This is the background information I have on the commedia dell’Arte, most of which is derived from here.
What I like about this particular art form is how it came to represent some pretty basic characters that were archetypal to human society at the time. The fact that for almost two hundred years they characters performed pretty much the same stories is fascinating.
It’s not like humans have changed. The Simpsons is the longest running prime time show in the US, running for 23 seasons while a feature length film, The Simpsons Movie, grossed over $527 million. Despite all that time there has been no real character development, no change in the characters circumstances or anything else. Bart should have graduated from college by now and have his own family, or at least have left high school.
Despite the lack of change or progression, and the fact that each episode is pretty much just like the last one, people still watch Bart and Homer do almost exactly the same things they has always done, just is mildly different settings. The fact that Homer Simpson’s fictional beer, Duff, can be purchased in Richmond, Melbourne far from Springfield indicates how pervasive their stories are.
The commedia dell’arte was simply the Simpsons of its day – only it was played continuously for almost 200 years!
Commedia dell’arte was improvised around the interactions between three basic characters, the elders, lovers and the servants. The basic story line is that the lovers want to be together, but the elders want them to be kept apart. Both parties employ the help of servants to thwart the others ambitions.
What is interesting is how the characters of commedia dell’ arte developed such distinctiveness that uneducated audiences throughout Italy could instantly recognise them.
Zanni was the generic name given to the servants in the commedia dell’art. There behaviour can be guessed in that it resulted in the English word zany. Unfortunately for the zanni, they were at the bottom of the social peaking order, at the beck and call of the other characters.
The stance of the zanni resulted from their physical labour and represented their social status. They had a lowered centre of gravity. They would stand with an arched back, knees bent and apart and feet splayed. The support knee is bent with the other leg extended, toe pointed. The zanni would change feet repeatedly while talking or listening within the same position and without his head bobbing up and down. The elbows are bend and the arms half lifted. The elbows are bent and arms half lifted.
The distinctive poses of the zanni were to be: crouching with elbows on knees and chin in hands; collapsing completely into a puddle; feet being splayed, bent forward at hips with the elbows slightly raised; and finally, to be asleep while standing up.
Bart and Homer Simpson are modern representations of the zanni. Good natured but stupid.
One of the main elders, or vecchio, was Pantalone. He was always an old man who loves money more than anything and, typically, would try to marry off his daughter to a wealthy man and avoid giving her a dowry. When things do not go his way he quickly slips into emotional extremes, particularly enraged petty tyranny. He has a long memory and never forgets or forgives the slightest past transgression. While he uses him money to exert power, he rarely parts with it leading him to often promise the zanni funds but never pay them for their efforts.
The stance of Pantalone represents his age and desire to hoard his wealth. His back bends the other way to the zannis, giving him an old man’s stoop, protecting his purse and effectively restricting the motion of his legs. The feet are together, toes apart, knees well bent and facing apart creating a focus on the crutch.
The distinctive poses of Pantalone were to be stooped over as if his spine just went out and he would support his upper body with a cane. He would also often lean slightly forward with his nose in the air. While his head might dart about like a bird, the rest of his body is lethargic, as if he is moving through water.
In the Simpsons, Pantalone is Mr Burns.
The final category of characters is that of the lovers, the Innamorati. Unlike every other character in the commedia dell’arte, the lovers did not wear distinctive masks but relied on heavy makeup for both sexes, with distinctive beauty spots. While the lovers have high status, they are brought low through the hopelessness of their infatuations.
The stance of the lovers was to suggest that they lacked firm contact with the earth. Their feet were invariably in ballet positions, creating long lines leading to their pelvis or chests. They are full of breath, but then take little pants on top. Sometimes when situations become too much for them, they deflate totally. The lovers were also extremely vain. Their vanity means they often look in a hand mirror, only to become upset by any minor imperfection they discover. Even in extreme situations they will want to ensure that everything about them was perfect.
You might say that Marge Simpson comes closest to the lovers. Like these lovers, she is constantly being dealt a harsh hand that she must endure for the betterment of the family. Unlike the commedia dell’arte lovers, Marge is not matched in her love.
These simple characterisations were enough for generations of Italians, from all walks of life, to engage with and instantly appreciate the comic nature of the performance. The simplicity of the characterisations enabled them to be told and retold for generations.
Despite our material wealth, despite our intellectual progress, at heart we are still the same people who marvelled at the antics of the zanni, the scheming of Pantalone and the naivety of the lovers. For over 503 episodes we have watched some yellow four fingered folk go about their dysfunctional ways.