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Arlecchino is the most famous of the Commedia dell’Arte masks. It probably has French origins (Herlequin or Hallequin was a demon figure in Medieval French tales), and in the 16th and 17th centuries it became the Commedia players’ mask, together with the role of the second zanni (in Bergamo dialect, a nickname for Giovanni), a crafty servant figure who is a thief, liar and trickster, at loggerheads with his master and obsessed with getting money to buy food to satisfy his enormous appetite.
Over the years the character has grown more refined; his strong Bergamo brogue has transmuted into the softer lilt of the Venetian dialect and today his originally tattered costume is magnificently multicoloured.
During the 18th century Arlecchino was interpreted and rewritten by numerous authors, including Carlo Goldoni who made him more realistic.
Among the famous actors, who have donned this multicoloured costume, we might mention: Tristano Martinelli (died in 1630), Domenico Biancolelli (1646-1688), Angelo Costantini (1654-1729), Evaristo Gherardi (1663-1770) and in more recent years, Marcello Moretti (1910-1962) and Ferruccio Soleri.


Balanzone, one of the group of old people in the Commedia dell’Arte, is a serious old chap who tends to be pompous. This lawyer or doctor is rather big headed airing his opinions about all and sundry. He is notoriously too talkative and readily sticks Latin quotations and strange ramblings into his discourse about philosophy, science, medicine and law. This regal, hearty figure wears a small mask, covering only his nose and eyebrows, that rests on a huge moustache. His black suit, complete with white collar and cuffs, is deadly serious and very elegant. An enormous hat, jacket and cape are part of his attire. Thanks to Domenico Lelli, one of the most famous actors who played the part, Balanzone became synonymous with the learned Bolognese lawyer, rather stuffy and always picking hairs. In more recent times Bruno Lanzarini and Andrea Matteuzzi have interpreted the role.


Beltrame is a Milanese mask first recorded in the 16th century. He is often known by the nickname “de Gaggian”, from Gaggiano, a small village on the outskirts of Milan, where he was born. He is also called “de la Gippa” due to the flowing tunic he wears. He is of peasant stock and a bit of a blunderer who would like to appear of higher rank than he really is. During the 17th century Beltrame played several husband parts and made a reputation for himself as a “crafty, astute villager”. Tradition has it that it was the celebrated player Nicolò Barbieri (Vercelli, 1576), a member of both the Gelosi e Confidenti Companies, who created the role.


This mask probably originated in the Bergamo area, but its fame derives from actor Carlo Cantù (1609-1676 circa) who played the part for many years. In the Commedia tradition Brighella plays the role of “first zanni”, the wily servant who schemes against Pantalone, or aids the star-crossed young lovers whose parents are against their marriage. During the 17th and 18th centuries, he develops in a very different way from the second zanni (the role of the silly servant often embodied by Arlecchino). It was thanks to Goldoni that he transmuted into a faithful, wise servant, sometimes serving wayward masters, astute inn owners or respectable father figures. His costume changed over the years until it became a white livery suit consisting of a flowing green braided tunic, with green stripes down the sleeves and trousers. The famous actors who have played Brighella include Atanasio Zannoni in the 18th century.


A military man is present in the Commedia dell’Arte right from the start, both in the serious role of Capitan Spaventa and the more absurd one of Capitan Matamoros. The origins of this last role date back to Plautus’ “Miles Gloriosus” and mercenaries who flocked through Italy at the time. Base and vainglorious, Matamoros boasts bombastically how he has carried out many imaginary adventures and so conceals his real nature. This is why he is often mocked and rejected by those women whom he does his best to woo. He’s got a huge beard ad moustache and flaunts a brightly coloured costume, an enormous feathered hat and a massive sword that swings about his thighs threatening to trip the actor up. Silvia Fiorillo (who lived in the second part of the 17th century) was famous in the role, as well as in his celebrated rendition of Pulcinella.


