In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Commedia dell'arte

  • Introduction
  • General Histories and Reference Works
  • Scenario Collections and Miscellaneous Stage Materials with Commentaries
  • From Scenario to Play Script
  • Acting Theory and Practice in the Commedia dell’Arte

Renaissance and Reformation Commedia dell'arte
Rosalind Kerr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0497


Commedia dell’arte refers to Italian professional theater which came into existence in the 1540s when itinerant players formed themselves into companies. Originally formed from servant-master actor duos, made up of Zannis (impoverished porters) teamed up with Pantalones (new merchant class), they offered clever bawdy buffoon style entertainment exposing the inequities of the new servitude of waged labor. Over time the stock Zanni role expanded to include specialized versions such as Arlecchino, Pedrolino, Brighella, and others who were pitted against the Venetian merchant, Pantalone, and the Bolognese professor/lawyer, Dottore. The commedia dell’arte took shape as a full-fledged art form when female performers were admitted on the professional stage in the 1560s. These women were skilled in all the fine arts, excelling as orators in the prima donna innamorate (female lovers) roles. Along with the female performers, educated gentlemen joined to take the male innamorati (male lovers) roles, and with the addition of the maidservant, the Spanish Capitano, and other miscellaneous characters, the troupes reached the standard ten members. Playing as an ensemble, together they developed a new improvised style of acting. Famous mostly for their romantic comedies featuring wily servants and brilliant female heroines, they used derisive laughter to expose the oppressive treatment of their father/masters in the household and in the society at large. Their repertoires expanded to include performances in all the genres. Top acting companies created a theater of such excellence that their fame swept across Italy, France, Spain and other parts of Europe, even coming to England in the 1570s and 1580s. During the golden age from the 1560s to the 1630s several performers gained fame for their unique character masks and range of artistic inventions. The important contributions of the diva Isabella and the Andreini family dynasty, including Virginia Ramponi Andreini, and Flaminia Scala are highlighted. At a certain point, in the early seventeenth century, the troupes became less dependent on touring and began to combine their methods of improvising with the performance of published scripts. The commedia dell’arte led the way in bringing literary, cultural, and dramatic modules to the theaters of England, France, and Spain through transnational exchanges which shaped early modern European theater. Although it is considered to have ended in the 1750s with the conflicting reforms of Goldoni and Gozzi, it has had a profound influence on the development of modern theater in many different areas such as music, dance, and opera.

General Histories and Reference Works

The history of the commedia dell’arte includes its rise as a form of marketplace entertainment that appealed to a wide public audience with its representation of iconic character masks portraying regional social types who formed themselves into traveling troupes. To study it we need to consider it as a new form of theater with a genius for bringing dramatic narratives to life through highly skilled improvisation that would become the standard for new realistic acting in early modern theater. It is a complex field which requires knowledge of the foundational documents that relay its history. For the present-day scholar of the commedia dell’arte, there are valuable recent overviews in English that complement the essential Italian sources. Chaffee and Crick 2014 includes articles by over fifty expert scholars and practitioners covering past and present contributions of the commedia to many art forms. Balme, et al. 2018 takes a thematic approach, reconstructing the phenomenal role played by the commedia in influencing modern European theater. It features articles by leading English and some Italian scholars in translation and covers the elements composing the commedia dell’arte, its transnational exchanges with other European countries, its cultural valence, and its influence on avant-garde and contemporary theater. Richards and Richards 1990 provides an essential collection of important historical documents translated into English. Also indispensable is Katritzky 2006 which brings together the author’s comprehensive research with a special emphasis on the visual records. Underpinning English texts is a large body of vital research in Italian covering the most important historical, sociological, and dramatic sources foundational to establishing the origins and tracing the development of this broadly disseminated art form. Taviani and Schino 1982 include documentary analysis in their exploration of the inner workings of the commedia. The key source for modern editions of literary, dramatic, theoretical selections from a range of the outstanding actors-artists appears, along with critique, in Marotti and Romei 1991. Tessari 2000 has stressed the mercenary struggles the commedia dell’arte went through as it emerged in the piazzas. Molinari 1985 contains many valuable commentaries on important actors and events. Ferrone 1993 is foundational, as is Ferrone 2014, in providing a comprehensive background to the key components of the arte.

  • Balme, Christopher B., Piermario Vescovo, and Daniele Vianello, eds. Commedia dell’Arte in Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    Brings into focus: elements and historical developments from sixteenth to eighteenth century; transnational exchange across Europe; and the historical impact on 20th- and 21st-century avant-garde and experimental theater.

  • Chaffee, Judith, and Olly Crick, eds. The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte. London: Routledge, 2014.

    Comprehensive coverage including historical accounts as well as input from a wide range of practicing artists. Extends the field and blends different expertise from other art forms.

  • Ferrone, Siro. Attori, Mercanti, Corsari. La commedia dell’arte in Europa tra Cinque e Seicento. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1993.

    In-depth analysis of complex economic, social, and political relationships of key actors and patrons as well as coverage of the commedia dell’arte’s development as dramatic performance.

  • Ferrone, Siro. La Commedia dell’ Arte: Attrici e attori italiani in Europa (XVI-XVII secolo). Turin, Italy: Giulio Einaudi, 2014.

    An essential study of the professional theater and its outstanding actors and actresses.

  • Katritzky, M. K. The Art of Commedia: A Study in the Commedia dell’Arte 1560–1620 with Special Reference to the Visual Records. Amsterdam: Rodolfi, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789401202053

    Comprehensive historical coverage referenced to over three hundred visual records. Detailed analysis of iconographic materials.

  • Marotti, Ferruccio, and Giovanna Romei, eds. La commedia dell’arte e la società barocca. La professione del teatro. Vol. 2. Rome: Bulzoni, 1991.

    Essential collection of modern editions of selected key documents from the performers and their treatises. Includes informative introductions covering the biographies of the actors/playwrights/theorists.

  • Molinari, Cesare. La commedia dell’arte. Milan: Mondadori, 1985.

    Valuable analysis of many different facets of the commedia dell’arte including history, actor profiles, performance theory, iconographic materials.

  • Richards, Kenneth, and Laura Richards. The Commedia dell’ Arte. A Documentary History. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

    An invaluable selection offering English translations of key commedia dell’arte documents covering important developments.

  • Taviani, Ferdinando, and Mirella Schino. Il segreto della commedia dell’arte. La memoria delle compagnie italiane del XVI, XVII e XVIII secolo. Florence: Usher, 1982.

    Thesis of the inner workings of the commedia dell’arte backed up with documentary evidence with an emphasis on the importance of the aesthetic changes the actress made possible because of her salon-style skills.

  • Tessari, Roberto. “Il mercato delle maschere.” In Storia del teatro modern e contemporaneo, 1: la nascita del teatro modern Cinquecento-Seicento. Edited by Roberto Alonge and Guido Davico Bonino, 1: 119–191. 4 vols. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 2000.

    Tessari stresses the marketplace origins of the commedia dell’arte with the challenges it faced as a mercenary form of entertainment bringing earlier work together.

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