By Ariel Anastas
Isabella Canali (also known as Isabella Da Padova) was born to Venetian parents in Padua, Italy in 1562. She was considered the premier commedia dell’arte actress of her century, and was also a renowned writer, poet, and intellectual.
Not much is known about Isabella’s early life, but at the age of 14 she joined the acting group Gelosi, an important touring theatre company patronized by the aristocracy of northern Italy. Isabella began playing the role of the prima donna innamorata (enamored woman) and she completely revolutionized the character. The original character was dull and slow-witted, but Isabella liked to improvise so that the prima donna was much savvier. She was known for being daring and memorable, sometimes even taking off or tearing at her clothing onstage. Isabella was also known for being very flexible, a valuable skill for all commedia characters, regardless of sex. The character Isabella, probably the most famous of the Lovers from commedia, was named after Isabella Andreini due to her many contributions to the development of the part.
In 1578, at the age of 16, Isabella married Francesco Andreini, who was 15 years her senior and who would later become the director of Gelosi. Isabella became the leading lady within the company, as well as an important voice; she managed the troupe’s activities and negotiated with potential patrons.
Isabella performed her tour de force, Pazzia d’Isabella (Isabella’s Madness), in Florence at the royal wedding of Ferdinand de' Medici and Christine of Lorraine. In Pazzia, Isabella was required to feign madness, imitate all the other actors in her troupe, and speak several languages. She apparently performed this piece so spectacularly that one spectator, Giuseppe Pavoni, declared that the audience was so awed that “as long as the world goes on, her beautiful eloquence and worth will be praised”.
Isabella performed twice for Henry IV, King of France, and his...