Commedia dell’Arte masks design, materials and costume

The masks in Commedia dell’Arte are, unlike Greek, Balinese or Japanese masks for instance, always half masks. They are not bigger than that they cover just the upper part of the face. They are not big enough to manifest themselves as icons, as images of humans, and not so big that they dehumanize them.
They can be clad in fur or hair, to mark eyebrows or different kinds of beards.

On can say that every Commedia dell’Arte mask contain three elements. These elements can serve as a springboard for the actor to continue searching to “finding his mask”:
The Character of the mask – that is its specific face feature, its color, its expression for the basic character traits the mask possessing.
An animal – every mask has its own animal from where it can find its origins, which must have its expression in the design of the mask, the movement and the behavior of the mask.
A devil – He indicates the special forms of devilment ( or cardinal sins) the mask represents.
By working with these elements the mask can at any given moment use the movement of the animal, behave devilish in his own manner or move the plot forward according to its character.

There is still a snobbism when it comes to leather masks, as the only possible masks to use. According to the myth it started already when Teatro Piccolo di Milano started to experiment with Commedia dell’Arte. Rehearsing “Arlecchino – Servitore di due Padroni”, Marcello Moretti first chosed to paint his face black instead of using a papier mâché mask, until he finaly got a leather mask from Amleto Sartori.
I can agree that a leather mask most of the time is a better tool for the actor, but a papier mâché mask is good enough. It can even sometimes be more effective as it has the advantage of being easier to form articulate. Papier mâché makes it easier to mark wrinkles and character traits. It also gives more freedom when painting. It makes it functioning better indoors in electric light. The argument that papier mâché masks hurt or are uncomfortable can be solved with a bit of rubber foam. Neither can we be sure that it was only leather masks used during the renaissance. The chance that a papier mâché mask would have survived to our days is not that big since to was made of a much more vulnerable material. Thinking of how few leather masks there are around today papier, mâché masks can very well have been used even if there are no masks left. If one goes to Venice one can see in any street window papier mâché masks being made from old traditional craftsmanship.
Other materials as birch bark, cloth, rope, leaves etc. we don’t know anything about. There is nothing that points to it, but nothing points the other way either. And there were probably no masks from wood or terracotta, since they would be too heavy to work in.
Most people discard material that doesn’t breathe as plastic materials such as fiberglass, latex, rubber or neoprene. Myself I think most of those materials are underestimated. They are waterproof (read: sweatproof), they are sustainable and they are easy to duplicate and form. The problem is that they don’t follow the actors face in a way that he can feel that that he is part of the mask or the mask is part of him.

We should not go in too much on the subject of mask making here. But a few practical things have to be said about the shaping of the mask. It is about the eyes. It is very important that they are seen and that one can see through the mask.
It is most important when playing indoors. In order to make it possible to get the light inte the eyes is it important to not do the eyebrow too big that they shade the eyes. If one raise the mask, as it is held when it is on ones face, it should be a free angle about 45o from the eye and upwards.
It is equally important that one can see one’s feet to see where one is on the stage, that sometimes aren’t bigger than 5-6 square meters. Therefor the cheeks cannot be too big or cannot be placed right under the eyes.

The costume is also a part of the mask. Every Commedia dell’Arte mask has its own costume. The costume, or at least parts of the costume, is also used to frame the mask.
It is easy to ”loose” the mask if one doesn’t think of what is around it like hats, hair, collars, scarfs and so on. The parts of the costume that is closest to the mask should lift the mask. In that way the whole face becomes a “picture”. For example: can we see how Arlecchino (when using pantyhose on his head) has a bit of cloth round his neck to frame the mask and the lower part of his face.
When we see someone acting in a mask dressed only in an unbuttoned jacket and no headdress it becomes a collision between two worlds, on one hand the mask and its grotesque fantasy world and on the other hand skin and its naked realism.
The costume can likewise be a part in the play. Therefore it is important to rehears in costume as early as possible. Pedrolino’s costume, for instance, has often too long arms. If the actor playing Pedrolino has the chance to, at an early stage, rehears in his costume he will also have the opportunity to invent lots of situations where he can use them and gradually they will play a part in the play. Or just think of Arlecchinos hat that can be used to almost anything, like: drinking water, hide things in, fight with and so on.
Stilts, swords, batocchi and other accessories and props that are hung or fastened to the costume are also part of the costume. They are also parts to bring in early in rehearsals, not only because one can invent ideas with them, but also since they are in the way for the actor who needs to find a way to deal with them.
Many of the male masks have, or had, phalluses on their costumes. That is a heritage from the ancient satyrs in the Dionysus plays. They could vary in size and shape after the characters of the masks, just like in Aristophanes play Thesmophoriazusae, were the old man in his confusion has his phallus hanging out under his tunic and give out a yell every time he sits down on it.

