Commedia dell’arte is a form of theatre characterized by masked “types” which began in Italy in the 16th century and was responsible for the advent of the actresses and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. The closest translation of the name is “comedy of craft”; it is shortened from commedia dell’arte all’improvviso, or “comedy of the very creative ability of improvisation”. Here, arte does not refer to “art” as we currently consider the word, but rather to that which is made by artigiani (artisans). In fact, the term arte was coined much later, for in the early period the term used in contemporary accounts is commedia all’improviso. This was to distinguish the form from commedia erudita or learned comedy that was written by academics and performed by amateurs. Commedia dell’arte, conversely, was performed by professional actors (comici) who perfected a specific role or mask.
Italian theater historians, such as Roberto Tessari, Ferdinando Taviani, and Luciano Pinto, believe commedia was a response to the political and economic crisis of the 16th century and, as a consequence, became the first entirely professional form of theater.
The performers played on outside, temporary stages, and relied on various props (robbe) in place of extensive scenery. The better troupes were patronized by nobility, and during carnival period might be funded by the various towns or cities, in which they played. Extra funds were received by donations (essentially passing the hat) so anyone could view the performance free of charge. Key to the success of the commedia was the ability of the performers to travel to achieve fame and financial success. The most successful troupes performed before kings and nobility allowing individual actors, such as Isabella Andreini, her daughter-in-law Virginia Ramponi-Andreini, and Dionisio Martinelli, to become well known.
The characters of the commedia usually represent fixed social types, stock characters, such as foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado. Characters such as Pantalone, the miserly Venetian merchant; Dottore Gratiano, the pedant from Bologna; or Arlecchino, the mischievous servant from Bergamo, began as satires on Italian “types” and became the archetypes of many of the favorite characters of 17th- and 18th-century European theatre.
Australian Catholic University Great webpage with descriptions for major Commedia characters.
Commedia dell'(C)Arte Commercial website of travelling theatre company with excellent information on various Commedia characters, useful for student research and classroom use. Also includes a useful bibliography of Commedia dell’Arte textbooks.
David Claudon Easy-to-understand thumbnail history of Commedia dell’Arte.
i Sebastiani Largest collection of Commedia scenarios available online.
Jeff Suzuki Brief discussion on Commedia dell’Arte.
Jeff Suzuki Online Commedia scenario ‘The Red Hat’, ready for use in the classroom.
Robert Delpiano Useful website on Commedia dell’Arte.