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

Zanni | Ca' Macana

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.