Commedia dell'arte

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Commedia dell'arte of the Gelosi group in the 16th century

Commedia dell'arte ( Italian for "professional acting", whereby commedia stands for theater in general and arte can be translated as "art" in the sense of "craft, profession") denotes variants of traditional theater in the Italian areas of the 16th to 18th centuries. Century.

Other names for the Commedia dell'arte are or were commedia degli zanni (theater of the Zanni as a specific group of masks), commedia a soggetto (scene or scenario theater) , commedia improvvisa or all'improvviso (improvisational theater) and commedia delle maschere (mask theater ). In German, the terms " impromptu theater ", "Italian impromptu comedy" or "Italian folk comedy" are also used.

Delimitation of content

In order to limit the term and position of the commedia dell'arte in the sciences and to emphasize its special position within comparable genres, Wolfram Krömer designed an overview of the typical characteristics of this form of theater. According to Krömer, the Commedia dell'arte is a theater that

  • serves the actor and the ensemble and not the author or the text,
  • strives for a scenic effect and does not pose problems and deepen salary,
  • Represents masks and types and not individuals and their development,
  • is morally indifferent and does not convey and teach values.


The commedia dell'arte developed in Italy in the 16th century from traditional associations of fairground artists of different professions such as buffoni or ciarlatani (summarized under the term "arte giullaresca"). The Venetian actor Angelo Beolco , known as Il Ruzzante (“the noisy player”), and his troupe are particularly responsible here . In the Paduan dialect and disguised as farmers, they played in the annual markets, but also in the courts of the Duke of Mantua , for example . Other pioneers of the genre were the Bergamasque artist Zan Ganassa , who is traditionally considered the creator of the figure of Arlecchino and whose troupe was painted in 1570 or 1571 by an artist from the school of Frans Floris , probably the earliest evidence of the Commedia dell'arte, as well as Flaminio Scala , called Flavio or Claudio , who in 1611 was the first to publish summarized piece scenarios in print.

One of the oldest representations of the Commedia dell'Arte: performance in front of a noble audience in France, School of Frans Floris, approx. 1570/71

The Commedia dell'Arte reached its peak in the 17th and ended in the 18th century. This form of theater first developed in the two strongholds of Venice (the northern Commedia dell'arte) and in Naples (the southern Commedia dell'arte). Usually, in contrast to the then learned prose theater (the commedia erudita), whose actors were amateurs , it was operated by professional actors who acted in the family. "Professional" means here that they appeared for the purpose of earning money, lived together in community of property and shared in the income. Women were also allowed to play here, which was forbidden to them at the time, except in the opera. The Commedia dell'arte was spread across Europe by traveling groups such as the Compagnia dei Comici Gelosi .

In the 18th century, the center of the Commedia dell'arte was no longer Italy, but Paris, the largest city in Europe. There she was seen at the Parisian Fairground Theater and in the Comédie-Italienne . During the French Revolution, the Commedia dell'arte was banned in France, where it had been a permanent fixture since Louis XIV . Various sources, however, report that this form of theater had already fallen out of favor at court, either because a play was not acceptable, or because a malicious remark by an actor about a noblewoman who was present provoked the king's displeasure. The groups withdrew to the Paris fairs, where they were soon banned from speaking. After that, the Commedia dell'arte had next to nothing to do with its Italian origins.

This once dominant European form of theater had practically disappeared by the time of Napoleon at the latest . It continued to exist only as a so-called pantomime on the ballet stage (see, for example, Der siegende Amor , 1814).

Their story is closely linked to the ensembles, which in turn are closely linked to the actors. After they had reached perfection within the framework of their characters, these became increasingly empty of content, while the fixation of the texts, increasingly demanded by the censors, led to a routine. Later contact with the upper middle class and the nobility, which contradicted the original character of a folk comedy, and the strengthening of the court theater may have contributed to the decline.

In the 20th century, the Commedia dell'arte was rediscovered and revived in a wide variety of forms across Europe.