See also:
The origins of mask (Part 1 – The Hunt)
Vulgar Comedy and  the Church (Part 1)
Mask making workshop

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The end of the heydays of Commedia dell’Arte (Part 2)

The other main reason to the decline of Commedia dell’Arte – the degeneration of the actors and art of Commedia dell’Arte – is that Commedia dell’Arte got stuck in its form and became static.
As Commedia dell’Arte became more and more popular more groups got a better life. Many actors and groups got permanent positions in the Italian and other courts, other got their own theatres where they became stars and came in possession of luxury and influence.
Sometimes in the late/middle of the seventeenth century we can see the first tendency to the decadence, at least within the great Commedia dell’Arte groups who are the ones we have most knowledge about.

Tristano Martinelli was the first to use his role also in a private context. He became a sort of court jester in aristocratic and royal circles and he was used, just as the celebrities of today, to give starry luster events and openings. This also gave him a higher position in comparesing with his colleagues. His children had the French king, Henry IV, as godfather and later he followed Louis XIII to Fontainebleau and back.

Others are following in his footsteps. Many of them became more or less included in the aristocracy. For example Pier Maria Cecchini became ennobled in Vienna, and later his son became ennobled in Germany. This way of showing of oneself is also the beginning of the end of the great Commedia dell’Arte groups. The rivalry between and within the groups is increasing as social openings are possible. They are desperately trying to stick to their positions in the social circles they invited to.
The actors work hard to be seen, at any cost. It leads to the weakening of the unity within the groups when star acting and diva behaviors take off. The element of group theatre that was so important disappears. As the groups, in their eagerness to win social status, allow themselves to be an instrument for the principalities or the impresarios they serve, and therefore lose their independence.

Commedia dell’Arte became commercialized. As early as the seventeen century Italy got its first impresarios as the Commedia dell’Arte groups got a bigger market. The very first impresario was Leone de´Sommi from Mantua. He sold Commedia dell’Arte as soon as 1567. But the impresarios did not become influential until the seventeenth century. They first wrote short contracts, but later the contracts could last over several years. The groups and actors became less dependent of their old patrons, but instead they became more dependent on their impresarios.
Even the names of the groups changed in the later half of the seventeenth century. They took names after their leaders as in Giuseppe Bianchi’s group or Fiorelli’s group.

As the actors gain a higher social status they also disassociate themselves from the impulses and inspiration they gotten from the streets. The plot, the jokes, the masks, the notions does not reflect the common man any more. Instead of joking with the people in the streets, the Commedia dell’Arte groups start joking about them instead, since the no longer are taking part of the life in the streets where the people are. (See also The Indian adventures)

Many Commedia dell’Arte groups stopped touring as they began building theatres, and therefore the influence from abroad, the contacts with other Italian towns and the network of Commedia dell’Arte groups that was constructed. We can easily imagen that, then as now, most great ideas start in small poor groups and are exploited by institutions and greater groups that have resources and access to media.

The post started in Part 1 and continues in Part 3

See also:
THE LANGUAGE OF THE MARKETPLACE
A FEW DOGMAS CONCERNING MASK ACTING
MICKE’S COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE-LECTURE

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Commedia dell’Arte – the Name

The term Commedia dell’Arte was not used during the renaissance. It was used for the first time, the way we do today, in the eighteen century by Luigi Riccoboni in his book Histoire du Theatre Italien from 1728. At that time Commedia dell’Arte was about to get decadent and Carlo Goldoni was just about to take the masks of the actors and write scripted comedies for them.
Earlier it was called Commedia Improviso – improvised comedy; Commedia alla Maschera – comedy in mask; Commedia a Soggetto – Comedy an a given subject; Commedia Mercenaria – Commercial Comedy; Commedia Braccia – Comedy off the Top of one’s Head; Commedia degli Zanni – Comedy with Zanni or simply Commedia Italiana. The less fortunate companies that were allot to play in the streets were often talked about as Charaltano shows, by the priests who described them in order to have them forbidden.

