La Commedia dell'Arte - The Italian Comedy

Il Capitano

Italian comedy masks in Venice


Commedia dell'Arte is famous around the world. It is a theatrical representation, born in the 16th century and developed in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is based on humour, improvisation and masks. It was performed by travelling companies who went from one city to another showing their comedies. The preferred places to watch this new kind of theatrical representation, were temporary stages on urban streets.

The most distinguishing element of Commedia dell'Arte was the lack of a pre-established script; actors based their performances on canovacci - vague and basic written texts – and were free to improvise if they were in a good mood. Another important, basic element of the Italian comedy was the constant presence of masks. Each actor had to personify a character and make each one distinguishable from others through body movements, gags and leaps.

The masks represented fixed characters, who acted in different comedies, but who always played always the same role. The most famous masks were Arlecchino, Brighella, Pantalone and Colombina. Click here to find out more information about the masks of Venice.

Venice became one of the favourite locations to perform comedies and an important point of reference for the genre. There, playwright Carlo Goldoni, famous all over the world for being one of the greatest Italian comedians, performed most of his comedies.

See biographical information about Goldoni.

We have put together two plots for you, of two of the most famous comedies of Goldoni: La Locandiera and La famiglia dell'antiquario. In this way we hope to give you an idea of the lifestyle during the time of Goldoni and also an opportunity for some enjoyable reading!


Mirandolina, a Venetian pub landlady, is courted by every man who attends the inn, but especially by the Marquess of Forlipopoli - an Italian aristocrat fallen into disgrace. The Count of Albafiorita is a rich merchant who seems to be really in love with her. 

The two characters represent two distinctive features of Venetian society. The Marquess is conviced that he can seduce Mirandolina by using his noble origins; the Count is sure that he can attract the young landlady by giving her a lot of presents. The foxy landlady doesn't give herself to anyone, leaving the illusion that she is waiting to be conquered. In this way she manages to successfully increase the tavern's popularity and it is crowded with people at all hours.

The comedy is a perfect metaphor for Venetian society of the 18th century. The nobles represent the sponges of the society who live off the others. The merchants, like the Count of Albafiorita and Mirandolina, are people only interested in money.

Although the comedy is typical of the Illuminist period, the figure of self-made man is personified in the female protagonist of Mirandolina.


The Family of the Antiquarian doesn't seem to come from a specific literary source. Goldoni probably used a wife of a Venetian merchant for inspiration for Isabella. As for the creation of Doralice, he took inspiration from the former actress Teodora Medebach.

Text translated from: Ortolani, Introduzione alla Famiglia dell'Antiquario, vol. II, pag. 1297

The count Anselmo Terrazzani is used to squandering his money on objects lacking in value, as he is a very gullible person. For that reason his family's economic status is disastrous; in order to improve it the count convinces his son Giacinto to marry Doralice, the daughter of a rich Venetian merchant named Pantalone. The count receives twenty thousand shields as a gift, but it doesn't solve Terazzani's problems; the count continues his craziness and his wife Isabella spends too much money on clothes.

In addition, the contrasts between Doralice and Isabella, who doesn't like the social origins of her daughter–in–law, makes the situation worse. The situation comes to a head when the two scoundrels Brighella (servant of Anselmo) and Arlecchino decide to deceive the count in stealing a lot of money. Only Pantalone will manage to solve the awful situation.

The comedy takes place in Palermo, but it's clear that Goldoni used typical scandals and habits of the Venetian middleclass. This comedy is less famous than La Locandiera, but it's very important because it gives a clear idea of the time in which Goldani lived.

The Count Anselmo personifies the crisis of the noble society which no longer has clear identity and cannot do anything to stop the rise of the middle-class. The lack of communication between the nobility and the bourgeoisie is the main theme of the comedy. The clash between Isabella and Doralice is another significant element that Goldoni introduces in his comedy and he deliberately leaves it unsolved.

Goldoni, defending himself from complaints about the lack of a happy ending said: "I wanted to prefer a disagreeable truth to a delightful imagination, giving example of the feminine persistence in hating". The clash between the old (Anselmo) and the young generation (Giacinto) is also left unsolved. In addition, Goldoni uses the masks of Brighella and Pantalone to represent typical Venetian scoundrels of that period.

Trickery is the key to understand the whole comedy.

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