The actors of the Commedia dell'arte

Isabella Andreini

The professional tools for the actors of the Commedia dell'arte lie in the perfecting of the corresponding figure, here also called "mask". In the classic form, each actor was committed to one character throughout his life. The actors often introduced their own names or adopted theater names, which then became the names of the characters. Some managed to become almost famous with their mask, such as the comedian Angelo Constantini in Paris, who as mezzetino first caused a scandal at the court of Louis XIV and then spoiled it in Dresden with August the Strong . The actress Isabella Andreini , wife of Francesco Andreini , who traveled with the group of Gelosi (see the second picture from above: the female figure is usually identified as Isabella Andreini), created one of the most famous female lovers under her own name. The Bishop of Lyon had a memorial plaque attached to the church in her honor after her death during the return trip to Rome and entered it in the church register. For a child of the celebrated French Neapolitan actor of Scaramouche Tiberio Fiorelli took Cardinal Mazarin and Anne of Austria , the sponsorship and Molière practiced with him in gestures and facial expressions. A group of actors celebrated in Venice in the second half of the 18th century bore the name of their capocomico. The Sacchi troupe played the pieces by Carlo Gozzi , Carlo Goldoni's opponent , and performed at the Teatro San Samuele in Venice.

The actors had a repertoire of rehearsed acrobatic tricks, gestures, postures and linguistic means ready for every situation. Improvisations were an essential part of the performances, for which only a briefly described sequence of scenes ( canevas or canavacchio) was determined in advance . Quick-witted remarks, the so-called “battute”, were recorded by the comici and supplemented by reading classical works. That made them their own author. The lazzi , jokes, were a central part of their repertoire.

The characters presented by the actors with their respective defined characteristics were, apart from the innamorati, the lovers, always shown with half-face masks and characteristic costumes. The presentation was carried out with means of the whole body and was not concentrated on the means of expression of speech and face, which required extraordinary skills. The actors interacted with the audience. “With unbelievable variety it entertained more than three hours” writes Goethe about a visit to a performance in the Venetian Theater St. Lukas in a diary entry on his Italian trip on October 4, 1786: “But here too the people are the base, whereupon all this rests, the audience plays along and the crowd melts into a whole with the theater. ”He writes about the actors:“ But I didn't see them act more naturally than those masks, as it is only with an exceptionally happy disposition through prolonged practice can be achieved "and the next day:" [...] always alive in public, always engaged in passionate speaking ... In addition, there is a decisive sign language with which they accompany the expressions of their intentions, feelings and attitudes. "

Figures and masks

Masks of the Commedia dell'arte

The two main groups of masks are the zanni or zanoni such. B. Arlecchino and the vecchi, the ancients such. B. Pantalone; then there are the amorosi or innamorati, who appear without a mask. When describing the individual figures and masks, it should be noted that the figures and masks as well as the Commedia dell'arte itself were in constant change. The descriptions must also always be seen in a historical context. Arlecchino, for example, has not been part of the staff of this form of theater from the start and has changed a lot over time. Therefore, only an approximate impression can be given, but not a specific and comprehensive description of the figures and masks.

The characters of the Commedia dell'arte are reminiscent of the classic Latin comedies of Plautus and Terence . In these comedies, often almost verbatim from Greek models, there were also a limited number of characters that were determined by convention. The cunning and scheming slave plays the main role. He is usually on the side of the young lovers who are not allowed to come together because the parents have different marriage plans with their children. The old father is usually an unfaithful husband, while his wife runs a strict domestic regime. In the end, there is usually a risk of total chaos, but an unexpected coincidence breaks all the knots. The young lovers get along, and the old have to submit to their fate. To what extent these comedies had a direct influence on the Commedia dell'arte is unclear.

The "social" interpretation of the masks (which, for example, describes the zanni in a narrow way as servant roles) goes back to the reform of the Commedia dell'arte by Carlo Goldoni ( The Servant of Two Masters ) in the 18th century, whom Carlo Gozzi accused of betraying this form of theater (see the section on Gozzi and Goldoni). Since the 20th century, Italian research and theater makers in particular who have dealt with the subject have interpreted the characters essentially mythologically. The “bourgeois” image of the Commedia dell'arte is still widespread in Germany.