The traditional translation of Commedia dell’Arte is comedian to profession, or art. Nicoll Allardyce proposes comedy by skill or that arte would stand for “special dexterity” or “unique talent”. Anyhow the word “arte” should be interpreted as “craft” as in “artisan” rather than as “art” as in “artist”.

According to Dario Fo and Benedetto Croce Commedia dell’Arte is a term that defines the professional companies that had a license by the prince or the authorities to play in a specific town, where the term was actually written on their contract. Everyone needed naturally a permission by the authorities to be allowed to play publicly, and the authorities held strict control when, where, and what was played.

Dario Fo also claims that the word “arte” was, since the Middle Ages, another word for guild or fraternity. The word then was used in transferred sense by Luigi Riccoboni when he created, or named the genre.
In that way the term is more to be regarded as a union or rather a guild, that an artistic phenomenon. Their aim was off course to care for the member’s interests by going together when dealing with the authorities and reduce the competition by excluding companies that were not members. Isn’t that just like, at least the Swedish, actors unions today?

This may have been the first “fringe” theatre groups in Europe. In any case it is the first time in history that actors are enforced, or had the possibility, to negotiate contracts and at the same time become entrepreneurs. Mobility, virtuosity and swiftness to find new markets, or flexibility and competence as it is called today, became essential qualification for a company to survive.

See also:
The roots to all western popular comedy
What is a mask?
Var är Boken (Where’s the Book)

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To compose a Commedia dell’Arte group in the sixteenth century

To compose a Commedia dell’Arte group was a highly delicate task. Some masks were needed in order to fill out the usual scenarios. But one couldn’t just chose the best actors. One had to think about that the actors should not just play together, they shall also live together during long tours. A corago had to build a group that harmonized together on a personal level. To judge from old letters it seems that the actors, at least in the heydays of Commedia dell’Arte, had a weakness for competing and smear each other. Besides there was factors like some actors already had rehearsed dialogs, concetti and lazzi together or that one would need particular disciplines or qualities like acrobats, singers or fatsos.

We don’t know how big, the more common, less well-to-do groups really was, but for example in the the first contract from Padua and Zan Bragetta’s groups there were 8 actors. Among the richer, more famous groups we know more. They were at least 10 – 12 actors. We can assume that, like today, the poorer groups could not afford as many actors since they all had to live from their income. Maybe that also had to do with the heritage from the bunco-steerers, the carnival sprees and the diavolas, who were all forerunners of Commedia dell’Arte.
The standard battery of masks was two Vecchi, two or more zanni, four (two couples) Innamorati, one Capitano and a Servetta. There were also small roles as soldiers, ghosts, monks, or thieves. They would either be doubled or they took help from amateurs or sometimes used family members for these roles. 

To compose a Commedia dell’Arte group was one of the task of the group leader, the capocomico or the corago. The latter was the director, or at least as close to that profession one could come, while the first had the same tasks but was also an actor, like Flaminio Scala, Diana Ponti, Pier Maria Cecchini or Giovan Battista Andreini. They should also write and present new scenari, explain what was suiting in each scene, create and block sceneries and to compose the whole performance after what actors he had and their abilities.
Perrucci writes about a corago’s tasks:

A corago, the leader or the maestro, the most competent to instruct others, shall rehearse a soggetto before it is played so the actors are familiar with the content of the performance, know when they should end their speech, and can during the rehearsal explore new jokes and lazzi. The one that has the responsibility for the rehearsal should not limit himself to reading the scenario, but explain the names and the qualities of the characters, the main content in the play, the place for the actions, the houses on the stage, the divisions of the lazzi and other necessary details, take care of the props for the play, such as letters, purses, knives, that are on the list in the end of the scenario.

