( Italy: 1550-1750)
The commedia dell'arte was a unique development in the history of the theater in Western Europe. It flourished in Italy in the second half of the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century it was a less important factor in the theater, although its influence cannot be said to have died out.
Before commedia dell'arte became a firmly established genre, it had its history of development, like any other literary movement. It inherited a fragmentary legacy from many sources: from the commedia erudita (written comedy) of the Renaissance; from the clowns and variety artists who entertained at the festivities of the nobles, especially during the months of Carnival; from the jesters, the minstrels, jongleurs, and medicine shows that in the medieval days attracted crowds of spectators on popular streets; from the Latin comedies of Terence and Plautus; from Atellan farces in Rome; and even from Asiatic mimes. Although all these elements contributed to the formation of the commedia dell'arte, the influence of each was completely submerged and scarcely recognizable when the genre reached maturity in the hands of the notable player companies that started to form after 1550.
Commedia dell'arte means literally "comedy of the actors' guild" and was essentially improvised comedy that followed a plot outline, called a scenario, rather than a written dialogue. The players consisted of a dozen or so stock characters, several of whom wore masks, and two or more zanni (servants), whose lazzi (actions) ranged from comic intonations through acrobatics to ob-