Tag Archives: Commedia dell’Arte

Plague Doctor | Ca' Macana

The mask of the plague doctor: a practical object turned into a symbol

There’s this guy, just outside the main entrance of our shop in Venice, who’s kind of a dreadful one: long nose, glasses, black hat and black dress. Well, his job is not the funniest one in the world, after all. He’s a plague doctor.

Doctor mask and costume during Middle Ages and Renaissance


Why on earth did plague doctors need to dress like that? In fact, it was a very useful costume, given that the waxed-canvas gown was water-repellent and could shield the doctor from his enemies, just as a soldier’s armour does. And Charles de Lorme, personal doctor to king Louis 13th and shrewd creator of this costume, was indeed inspired by a suit of armour when he designed it in 1619.

As well as this neck-to-anckle black gown, the costume includes gloves, boots and hat of waxed leather, in order to provide full protection to the doctor. Doctors wore this costume during plague epidemies, so that they could approach the afflicted, who did not have to be touched, therefore plague doctors carried a stick with them, too. But the most important part of his outfit was the mask.

The beak-like mask hold by some straps started to be used in the 14th century, and is tightly bound to ancient and medieval beliefs about plague. According to the “miasma theory”, diseases were caused by the “bad air” exhaling from corpses, marshes, polluted water and places characterised by poor hygienic conditions. Not breathing such air would prevent the plague from affecting you, as stated by such theory.

This is the reason why even the eye holes of the mask were covered by glass and why the slits corresponding to the nose were filled with aromatic herbs, dried flowers, spices or vinegar: ancient doctors indeed believed such essences could drive out the miasma.

The meaning of the plague doctor mask


This “foul air” is more of a spirit than a germ: Vitruvius, an architect in ancient Rome, describes it as “the poisonous breath of the creatures of the marshes”. This explains why this mask is so terrifying, a feature it has kept even after the miasma theory was rejected: the mask of the plague doctor aimed at keeping evil spirits away by frightening them, too.

And since no cure for plague was ever found in the ancient times, the Doctor mask was always associated with death, even when it became one of the masks of the Commedia dell’Arte.

Zanni | Ca' Macana

A mask behind a mask: the intertwined stories of Zanni and Harlequin

Here we go again, another servant’s mask of the Commedia dell’Arte. We’ve been talking about Harlequin and identified him as a Zanni-character, but who is Zanni? He’s the forefather of both Harlequin and Brighella, and may explain why some demoniac features are associated with these masks.

Curiously enough, both Zanni and Harlequin have gradually developed from a “horror mask” into a comic one, just as some well-known horror-movie masks did. Then even in the 15th century people’d rather laugh at what frightened them, than be afraid of it.

Zanni’s costume as a clue of the origins of this mask


Well, Zanni’s supposed to be the the village fool, but you won’t deny there’s something creepy about his long-nosed mask. That’s easily explained: carnival is the moment when demons and buffoons meet, and Zanni’s white costume is the symbol of dead people’s souls.

His baggy trousers and worn-out smock, though, hint at the clothing of a peasant or of a porter, too. This is, indeed, where he comes from: the rural world, namely the Po Plain surrounding Bergamo (northern Italy). Born as uncouth peasant, extremely poor and constantly famished, his habitual need for food has gained him food-related nicknames, such as Zan Salsiccia and Zan Polpetta (‘Sausage Zan’ and ‘Meat-ball Zan’).

Some spookish facts about Zanni’s mask


His hunger of a lion is, anyway, more than a laughable feature, since it urges him to swindle honest people. Zanni is surely a buffoon, but a cunning one, a servant who’s forced by an unfriendly world to get by on his own.

And the world he comes from is unfriendly, too. In his beginnings, this mask was one of the underworld gods and demons threatening harvest. Zanni’s history can, indeed, traced back as far as the primordial rituals for the fertility of the land, and as the rural festivals during the Middle Ages.

The Commedia dell’Arte has therefore turned this demon into something people could laugh at, just as it did for Harlequin.

Commedia dell'Arte | Ca' Macana

The Arlecchino mask: a motley history

Born in the poor district of Bergamo, the history of this mask is surrounded by mystery: a well-grounded hypothesys claims Michelangelo himself would have created it, by modelling it on the ancient mask of a satyr. In the traits of his mask some see a fool, some a demon: truth is, this mask developed over the centuries, thus shaping a figure as prismatic as the dress he wears.

