Commedia dell'Arte

commedia dell'arte (kōm-mā´dēä dĕl-lär´tā), popular form of comedy employing improvised dialogue and masked characters that flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th cent.

Characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte

The characters or "masks," in spite of changes over the years, retained much of their original flavor. Most important were the zanni, or servant types; Arlecchino, or Harlequin, was the most famous. He was an acrobat and a wit, childlike and amorous. He wore a catlike mask and motley colored clothes and carried a bat or wooden sword, the ancestor of the slapstick. His crony, Brighella, was more roguish and sophisticated, a cowardly villain who would do anything for money. Figaro and Molière's Scapin are descendants of this type. Pedrolino was a white-faced, moon-struck dreamer; the French Pierrot is his descendant. Pagliaccio, the forerunner of today's clown, was closely akin to Pedrolino.

Pulcinella, as seen in the English Punch and Judy shows, was a dwarfish humpback with a crooked nose, the cruel bachelor who chased pretty girls. Pantalone or Pantaloon was a caricature of the Venetian merchant, rich and retired, mean and miserly, with a young wife or an adventurous daughter. Il Dottore (the doctor), his only friend, was a caricature of learning—pompous and fraudulent; he survives in the works of Molière. Il Capitano (the captain) was a caricature of the professional soldier—bold, swaggering, and cowardly. He was replaced by the more agile Scarramuccia or Scaramouche, who, dressed in black and carrying a pointed sword, was the Robin Hood of his day.

The handsome Inamorato (the lover) went by many names. He wore no mask and had to be eloquent in order to speak the love declamations. The Inamorata was his female counterpart; Isabella Andreini was the most famous. Her servant, usually called Columbine, was the beloved of Harlequin. Witty, bright, and given to intrigue, she developed into such characters as Harlequine and Pierrette. La Ruffiana was an old woman, either the mother or a village gossip, who thwarted the lovers. Cantarina and Ballerina often took part in the comedy, but for the most part their job was to sing, dance, or play music. None of the women wore masks.


The impact of commedia dell'arte on European drama can be seen in French pantomime and the English harlequinade. The ensemble companies generally performed in Italy, although a company called the comédie-italienne was established in Paris in 1661. The commedia dell'arte survived the early 18th cent. only by means of its vast influence on written dramatic forms.


See K. M. Lea, The Italian Popular Comedy (2 vol., 1934, repr. 1962); W. Smith, Commedia Dell'arte (rev. ed. 1964); P. L. Duchartre, The Italian Comedy (tr. 1928, repr. 1965); A. Nicoll, The World of Harlequin: A Critical Study of the Commedia dell'Arte (1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Commedia dell'Arte: Selected full-text books and articles

Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook By Vicki K. Janik; Emmanuel S. Nelson Greenwood Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: "Commedia dell'Arte" begins on p. 146
Drama: Its Costume & Decor By James Laver Studio Publications, 1951
Librarian's tip: Chap. VIII "The Commedia dell'Arte"
The Theatre Handbook and Digest of Plays By Bernard Sobel Crown Publishers, 1940
Librarian's tip: "Commedia dell'Arte" begins on p. 163
The Theatre of Jean-Louis Barrault By Jean-Louis Barrault; Joseph Chiari Hill and Wang, 1961
Librarian's tip: "La Commedia dell'Arte" begins on p. 100
Dictionary of Italian Literature By Jody Robin Shiffman; Peter Bondanella; Julia Conaway Bondanella Greenwood Press, 1996 (Revised edition)
Librarian's tip: "Commedia dell'Arte" begins on p. 136
Enter the Actress: The First Woman in the Theatre By Rosamond Gilder Houghton Mifflin, 1931
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Commedia dell'Arte begins on p. 67
Harlequin; Or, the Rise and Fall of a Bergamask Rogue By Thelma Niklaus G. Braziller, 1956
Librarian's tip: Discussion of Commedia dell'Arte begins on p. 27
The Arlecchino and Three English Tinkers By Da Vinci Nichols, Nina Comparative Drama, Spring-Summer 2002
History of European Drama and Theatre By Erika Fischer-Lichte; Jo Riley Routledge, 2002
Librarian's tip: "Discovering the Identity in Transformation: Commedia dell'Arte" begins on p. 129
Commedia Dell'arte Performance: Context and Contents By Southeastern Theatre Conference University of Alabama Press, 1993
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.