The Zanni

The Zanni group represents a lower stratum of the population, most of whom came from a rural background and whose members tried their luck in the city as servants, maidservants and cooks. They symbolize the common people of that time, their wishes and their criticism of society. The term comes from the earlier theater character Zanni.

They include:


Arlecchino is probably the most famous character in the Commedia dell'arte. It has its origins in a northern French and Germanic saga and was created in connection with the historical differentiation process of Zanni . In a charged atmosphere, Tristano Martinelli merged the mythological figure with Zanni in Paris in 1584/85 and was an instant success. According to Martinelli, Arlecchino embodies opposites such as good and bad or comedy and tragedy. He gave his character the ability to travel to this world as well as to the hereafter. From 1661 Domenico Biancolelli played the Arlecchino in a different situation. He adapted his game to this situation and his ideas. From 1730 onwards, Luigi Riccoboni led Arlecchino to become a moralist. With the aim of upgrading the regular Italian comedies and tragedies of the 15th and 16th centuries, the character's difference was driven out and increasingly reduced to his bourgeois and this-worldly existence. Actors of the "new" Arlecchino were, for example, Domenico Biancolelli and Tommaso Visentini.

Arlecchino is the character who can take everything on stage. Typical for him are his naive cheerfulness and his greediness. Sometimes he even serves two masters at the same time so that he can get more food, which usually leads to funny entanglements. With his ironic manner he is the voice of the common people at the time. Arlecchino is shown wearing a funny mask and a hat and a coat made of colorful patches. Over time, the character of Arlecchino developed into the typical, naive joker , as we know him nowadays mainly as a puppet from the puppet theater .

In the tradition of Arlecchino, Figaro appears in the comedies Le barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville) and Le mariage de Figaro (Figaro's wedding) by Beaumarchais and the operas based on them by Paisiello , Mozart and Rossini .


Brighella is originally from Bergamo . He is devious, always a bit devious and mostly unscrupulous in his own interests, capable of acrobatic tricks and intellectually superior to Arlecchino. He also likes to let others work for him. His mask is usually that of an ordinary servant or it shows his cunning traits and is usually black in color.


With his yellow face mask and / or yellow floured face and his white linen, much too large robe, he or the related figure Pedrolino is a forerunner of Pierrot . Pagliaccio is a clumsy servant and copycat, bold in words, but in truth an extraordinary coward. He is often punished with a beating for his mistakes.


Colombina is also a lower social class person. Mostly she plays the role of the maid or cook. She lacks every artificial element of the upper class and she is a fun-loving and self-confident figure. Due to her dominant and seductive nature, she often attracts admirers (for example Brighella), against whom she knows how to defend herself. The figure of Colombina has no mask and mostly wears simple women's clothes. Suzanne plays this role in Le mariage de Figaro .

The Vecchi

The Vecchi group represents the rich upper class of the time. It is typical for them that they have a lot of money and express themselves well. Above all, they value culture and knowledge. Most of the time, they try to stand out from the common people because they see themselves as something better. It is precisely these characteristics that appear extremely unsympathetic to the viewer, sometimes even ridiculous.

They include:


Pantalone is mostly a wealthy merchant from Venice who is often ailing due to his old age. Although he has a lot of money, he is very stingy. Pantalone likes to interfere in things that are none of his business. He also has frequent relationships with younger women, even when married, and keeps his daughter within tight limits. He has a great, long-standing hatred of the dottore, just as the dottore hates him. You can recognize Pantalone by a brown mask with a hunched nose, a goatee and a black cape and tight-fitting red trousers.

A descendant of Pantalone is the doctor Bartholo (Italian Bartolo) in Le barbier de Séville and Le mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais and the associated operas.

The dottore

The dottore usually embodies the educated lawyer or scholar from Bologna. He also likes to show this through the frequent use of thinker poses. However, his knowledge is rather amusing, as he represents the embodiment of knowledge without real knowledge. So he shows off what knowledge he has at every opportunity, but this rarely fits the situation. Although he is very nearsighted, his movements on stage are fluid and sleek. As Pantalone hates the dottore, so this Pantalone. Often the dottore appears in a black mask with a bulbous nose, a spherical forehead and red cheeks. He wears a white ruff and is otherwise dressed in black.