Climbing the theatrical ladder: the origin of Arlecchino’s mask

Harlequin is a fool and a gullible Mask, a servant which can be compared to those found in the Greek New Comedy and in the Latin Comedy. But unlike slaves in ancient comedies, though, Harlequin does not occasionally give good advice to his master, but rather always end up being beaten because of something he hasn’t done at all.

From the 16th century onwards, anyway, this craven and constantly hungry and penniless Mask starts turning into the greedy and shrewd page of a noblesman, in love with some maidservant and with a tone definitely more lifelike than coarse.

Reading the disguise: some facts about Arlecchino’s mask

The costume itself undergoes a series of changes over the years: at first, his clothes were made of a bizarre mixture of coloured pieces of cloth, that is the only rags he could afford. Later, his new close-fitting one-colour suit starts being covered with red, blue, green and yellow lozenges. Moreover, he wears a hat, in whose band a hare’s or rabbit’s tail is placed, and a stick, the so-called batocio, which is used as his nickname, as well: Arlechin Batocio.


But Harlequin’s mask has an interesting story, too: originally made of waxed cardboard and hiding the whole face, it then became a half-face leather mask. Over the thin fissures of the eyes, the arches of the eyebrows are extremely prominent, thus giving the character a questioning look. Others see some demoniac features in this expression: a piece of evidence for such a theory is provided by Dante Alighieri.

One of the demons in the XXIst, XXIInd and XXIIIrd cantos of Dante’s Inferno is, indeed, called Alichino. The name itself seems to be related to the Old French word for “ghost”, i.e. hellequin, which, in turn, comes from the Germanic root for “hell”. Starting from Dante’s Inferno, this demon would therefore develop into a comic character.

Carlo Goldoni | Ca'Macana

The master of theatre in Venice: Carlo Goldoni

He lived during the golden age of masks in Venice, but well embodies their decline. He became a first-rank playwright, by creating a turning point in the Commedia dell’Arte. He is a milestone for Italian literature and a symbol for the end of the age of masks in Venice. This is the story of Carlo Goldoni’s new idea of theatre.

From Masks to Actors: Goldoni’s reform

Especially during the 17th century, Venice’s theatrical tradition was blooming: this was related to the economical crisis trade and markets were facing, too, which led to investments in other businesses, such as printing and theatre. By the 18th century, anyway, the quality of theatre shows was poor, since actors constantly repeated the same sketches. The Commedia dell’Arte is, indeed, chiefly based on drafts – the so-called canovacci – and ad-libbing actors.

Carlo Goldoni (Venice, 1707 – Paris, 1793), however, manages to improve this quality, by drawing real characters instead of Masks. It is to Goldoni, then, that we owe a detailed description of the life led by the Venetian middle class, especially in plays such as La locandiera. His first works, though, were still under the scope of the Commedia dell’Arte.

Servant of two Masters: Goldoni and Arlecchino’s mask

In his preface to the comedy The father of a family, Goldoni admits having introduced the character of Harlequin out of courtesy, as one of those sacrifices sometimes Authors are compelled to make. That is, Goldoni has to bend to the will of theatre managers and of the audience. Such a compromise is realised by the comedy A servant of two masters (Il servitore di due padroni), whose main character is Truffaldino (“Swindler”), one of the alternative names of Harlequin. This mask can indeed be considered as the heart-and-soul of the Commedia dell’Arte: as an anti-hero par excellence, Harlequin enjoys more freedom even than the other Masks, since he can do any roguery.

Goldoni is aware of the features of this mask, a catalyst for all the negative aspects of the Old Theatre he strives to wash away: in order to wipe out the “indecent Harlequinades”, as he calls them, he knows he must grant the Author a central role in the planning of a play, by binding characters to a wholly written text.

Goldoni is therefore a reformer of the theatre, although during his life he has to face many an foe, due to the everlasting quarrels with those who supported a traditional idea of theatre. Such a theatre, though, was doomed to vanish, just as the costume of mask-wearing: Goldoni sees it and manages to give a new life to the theatrical world, by turning it into a modern one.