Commedia dell'arte

Commedia dell'arte (/kɒˈmdiə dɛlˈɑːrt, kə-, -ˈmɛdiə, -ˈɑːrt/;[1][2] Italian: [komˈmɛːdja delˈlarte]; lit.'comedy of the profession')[3] was an early form of professional theatre, originating from Italian theatre, that was popular throughout Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries.[4][5] It was formerly called Italian comedy in English and is also known as commedia alla maschera, commedia improvviso, and commedia dell'arte all'improvviso.[6] Characterized by masked "types", commedia was responsible for the rise of actresses such as Isabella Andreini[7] and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios.[8][9] A commedia, such as The Tooth Puller, is both scripted and improvised.[8][10] Characters' entrances and exits are scripted. A special characteristic of commedia is the lazzo, a joke or "something foolish or witty", usually well known to the performers and to some extent a scripted routine.[10][11] Another characteristic of commedia is pantomime, which is mostly used by the character Arlecchino, now better known as Harlequin.[12]

A commedia dell'arte street play during the Carnival of Venice
Commedia dell'arte Troupe on a Wagon in a Town Square by Jan Miel (1640)

The characters of the commedia usually represent fixed social types and stock characters, such as foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado.[8][13] The characters are exaggerated "real characters", such as a know-it-all doctor called Il Dottore, a greedy old man called Pantalone, or a perfect relationship like the Innamorati.[7] Many troupes were formed to perform commedia, including I Gelosi (which had actors such as Andreini and her husband Francesco Andreini),[14] Confidenti Troupe, Desioi Troupe, and Fedeli Troupe.[7][8] Commedia was often performed outside on platforms or in popular areas such as a piazza (town square).[6][8] The form of theatre originated in Italy, but travelled throughout Europe - sometimes to as far away as Moscow.[15]

The genesis of commedia may be related to carnival in Venice, where the author and actor Andrea Calmo had created the character Il Magnifico, the precursor to the vecchio (old man) Pantalone, by 1570. In the Flaminio Scala scenario, for example, Il Magnifico persists and is interchangeable with Pantalone into the 17th century. While Calmo's characters (which also included the Spanish Capitano and a dottore type) were not masked, it is uncertain at what point the characters donned the mask. However, the connection to carnival (the period between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday) would suggest that masking was a convention of carnival and was applied at some point. The tradition in Northern Italy is centred in Florence, Mantua, and Venice, where the major companies came under the protection of the various dukes. Concomitantly, a Neapolitan tradition emerged in the south and featured the prominent stage figure Pulcinella, which has been long associated with Naples and derived into various types elsewhere—most famously as the puppet character Punch (of the eponymous Punch and Judy shows) in England.

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