Italian dramatic structure, and of opera and Commedia

Italian Renaissance


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The Italian Renaissance is the “rebirth”
of new ideas based on classical teachings. The Italian Renaissance gave birth to
many innovations in theater architecture and scene design, including the
proscenium arch stage, painted-flat wings and shutters, and Torelli’s
mechanized pole-and-chariot system. In addition, the Italian Renaissance saw
the development of the neoclassical rules of dramatic structure, and of opera
and Commedia dell’arte. Between the 14th and 16th centuries Renaissance
drama developed in Italy, marking an end to medieval practices and a
release of traditional Roman ways of presenting drama. (Web.) The three major Renaissance contributions to Theatre
were one, Neoclassical ideal in playwriting and criticism, two, Italianate
staging and architecture, and three, Commedia dell’arte. By 1600, this rebirth
had moved to other parts of Europe. It remained dominant for over 200 years,
especially among upper classes.

It is generally agreed that the Italian
theatre has its origins in the liturgy of the Catholic Church as it was recited
on holy days and particularly, at Carnival time. It was at first a simple
prolongation of the religious rites in Latin, but subsequently was gradually
transformed into an independent spectacle. There were members of
church-sponsored lay confraternities which engaged in extreme forms of penance
as well as in prayer and in the singing of songs called laude. Although usually lyrical or narrative in nature, these songs
were also susceptible of developing, thanks to the example of the liturgical
drama, into laude drammatiche. The
favorite subjects for these religious plays were incidents from the life of
Christ, the Final Judgement, the legends of the saints, and later, episodes
from the Old Testament. With the advent of humanism, writers abandoned
religious themes and turned to secular subjects in imitation of classical
models. At the outset they composed their plays in Latin but soon resorted to
the vernacular. The first Italian drama on a non-religious topic is Angelo
Poliziano’s Favola d’Orfeo (1480),
based upon the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The play is, however, only
externally dramatic as its inspiration is essentially lyrical.


The Cinquecento, the cultural and artistic
events of Italy, scores of tragedies, comedies, and pastoral plays were
composed in imitation of Latin and Greek dramatists. The first regular Italian
tragedy is Giangiorgio Trissino’s
Sofonisba (1515), a play in five acts with a chorus. Such tragedies and
nearly all that followed have a certain importance in the history of culture
but little or no artistic merit.


regular Italian comedy or commedia
erudite was at the outset a more or less strict imitation of Plautus and
Terence, but soon departed from these models and not infrequently attained true
originality far more than the tragedy. The first important comedies are those
of Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533): La
Cassaria (1508), I Suppositi
(1509), II Negromante (1520), La Lena (1529), and the unfinished Gli Studenti. Some, composed originally
in prose, are lively plays that make the most of typical Plautine characters and

The regular comedy of the Renaissance may
on the whole appear monotonous and uniform. It always has five acts, usually
with a prologue. It observes the unities of time and place and in a few cases
even the unity of action. It adopts the stock characters of Latin comedy, such
as old misers, licentious youths, rascally servants, wily courtesans, greedy
panders, and braggart soldiers. It adds to these, however, a host of other
types taken from Italian life: e.g., lawyers, professors, students, physicians,
parasites, pedants, astrologers, courtiers, peasants, innkeepers, peddlers,
friars, nuns, and bigots. It imitates such situations of Latin comedy as
rivalries between fathers and sons, reappearances of children considered lost,
ruses of servants against masters, errors caused by resemblances of twins. Yet
it draws new incidents and new plots from Boccaccio and other novellieri. The commedia erudita or the learned comedy is far from a slavish
imitation. Its esthetic value is not inconsiderable, while its importance as a
social document and its influence upon European literature are incalculable.
Together with the novella, it
constituted a rich storehouse of raw material for the drama of England, France,
and Spain for almost a century.


            The dream of Arcadia, a land of
simple, happy shepherds, was cherished as an ideal escape from reality by many
an Italian poet since the Trecento. More than by their eclogues, however, the
pastoral theme was rendered popular by Sannazzaro’s romance L’Arcadia (1485) and finally assumed
dramatic form in II Sacrificio (1554)
by Agostino Beccari. Henceforth, the pastoral play enjoyed quite a vogue in all
of Europe. The artistic masterpiece of the genre is the Aminta (1573) by Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). Written in blank verse,
the play has five acts, a prologue, and a chorus, which sings at the end of
each act and participates in some of the scenes. This play is easy to
understand as the plot is extremely simple. The influence of II Pastor fido (1590) by Giambattista
Guarini (1538-1612) and Aminta upon the
pastoral drama and the pastoral novel of Western Europe are incalculable.


In the second half of the sixteenth
century (after 1550) professional Italian actors, dissatisfied with formal
comedy, invented their own brand, which came to be known as commedia dell’arte “comedy of the acting
profession” or also known as “improvised comedy” or “comedy of masks.” Its
distinguished features were the use of stock characters, some wearing masks,
who generally played the same fixed role, the improvisation of dialogue based
upon an outline or scenario.                      

The basic stock characters at the outset
were the lover, the lady, the maid, the braggart captain, all unmasked, as well
as four masks: Pantalone, the Doctor, and the two zanni or servants, Brighella and Harlequin. The first three were
more or less conventional figures, except that the lady was allowed a more
important role than the one she had in the regular comedy. They all spoke
Tuscan and were endowed respectively with such names as: 1) Lelio, Flavio,
Florindo, 2) Flaminia, Lavinia, Isabella, Rosaura, 3) Smeraldina, Colombina,
and Pasquetta. The braggart captain, called Capitan Spaventa Rodomonte,
Spaccamonte or other names, usually spoke a Spanish in which was a bit
Italianized. He afforded a fine pretext for satirizing Spanish grandiloquence
and vain-glory. Pantalone, an elderly Venetian merchant was either an
old-fashioned bourgeois full of common sense or a grasping miser, at times
foolishly in love. The Doctor, called Graziano or Balanzon, was a Bolognese
lawyer or physician, a pedantic gentlemen whose Italian speech was strewn with
Latin phrases. The two zanni or zani (Venetian or Gianni) hailed from
Bergamo and at first spoke its dialect in the comedies. Brighella was the
crafty, resourceful servant, whereas Harlequin was the foolish, lazy one. From
the fusion of the two there was created a third zanni, the Neapolitan Pulcinella, whose ideal was the dolce far niente and who could readily
adapt himself to any task or any role. He was later followed by a host of other
zannis. It must be stressed, however,
that the prototypes for most of these characters are to be found in the very
commedia erudita which the actors strove to supplant.