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The History of Italian Theatre sample essay

The Italian Renaissance occurred from 1550 – 1700. The rapid economic growth in Italy during this time made it possible for the more wealthy citizens to endulge in alternate forms of entertainment. Wealthy families such as the Medicis began a system of patronage, in which they would finance artists to produce art in many forms. Italian theatre used the plays of ancient Greek and Roman theatre (dramas) as well as mediaeval theatre (religious plays) as a foundation.

Commedia dell’Arte

The main style used by theatre groups in Italy during this period was called commedia or Commedia dell’Arte. Commedia dell’Arte or “the comedy of professional artists” was a mainstay in Italian theatre during its renaissance. This included bits of comedy performed by different actors called lazzi. The type of comedy used in the Italian Renaissance was what is now known as slapstick or farce. This was a comedy style, which highlighted pain or misfortune occurring to the actors in a humorous context.

For the most part the actors in these comedies used no scripts. The actors were given a plot or scenario and acted out these plots in a humorous way. These performances were often vulgar and obscene. Standardize characters developed and appeared in familiar costumes and wearing masks.

The character standards for Commedia included these general outlines:

– Pantalone: A greedy old man, merchant or fool, often lustful, conniving, and meddling.

– Dottore: A drunk, often proffesor or doctor dressed in a cap and gown.

– Capitano: A soldier who was braggadocios and cowardly.

– Inamorati: Young lovers who appeared quite normal compared to the rest of the characters.

– “zanni”: Foolish servants. Usually two servants, one being drunk and more foolish than his cohort.


Neoclassicists were rigid critics of Italian drama. They developed rules for theatre performances that survived for nearly 200 years in Europe. These mandates were claimed to have been derived from Greek and Roman models. Five central concepts of neoclassicism are as follows; verisimilitude, decorum, purity of genres, the three unities, and two fold purpose.

Verisimilitude – The seeking of truth. An attempt to portray the performance as a reasonable interpretation of what is real or reasonably expected in real life.

Decorum – The way in which characters of certain classes behaved according to that class. Age, sex, rank, and profession would be acted out as if the characters held those standings. A strong sense of moral right and wrong was upheld, reflected by the punishment of evil, and the rewarding of good.

Purity of Genres – Comedy and tragedy were never mixed. The elements of one genre were never to be interspersed with the performance of another. The use of the chorus, the deus ex machina, and the soliloquy, was prohibited.

The Three Unities – The concept of the unity of time, place, and action. Unity of time required a reasonable time for the action of the play to take place; usually no more than 24 hours. Unity of place required that the play should include no more than one place or location. Unity of action required that there be no sub plots, secondary plots or counter-plots.

Two Fold Purpose – The two purposes of neoclassical Italian plays were to teach and entertain.

– Opera

Opera is the one form of Italian renaissance theatre that still survives to this day. It was developed in the late 1500s in Florence. Opera was originally an attempt to recreate a genuine Greek tragedy. Observing the Greek fusion of music and drama, the originators of opera attempted, and succeeded in, producing a completely sung dialogue in their interpretations. Opera is a form of drama that creates its mood, actions, and characters through music

The first opera on record is called Dafne (1597). The text of the opera was written by, Ottavio Rinuccini (1562 – 1621). The music was scored by, Jacopo Peri (1561-1633). The opera, which consisted of a prologue and six scenes, was performed during the pre-Lenten Carnival of Palazzo Corsi.

The Camerata Fiorentina, an academy of wealthy Italians who studied ancient Greek and Roman theatre, produced Dafne.

The actual textual part of the opera is called the libretto. One, two, three or four performers can sing the librettos; these performances are called an aria (solo), a duet, a trio, and a quartet respectively. The visual display (intermezzo), along with musical excellence and strong performances, keep opera alive as a form of powerful dramatic art.

Staging, Scenery, and Lighting

The use of perspective drawing as a means to capture realistic backdrops was a common theme among 16th century stage designers. The illusion of depth was achieved through perspective drawing techniques using “vanishing points” as objects appeared closer to the horizon; they were painted smaller and smaller on their scenic backdrops. The first use of this technique is believed to have occurred in 1508, for a performance of Ariosto’s La Cassaria. A leading author and set creator named Sebastion Serlio wrote about this technique and other scene design methods in his book Architettura
(1545). Different kinds of illusionistic backdrops settings were developed for the three major types of plays of the era (comic, pastoral, and tragic).

A three-sided revolving prism called the periaktoi, was developed to change between different settings. This was quite an innovation for its time, as the scenery could be changed right before the audience’s eyes. Other advances included the proscenium frame and front curtain along with varied flying machines (glories) and other special effects.

Lighting inside the dark theaters of renaissance Italy also had to be addressed. Oil lamps and candles were the primary source of stage lighting. Though candles and lamps produced some smoke, they were placed in chandeliers and on the front of the stage. Placing translucent receptacles or canisters over them could dim candles when lower light levels were called for. Due to the size and lack of sufficient lighting of the theatres, artificial lighting was an ever-present necessity.

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