See also:
Acrobatics as a discipline in Commedia dell’Arte
Spex
Micke’s teaching

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The end of the heydays of Commedia dell’Arte (Part 3)

There are lots of descriptions about how Commedia dell’Arte degenerated even though many are of the type: “everything has changed to worse”. We can see here how the aging Francesco Gabrielli, who had led a good life as actor in different courts, in a letter to the Duke of Mantua where he is looking for the job to form a Commedia dell’Arte group to the Duke. In most of the letter he is bragging over his own colleagues and is plotting against other actors. The letter is dated as early as 1627; it is from a man who always played with greatest groups and enjoyed de best benefits and privileges:

“…Mezzettino does not tumble and, more important, will not leave Olivetta who would make yet another serva. Frittelino is good at making himself detested, not just by actors but by everyone, and how true that iscan be seen from the fact that when he wants companions he can get them only by influence of princes or money. I say nothing about the fact that he always wants a better part then the rest. As to his wife, it is inconvenient that at her age she should want to pass as an innocent young girl, for what the stage wants today is youth. The Pantalone della Podagra is so maltreated by his affliction that last year when with us in Venice he could neither dress himself nor tie his mask, and I don’t think it a good idea to put a statue on stage who can do nothing but wag his toungue…”

From the 1660ies to the 1690ies, when the greater part of the Italian actors was driven out of Paris, many of the leading actors was instead moving in to Paris and Hôtel de Bourgogne,  where also Molière was after Louis XIV had given him a place there. At Hôtel de Bourgogne the actors had an audience that gave a higher social standing and economical status, and they did not have to tour.
Men Commedia dell’Arte also got distorted in Paris. From the start when Commedia dell’Arte got established in France is became more physical, irreverent, improvised and sentimental, with more focus on music and dance. As time went on it focused more and more on the sentimental. Dance comes in through classic ballet, an art form as far from the down-to-earth vulgar Commedia dell’Arte it can be, with its only up-striving movements. Commedia dell’Arte became something beautiful to watch instead focusing on its contents. The movements and the acrobatics were replaced by mechanical effects until it all became a mixture of ballets, parodies and pyro-technique.
Except from this they are seeking more and more sensational effects as compensation for the lost virtuosity that once was Commedia dell’Arte’s trademark, also with the result that much of the old knowledge disappeared.

From the end of the seventeenth century the greater Commedia dell’Arte groups vanished from Italy. Plagues and hunger devastated great parts of the lands. Because of the less auspicious economic climate, when among others many Italian banks went bankrupt, didn’t Dukes and Princes consider themselves rich enough to support artists and scientists in the same way. The patronizing doesn’t end totally, even though the renaissance ideals slowly die out and it doesn’t become a ’la mode to sponsor the arts anymore.

Another reason Commedia dell’Arte lost ground was the enormous attack the church started during the counter reformation. Since the church was an important power in society the Commedia dell’Arte actors did not dare to be as provocative but instead declined to “good taste”.
The only thing we can benefit from this is that we gain lots of theories, histories, books and other material related to Commedia dell’Arte published as a defense and a reaction to this attack.

See also Part 1 and Part 2

See also:
TO PLAY MASK
TEMPO OR RYTHM
BOMBAFU

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The end of the heydays of Commedia dell’Arte (Part 1)

Acuity and rationalism does not thrive together with lush and warming jocularity, the humor of rationalism easily becomes merciless satire, as in Voltair for example.”                             Harry Järv, in the pretext to The Very Horrific Life of Great Gargantua

It is often said that Commedia dell’Arte died out when Goldoni moved to Paris 1762, to work with Comédie-Italienne. It is a bit peculiar since Goldoni also is accused have killed Commedia dell’Arte by taking of the masks and writing down the lines for the actors.
But as a time reference it is a suitably occasion, even though Commedia dell’Arte’s decline started much earlier. It does not only use a specific date to mark it, but this is also the time when Commedia dell’Arte disperse from the street scene and other forms of theatre takes over.
There are naturally many reasons that Commedia dell’Arte diapers from streets and stages, but I want to especially concentrate on two reasons: the changing society and culture and the decay of the actors and the Commedia dell’Arte itself.