More figures

There are also lovers who always appear without a mask, for example embodied by Octavio / Ottavio. The soldier Il Capitano (Spavento) always pretends to be a hero, but in truth he is an outright coward who is afraid of his own sword. Scaramuccia ( Scaramouche ) is the braggart, show-off and big talker.

Other well-known masks and figures include: Coviello , Pulcinella and Tartaglia . However, some of these are alternate names of the above main characters given to them by the respective actors.

Gozzi and Goldoni

While the Commedia dell'arte was becoming increasingly important north of the Alps, the war between Carlo Gozzi and Carlo Goldoni raged in Venice in the middle of the 18th century. While Goldoni wanted to modernize the theater based on the Molière model, Gozzi wanted to preserve the old Commedia dell'arte.

Goldoni advocated a verbatim rendering of the text, a natural acting style and more realistic characters. He wanted real characters instead of the standardized characters of the Commedia dell'arte and therefore wanted to do without the masks so that the facial expressions of the actors could be seen. However, as he reports in his autobiography, he made compromises because the masks were popular with the audience.

His opponent Gozzi, belonging to the nobility, countered this realism with his fiabe teatrali (theater fairy tales , e.g. in The Love of the Three Oranges ). He situated them in seemingly strange realms and drew from exotic stories such as the Arabian Nights . He left the traditional masks Truffaldino and Tartaglia their improvisation scenes by choosing a mixed form of drama text and scenario. Gozzi's fiabe teatrali are tragic comedies that thrive on strong effects.


The Commedia dell'arte has had a great influence since its inception, particularly on the French ( comédie italienne, Molière ) theater. The importance for the Spanish and English theater is debated among scholars.

However , it exerted a greater influence on the German-language comedy of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Alt-Wiener Volkstheater and the main and state events of the German traveling theaters . The Austrian Hanswurst is probably also rooted in this form of theater. For Germany there is a first recorded scenario in its history: a performance at the court of Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria on the occasion of the wedding celebrations of his son Wilhelm with Renata of Lorraine in 1568 under the musical direction of Orlando di Lasso , who played the court musician Massimo Troiano commissioned to write a comedy in the style of the Italian comedy. A script of the performance is due to the latter.

Harlequin and Colombina in a pantomime at Tivoli in Copenhagen in the 21st century

In the 19th century, ETA Hoffmann was inspired by the characters of the Commedia dell'arte for the fantasy pieces in Callot's manner , which in turn inspired Robert Schumann to write a cycle of piano pieces, the Fantasiestücke op.12 .

In the twentieth century, the commedia dell'arte returned in one way or another to European theater. The most famous example is the opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal is from the years 1912/1916. Next here is the comedy Zerbinetta exemption (under the title Princess of Cythera) by Fritz von Herzmanovsky Orlando mentioned.

Likewise, the commedia dell'arte was rediscovered in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century and revived in a wide variety of forms, with Meyerhold in particular standing out here . Similar efforts were observed in the rest of Europe, especially in Italy. Especially Max Reinhardt , Giorgio Strehler , David Esrig , Dario Fo , Alberto Fortuzzi and Alessandro Marchetti have made to the revitalization of the methods dell'arte commedia earned. In Federico Fellini's films, especially Fellini's Casanova from 1976, echoes of the Commedia dell'arte can be noticed. In more recent times, i.e. towards the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, Carlo Boso in Paris, Markus Kupferblum in Vienna and the I MACAP group in Frankfurt am Main are all trying (t) to maintain the tradition of Commedia dell'arte to keep alive in today's theater. It is a particular aim to tell today's stories using the dramaturgical rules and the hierarchical structure of the characters.

