Isabella Andreini, playwright and prima donna, and comic Francesco Andreini performed with commedia dell’arte’s foremost company, the Gelosi.
Early companies of commedia dell’arte comprised all-male groups with men portraying women, but in the mid-16th century they introduced actresses to their audiences despite sharp criticisms and attempts to ban them. The first to gain prominence and increase commedia popularity were rivals Vincenza Armani and Barbara Flaminia in 1567.
Gelosi Company Commedia dell’Arte
The Gelosi Company, first mentioned in 1568 under Flaminio Scala’s leadership, soon became the foremost commedia dell’arte troupe. Together, the actors developed scenarios, added their characters’ personal ‘business’ and gave performances that were mostly improvisational at the beginning of commedia’s great era. Commedia touring of foreign countries began in 1571 when the Gelosi performed before Charles IV in Paris.
At age fourteen in 1576, Isabella Canali joined Scala’s troupe where the ‘divine Vittoria Piisimi’, an especially-talented musician and dancer, was prima donna. Two years later, Isabella travelled to Paris with the company to perform for Henry III, and upon her return to Italy, married Gelosi comedian Francesco Andreini.
Isabella and Francesco, Innamorata and Capitano
Later, as prima donna innamorata (lady in love), Isabella demonstrated her ability to display grace, poise, and wit during lengthy speeches on stage. Francesco, the troupe’s new director, gained great fame with his new comic character, Capitano Spavento.
As opportunities and popularity increased with women in the cast, the profession became commercially viable for members to earn decent incomes with performances at court, in private residences, in newly-established theatres, and at carnival.
Commedia dell’Arte International Performances
In 1589, the Gelosi troupe was one of many hired to perform in Florence at the spectacular wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinand de’ Medici and Christina of Lorraine. The brilliant performances of its rival prima donnas Vittoria Piisimi (as the gypsy in Zingara) and Isabella Andreini (as the madwoman in La Pazzia d’Isabella) were considered highlights of the grand event.
Renowned throughout Europe, Isabella Andreini, who excelled also as playwright and poet, died in Lyon, France June 10, 1604 while giving birth to her eighth child. The deeply grieving Francesco Andreini retired from Gelosi, and the company disbanded.
Isabella and Francesco’s son Giovanni Battista Andreini and his wife Virginia (nee Ramponi) established Comici Fedeli in 1605 with some of the Gelosi members. The prosperous company travelled throughout Italy and France presenting the Gelosi repertoire and some works written by Giovanni until it disbanded in 1625.
Characters of Commedia dell’Arte
Representation of stock characters in commedia dell’arte varied according to company preferences or different scenarios. Each artist had a specific role to play in all productions and added individual variations to differentiate it from an earlier performer’s interpretation. Though the actors often changed their names, the characters were easily identifiable.
- The Innamorati—the lovers often named Isabella and Flavio, well-educated, self-obsessed, wearing fabulous costumes and heavy makeup rather than masks, stood in ballet positions, seldom touched each other
- Capitano— extremely boastful, arrogant and cowardly man moving in exaggerated military march steps, the butt of other characters’ jokes.
- Pantalone— rich old man, lecherous, mean-spirited, and stingy, wearing a tight red costume under a long black cloak, and usually bearded
- Arlecchino—often called ‘Harlequin’, a naive servant-trickster wearing costume with multi-coloured patches, always played by agile actor capable of performing sudden jumps, leaps, and acrobatic moves
- Dottore—a constantly babbling character pretending to be knowledgeable and never questioned, dressed in all-black clothes
- Columbina—a comic, intelligent servant and confidant to her mistress, sings, dances, and communicates with the audience
- Zanni—fast-moving, slow-witted servant intolerant of authority but always faithful, usually wears baggy white clothes, and often sleeps noisily onstage while standing on one leg
Many commedia dell’arte companies that formed during and after the Gelosi era performed in venues across Europe and in England. Less improvisational in later years, they provided the strongest influence on the works of writers such as Moliere.
- Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell’Arte by Robert Henke, Cambridge University Press 2002
- The Italian Comedy by Pierre-Louis Duchartre, Randolph T. Weaver, Dover Publications, Inc. 1966