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THE ZANNI (THE CLOWNS)
Pseudonyms: Arlecchino (“Harlequin”), Bagatino (“the little juggler”).
Birthplace: Bergamo, a northern Italian town legendary for rustics, dunces and clowns.
Costume: Motley patches of color on a valet’s breeches and laced jacket. “Truffaldino” is Italian for “tatterdemalion,” Renaissance slang for hoboes who wore tattered rags as clothing.
Mask: Black half-mask with almond-shaped eyes, a wrinkled forehead and a wide snub nose.
Character: “His character is a mixture of ignorance, naiveté, wit, stupidity and grace. He is both a rake and an overgrown boy with occasional gleams of intelligence, and his mistakes and clumsiness often have a wayward charm. His acting is patterned on the lithe, agile grace of a young cat, and he has a superficial coarseness which makes his performances all the more amusing. He plays the role of a faithful valet, always patient, credulous and greedy. He is eternally amorous, and is constantly in difficulties either on his own or on his master’s account. He is hurt and comforted in turn as easily as a child, and his grief is almost as comic as his joy.” Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799).
Pseudonyms: Scapino (“the escape artist”), Mezzetino (“the halfmeasure”)
Birthplace: Bergamo, like Harlequin.
Costume: All-white servants’ garb with green trimmings and a trusty dagger tucked in his belt.
Mask: Olive-tinted half-mask, with a twirled-up mustache and a greedy expression.
Character: Witty and intelligent, Brighella is the archetype of the scheming servant. Originally a menacing figure, by Goldoni’s time Brighella represented the self-made man. He often played small business owners, such as an innkeeper in The Servant of Two Masters. His relatives include Molière’s Scapin and Beaumarchais’ Figaro.
Fun fact: Giuseppe Marliani, the Brighella in Goldoni’s company, had been trained as a tightrope walker before he became an actor.
Pseudonyms: Colombina (“little dove”), Arlecchina.
Birthplace: In the papal states, actresses were banned from the stage by the Catholic Church until the 16th century. They appeared in commedia dell’arte troupes centuries before actresses elsewhere on the continent.
Costume: Originally dressed as a woman of the people with a large wide apron and no corset, by the 18th century her outfit was almost the same as that of her mistress.
Mask: Women wore no masks in the commedia dell’arte, though Colombinas were known for wearing heavier makeup than their mistresses, and carrying a tambourine which they could use as a weapon to ward off unwanted advances.
Character: The role of the servetta birichina (“feisty servant-girl”) was invented as a female counterpart for the zanni. Colombinas ranged from saucy country girls to francophone coquettes (like Lisette in this season’s The Heir Apparent). As women in a men’s world, they were famous for their quick-witted resourcefulness.
THE VECCHI (THE VILLAINS)
Pseudonyms: Gaultier-Garguille (“great greedy mouth”), Harpagon the miser.
Birthplace: Venice, the city of merchants.
Costume: Turkish slippers, brimless Greek cap, long red tights or trousers or “pants” and a loose black cape.
Mask: Brown and wrinkled, in the shape of an ancient old man, with a prominent hooked nose and a white beard stretching from ear to ear that shakes ludicrously when he talks.
Character: Always old, always greedily counting his pennies and always keeping the young lovers apart, Pantalone is the principal antagonist of all commedia scenarios.
Fun fact: Shakespeare knew of Pantalone, and mentions him in the melancholy Jaques’ “seven ages of man” speech:
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d
With spectacles on nose and pouch
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world
For his shrunk shank:
(As You Like It, act 2, scene 7)
Pseudonyms: Il Dottore Baloardo (“Dr. Dullard”), Il Tartaglia (“the stammerer”).
Birthplace: Bologna, famous for its universities.
Costume: Clothed entirely in black, with an academic gown extending all the way to his heels.
Mask: A half-mask, covering the forehead and the nose; cheeks smeared with red, a tradition remarked on by Goldoni, apparently recalling a birthmark on a famous legislator’s face.
Character: Il Dottore is a man of great erudition and little insight. He knows everything and understands nothing. Best friends with fellow greybeard Pantalone, he is an expert garbler of Latin phrases, a world-class pedant and a genius at putting onstage audiences to sleep.
THE INNAMORATI (THE LOVERS)
Birthplace: The first famous innamorata was Isabella Andreini, and after her most female lovers would simply take the names of the actresses playing them.
Costume: Dressed magnificently, in the finest and most expensive fashions possible.
Mask: The innamorati wore no mask; as lovers, their beauty (and makeup) were considered mask enough.
Character: Most commedia scenarios call for two pairs of lovers. As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the four lovers were often kept apart, confused and interchanged before finding their soulmates. Traditionally, they spoke conventional love poetry, in contrast to the antics of the zanni and the vecchi.
Pseudonyms: Leandro, Lelio.
Birthplace: The innamorato was traditionally played by men of distinction, often the actor-managers of the commedia troupe.
Costume: Dapper and gallant to the point of affectation.
Mask: Like their female counterparts, the male lovers wore no masks.
Character: The lover is a state of mind more than a character. He is defined by no other trait than being in love and could be a poet, a swordsman, a dandy or a wandering aristocrat. Goldoni’s innamoratos have the same eagerness for duels and naive aestheticism of Renaissance lovers, but they are respectably bourgeois, bound by a strict sense of honor.