The commedia dell'arte in science

Since the Commedia dell'arte is based on an acting skill that is hardly available today, it is difficult to get a concrete idea of ​​the form of theater. In addition, research into this form of theater did not begin until there were no more original performances. Today it seems to us to be transfigured in many ways, to which Krömer points out: “A kind of myth has formed around it” and this transfiguration “is facilitated by the fact that one can no longer see real impromptu theater, but at best plays close to it in interpretations of not for impromptu play trained actors ”. Different types, different masks and frameworks can be derived from different text sources and vary over the course of the story. Conclusions about the dramaturgy of the Commedia are only possible to a limited extent, since the references are mostly limited to the standard work Histoire du théâtre Italy by Luigi Riccoboni , who historicized the improvisational comedy according to his own Reformation ideas.

In addition to Goldoni and Gozzi's comedy reforms, historiographical constructs of the 19th and 20th centuries shape the image of the Commedia dell'arte. Here the commedia is understood as a romantic folk comedy. “Volk” refers to the understanding of commedia as a subversive art form of the underprivileged. Furthermore, the idea of ​​commedia as a subversive art form among theater historians is widespread, but incorrect. For the most part, the troops like the Gelosi, Confidenti and Accesi were forced to have close ties to the court from an economic point of view, which in turn meant an ambivalent matter for the troops, because on the one hand they had a patent letter and could assert a privilege, on the other hand they were the ones At the mercy of their master's whims and sent them on their travels.

The commedia dell'arte in art

Jacques Callot: “The two pantaloons”, 1616
Antoine Watteau : "Gilles", Pierrot depiction around 1718/19 (Louvre)

Unless otherwise noted, the illustrations in this article are taken from a work of the 19th century, the two-volume edition Masques et Buffons by Maurice Sand from 1860. The author studied the Commedia dell'arte scientifically, literarily and as a painter. His attempt at reconstruction from the point of view of the French Bohème cannot be considered authentic, but takes into account all the essential known findings about the appearance of the figures.

The Commedia dell'arte was also the motif of many other artists. The draftsman, graphic artist, etcher and engraver Jacques Callot made several engravings, especially from the Pantalone. Many other visual artists, such as the Watteau shown above, Cézanne and Picasso , were inspired by the Commedia dell'arte.

The so-called " Fool's Staircase " in Trausnitz Castle in Landshut is unique. It shows scenes from the Commedia dell'arte in life-size figures over four floors, which was not only very popular at the court of the Bavarian Hereditary Prince Wilhelm V. The designs come from Friedrich Sustris , the execution was carried out by Alessandro Padovano around 1575 to 1579.

From the modeler of porcelain figures Franz Anton Bustelli of the porcelain manufacturer Nymphenburg there are 16 figures based on characters of the folk drama, which were mentioned for the first time in the history of the manufacture in 1760 and are among the most beautiful of its figures. They will continue to be made according to his templates after they had previously been coveted collectors' items.

In his conversations with Goethe in the last years of his life on February 14, 1830, Goethe describes his visits to the Gozzis Theater in Venice to Johann Peter Eckermann , where he seemed particularly impressed by the Pulcinella mask: “A main joke of this lowly comical one Personnage [...] consisted in the fact that at times on stage he suddenly seemed to completely forget his role as an actor ", and further:" The Pulcinell is usually a kind of living newspaper. Everything that happened in Naples during the day can be heard from him in the evening. These local interests, combined with the low folk dialect, make it almost impossible for the stranger to understand it. "

Franz Grillparzer compares in the notes of his trip to Italy from Naples in May 1823 a. a. a "Pulcinella of the Neapolitans" with an "Arlechin of the French" and comes to the conclusion that the former has "a naturalness and good nature" that is alien to the latter.