The history and fortune of Capitan Spaventa of Vall’Inferna is inextricably linked to his creator and interpreter Francesco Andreini (1548-1624). Andreini joined the Gelosi troupe at the end of the 16th century, married Isabella and performed with her for many years in France and Italy, with great popularity. He wrote a collection of stories called, “The Brave Deeds of Capitan Spaventa”, including several scenes where the nature of this character emerges. Andreini described the role he loved playing as ”one of an arrogant, ambitious and braggart soldier”. In reality the character he invented is a cultivated, sensitive man, not in the least vainglorious like Capitan Metamoros, but something of a poet and dreamer, who has trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. He cuts a fine figure in his well groomed attire, made up of a brightly coloured striped costume and a striking feathered hat. He’s got a large moustache and nose, while an enormous sword swinging from his belt strikes fear into all and sundry.


Cassandro belongs to the group of “old people” including Pantalone and Zenobbio. His origins are uncertain, even if he is recorded as belonging to the Company of the Gelosi, whose actor Gerolamo Salimbeni played the role. In the comedies, often in the part of the son’s rival, he opposes the young lovers to prevent them from getting married for many different reasons. We know very little about his original costume. In the course of the 18th century he became quite famous and his present-day appearance became slowly discernible. In 18th century illustrations he is depicted as a red faced old man, with small glasses sitting on his nose and a bright yellow wig. His 18th century costume is extremely elegant, complete with stick in hand. He is often holding a watch and a tobacco pouch.


Columbine is certainly the most famous of the Commedia servants and probably one of the oldest masks. As early as 1530 the name figures in the Company of the Intronati, one of the most important Commedia troupes. Columbine is usually depicted as a wily, bitchy, spiteful woman. While hers is not usually a major role in the play, she is extremely capable of solving intricate situations and is important in carrying the story along. She usually wears a simple, light coloured dress with a bright apron and a bonnet slightly askew. The actresses who have played the role include: Isabella Biancolelli Franchini and Caterina Biancolelli, who lived in the 17th century, and in more recent times, Narcisa Bonardi who played Columbine in many of Giorgio Strehler’s productions.


This mask dating back to the 16th century was particularly widespread in Central and Southern Italy, where it is known by the surnames, Cetrullo, Cetrulli, Ciavala, Gazzo or Gardocchia. Coviello, the shorter form of Iacoviello (Giacomino), does not usually play a precise or fixed role. Sometimes he is silly, sometimes a vulgar show off, a scheming innkeeper, a silly servant, a mild family man, according to the play’s requirements. His appearance likewise changes. In 17th century engravings by Francesco Bertarelli he is shown with long, tight trousers, a tight waistcoat and a short cape. He wears a mask with an enormous nose, where a pair of huge spectacles sits tight. He plays a mandolin. Ambrogio Buonomo, Gennaro Sacco, Salavator Rosa and Giacomo Rauzzini are some of the famous actors who have interpreted the part.


This characters derives from the Roman tradition of atellanae (a popular farce, originating in the city of Atella, of an irreverent and vulgar sort, featuring stock characters whose behaviour and costumes are fixed). Dosseno is known for his traditional humpback that reflects a particular state of mind, in this case, a nasty deceptive tendency. Dosseno is sometimes a thief or a trickster who might be old or young but who is invariably ugly and clumsy. All in all he is a foul-mouthed charlatan.


Facanapa, belonging to the group of old people, was initially a Venetian marionette, from Rovigo or Verona (where he was synonymous with Fra Canapa, a rather plump friar, famous for his enormous nose). He owes his celebrity to the marionette master and his inventor Antonio Reccardini (1804-1876) in the early years of the 19th century. Facanapa is sometimes a servant, at other times a master, rich or poor. Good-hearted, witty and sociable, he enjoys good food but even more loves indulging in a drink or two. He is invariably well groomed with a tight dark tailcoat, a red waistcoat, breeches, with a black cocked hat. He has a peculiar way of talking insofar as he emphasises each syllable and slurs his words in a manner that make people laugh.


Flaminia is one of the many Commedia masks of a woman in love. The young Innamorati always fight tooth and nail with the older generation who do their level best to give them a hard time. These young women are by and large more determined than the young men, both in demanding love and rejecting suitors whom they consider unworthy. They are hot headed and willing to go to any length to win the object of their desire; if need be, they are quite prepared to cross dress. The actresses who play this role have to be great talkers and capable of switching quickly from one role to another. They must be elegant, good looking and cultivated. Among the actresses who have interpreted the part: Isabella Andreini (1562-1604), Virginia Andreini Ramponi (1583-1630) and their contemporary and rival Vittoria Pissimi.


