An Introduction

Commedia integrates:

• linear narrative and episodic narrative

• written and improvised theatre

• masked and unmasked characters

• poetry and obscenity

It is impossible to find a universally accepted ‘definition’ of Commedia dell’Arte due to its complexity and longevity. However, we can identify some major ‘performative’ features and principles particularly relevant to contemporary performance:

• The notion of Actor as Creator (= it’s an Actor’s Theatre)

• The Ensemble/Collaborative process

• The Use of Improvisation

• Playfulness

• The Body as a Medium of Expression

• The Exploration of the Grotesque and the Absurd

• The Importance of the Audience (the notion of the ‘4th wall’ didn’t exist back then!) & Audience Interaction

• The mixing of codes, stylistic promiscuity, parody, satire and irony

• ‘Interdisciplinarity’: use of dance, mime, singing and intermezzi.

The Name 'Dell'Arte'

Commedia was born in the streets and the marketplace where it was easier to attract an audience and make a profit. Indeed, Commedia dell’Arte means ‘comedy performed by professional actors’, those who are recognised as artists and make a living out of it - to distinguish it from the courtly amateurs. The word Arte (Art in Italian) meant craft. According to Rudlin it “should be translated both ‘tradesmanship’ and ‘artistic know-how’. For Fo “arte implied the incorporation of the dramatic arts; and brought together those who were authorised to perform” meaning above all the ‘association of professionals’ like a guild or union.

The name Commedia dell’Arte was never utilised during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. It’s a late invention attributed to Carlo Goldoni who employed it to distinguish “masked and improvised comedy from scripted comedy.” The most frequent terms used to define commedia during its ‘Golden Age’ are: Commedia degli Zanni; Commedia all’ Improvvisa; Commedia delle maschere; and Commedia mercenaria. Descriptive terms indicating its main characters (the Zanni), its style (improvised and masked) and its function: a ‘mercenary art’ because performed by actors who made a living out of it. Outside Italy it was also known as Commedia all’Italiana (Italian comedy). The term Commedia dell’Arte is however the most accurate term according to many scholars and practitioners “because it identifies perhaps the most historically significant aspect of the ‘invention’: professionalism.” (Fava, A. 2007, p25). Fava argues that “at its birth Commedia was above all a practical idea: a theatrical spectacle fashioned to be sold to make a profit capable of sustaining the artist and financing further artistic project.” (Fava, A., 2007, Introduction, xvi).

I would call it Commedia degli Attori…'An Actor’s Comedy. It is indeed An Actor’s theatre that cannot be interpreted and understood through the parameters of literature. It’s theatre not drama. There was not an author nor a director. There was however a corago who would orchestrate the overall performance. Each actor would bring his/her own set of well-rehearsed pieces. The Zibaldone o Libro Generico consisted in a ‘catalogue’ of written material collected by the company. It could include monologues, soliloquies, dialogues, ‘concetti’, ‘goodbyes’, ‘first entrances’, exits etc…Each actor had his/her ‘tricks of the trade’ ready to be used at the appropriate moment. Within the clear and precise corago’s structure or choreography, actors had the freedom to improvise utilising their repertoire of rehearsed material that included the lazzi (acti) o giochi scenici. Literally translated as ‘stage games’ or ‘comic gags’. Well-rehearsed routines – predominantly physical – with great comic effect.

Balli di Sfessania by Jacques Callot (1622)

The Context

Commedia is the result of a meeting between oral culture and literature, folk traditions and ancient drama, improvisation and structured scenarios, linear and episodic narrative, masked and unmasked characters, sublime poetry and obscenity. It is the result of the fruitful encounter between popular and 'high' culture; between the midlevel folk cultures of the marketplace with its jesters, clowns, buffoni, fools, storytellers, charlatans and acrobats and the written culture of Courts and academia (Ancient Greek comedy, Plautus and Terence, Renaissance plays). Commedia had a massive impact in the development of the written drama of the time. Some of the most illustrious testaments of its legacy are Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Moliere, Shakespeare and obviously Goldoni.

Commedia dell’Arte’s Masks reflect the fragmentation of the country and its multiple languages and cultural identities: Pantalone is from Venice; Zanni and Arlecchino (Harlequin) from Bergamo; Dottor Balanzone from Bologna; Pulcinella from Naples; the Capitano (the Captain) is usually a Spanish soldier or from Calabria - a region in Southern Italy occupied by the Spanish monarchy.

Both Church censorship and the so-called late-Renaissance ‘high culture’ acted as a ‘filter’ between the vast and complex artistic expressions of the time and contemporary scholars. Fortunately, some ‘unconventional sources’ – personal diaries, letters, travellers’ accounts, artists’ notes - escaped censorship and provide invaluable insights on commedia dell’arte and its popular roots. Paradoxically the outraged invectives of the clergy offer a fundamental contribution to the understanding of commedia, its revolutionary nature and its impact on the audiences of that time - although their original intent was to send commedia to oblivion!

Written and pictorial documentation are not enough to determine with absolute certainty neither its origins not its style and techniques. Some scholars and practitioners’ views of Commedia dell’Arte relied only these sources resulting in a limiting and limited understanding of this complex artistic phenomenon. Indeed, there is another ‘channel’ through which Commedia dell’Arte has been growing and transforming throughout the centuries: orality. This is the ancient non-written oral tradition of jesters, storytellers, mimes, acrobats, clowns and mountebanks that flourished throughout all Europe since antiquity throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque period. This is the popular culture that Bakhtin called ‘Carnivalised culture of the marketplace’. In Italy scholar Roberto Tessari and practitioner Dario Fo amongst others have been at the forefront of the debate on Commedia’s popular origins. They both recognise the importance of the dramatic tradition - since ancient Greek comedy onwards - but they also emphasise the massive role that popular culture had in the development of commedia dell’arte.

Even though this inheritance is widely acknowledged, English literature seems to focus mainly what I would label ‘institutionalised commedia’ and its written texts (e.g. scenari) placing it de-facto within the ‘dominant’ tradition of ‘dramatic theatre’. This might explain why although the masks have been utilised extensively both as a pedagogical and a creative tool the focus has been mainly on its historical aspects (academic approach) or slapstick rather than its ‘dark’ and subversive qualities. Pantomime and other forms of popular entertainments might have altered the way people interpret commedia Masks and their world; putting, perhaps, too much emphasis on its comic gags (lazzi).

Across Europe and in the UK there are many examples of companies and practitioners who try to keep alive the heritage of Commedia dell’Arte by performing traditional scenarios and working with the traditional leather masks (Antonio Fava, Carlo Boso, Claudia Contin and many others) often re-contextualising the themes and situations to appeal to a contemporary audience. Other practitioners focused mainly on the physical approach to characterisation, ensemble work and improvisation. This is the case for some of the most influential practitioners of the twentieth century, who developed their training and practice integrating commedia masks in their work. Amongst others Copeau, Lecoq and Meyerhold left a strong legacy. Other pivotal practitioners are Dario Fo, Ariane Mnouchine, Eugenio Barba, Carlo Mazzone-Clementi and Phillip Gaulier; and in the UK companies such as Told by an Idiot, Complicite, Ophaboom and Rude Mechanicals. The physical approach to characterisation, slapstick routines, acrobatics, ensemble work and improvisation are the legacy of commedia recognisable not only in physical theatre, clownery and ‘traditional’ circus arts but also in ‘new mime’ and ‘new circus’, James Thierry being one of the most successful examples. Literature on this specific approach to commedia is widely available.

The Masks = Commedia 'Types' or Archetypes

The following list include some - not all - the Masks (= Social Types) of Commedia dell'Arte.

  • The Servants: the big colourful family of Servants include Zanni, Arlecchino (Harlequin) and Pulcinella. The term zanni can be also used as a 'generic noun referring to all the servants of Commedia dell'Arte; i.e. Arlecchino, Pulcinella, Fritellino, Coviello, Cetrullo Cetrulli, Ciavala, Gazzo, Francatrippa, Mezzettino, Gardocchia, Brighella and more. In a classic scenario we can find more than one servant. Usually there is a First Zanni, more cunning and astute, and a Second Zanni, often more clumsy and naïve

La Servetta (The Female Servant) from the North and North East of Italy. Common names are Colombina, Franceschina, Corallina. She is unmasked.

  • • The Masters: Pantalone, the old merchant from Venice and Dottor Balanzone the pompous incompetent ‘Doctor’ from the university town of Bologna.

Gli Innamorati: The Male and Female Young Lovers are the young, beautiful and vain sons and daughters of either Pantalone or the Doctor. These characters are unmasked.

Il Capitano: The Captain is a mercenary soldier usually coming from Spain or Calabria – a region in Southern Italy under the control of the Spanish Crown.

The stories: Comedy & Tragedy

Commedia dell’Arte makes us laugh turning human tragedy 'upside down'. It talks of war, death, illness, hunger, misery, abuse of power. In other words, it's a comedy about the tragedy of life. It looks at the misery and injustices of our society putting under a magnifying lens human beings’ faults and weaknesses (e.g. Avarice and Greed for Pantalone, Cowardice and Arrogance for the Captain, Vanity for the Young Lovers, Pretentiousness for the Doctor).


D'Anna, C. (2019) A Journey Back Home Through a Mask for the 21st century: The Legacy of Commedia dell'Arte in Postdramatic Theatre with particular focus on the centrality of the actor in Devised Performance. PaR PhD, London Metropolitan University.

Fava, A. (2007) The Comic masks in the Commedia dell’Arte: Actor Training, Improvisation and the Poetics of Survival. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Henke, R. (2002) Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell'Arte. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Miklasevskij, K. (1981) La Commedia dell’Arte o il Teatro dei Commedianti Italiani nei secoli XVI, XVII e XVIII. Venezia: Marsilio Editori.

Rudlin, J. (2003) Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook. London and New York: Routledge.

Tessari, R. (1981) Commedia dell’Arte: la Maschera e l’Ombra. Ugo Mursia Editore.