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Who's who in Commedia dell'Arte

by Fabio Bonvicini last modified 2008-06-20 15:12

Witty, bawdy and downright fun, we take a look at the genre which brought us Punch, Pierrot, Charlie Chaplin and - who knows - maybe even Homer Simpson . . .

Commedia dell'arteDonning elaborate fancy dress and masks is a time-honoured part of the Italian Carnival tradition . Every town in every region is represented - and in some cases defined - by a particular character.
Leaving behind the Middle Ages and the Graeco-Roman period, let's concentrate on the Renaissance and the Commedia dell'Arte - an improvised form of popular comic theatre - which introduced many of the masks that are still popular in Italy today. In the Commedia dell'Arte tradition there are four main character types - Servants, Elders, Lovers and Captains - from which the other stock characters are derived. We call them stock characters because the same characters crop up in different shows. Each character has their own mannerisms allowing the audience to recognise and identify with them as soon as they walk on stage - just think of pantomime. Favourite characters include: Zanni (a Renaissance equivalent of Homer Simpson who we can thank for the word zany), Harlequin (Bart as opposed to Homer), Pantalone ( a rich, old lecherous man - in Simpsons' terms, Mr Burns), the Doctor (a loquacious quack also known as Balanzone), the various lovers (Isabella, Aurora, Flavio and Lelio to name but a few) and last, but not least the Captain (a pompous macho man not unlike the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz). We can still experience Commedia dell'Arte-style improvisation in the plays of the popular 18th Century Venetian dramatist Carlo Goldoni, as well as in the work of minor family-run theatre companies who continue the tradition as well as puppet shows (Punch - as in Punch and Judy - is none other than the Commedia's Pulcinella).

The ancient tradition of masquerading is alive and well even out of Carnival season. Actors, mask-makers and puppeteers all breathe life into the stylised leather and wooden faces which belong to the characters. Those of you interested in the history of mask should visit one of the many puppet museums, located throughout the world. If you're lucky enough to speak Italian then you'll undoubtedly enjoy a look at BUMA (a virtual puppet museum),the Museo della maschera mediterranea or the recently opened Museo della maschera in Rocca Grimalda (in Liguria).

And there's nothing quite like a visit to Venice Carnival to give you a feel for the characters, costumes and the stories they bring with them.
Venice Carnival
Photos - from past carnivals

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