Flavio is one of the large group of Innamorati (Lovers) who are a regular part of the Commedia dell’Arte tradition and usually performed by a leading player. The Innamorati had to be good looking, cultivated and capable of a high flown declarations of love and remorse in the game of courtship. Needless to say their bombast abounds in metaphor and punning. Flavio’s character was never very rounded since the actor playing the role was expected to invent suitable stage business. The costume, without a mask, is very elegant and fashionable.


This is the typical mask of the Piedmont region, recorded as early as the beginning of the 19th century and associated with puppeteer Giovan Battista Sales. He invented Gianduja when he was forced to stop performing stories about his character Gerolomo seeing the dangerous censorious allusions to Napoleon and to his brother Gerolamo di Westphalia. Gerolomo shares several well-known characteristics with people from Piedmont: wit, light-heartedness as well as a love of freedom and patriotism. Gianduja is a peasant figure, full of common sense, apparently naive, fond of women and practical jokes. There are two hypotheses concerning his name; the first suggests it derives from “Gioan d’la douja” meaning “John of the wine flacon” while the second has it that the name denotes “Jean Andouille” or “Giovanni sausage”. His costume is classically elegant, typical of the eighteenth century, with a brown cloth jacket, green breeches, a yellow doublet and red socks. He is often seen wearing a cocked hat and a wig with a pony tail. Following Sales, the Lupi brothers continued performing the adventures of Gianduja with great popular success. In the ensuing centuries he has been interpreted by many actors including Giovanni Toselli, who made him even more famous.


The name of Giangurgolo, according to some derives from Giuseppe Golapieno, while according to others it is a version of Zan Gurgolo, given the man’s insatiable appetite. It originated in the 18th century in Calabria. According to Giuseppe Petral, author of the “spirit of masks”, Giangurgolo comprises a caricature of the noble Sicilian, who was popular in Calabria after 1713, or more precisely when Sicily had succumbed to the reign of Savoy.


The beginning of the 19th century saw the beginning of Gioppino in the area of Bergamo, even if very little is known about its precise origins. The mask was first officially recorded onstage in 1820 thanks to the puppeteer Battaglia, who Luigi Volpi mentions. Many scholars, instead, claim its origins are much earlier, substantiating their hypothesis with illustrations where its three humps can be clearly seen. Gioppino is a typical peasant figure full of common sense and a lover of good food and wine. He invariably manages to get himself out of tricky situations by adhering to the popular motto: “big feet but a clever mind”. His costume is typically eighteenth century, featuring a red jacket of coarse material with green trimmings, a white shirt, black hat and a stick he uses to make sure people come round quickly to his way of thinking.


This is the name frequently ascribed to the “Innamorata”, a woman in love, whose specific characteristics often depended on the actress playing the part. Isabella Canale Andreini (1562.1604), a member of the Gelosi company, was famous for her good looks and literary penchant. She was an outstanding interpreter of this mask and highly popular with audiences in France and Italy.


Leandro belongs to the large Innamorati group of Commedia characters. While the Innamorati share common traits like youthfulness, beauty, culture and elegance, each actor’s interpretation gave them a degree of individuality. The general scenarios of a play allowed actors considerable leeway in their interpretation of a particular role. Well-known interpreters of this mask include Giovan Battista Andreini nicknamed “Lelio” (1576-1654), a member of the Fedeli Company and a talented actor and a man of culture.


Macco is one of the typical masks of the atellan tradition of Latin origin. He is a rather vulgar peasant type, a greedy guzzler, who usually ends up whipped and led off by his nose. In various illustrations he is bald and with a hooked nose, large ears and only a few teeth left, which make him look a bit retarded and fuddled. He has a hump on his front and back and wears a white baggy costume, suggesting his name “albus mimus”. The name’s origins are uncertain; according to some it suggests a silly, rather stupid individual, while for others it comes from “maco” a pureed bean dish, whose bluish purple colour resembles the bruises the character invariably suffers.


