The Italian Renaissance – Commedia Dell'Arte

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The Italian Renaissance – Commedia Dell'arte

Even though The Italian Renaissance lasted for a short period of time, approximately 100 years, and some give more consideration and accolades to the English Renaissance, the Italian Renaissance was a period of dramatic cultural advancement. This is seen in its revolutionary architecture design, explorations of discovery, extraordinary art, innovation of Opera, and my personal favorite Commedia dell' arte. Nearly all of Western theatre was influenced by the Italian Renaissance leaving lasting impressions all the way down to our present day.

I love to laugh,so it comes as no surprised that I was drawn to Commedia dell'arte. Let's first examine how this form of theatre came into existence. Then how it was organized and performed. Lastly we will see how its influence can be traced to modern day.

The origins of Commedia dell'arte has been highly debated by scholars. Some say it has roots in Greek comedy, while other critics argue that it is derived from Roman farces. Still others claim it can be traced directly to the religious Mystery Plays of the Middle Ages. Of theses theories of origin, Winfred Smith states, “Not a little nonsense has been written about the “evolution” of the commedia dell'arte. Of the three main theories that attempt to account for our farces, the hoariest and most outgrown is that concerning their putative Roman father, surely a ghost that by now ought to be permanently laid; next in respectability as in age is the hypothesis that makes the masks direct descendants of comic personages in the Mystery Plays, finally a modern student takes pains to trace back what he considers commedia dell'arte motifs and figures into the folk literature of the Middle Ages and from this material to deduce a medieval profane comedy which he asserts must have existed perhaps centuries, side by side with the sacred representatives, until it flowered into the sixteenth century professional plays we know.” History states that a Roman Emperor by the name John Paleologus went to Florence Italy in 1438 to beg the Medici family, who ruled that prosperous city, for help in defending his capital Constantinople. Among the Emperor's entourage were scholars who greatly impressed Comiso de' Medici with their knowledge of the ancient Greeks, that he set up an academy to study Greek texts in Florence. Eventually the Turks managed to conquer Constantinople, causing thousands to flee and seek refuge in Venice. Among the refugees were scholars and mimes. The scholars brought with them a priceless collection of ancient Greek manuscripts, and the mimes brought a thousand year old tradition of improvisation. The arrival of these refugees marked the beginning of two forms of theatre, the commedia erudita, a literary theatre based on ancient text and commedia dell' art, a theatre based on improvisation.

In the beginning, the Monarchs and those of notability favored commedia erudita for its intellectual and philosophical nature, and performances were done in their academies and at private gatherings, while the common folk preferred commedia dell' arte for its improvisation that were performed on the streets and in marketplace. Wagon sheets were used for stages which allowed for quick set up. There were no tickets for these outdoor performances, nor advance payments. Revenue relied strictly on the generosity of the audience. This required a performance of excellence. Commedia actors generally consisted of 10 or so actors. For this skill of commedia theater, an actor or actress had to be well versed in music, dance, mime, fencing, juggling, possess the ability of vocal impressions, and the insight to pick up on cues from the audience for scenes and actions that could be incorporated into the show. In regards to this skill, Joan Schirle wrote,”The study of voice, music, mime, theatre and dances places great demands upon the adult body, already...
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