History of Commedia

1555 - Ravenna, Italy.
Florence, Milan, Venice, the Kingdom of Naples under Spanish rule, and the Roman Papal States have competed for 150 years in fractured Italy. France also meddles incessantly. Florence is ruled by the Medici family, whom Machiavelli recently dedicated Il Principe to. Marcellus II was just elected Pope, and Michelangelo's painting The Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel of Rome is only 30 years old.

Imagine you are a middle-class Ravennati artisan on your way to the market. In the open air of Ravenna, under a blue sky and wispy clouds, a Commedia dell'Arte troupe plays for the crowded street. You push through the crowd as it hisses and boosdoubtless some evil plan has just been hatched.

On stage, the gluttonous Dottore has just rambled himself to sleep, and Arlecchino, dressed in rags and shoe-less, does cartwheels while he waits. Suddenly Isabella dashes onto the stage in tears; close behind comes Flavio to apologize. They hide behind Dottore as Pantalone, Flavio's father, enters.

Pantalone can hardly understand the babbling of his servant Pedrolino, who has the accent of a Neapolitan farmer. Still, Pedrolino's apish gesticulations and frothing chops tell the story of a plan gone awry. Meanwhile Arlecchino has begun to sing candidly about Brighella's role in the mayhem, but everyone is too wrapped up in their immediate problems to pay him heed.

Commedia was usually called Commedia dell'Improviso in its time period. There are no videos or comprehensive descriptions of historical Commedia performances. Because Commedia is improvisational and the scenarios are only plot outlines, we have no description of most of the lazzi performed in shows. Everything we know about Commedia is derived from the writings of troupe members, visual depictions like this 1657 painting by Karel Dujardin, and audience accounts of shows they saw.

Later playwrights also used Commedia as a source for developing subsequent genres such as the Harlequinade, ballet d'action, and Renaissance theatre.