(1673–1722), Four Commedia dell'arte Figures: Three Gentlemen and Pierrot
, c. 1715
Although commedia dell'arte flourished in Italy during the Mannerist period, there has been a long-standing tradition of trying to establish historical antecedents in antiquity. While we can detect formal similarities between the commedia dell'arte and earlier theatrical traditions, there is no way to establish certainty of origin. Some date the origins to the period of the Roman Republic (Plautine types) or the Empire (Atellan Farces). The Atellan Farces of the Roman Empire featured crude "types" wearing masks with grossly exaggerated features and an improvised plot. Some historians argue that Atellan stock characters, Pappus, Maccus+Buccus, and Manducus, are the primitive versions of the Commedia characters Pantalone, Pulcinella, and il Capitano. More recent accounts establish links to the medieval jongleurs, and prototypes from medieval moralities, such as Hellequin (as the source of Harlequin, for example).
The first recorded commedia dell'arte performances came from Rome as early as 1551. Commedia dell'arte was performed outdoors in temporary venues by professional actors who were costumed and masked, as opposed to commedia erudita, which were written comedies, presented indoors by untrained and unmasked actors. This view may be somewhat romanticized since records describe the Gelosi performing Tasso's Aminta, for example, and much was done at court rather than in the street. By the mid-16th century, specific troupes of commedia performers began to coalesce, and by 1568 the Gelosi became a distinct company. In keeping with the tradition of the Italian Academies, I Gelosi adapted as their impress (or coat of arms) the two-faced Roman god Janus. Janus symbolized both the comings and goings of this traveling troupe, and the dual nature of the actor who impersonates the "other." The Gelosi performed in Northern Italy and France where they received protection and patronage from the King of France. Despite fluctuations the Gelosi maintained stability for performances with the "usual ten": "two vecchi (old men), four innamorati (two male and two female lovers), two zanni, a captain and a servetta (serving maid)". It should be noted that commedia often performed inside in court theatres or halls, and also as some fixed theatres such as Teatro Baldrucca in Florence. Flaminio Scala, who had been a minor performer in the Gelosi published the scenarios of the commedia dell'arte around the start of the 17th century, really in an effort to legitimize the form—and ensure its legacy. These scenari are highly structured and built around the symmetry of the various types in duet: two zanni, vecchi, inamorate and inamorati, etc.
In commedia dell'arte, female roles were played by women, documented as early as the 1560s. In the 1570s, English theatre critics generally denigrated the troupes with their female actors (some decades later, Ben Jonson referred to one female performer of the commedia as a "tumbling whore"). By the end of the 1570s, Italian prelates attempted to ban female performers; however, by the end of the 16th century, actresses were standard on the Italian stage. The Italian scholar Ferdinando Taviani has collated a number of church documents opposing the advent of the actress as a kind of courtesan, whose scanty attire and promiscuous lifestyle corrupted young men, or at least infused them with carnal desires. Taviani's term negativa poetica describes this and other practices offensive to the church, while giving us an idea of the phenomenon of the commedia dell'arte performance.
By the early 17th century, the zanni comedies were moving from pure improvisational street performances to specified and clearly delineated acts and characters. Three books written during the 17th century—Cecchini's Fruti della moderne commedia (1628), Niccolò Barbieri's La supplica (1634) and Perrucci's Dell'arte rapresentativa (1699—"made firm recommendations concerning performing practice." Katritzky argues, that as a result, commedia was reduced to formulaic and stylized acting; as far as possible from the purity of the improvisational genesis a century earlier. In France, during the reign of Louis XIV, the Comédie-Italienne created a repertoire and delineated new masks and characters, while deleting some of the Italian precursors, such as Pantalone. French playwrights, particularly Molière, gleaned from the plots and masks in creating an indigenous treatment. Indeed, Molière shared the stage with the Comédie-Italienne at Petit-Bourbon, and some of his forms, e.g. the tirade, are derivative from the commedia (tirata).
Commedia dell'arte moved outside the city limits to the théâtre de la foire, or fair theatres, in the early 17th century as it evolved toward a more pantomimed style. With the dispatch of the Italian comedians from France in 1697, the form transmogrified in the 18th century as genres such as comédie larmoyante gained in attraction in France, particularly through the plays of Marivaux. Marivaux softened the commedia considerably by bringing in true emotion to the stage. Harlequin achieved more prominence during this period.
It is possible that this kind of improvised acting was passed down the Italian generations until the 17th century, when it was revived as a professional theatrical technique. However, as currently used the term commedia dell'arte was coined in the mid-18th century.
Curiously, commedia dell'arte was equally if not more popular in France, where it continued its popularity throughout the 17th century (until 1697), and it was in France that commedia developed its established repertoire. Commedia evolved into various configurations across Europe, and each country acculturated the form to its liking. For example, pantomime, which flourished in the 18th century, owes its genesis to the character types of the commedia, particularly Harlequin. The Punch and Judy puppet shows, popular to this day in England, owe their basis to the Pulcinella mask that emerged in Neapolitan versions of the form. In Italy, commedia masks and plots found their way into the opera buffa, and the plots of Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini.
During the Napoleonic occupation of Italy, instigators of reform and critics of French Imperial rule (such as Giacomo Casanova) used the carnival masks to hide their identities while fueling political agendas, challenging social rule and hurling blatant insults and criticisms at the regime. In 1797, in order to destroy the impromptu style of carnival as a partisan platform, Napoleon outlawed the commedia dell'arte. It was not reborn in Venice until 1979.