( Europe: 1550-1750)
The origin of the zanni has been debated, although the term itself probably derives from the name Giovanni, the most common name in the northern mountains of Italy. Giovanni was often corrupted into Zoan or Zuano in the Lombard dialect. Allardyce Nicoll disagrees with this theory, however, arguing that zanni derived from the nominative form of sannio, the name of the classical fool. Zanni was used both as a character name, as in the scenarios collected by Museo Correr, or as a label for all of the comic servant characters, as in the scenarios of Flaminio Scala.
The zanni were direct descendants of the Atellan sannio. These were the fools of ancient improvisational theater, and many of their conventions, notably masks and slapstick, are found in the zanni. There is also some evidence that the zanni descended in part from the devils of medieval religious drama. In the sixteenth century, T. Garzoni insisted that the zanni were imitations of the peasants of northern Italy, specifically those from the town of Bergamo. Supporting this, some early scenario texts list the zanni as "Bergamask servant" ( Nicoll265). After Bergamo was conquered by Venice in the sixteenth century, the trade that had kept alive the city and many of the towns of northern Italy was strangled by the flood of cheap goods from the East that passed through Venice and Genoa. The people of the smaller cities and towns were left without any source of income, and many fled to the cities to become servants, the very cities that had caused their ruin. These Bergamese peasants were known for their strength and carrying abilities. Garzoni said of them: "The facchini ["carriers of bun