine Watteau (1684–1721) (49.7.54).
In its golden age, plays of the commedia dell’arte (literally, “comedy of professional artists”) were usually performed in open air by itinerant troupes of players, as seen in Pater’s The Fair at Bezons (49.7.52). Performances were based on a set schema, or scenario—a basic plot, often a familiar story, upon which the actors improvised their dialogue. Thus actors were at liberty to tailor a performance to their audience, allowing for sly commentary on current politics and bawdy humor that would otherwise be censored. Most commonly, the plot centered on the struggles of young lovers, or innamorati, whose union is hindered by one or several elders (vecchi), possibly a jealous guardian or even an aged spouse. The innamorati seek assistance from servant characters called zanni (from which the word “zany” derives) who, with cunning intervention, bring the play to a happy conclusion. Other popular scenari involved adultery, marital jealousy, and the outwitting of a foolish character by his servant. Occasionally, stock characters acted out stories from mythology and ancient Greek and Roman comedies as well. Beyond the most basic plot elements, the only scripted components of the performance were lazzi—rehearsed interludes of comic stage business, music, acrobatics, or fighting—often unrelated to the development of the scenario. The lazzi allowed actors, usually those playing the zanni, to show off a particular skill; some actors became so famous for these routines that audiences expected the “trademark” lazzi of a particular actor or troupe at each performance.
Each stock character of the commedia evolved a distinct set of attributes—characteristic speech, gestures, props, and costume—that became standard to the portrayal of the character. All characters except Pedrolino and the innamorati wore masks, a tradition deriving from ancient Roman comedies, Atellanae Fabulae, that featured character types similar to those of the commedia. Because the mask partially or entirely obscured facial expression, emphasis was placed on dialect (often reflecting regional stereotypes, as a foil to the elegant Tuscan speech of the innamorati) and exaggerated gesture to convey emotion and intention. These distinctive costumes and stylized postures held particular appeal for modelers of small sculpture such as Franz Anton Bustelli (ca. 1720–1763), who produced witty and graceful porcelain figurines of commedia characters. The cast of vecchi included Il Dottore, a wealthy old doctor from Bologna who speaks in non sequiturs, often quoting Latin inappropriately, and Pantalone, a miserly Venetian. The latter is distinguished by a costume of red vest, breeches, and hose, a black cassock, and a mask with hooked nose. A comically large codpiece alludes to his womanizing tendencies. Il Dottore wears black academic robes and a black mask that covers only the forehead and nose. He is usually depicted as obese and red-cheeked from drinking too much wine. Playing either a vecchio or a zanni, the bullying braggart Il Capitano appears in a military uniform and carries a sword, proclaiming his war victories. He reveals his cowardice whenever challenged to some act of danger or daring, and usually attempts to take the credit for other characters’ achievements. Il Capitano lends many of his traits to a later character, the waggish Scaramuccia (Scaramouche).
The zanni (servants) were in many ways the most important—and certainly the most subversive—characters of the commedia, as their antics and intrigues decided the fate of frustrated lovers, disagreeable vecchi, and each other. Perhaps best known of these is Arlecchino, or Harlequin (1974.356.525), a character whose origin is contested. It is likely that he derived either from Alichino, a demon from Dante’s Inferno (XXI-XXIII), or from Hellequin, a character from French Passion plays, also a demon charged with driving damned souls into Hell. Arlecchino is characterized as a poor man, often from Bergamo, whose diamond-patterned costume suggests that he is wearing patchwork, a sign of his poverty. His mask is either speckled with warts or shaped like the face of a monkey, cat, or pig, and he often carries a batacchio, or slapstick. Though usually a brilliant acrobat, Arlecchino is gluttonous, illiterate, and gullible. His paramour is Columbina or Arlecchina, a clever and coquettish maidservant usually in the service of the innamorata. Bustelli portrayed the patchwork-clad couple in figurines that capture their flamboyance in suspended animation.
The versatile character Brighella is sometimes vindictive, deceitful, and violent, at other times easily duped and the brunt of jokes. The character gave rise to many regional and international variants, including Figaro, Scapino, and Mezzetino (Mezzetin). He is often portrayed as a musician, most sympathetically in a canvas by Watteau (34.138) that depicts him in a moment of lovelorn melancholy. Another character of varying temperament is the Neapolitan Pulcinella. He is portrayed in loose white garments, with conical hat and a black mask with beaklike nose, and is often hunchbacked. The English character Punch derives from this type and is usually crafty and cantankerous, beating people with his batacchio at every opportunity. Other scenari depict Pulcinella as an amiable glutton, as he is portrayed-with attributes of wine, cheese, and spaghetti-in a soft-paste porcelain sculpture of Italian or Spanish origin (50.211.264). The two characters may be found in Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s A Dance in the Country (1980.67): Pulcinella’s high hat and grotesque countenance distinguish him from the crowd, while Mezzetin, in the foreground, dances with an actress.
Finally, the sweet-natured and naive Pedrolino (best known in his character variants, Pierrot and Pagliaccio) accepts blame for wrongs he has not committed. He wears white garments with his face powdered white, sometimes painted with a single teardrop alluding to his melancholy. This character was later championed by French literati of the nineteenth century, who saw the creative and solitary Pierrot as a metaphor for contemporary artists. He was famously portrayed by Baptiste Deburau of the Théâtre des Funambules in Paris, and by his son, Charles Deburau. The latter was photographed by Nadar (1820–1910) in 1855 (1998.57) for a resoundingly successful series of expressive portraits.
Meagher, Jennifer. “Commedia dell’arte.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/comm/hd_comm.htm (July 2007)
Lawner, Lynne. Harlequin on the Moon: Commedia dell'Arte and the Visual Arts. New York: Abrams, 1998.