This mask originated in Rome at the end of the 17th century in a poem by Giuseppe Berneri, where he appears as a braggart soldier ever ready to tell a pack of lies. His name derives from “patacca”, a solder’s wages. He wears tight knee-length trousers, a tattered velvet coat and a colourful scarf around his waist where he hides a sword. His hair is held tight in a net with a characteristic lock sticking out. Following a decline in popularity due to 18th century censorship, Meo Patacca was revived in the 19th century by Annibale Sansoni and Filippo Tacconi, nicknamed, “the hunchback”, an author-actor who invented new stories full of irony and satire which deeply angered church authorities.


Meneghino is the typical Milanese mask whose origins probably date back to Plautus’ “Menecmi”, or Ruzante’s “Menego” , or more simply from the “Domenighini”, the servants employed at Sunday services. A lighthearted and extroverted figure, in scenarios he does not usually play a fixed role; he might be a servant, a master, a silly peasant or a cunning merchant. Menghino’s specific characteristics were defined in the course of the 17th century above all in the literary works of Carlo Maria Maggi, who gave him the surname of Pecenna, “a hairdresser” given his habit of criticising the aristocracy. In the first decades of the 19th century Carlo Porta highlighted his way of censoring both the clergy and aristocracy. Menghino is good natured and likes a quiet life. He is moral, dignified and very wise. Over the centuries he became the symbol of the Milanese who believed in fighting for their freedom during the Austrian occupation. Among the most famous actors who have played the part, we should remember Gaetano Piomarta, Giuseppe Monclavo, Luigi Preda, Tagliebue Malfatti. During the 20th century Meneghino gradually disappeared from the stage and became a regular feature of puppet and marionette shows.


Mezzettino is one of the many zanni figures, typically crafty and scheming, who are capable of a fascinating mixture of Brighella’s and Scapino’s tricks. His name appears to derive from “a half pint flacon”. Recorded as early as the first decades of the 17th century, it was performed by Ottavio Onorati of the Confidenti Company. The mask is found again in 1675 in an engraving by Gérard Jollain, where he is seen in his characteristic costume decorated with multicoloured stripes and diamonds. Still it was Angelo Costantini (1654-1729), an actor from Verona, who turned Mezzettino into a star role. Costantini had been invited to France by the Italian Troupe where Domenico Biancolelli was employed, and the two actors soon took it in turns to play Arlecchino. Later, though, Biancolelli’s rivalry caused Costantini to leave the company. He virtually invented the part of the crafty, clever servant, who regularly gets himself into scrapes but is equally capable of getting off Scot free. Costantini’s Mezzettino wore a red and white striped costume, without a mask. He usually had a guitar that he played magnificently.


The origins of this mask are certainly Venetian, as is the dialect he speaks. The reasons for his name are more uncertain: somebody has suggested the term “pianta leoni”, the name given to Venetian merchants who traditionally put up a flag featuring lions wherever they carried out their business; it has likewise been suggested it derives from the trousers the character wore from the very beginning (in Italian “pantaloni” signifies trousers). Whatever the truth, the well-known costume made up by tight black trousers, a red waistcoat , a long loose black coat, slippers and a mask with a long beak nose was present from the start. A short sword and a bag containing money (known as “scarsela”) are likewise part and parcel of the character’s accessories. Energetic and sensual, Pantalone is typical of many a middle aged merchant who runs after young women and make enemies of the young men whom he considers his rivals. It was Carlo Goldoni who toned down Pantalone’s contradictions turning him into a level-headed, wise old man, whose common sense manages to pacify the young people. Worthy of note are actors like Giulio Pasquati (the second half of the 16th century), F.Ricci, Antonio Riccoboni (first half of the 17th century) and Cesare D’Arbres (1710-1778) who played the role.


