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.