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Commedia dell'Arte  

         A form of theatre flourishing in l6th century Italy was the so called court theatre, popular among the nobility. As the name suggests it was performed in royal courts and palaces. The first original theatre buildings emerged at the same time. A form of popular theatre, however, with professional performers had developed alongside this court theatre. The theatre was known as commedia dell’arte. Historiography is unable to pinpoint where and when it began. The first written notes of agreements with theatre companies and actual performances date from the mid l6th century.
        Commedia dell’arte, however, is expressly an Italian theatre in character and is based on a group of unchangeable characters, known beforehand. The performances were improvised and based on a prior agreed or written scenario. The scenario specified the stage events and actions with entrances and exits. Such a synopsis also included a list of roles and requisites, and references as to the scenery in the form of scenes of action. In addition to recognisable costumes and mimicry, the most important element in each character was a mask centering around the role. To begin with, the carts accompanying the touring groups and buildings temporarily taken over served as the performance sites. As commedia dell’arte became increasingly popular in the l7th century, many groups performed under the protection of a contract in courts and permanent theatre buildings.
        Many different theories seek to explain the origin of commedia dell’arte. According to one theory, it derived directly from the fabulae Atellana adapted by the Romans from the Etruscans which were conveyed by wandering performance groups in the Middle Ages. The fabulae Atellana were comical satirical farces which, just like commedia dell’arte, were based on a ready selection of characters with masks. Some of the characters clearly have a similar origin. Another theory claims that commedia dell’arte originated in Constantinople, from the influence of theatre groups fleeing from the Turkish conquest. This theory refutes the idea that commedia dell’arte was a direct development of the fabulae Atellana, which represented very advanced Roman civilisation. Furthermore, it seems the tradition of Italian professional theatre running through the Middle Ages did not exist. One possible explanation for the similarity between the fabulae Atellana and commedia dell’arte lies in their origin, which is related to popular carnival tradition and would thus explain the similarities in both theatre forms.
        Commedia dell’arte featured a wide variety of topics and production forms. The backbone of the programme was comical intrigues which could also deal with topical events where performances took place. The range also included fantasy plays and tragedies. The scenarios exploited folktales, ancient comedies, contemporary texts and historical themes. Commedia dell’arte characters included Brighella, Pantalone, Pulcinella, Arlecchino, Il Dottore, LI Inamorato, Il Capitano, Pedrolino, and Caratterista and female figures such as Columbine and Isabella. The different towns, which these also represented, especially certain towns in northern Italy, also influenced the development of the characters. For example, Pantalone was generally a somewhat senile old dotard from Venice, and Il Dottore a learned university scholar from Bologna.
        Use of the mask as a means of character identification demanded extremely advanced mimicry and often acrobatic skills of the actors. In addition to improvisation, the cornerstone of an actor’s work was to use the mask to bring the character to life in a way by replacing facial expressions with a combination of business language, voice, a mask and linked to the situation. Commedia dell’arte improvisation was not completely free, but based on tradition and excerpts of lines learnt from previous performers. This enabled the performance to progress smoothly whatever the situation.
        Commedia dell’arte developed and gradually changed just as any other art. Its characters took on new features and variations of old features were created in different places. The number of female roles increased, even though these didn’t become as permanent and deep as the male characters. Originally women were given the female roles played by men and young boys. This was something new in theatre history. In further boosted the popularity of the performances, especially when the actresses did not wear masks. By the beginning of the l7th century, Commedia dell’arte had spread outside Italy, especially to France and elsewhere in Europe, and underwent its final rise in Venice in the l8th century under Carlo Gozzi and Carlo Goldoni.
        The masks worn in commedia dell’arte were skilfully made, and comprised fine details. The model for many of the role masks was similar to corresponding masks worn in the fabulae Atellana dating from Roman times. The material originally used was based on a mould of an actor’s facial features, obtained by moistening shaped leather with an inside layer of felt or material. The features required by each character were then added to each mould, and in spite of their outward appearance, the masks fully fitted the face of the wearer. Anyone who has had to wear a mask for any length of time knows how painful it is to have a shoddy piece of work chaff the face and nasal bridge.  

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