This is a Sicilian mask whose name “Peppi”, in Sicilian dialect, comes from Giuseppe, while “nappa” denotes the darn in his socks. So the name in full means “John darn in his socks” or, in other words, a good for nothing. His stage costume has a baggy white jacket, trousers and a felt hat. He is without a mask or particular make up. He is extremely greedy and never stops stuffing himself so he loves being in the kitchen where he can taste his favourite food. In the stories he is often a lazy servant figure who nonetheless manages to astound spectators with his tricks.


Pucinella is one of the most famous masks from Southern Italy. It originated in the 17th century when it is recorded in many illustrations. Still some of these would seem to suggest it derives from the atellan tradition and specifically from characters such as Macco and Dosseno, with whom it shares a characteristic humpback, paunch and a touch of nastiness. Pucinella’s costume recalls the one worn by the zanni. He wears a baggy white shirt gathered tightly into a black belt, which hangs over trousers that look ready to fall down at any moment. His is a clean-shaven, black mask, with tiny beady eyes and a hooked nose, which makes his voice shrill and squeaky. Some actors and puppeteers have used a particular instrument known as “sgherlo” or “pivetta” to produce this unusual voice. The hooked nose and voice, resembling a chick (in Italian “pulcino”), also seem to have influenced the choice of name. The character belongs to the zanni group even if he is more complex. He is a stupid servant type but on occasion he possesses the common sense and intelligence of ordinary folk. He is a mixture of vitality and restlessness, sadness and a readiness to show his amazement when faced with anything new. Traditionally Silvio Fiorillo, who lived in the second part of the 16th century and was a member of the Accesi troupe, invented this mask. Following Fiorillo, the next actor to play the part successfully was Antonio Petito (1822-‘76), who bestowed the character with greater psychological realism.


From the very beginning of the Commedia dell’Arte, Ragonda was one of several masks modelled on the figure of a maidservant. Usually a mature woman and well acquainted with the ways of the world, she serves a mistress whom she is ready to help out of trouble and is particularly skilled at helping her mistress when she is rejected by the man she loves. She does not mince her words, she is never vulgar and shows herself full of common sense and wisdom.
Traditionally her costume is a simple one; a large gathered skirt with an apron tied tight round her waist, a blouse and a small cap.


This is a Roman mask belonging to the puppet theatre tradition whose name derives from “ruganza” (arrogance). In this more popular version, he is one of the Capitan types, who is always rowing and comes off the worse. When he first appeared he was a kind of policeman figure or the leader of the Bandello squad who never tire of arresting innocent people to show how strong they are. As time went by, he swapped his military costume for plain clothes and dropped his negative side. He grew lazy and good natured and went to live in a Rome where justice and cordiality prevail.
He then started dressing eccentrically in a red waistcoat and large red hat.
Rugantino has had a number a fine interpreters ranging from Tacconi to Nino Tamburri, Nino Slari and the popular storyteller, Sor Capanna.


The figure of Ruzante is the literary invention of the actor writer Angelo Beolco (Padua 1500 circa - 1542) and should not be included among the Commedia masks without a proviso. While certain characteristics link him to anti-villains, he is a character who only came fully to life when the author himself interpreted the part onstage. Ruzante became synonymous to a rather vulgar peasant who was a thief and a murderer. He suffered from an inferiority complex even towards his servants and his peers but always managed to make spectators sympathise with his existential dilemma.
There are two hypothesis concerning his name: The first comes from his surname. a very common one in the area of the Padana plain, and it might be mocking a rather well-known figure; the second hypothesis alludes to the obscene habit of some peasants of having sexual intercourse with their animals.
Gianfranco De Bosio, Franco Parenti, Dario Fo and Paolo Rossi are among the celebrities who have played this role.


This mask from the area of Modena represents a typically vulgar and ignorant peasant type. Despising his own lowly origins, he is anxious to appear more educated than he really is. Instead of dialect he does his best to speak Italian but the result is garbled and often without meaning. He usually wears a dark jacket with a spotted waistcoat and a familiar red and white striped night cap.
Puppeteer Luigi Campogiallini (1775-1839) is generally thought to have invented Sandrone even if an almanac compiled in Reggio Calabria mentions a character called Sandron Zigolla da Ruvolta. Later Luigi’s wife Pulonia and a son by the name of Sgurgheguel (Sgorghignello) joined him.


