At a time when actors and actresses are idolized as celebrities, it’s natural to think of acting as a profitable profession. Well, it hasn’t always been this way.
In fact, acting as a profession began in Europe, specifically in the northern Italian city of Padua, in 1545: for the first time in history, a group of actors undersigned a notarial deed to form a company with the sole purpose of earning money thanks to their work.
This new form of theatre was called Commedia dell’arte, literally ancient Italian for “comedy of the profession”: it was highly popular across Europe from the 16th through to the 18th century.
Commedia dell’arte was characterized by innovative features:
- the audience paid a ticket, contrary to previous practice when princes sponsored shows and offered them to the public for free;
- the plays were performed in private theatres, instead of open squares;
- the actors specialized in archetypal, stock characters and resorted to a combination of fixed jokes, recurrent physical gags and scenario-based improvisation to perform their plays;
- the language depended on each character, which usually had peculiar origins: during a show, the audience would hear a bunch of different Italian languages, but also other European languages like Spanish or French.
What is arguably the most important and successful novelty was introduced around 1570: Commedia dell’arte brought women on stage and let them become actresses. Female roles then began to be represented by women, instead of men. This fact caused curiosity among the public and harsh criticism from the clergy. The Church inveighed against the comedians and even attempted to marginalize them, denying them sacraments and refusing to bury them in consecrated ground.
Funnily enough, this increased, rather than stifled the appeal of the companies: they created a parallel society with its own rules and ways of living, where the people who didn’t fit into contemporary society felt more at ease.
The shows were mainly about love, sex, jealousy and old age, but also local scandals and current events. Nowadays, people remember Commedia dell’arte mostly for its stock characters, also called maschere (the Italian word for “masks”) because several costumes included actual masks. They can be categorized in families.
Gli Innamorati, or “the lovers”
Typically, there would be one or two couples of young, rich, hopeless lovers in each play. They were characterized by being overly dramatic and very fashionable. They spoke perfect Tuscan Italian and had noble-sounding names, such as Rosaura or Isabella for women and Flavio or Flaminio for men.
I Vecchi, or “the old men”
The purpose of these characters was to ridicule stereotypical, old Italian men. In a play, there were usually two of them and they were fathers to some Innamorati, whose love they obstructed. Their traits included being mean, suspicious and immoral, they usually fell in love with much younger women and competed with younger men, even if they never stood a chance. The two main stock characters are:
- Pantalone, or Pantaloon, a Venetian merchant. He’s extremely greedy, petty and self-absorbed. Even if he thinks very highly of himself, the other characters consider him a fool.
- Balanzone, or Il Dottore, a Bolognese erudite. He represents a parody of the educated intellectual class: he attended the University of Bologna and presents himself as an expert on all fields, even if for the most part he doesn’t have any idea of what he’s talking about. He comically pairs with Pantalone, either as a friend, mentor or competitor.
Gli Zanni, or “the male servants”
The male servants were usually the dynamic centerpiece of the comedy and were fundamental in developing the romantic intrigue. There were usually two of them: one was cunning and sharp, while the other was dumb and chaotic.
- Arlecchino, or Harlequin, is probably the most iconic maschera, distinguished by his colourful, chequered costume. Born as the dumb servant, later on he became smarter and romantic. Even though he was presented as originating from lower Bergamo, it can be said that he’s the most pan-European character: his speech became a mixture of Italian and French as he gained popularity.There are several fascinating theories about the European origin of his name. “Harlequin” could be indeed a variation of French Hellequin, the leader of a group of demons who chased the souls of the damned in medieval French passion plays. At the same time, “Hellequin” is connected to English Herla cyning, German Erlkönig and Danish ellekonge: they are all mythological figures who represent the “king of the fairies” or one of the leaders of the pagan Wild Hunt.Finally, a carnivalesque, mischievous devil named Alichino is found in Dante’s Inferno. Not by coincidence, the primary aspect of Arlecchino was physical agility, used mainly to trick other characters.
- Pierrot is an example of maschera born later and outside of Italy; in fact, he started to appear in the late 1600s in Paris. Famous for being a sad clown, he originated as a naive and clumsy servant.
Il Capitano, or “the Captain”
This category of stock characters represent the parody of men who brag and lie about their past, benefiting from the fact that they are usually unknown to the locals. They often speak highly of their bravery, but in the end are easily frightened.
Based on Plautus’s Miles gloriosus and Terence’s Eunuchus, those characters were often Spaniards and bore ironic names, such as Capitan Spaventa (Italian for “Captain Fear”), Fracassa (Italian, “Uproar”), Matamoros (Spanish, “Killer of Moors) and Scaramuccia or Scaramouche (Italian and French, both “Skirmish”).
La Servetta, or “the serving maid”
Typically a counterpart to the Zanni characters. The most famous character is called Colombina, also spelled Columbina or Colombine. She was very down-to-earth, intelligent and gossipy. Her primary role was that of a servant to the Innamorata: her job was to help the latter gain the affection of her beloved.
Colombina also boasted a love interest of her own: she often played the role of Harlequin’s lover, or even Pierrot’s wife – whose heart usually broke. She also had to fend off advances by Pantaloon and the Captain.