As society changes in the seventeenth century the carnival culture starts to disintegrate into a more bourgeois culture: the body starts being denied, individualism makes its entry with the possibility to have a career, the streets and the square loses its place as where life took place in competition with homes, even the French academy with their demands of the entity of the room, the time and the plot starts playing a part. Commedia dell’Arte also started to be more yielding.  Commedia dell’Arte became sentimental, tame and morally bourgeois comedy. A comedy that came to play at the power and morality’s conditions and values.

Pantalone who always been a greedy, vengeful and cruel, old goat, becomes mutilated over time. He loses his lust, aggressiveness, and cruelty and therefore his vibrancy also dies. He becomes a diverting and nice eccentric. The dethroning of him starts to be more and more look like compromises.
The lovers who from the start was occupied with infidelity and wild runaways from their parents, becomes young, innocent virgins who wants nothing more than to get married and are totally free from any sexual urges. The Servetta that once was a voluble, blatant and crass prostitute, who tempted and seduced to get what she wanted and always won in the end, became Columbina, the fetching, clever maid who helps the lovers without a thought of her own gain.
During the seventeenth century many actors startet to invent new masks and roles since the old masks doesn’t work in the private social life. Pier Maria Cecchini replaces his old Pedrolino with the more lame Frittelino. Other masks that are invented are Fichetto, Scaramuccia, Beltrame. Franceschina becomes replaced by Riccolina, Nespola or Spinetta.

It is just the possibility to have a career that is the roots these new thoughts. Up until the renaissance the dominating idea about progress was an ascending movement, towards God. Now it changed to a progress in a horizontal movement, towards the future in worldly time and worldly space. If the human progress was not just about the religious purview and the afterlife the door was open to  the possibility to change one’s own environment here on earth was for the first time. In other word for the first time one could be the architect of one’s own fortune. To succeed that that own had to displace other who also wants to displace others in order to succeed.

In that competition cohesion and the feeling of community within towns and villages, guilds and village communities that was the foundation for the carnival culture and Commedia dell’Arte was lost. The life that was lived in the streets and squares moved in to the homes to the private realm. The modern bourgeois is created with other values as family, morals, career, nation and money as affirmation of one’s career, power and authority. (Money has always been important in Commedia dell’Arte, but as a sign of greed in mocking human weakness’s or as a mean of survival.)

Morals became a sign of good health. Through good morals the people should reach a better life. But it wasn’t just the “good” morals that made its entry. So did double standards, the double standards that deny the body, its needs of sex, eating, drinking, urinating or excrement. These needs became private and something shameful instead of something that encouraged life and therefore was enjoyable.
Morals have always been something totally irrelevant in the world of Commedia dell’Arte. On the contrary the masks have never been limited by moral speculation. They live by their drives or instincts. Just as the double standards in suppression of bodily needs never distressed the masks of Commedia dell’Arte, but have been a source of laughter and mockery.

The post continues in Part 2 and Part 3

See also:
VULGAR COMEDY AND THE CHURCH
THE COMIC DRAMATIC COMBAT IN COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE
MORENS FÅNGE (THE PRISONER OF THE MOOR)

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Desiosi (The Desired) 1581 – 1603

They are first heard of in Pisa 1581.One of the reasons webring up Desiosi is that they were led by a woman, Diana Ponti, and were often called “Dianas Troup”. She was much celebrated and often the main attraction. Diana was simultaneously involved with in many other Commedia dell’Arte groups in the 1580- and 1590ies.

Desiosi often played in Rome and the Papal state. There they were absolute forbidden to bring women. This, and the fact that she was involved with many other groups, lead us to believe that she probably did not lead the group the whole time.

1596 they play for the Duke of Mantua, who writes to the Duchess of Ferrara to give her his recommendations, as the  group was passing through.
From 1597 it is possible that Flamminio Scala was the leader of the group.
In 1599 the y play in Verona and in December they are in Cremona with Tristan Martinelli who writes one of his letters to the French queen Maria de´ Medici from there.
1603 is the last time we hear from them as they hire Stanza di San Giorio de´Genovesi in Napoli.