This mask, part of the servant group, is particularly famous for his musical talent. He usually appears carrying a guitar, a custom probably due to the first interpreter, one Francesco Gabrielli (1588-1636), a fine actor and excellent singer, composer and musical instrument maker.
Over the years the costume changed from a flowing white suit with a mask, pointed feathered hat, wooden sword into a typical Brighella attire, namely a beautiful white costume trimmed in various colours, and a whitened face instead of the usual mask.
Molière managed to make Scapino famous thanks to the lead role he gave him in his 1671 play, “Les Furberies de Scapin”.


This is the most typical of the Florentine masks, famous for its Tuscan wit and trenchant good humour. It was first performed at the Teatro dei Fiorentini in Naples. Luigi del Buono, a former clockmaker, invented it after he had been struck by Pulcinella’s popularity in the south and decided he would invent something similar for Florence.
Among its interpreters are Del Buono himself, followed by Lorenzo Camelli, Gaetano Capelletti, Amanto Ricci and Raffaele Zandini.


Tabbarino, a very old mask, was already part of the first Commedia dell’Arte performances, and probably owes its name to the Venetian actor Giovanni Tabarin (16th century), or else to the tabacco pouch that was part and parcel of his accessories. Besides a mask, Tabarrino wore a yellow and green shirt and a black felt hat which he twisted into different shapes to keep audiences spellbound.
The character disappeared after Tabarrino’s death but was revived in the 17th century by several actors, and more specifically by Giovan Battista Meghini, who made the character a member of the merchant class. In this version he became a bitter, scathing family man who was always running after women. Later Tabarrino became a character in puppet and marionette shows.


Tartaglia, short sighted and a terrible stutterer (hence the name), is usually classified as one of the group of old characters who appears in many scenarios as one of the Innamorati (lover).
It is thought he came into existence in 1630 thanks to a certain Beltrami from Verona. His social status varies; he is sometimes a bailiff, lawyer, notary or chemist. It was dramatist Carlo Gozzi who turned him into a statesman and so he remained.
Tartaglia enjoyed outstanding success in Naples where towards mid 17th century he was played by Carlo Merlino, followed by Agostino Fiorilli. In recent years Gianfranco Mauri in Goldoni’s “Arlecchino Servant of Two Masters” directed by Giorgio Strehler, gave an outstanding performance.


This character belongs to the multiple variations on the second zanni or stupid servant, where we can likewise find Arlecchino. Trivellino’s costumes is very like Arlecchino’s. He features in only one illustration dressed in an elegantly fitted, white costume decorated with a geometric triangle pattern.
Famous interpreters include: Andrea Franconi, Domenico Locatelli, Domenico Biancolelli and Carlo Sangiorgi. In contrast to other characters, Trivellino’s popularity did not continue in the puppet and marionette theatres.


This mask has many variations (divinities, wood spirits, protectors of fields and nature) according to the region, even if certain characteristics remain the same.
A natural spirit, he is traditionally described as half man, half beast, who roams the woods with a rod in his hand, his body completely covered in hair ad with a horrible face. His first appearance onstage dates back to 1206 in “Magnus Ludus de quodam homine selvatico, while traces of him can be found in many Commedia masks, where he embodies a mix of violence, ingenuity spite, receklessness, all of which have made Arlecchino so popular over the centuries.


In the Commedia tradition the crafty, unreliable, silly servant type was called “zanni”. In the 16th century the part changed from simply one that carried the story along to a more rounded character, an independent mask clad in a flowing white costume. Later the role extended to cover both the first zanni (or zani) , the wily servant who gets up to tricks, and the second zanni, a stupid fellow who was expected to make audiences laugh by interrupting the main action with his pranks and entertaining mimicry and antics. Among the masks who played the role of the first zanni, Truffaldino and Brighella are outstanding, while the second zanni was played by Arlecchino and Pulcinella.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Sep. 7th, 2006 02:18 am (UTC)
So, these are "stock characters," and the Commedia dell'Arte playwright composes scenes where, in essence, everyone knows what's coming as soon as one of these performers comes on stage?
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )