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Definition: Commedia dell'arte (Italian, ‘comedy of art’) from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

A type of popular theatre that originated in Italy and flourished throughout Europe in the 16th-18th centuries. It featured a number of stock characters, e.g. HARLEQUIN, Pantaloon (see PANTALOONS) and SCARAMOUCH, who improvised around any of a set of stock situations, usually involving a complicated romantic liaison. The character of Punch (see PUNCH AND JUDY) derives from commedia dell'arte.

Summary Article: commedia dell'arte
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(kōm-mā'dēä dĕl-lär'tā), popular form of comedy employing improvised dialogue and masked characters that flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th cent.

Characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte

The characters or "masks," in spite of changes over the years, retained much of their original flavor. Most important were the zanni, or servant types; Arlecchino, or Harlequin, was the most famous. He was an acrobat and a wit, childlike and amorous. He wore a catlike mask and motley colored clothes and carried a bat or wooden sword, the ancestor of the slapstick. His crony, Brighella, was more roguish and sophisticated, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money. Figaro and Molière's Scapin are descendants of this type. Pedrolino was a white-faced, moon-struck dreamer; the French Pierrot is his descendant. Pagliaccio, the forerunner of today's clown, was closely akin to Pedrolino.

Pulcinella, as seen in the English Punch and Judy shows, was a dwarfish humpback with a crooked nose, the cruel bachelor who chased pretty girls. Pantalone or Pantaloon was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter. Il Dottore (the doctor), his only friend, was a caricature of learning—pompous and fraudulent; he survives in the works of Molière. Il Capitano (the captain) was a caricature of the professional soldier—bold, swaggering, and cowardly. He was replaced by the more agile Scarramuccia or Scaramouche, who, dressed in black and carrying a pointed sword, was the Robin Hood of his day.

The handsome Inamorato (the lover) went by many names. He wore no mask and had to be eloquent in order to speak the love declamations. The Inamorata was his female counterpart; Isabella Andreini was the most famous. Her servant, usually called Columbine, was the beloved of Harlequin. Witty, bright, and given to intrigue, she developed into such characters as Harlequine and Pierrette. La Ruffiana was an old woman, either the mother or a village gossip, who thwarted the lovers. Cantarina and Ballerina often took part in the comedy, but for the most part their job was to sing, dance, or play music. None of the women wore masks.


The impact of commedia dell'arte on European drama can be seen in French pantomime and the English harlequinade. The ensemble companies generally performed in Italy, although a company called the comédie-italienne was established in Paris in 1661. The commedia dell'arte survived the early 18th cent. only by means of its vast influence on written dramatic forms.

  • See K. M. Lea, The Italian Popular Comedy (2 vol., 1934, repr. 1962).
  • W. Smith, Commedia Dell'arte (rev. ed. 1964).
  • P. L. Duchartre, The Italian Comedy (tr. 1928, repr. 1965).
  • Nicoll, A., The World of Harlequin: A Critical Study of the Commedia dell'Arte (1987).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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