- A comic theatrical genre that evolved in 16th-century Italyand went on to enjoy success throughout Europe. Performances, whichconsisted of improvisations based around skeletal scenarios, employedstock characters such as Pantaloon, Il Capitano,Il Dottore, and the Zanni, all of whom were distinguishedby masks and emblematic costumes. Players, who usually specializedin one role, would often make slight alterations to masks and costumesin order to customize the character.
The first troupes emerged around the mid-16th century performing(in contrast to the commedia erudita) comedy suited to populartaste in the commonly spoken language of the time. The first famouscommedia dell'arte company was the Gelosi, who beganperforming in 1568. The next 50 years saw the emergence of other notabletroupes, including the Desiosi, the Confidenti,the Accesi, and the Fedeli. Commedia dell'artetroupes are known to have toured France in the early 1570s, and theGelosi, who were summoned to play before the Royal Court at Bloisin 1577, are known to have played in Paris. The Italian companiesproved sufficiently popular in France for a permanent home to be establishedfor them at the Hôtel de Bourgogne, Paris, in 1680(see Comédie-Italienne). The commediadell'arte also flourished in Spain, Eastern Europe, Germany, andEngland, and influenced the development of the comic drama in mostEuropean countries. In England its influence can be seen in the worksof Jonson and Shakespeare, as well as in the developmentof the pantomime and Punch and Judy show. By theend of the 18th century the genre had lost much of its vitality, havingbecome somewhat over stylized and divorced from everyday life; consequentlyit drifted out of fashion. The 20th century, however, has seen a revivalof interest in the genre, possibly as a reflection of discontent withnaturalistic theater.