In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Italian Drama

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliophily and Bibliographies
  • Drama Bibliographies
  • General Anthologies
  • Journals and Series
  • Translations
  • Secular Drama
  • Liturgical Drama, 10th to 16th Centuries
  • Statues and Theater, 13th and 14th Centuries
  • Protodramas and Iacopone da Todi
  • Piedmont
  • Lombardy
  • Venice
  • Ferrara
  • Bologna
  • Siena
  • Rome
  • Abruzzo
  • Puglia
  • Performance
  • Art and Drama
  • Brunelleschi’s Machinery and the Annunciation
  • Music and Drama
  • Sermons and Drama
  • Confraternities and Plays
  • Convents and Drama
  • Revivals

Medieval Studies Italian Drama
Nerida Newbigin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0023


Drama—performances in which actors impersonate fictional, historical, or religious figures using dialogue, music, and costume—did not disappear with the fall of the Roman Empire. Mimes and jesters continued to perform vernacular entertainments in courts and marketplaces, while the rituals of the church grew, with the splendor of its ecclesiastical spaces, to include theatrical embellishment to the liturgy of its major feast days. From the tenth century, vernacular Italian mixed with Latin in liturgical plays for Easter and Christmas, and from the fourteenth century, confraternities in Umbria added laude drammatiche (short plays in verse, also called devozioni) to their devotional rituals throughout the year, and Easter plays on this model continued into the sixteenth century. The best-known plays, however, are the Florentine sacre rappresentazioni (plays on religious subjects, also called feste), disseminated in print from the 1480s and collected by bibliophiles from the eighteenth century onward. Renewed interest in Italian medieval drama is closely linked to Enlightenment and Risorgimento enthusiasm for the idea of Italy as a cultural and political identity. Italy seldom features strongly in surveys of European medieval drama, and the scholarship is often out of date. Major works by Alessandro D’Ancona, Vincenzo De Bartholomaeis, and Paolo Toschi are still in print and continue to dominate modern general histories of theater and responses to surviving texts and performances. Recent scholarship by scholars of theater and spectacle, of philology and literature, of confraternities and lay piety, and of art history has provided important new perspectives. This bibliography examines the different genres of drama up to the fourteenth century under single headings, and for the fifteenth century moves from northern to southern Italy through the major centers. The final sections deal with other fields where research has impacted significantly on drama studies.

Reference Works

The work of three scholars dominates this field: D’Ancona 1971 and De Bartholomaeis 2009, both by romance philologists, and Toschi 1999, by an anthropologist who built on D’Ancona’s and De Bartholomaeis’s research. Most modern surveys of Italian theater history are new in their methodologies but do not attempt to extend the basic research. Apollonio 2003 offers a useful overview and is the first to open up Italian theater history to Anglo-American methodologies, while Allegri 1988, in an overarching approach, sets the Italian material in a European context. Muir 1995 and Muir 2007 provide a comprehensive survey of plays based on Bible stories, and then of nonbiblical plays, from eastern and western Europe. The introduction to Guarino 1988 stands out in recognizing new basic research.

  • Allegri, Luigi. Teatro e spettacolo nel medioevo. Rome and Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1988.

    Brings French and Anglo-American methodologies to the study of theater as representation and spectacle, rather than philology and literature. Pan-European in its scope, but the basis for the discussion of Italian materials is fundamentally D’Ancona and De Bartholomaeis.

  • Apollonio, Mario. La drammaturgia medievale: Dramma sacro e mimo; Il teatro del Cinquecento: commedia, tragedia, melodramma, Vol. 1 of Storia del teatro italiano. Edited by Fabrizio Fiaschini. Milan: Rizzoli, 2003.

    First published in 1938. This classic history of Italian theater has an overview of secular and sacred drama, mostly based on D’Ancona 1872 (cited under Florence and the Sacre Rappresentazioni: Anthologies and De Bartholomaeis 2009), with additional insights from then new Anglo-American scholarship, especially that of Allardyce Nicoll.

  • D’Ancona, Alessandro. Origini del teatro italiano. 2 vols. Rome: Bardi, 1971.

    First published in 1877; revised edition 1891. Although some of the scholarship has been superseded, this is still the richest overview of Italian vernacular drama from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century, now searchable online. Valuable as a starting point, but not as the last word on the subject. Volume 1 is available online; Volume 2 is also available online.

  • De Bartholomaeis, Vincenzo. Origini della poesia drammatica. 2d ed. Lucca, Italy: LIM, 2009.

    First published in 1924; revised edition 1952. Broader in scope than D’Ancona 1971, De Bartholomaeis examines “dramatic elements” in popular culture and the Latin drama of the medieval church, then turns to the Flagellants and their drama in Umbria, Abruzzo, Rome, Tuscany, the Po Valley, and Piedmont.

  • Guarino, Raimondo, ed. Teatro e culture della rappresentazione: Lo spettacolo in Italia nel Quattrocento. Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 1988.

    Collection of already-published landmark essays on feste, theater, and performance by social, literary, art, and theater historians, with the addition of Guarino’s introductory essay, and a new essay by Paola Ventrone on sacre rappresentazioni.

  • Muir, Lynette R. The Biblical Drama of Medieval Europe. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511519697

    Encyclopedic in its coverage of plays on biblical subjects throughout eastern and western Europe, including Italy; includes a rich bibliography.

  • Muir, Lynette R. Love and Conflict in Medieval Drama: The Plays and Their Legacy. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Very much a companion volume to Biblical Drama, this covers eastern and western European plays on nonbiblical subjects: saints and martyrs, legends, romances with miraculous interventions. Also has a rich bibliography.

  • Toschi, Paolo. Le origini del teatro italiano. 2 vols. Turin, Italy: Bollati Boringhieri, 1999.

    First published in 1955. Toschi, an anthropologist and historian of folklore and popular traditions, locates the origin of popular theater in festive rites of the New Year, Carnival, Spring, and May Day celebrations.

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