  • Ralf Böckmann: The Commedia dell'arte and the German drama of the 17th century. On the origin and influence of the Italian mask comedy on the literary German theater. Verlag Traugott Bautz, Nordhausen 2010, ISBN 978-3-88309-351-2 .
  • David Esrig (Ed.): Commedia dell'arte. A visual history of the art of the spectacle. Greno, Nördlingen 1985, ISBN 3-921568-55-2 .
  • AK Djiwelegow: Commedia dell'Arte: The Italian folk comedy. Henschelverlag, Berlin 1958
  • Carlo Goldoni: A story of my life and my theater. With an afterword by Heinz Dietrich Kenter. Piper, Munich, Zurich 1988 (first edition under the title Mémoire pour servir à l´histoire de sa vie et celle den son théâtre. Paris 1787)
  • Carlo Gozzi: Bad memories. Based on the original edition Venice 1797 and the excerpt provided by Paul de Muset, translated and edited by R. Daponte, Vienna 1928
  • Carlo Gozzi: Fiabe Teatrali. Testo, introduction e commerto. Biblioteca di cultura, 261, Rome 1984
  • Günther Hansen: Forms of the Commedia dell'Arte in Germany. Lechte, Emsdetten 1984, ISBN 3-7849-1109-9 .
  • Nils Jockel: Commedia dell'Arte between streets and palaces. Museum Education Service, Hamburg 1983
  • Wolfram Krömer : The Italian Commedia dell'arte. Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1976, ISBN 3-534-04961-6 .
  • MA Katritzky: Stefanelo Botara and Zan Ganassa: Textual and Visual Records of a Musical commedia dell'arte Duo, In and Beyond Early Modern Iberia . In: Music in Art: International Journal for Music Iconography . 44, No. 1-2, 2019, ISSN  1522-7464 , pp. 97-118.
  • Marcel Kunz: Arlecchino & Co. Historical introduction, didactic presentation, game suggestions for the Commedia dell'arte. Volume 1 of a three-volume edition on the theory and practice of the Commedia dell'arte, partly with Alessandro Marchetti. Klett and Balmer, Zug 1985, ISBN 3-264-80084-5 .
  • Henning Mehnert: Commedia dell'arte. Structure - history - reception. Reclam, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-15-017639-5 .
  • Cesare Molinari: “The Commedia dell'arte”. In: Cesare Molinari: Theater. The fascinating story of the drama. Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau et al. 1975, ISBN 3-451-17037-X , pp. 157-166
  • Rudolf Münz: The “other” theater. Studies of a German-language teatro dell'arte from the Lessing period. Henschelverlag Art and Society, Berlin 1979
  • Ingrid Ramm-Bonwitt: The comical tragedy, Volume 1: Commedia dell'Arte. Nold, Frankfurt am Main 1997, ISBN 978-3-922220-84-8 .
  • Karl Riha : Commedia dell'arte. With the figurines of Maurice Sands . Insel, Frankfurt am Main 1980, ISBN 3-458-19007-4 .
  • Markus Kupferblum , The Birth of Curiosity from the Spirit of the Revolution. The Commedia dell'Arte as a political folk theater , Facultas Verlag, Vienna, 2013, ISBN 978-3708907536

Web links

Commons : Commedia dell'arte  - collection of images, videos and audio files
  • Micke Klingvall - Music as a discipline in Commedia dell'Arte (no year) [1] on music at

Individual evidence

  1. Wolfram Krömer: The Italian Commedia dell'arte. WBG, Darmstadt 1976, p. 24 ff.
  2. See Günther von Pechmann in Franz Anton Bustelli: The Italian Comedy in Porcelain. Berlin 1947 and Stuttgart 1959, page 25: "Under the patronage of princely patrons, in festive halls, under rich furnishings and costumes, these best societies lost their popular simplicity and coarseness", with "these best societies" referring to the actors' troops.
  3. ^ Günther von Pechmann in Franz Anton Bustelli: The Italian Comedy in Porcelain. Berlin 1947 and Stuttgart 1959, page 10 ff.
  4. Antje Gessner: “ The Sacchi Acting Troupe ( Memento of the original from March 20, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. ", Private website, last accessed May 24, 2013 @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  5. Antje Gessner: " Geister, Feen, Ungeheuer ( Memento of the original from March 20, 2014 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. ", Private website, last accessed May 24, 2013 @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  6. Wolfram Krömer: The Italian Commedia dell'arte. Darmstadt 1976, p. 27
  7. ^ Printed in Franz Anton Bustelli: The Italian Comedy in Porcelain. Berlin 1947 and Stuttgart 1959, page 26 ff.
  8. Wolfram Krömer: The Italian Commedia dell'arte. Darmstadt 1976, p. 1