Commedia dell'arte

Commedia dell'arte

Commedia dell'Arte (Italian: "the comedy of artists") is a form of improvisational theatre that began in Italy in the 16th century and held its popularity through the 18th century, although it is still performed today. Performances were unscripted, held outside, and used few props. They were free to watch, funded by donations. A troupe consisted of ten people: eight men and two women. Outside Italy the form was also known as "Italian Comedy".

Conventional plot lines were written on themes of adultery, jealousy, old age, and love. Many of the basic plot elements can be traced back to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, some of which were themselves translations of lost Greek comedies of the fourth century BC. Performers made use of well-rehearsed jokes and stock physical gags, known as Lazzi and Concetti, as well as, of course, on-the-spot improvised and interpolated episodes and routines, called burle (singular burla, Italian for joke), usually involving a practical joke. Since the productions were improvised, dialogue and action could easily be changed to satirize local scandals, current events, or regional tastes, while still using old jokes and punch lines. Characters were identified by costumes, masks, and even props, such as a type of baton known as a slapstick. These characters included the forebears of the modern clown, namely Harlequin (English for arlecchino) and Zanni.

The classic, traditional plot is that the innamorati are in love and wish to be married, but one elder (vecchio) or several elders (vecchi) are stopping this from happening, leading the lovers to ask one or more zanni (eccentric servants) for help. Typically the story ends happily, with the marriage of the innamorati and forgiveness for any wrongdoings. There are countless variations on this story, as well as many that diverge wholly from the structure, such as a well-known story about Arlecchino becoming mysteriously pregnant, or the Punch and Judy scenario.


  • Arlecchino - also known as Harlequin. Arlecchino is a clown. Typically acrobatic and mischievous, he is one of the zanni. He is a servant, and is recognizable by the colorful diamond-shaped patches that traditionally were part of his costume. The part is sometimes substituted with Truffaldino, his son. His mask has a low forehead with a wart, and sometimes wore a black stocking wound round the lower face and then up over the head. Arlecchino is often the servant to Pantalone, or sometimes to Il Dottore. He is in love with Colombina, but she only makes fun of him. He can often have a close relationship with the audience, involving them in the action or gesturing to them.
  • Il Capitano - swash-buckling and bold, but not necessarily heroic. Il Capitano generally wears the military dress of the period he is acting. His attire is generally foppish and overdone. Il Capitano is usually played as a braggart, a ladies man, and a cavalier, and is usually sexually driven.
  • Colombina - developed out of Arlecchino, she is his female counterpart. Usually portrayed as clever, crafty, and untamed. She is also a servant and a member of the zanni, and quite often she compels the action. She sometimes is played wearing colored patches in Arlecchino's style.
  • Il Dottore - the doctor. Seen as the learned man, but generally that impression is false. He is older, wealthy, and a member of the vecchi. Often played as pedantic, miserly, and hopelessly unsuccessful with women. He usually talks constantly about a topic, in an attempt to impress anyone who is around. Everyone else in the scene will believe what he is saying is true, but most of the time it is all made up, and this often lands everyone in more trouble and confusion.
  • The Innamorati are the lovers. The innamorato and innamorata had many different names over time ("Isabella" was a particularly popular name for the woman, as was "Flavio" for the man). They are young, righteous, and hopelessly in love with one another. They wear the most fashionable dress of the period they are acting, and never play in mask. Often seen singing, dancing, or reciting poetry. They are usually played as the children of Dottore and Pantalone depending on the situation they are in. They are madly in love but never seem able to get together.
  • Pantalone - a member of the vecchi. Usually quite wealthy, but very greedy. He is the archetypal "old miser." He cares about nothing so much as money, and will do anything in order to get it. His costume includes red pants, and often a long beard.
  • Pedrolino - the loyal servant, also known as "Pierrot" or "Pedro." He is hard, trustworthy, honest, and in every way devoted to his master. He is also charming and likable, and is portrayed wearing a loose white outfit with a neck ruff.
  • Pulcinella - sometimes called "Punch," he is portrayed as pitiable, helpless, and often physically disfigured. He usually has a hump, a distinct limp, or some other obvious physical deformity. In some portrayals he cannot speak, and expresses himself in squeaks or other strange sounds. His personality can be foolish or sly and shrewd.
  • Scaramuccia - also known as Scaramouche, he is a roguish character who wears a black velvet mask and black trousers, shirt and hat. He is usually portrayed as a buffoon or boastful coward.
  • Tartaglia - short sighted and with a terrible stutter, he is usually classed as one of the group of old characters who appears in many scenarios as one of the lovers. His social status varies; he is sometimes a bailiff, lawyer, notary or chemist. Dramatist Carlo Gozzi turned him into a statesman, and so he remained thereafter. Tartaglia wears a large felt hat, an enormous cloak, oversized boots, a long sword, a giant mustache and a cardboard nose.


Further reading

  • Commedia Dell'arte: An Actor's Handbook by John Rudlin
  • Playing Commedia and Commedia Plays by Barry Grantham
  • The Comic Mask and the Commedia dell'Arte by Antonio Fava
  • The Innamorati by Midori Snyder is a novel with the commedia as its central conceit.
  • One version of The Love Of Three Oranges is subtitled "A Play for the Theater That Takes the Commedia Dell'Arte of Carlo Gozzi and Updates it for the New Millennium". The authors are Carlo Gozzi and Hillary DePiano.
  • Flamino Scala's Il Teatro delle Favole Rappresentative, translated into English by Henry F. Salerno as Scenarios of the Commedia dell'Arte.
  • The Commedia dell'Arte by Kenneth Richards and Laura Richards is an overview of Commedia dell'Arte. It provides many original documents in translation including scenarios, lazzi and descriptions of characters, players and companies by contemporaries.
  • Martin Green and John Swan's The Triumph of Pierrot: The Commedia Dell'Arte and the Modern Imagination discusses interpretations and adaptations of Commedia dell'Arte in 20th century literature, music, art, and film.
  • An annotated bibliography from Judith Chaffee
  • Commedia dell'Arte: A Handbook for Troupes by Olly Crick and John Rudlin
  • Screener for Commedia by Fava

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