Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

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 Cambridge Encyclopedia of Stage Actors and Acting

An eighteenth-century term, coined by Carlo Goldoni, used to designate Italian professional theatre from its origins in mid-sixteenth-century Italy to its variegated incarnations in France, Russia, and elsewhere. Italian actors were best known for a system of improvisation based on modular plot outlines, structured but flexible character networks, elastic dialogue structures, and fertile wells of improvised verbal creation that drew heavily on both oral traditions and literature. Two sharply differing, but mutually influencing modes of acting characterized early Italian comici: the presentational, grotesque style of the mask-bearing actors – particularly the zanni (servants) – and the emerging mimetic, or representational, acting style introduced in the 1560s by the lovers (innamorati), who did not wear masks but used their eyes, facial expressions, and glances in ways that audiences found sophisticated and moving.

The figure of the zanni, especially the so-called secondo zanni who was accorded the greatest freedom for virtuosic performance, was untethered to the plot and drew from oral traditions of the medieval buffoons, including the ‘one-man show’ of serial impersonations. impersonation might appear to resemble the new mimetic style performed by arte actresses, except for its hyperbolic nature, the non-realistic rapidity of change from one persona to another, and the zoomorphic dimensions of the zanni’s performance. The secondo zanni was faulted, in the wave of neo-classical commentary in the early seventeenth century, for always playing himself, off stage as well as on. Tristano Martinelli, the first Arlecchino, signed his letters under his nome d’arte, and ‘performed’ exactly the same persona on the epistolary stage as he did in the theatre.

The zanni and the other grotesque parti ridicolose (Pantalone, Dottore, Capitano, etc.) adapted to the times and refined their repertoires and acting styles, but the real revolution in acting came from the male and especially female lovers, introduced into the arte during their second wave in the 1560s. Famous early innamorate such as Vincenza Armani, Vittoria Piisimi, and Isabella Andreini were praised for sustaining mimetic illusions in tragedy, comedy, and pastoral. Adriano Valerini, in an encomium honouring Vicenza Armani, claims that her acting was mimetically so compelling that it induced mirror effects among the audience.

Commedia dell’arte is also important as the first systematized professional theatre in the modern West. It relied substantially on improvisation not just for individual actors, but for the entire company. Improvisation for the arte can be seen in terms of three orders: an overall plot that governed the entire company and which the zanni threatened to disrupt; substructures with expandable or contractible lengths governing individual scenes, based mainly on dialogues between two characters or parties aligned with them; and the verbal texture of individual speeches, drawn from oral and written sources.

  • Katritzky, M. A. , The Art of Commedia: a Study in the Commedia dell’arte 1560—1620 (Amsterdam, 2006).
  • Nicoll, A. , The World of Harlequin (Cambridge, 1963).
  • Robert Henke
    © Cambridge University Press, 2015

    Related Articles

    Full text Article commedia dell'arte
    The Cambridge Guide to Theatre

    ‘Comedy of the profession’ - a term in general use since the 18th century to describe what until then had been known as commedia...

    Full text Article commedia dell'arte (comedy of the craft)
    The Encyclopaedia of the Renaissance

    The improvisational comedy that takes its name from the actor's craft, in the sense of both his technique and the guild of actors. Created...

    Full text Article Commedia Dell'arte
    The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

    The name given to a style of improvised comedy which flourished in Italy from the mid 16th to the mid 18th century, and whose influence was...

    See more from Credo