What is Commedia dell'Arte?
Commedia dell'Arte is a type of comedy developed in 16th and 17th century Italy, characterized by improvised text based on plot outlines (scenarios). It differed from commedia erudita which were comedies with written, rather than improvised, dialogue from the same period. Commedia dell'Arte featured stock characters, some of whom wore distinctive masks. Literally, it means comedy (Commedia) of the professional guilds or artists (dell'Arte). Its popularity in Renaissance Europe can be attributed to the talents and special skills of the actors who were acrobats, dancers, musicians, orators, quick wits, and improvisors possessing thorough insights into politics and human nature. The populace loved the stock characters and their antics, much the way contemporary audiences love the Marx Brothers' movies or TV sit-coms with stock characters like "Gilligan's Island" and "Friends".
Where was it performed?
Most Commedia troupes performed outdoors in city and town piazzas on stages they brought with them in horse-drawn carts, along with their equipment, props, costumes, curtains, and ladders. The stages were usually built high (up to 2 meters), allowing spectators an unobstructed view of the action, and giving actors a storage area and change room underneath. Some of the better Commedia troupes performed in Renaissance theatres such as Palladio's theatre in Vicenza or the Petit Bourbon in France.
Why is Commedia dell'Arte important?
In all periods of Western culture since the Renaissance, Commedia dell'Arte has been a conscious or subconscious presence. Using sexually challenging language and physical comedy, Commedia pokes fun at elements of society's respectable values by means of exaggerated styles and insightful character traits. The stock characters of Arlecchino (Harlequin), Colombina, il Dottore, il Capitano, il Magnifico (Pantalone), and Pulchinella can be found in music, visual arts, dance, and theatre as themselves or as inspiration for specific characters.