From the middle and the end of the seventeens century the great Commedia dell’Arte groups disappeared. The courts could no longer afford to support them in the same way as before. It was not a ´la mode to patronize the arts. And there were less and less “fine gentlemen” like Flaminio Scala and Francesco Andreini who were tempted to play Commedia dell’Arte
The Commedia dell’Arte groups goa a bigger market and consequently Italy got their first impressarios. The group became also less dependent of their old patron. Many chose to work as “fringe” groups. It also became more stars then groups in within “the elite” in Commedia dell’Arte.

See also:
WOMEN IN COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE
THE ORIGINS OF THE MASK
MICKE’S COMMDEDIA DELL’ARTE WORKSHOP

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Commedia dell’Arte troupes in comparison with the Elizabethan theatre

Even though the Commedia dell’Arte actors were professional they could not live on their art itself. They had to find other ways were they could use their craft to survive, just like many struggling theatre groups today. While the successful groups played in halls in palaces of nobles and dukes, those not as successful played the in the streets and squares or in hired halls, stanze.
Naturally the more successful groups played in stanze, and later in theaters, for money as well. The payment when playing for the sovereign was mostly in kind. It could be cloth, dresses or just food and lodging,

There was an ongoing struggle, foremost among the wealthier Commedia dell’Arte groups, for social status, both for themselves and for their art form. Over time they started to compare their art with other art forms like literature and painting. Many actors and playwrights started to create star status for themselves, by focusing on virtuosity and the written word instead of teamwork and the play with the audience. They started to use the manners of the aristocracy.

If we look at the Elizabethan theatre for example who played for all classes at the same time. They had to please them all at the same time, or at least in the same show. Commedia dell’Arte on the other hand could adapt their particular audiences whether they played in a palace, in a hired stanze or on the street. Therefore they could develop their way of improvisation for each specific audience.
Commedia dell’Arte were also more flexible for commercial reasons. When they played different spaces and were employed for special occasions with special wants and needs, as dinner entertainment, to be a part of the carnival or even arrange it, as interacts in other performances and so on, they were not limited by a written script.

One thing more that increased the flexibility of the Commedia dell’Arte groups was that they always toured, either they were hired by courts or they were just traveling actors. They met different audiences, cultures, laws and customs, and they had to adapt to it. They rarely played at one place more than a week at the time.
Bur since they toured they were able to keep their shows in repertoire for a longer period. In comparison we can mention Shakespeare (who didn’t tour) only staged Hamlet 20 times, King Lear even fewer and Measure for Measure only five times.

One more distinction between Commedia dell’Arte and the Elizabethan theatre was that also women were acting, instead of boys dressed in women clothing as in most of the rest of Europe. This was something that was frequently commented in the sources from the time. Here is Ottonelli from 1652:

-“At times when these good friends show up in a town: with them are women used to the same profession, for they are convinced that without these women they would not give a good impression and get applauses.”

 The first time we meet a woman, Lucrezia Senese, on a list of actors is 1564. From the beginning it might have been for pornographic reasons women was let in. It was naturally seemed extremely indecent and, coming from the streets and the Charlatano-shows, their chore was to attract men to the show or the stands where the Charlatani were selling goods. The first female masks – except possibly the Innamorati – were also prostitutes. Much later the female masks took the leading role in turning Commedia dell-Arte in on a more romantic path, as a counterpart to the more burlesque parts of Commedia dell’Arte.

See also:
MICKE’S COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE LECTURE
THE ROOTS TO COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE         
AAARRGH!!! – CAPITANO CATASTROFO COLOSALLE

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Kalabalik

Here is a video of ”Kalabalik” the student show in Commedia dell’Arte from the spring of 2021 that I directed.
(I am sorry for the bad fitting to the frame)

I strongly recommend you to look at the show in full screen mode

See also:
Det allra löjligaste (The Most Ridiculous)
Sex fiaskon och in stol (sex/six failures and a char)
Micke’s Commedia dell’Arte lecture

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The wealthy and lucky Commedia dell’Arte groups

Those lucky Commedia dell’Arte troupes that could play in the salons of castles and palaces had their benefactors, usually a duke or a nobleman over a province. For those actors who were educated it was also relatively easy to find additional jobs. In the palaces they could be musicians, tutors, arrange greater feasts and so on. Even the great Flaminio Scala worked for a while as a perfume dealer.
Those actors could enjoy a better life economically, but they were also more or less serfs and had to obey their master’s whims if they wanted to keep their heads on top of their necks. This can be illustrated by a story from Dario Fo in his book Tricks of the Trade:

-“The French king who had heard people praise an elderly actor who worked for the duke of Mantua wished to see him in Paris. Unfortunately the actor in question was very ill, but the duke gave him orders to get out of bed and prepared the trip. The palace doctor interfered and asked the duke not to insist on the trip: “His medical condition is so that he very well might die before he arrives to his goal.” The duke didn’t listen to such nonsense: “First I would let him draw his last breath then risk that the French king would think that I would not give him the gift that he wish.” So the actor was forced to go in fever and, just as the doctor Had said, he died as he passed the S:t Bernard pass. Politeness had prevailed. The French king was, no doubt, touched gesture of sublime sacrifice from his generous vassal, the duke – generous with one of his actors life.

The actor’s background were varied. Some like, Flaminio Scala and Francesco Nobili were noblemen and move in elite circles while for instance those who wrote the first contract we know in Padua 1545 probably where craftsmen or lower commoners.  By time it seems that the demands and the play of Commedia dell’Arte bridged the social span between groups. Even in the most famous groups there was actors from varied backgrounds. From the courts and the learned circles came singers, poets, playwrights, and courtesans like Flaminio Scala, while others came from the streets and were charlatani, musicians, jugglers, acrobats, dancers, jesters and mimes as Barbieri and Silvio Fiorillo. They were all forced to adapt to new circumstances to be able to life a life within the professional theatre.

The fact that many Commedia dell’Arte actors were educated and more socially accepted than earlier popular entertainers must have been one of the keys to their acceptance in the finer salons. That must have in turn have helped to generate even more Commedia dell’Arte groups when they saw a possibility to move upwards in society.
Pretty soon the groups who had succeeded, economically, socially and culturally, distinguished themselves from the other groups and new hierarchies were made in the world of Commedia dell’Arte. Those who had succeeded in being famous and got a place in a greater court became traveling institutions of the time. They had another economic situation and other resources; both artistically and practical; they were recognized everywhere both socially and artistically; with their contacts it was much easier to deal with bureaucratic hassle, the suspicion of the clergy and problem with the police and borders between nations and states; it was easier to book halls, find actors and so on.

Many Commedia dell’Arte groups were extremely famous and had a high position in society. Just to mention, Isabella Andreini from the Gelosi, Europe’s first megastar. She was known all over Europe for her beauty and her intelligence. She exchanged letters with some of Europe’s most important artists and scientists (they are published in Lettere, the collection of her letters that her husband Francesco Andreini published after her death) and she was taken up in four academies. When she dies in Lyon on her way back to Florence from Paris after playing for Caterine de’ Medici at the French court, there was a great funeral with royalties and artists from all over Europe.

But to get institutionalized also had its duties. The dukes and princes that protected the Commedia dell’Arte groups was the politicians of their times. They represented the state and public affairs, even though they were in no way democratic in our sense. They used the Commedia dell’Arte groups for their own political purposes. It was not just to give glamour to their own court that they used the Commedia dell’Arte groups. They could also be used to get things said through them or to acknowledge friendship to other states by sending them to play there. Those nobles that protected Commedia dell’Arte groups could interfere with their repertoire, kick out or punish actors that didn’t suit them.
Those actors still had quite a great freedom, thanks to their high standing, to be in the renaissance. They indirectly prepossess their position by pointing to public and market demands, loyalty to the court or state or simply threaten to leave the court when their contract expires. The better the economic situation a group had the more freedom they could enjoy.
It was also easier for touring groups in general to avoid censorship in Italy sense it was not just one state with one law. A fact that was utilized, and gradually less and less of those laws were obeyed. Since there were just scenarios and no scripts it let the performances to differ from one show to another. That made it hard for the authorities to preview the shows effectively.
By the middle of the seventeenth century it seems that more and more Commedia dell’Arte groups chosen to stand free from any authority when a new market opened among the growing bourgeois.

See also:
Hierarchies and status play in Commedia dell’Arte
Sex fiaskon och in stol (sex/six failures and a char)
Micke’s Commedia dell’Arte lecture

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