Aristocratic Archeology

Greco-Roman roots

Authored by: Paul Monaghan

The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  November  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415745062
eBook ISBN: 9781315750842
Adobe ISBN: 9781317613374


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The notion that an “unbroken line” links ancient Roman comic performance forms and the Commedia dell’Arte has been largely discarded in recent decades due to a lack of evidence. But debate continues to rage over the degree to which the “improvised” ancient mimes and Atellan farces, and the “fully scripted” third- and second-century bc comedies of Plautus and Terence, provided the structural and stylistic foundations of the Commedia dell’Arte. Scholars from around the midsixteenth century, such as Antonio Minturno (Arte Poetica 1563) and Niccolo Rossi (Discorsi Sulla Commedia 1589) (see Smith 1964: 22), were certain of the influence of their ancient forbears, but as both Smith (ibid.) and Richards and Richards (1990: 11) point out, Renaissance writers were always keen to situate themselves in an ancient lineage, regardless of the facts. Even those, however, who largely dismiss the “origins” of Commedia dell’Arte in Roman comic genres, and who argue instead for the more immediate influence of Italian Renaissance entertainers and carnival traditions, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and/or the improvisational genius of professional comic actors, agree that the Commedia dell’Arte drew a great deal from its scripted older sibling, the Commedia Erudita (plays written in imitation of Plautus and Terence). And since, as Radcliff-Umstead has amply demonstrated, there existed an extensive “rapport of mutual inspiration and reinforcement” (1989: 33) between the Commedia Erudita and the improvised comedies that developed around the middle of the sixteenth century, arguments against the strong influence of Roman comedy on the development of the Commedia dell’Arte seem somewhat superfluous. At a minimum, terms such as genealogy, theatrical milieu, and “transformative adaptation” of “antecedents” are appropriate. If the innovative brilliance of the Commedia dell’Arte is thought to be reduced by ascribing to it a superb earlier model, then Shakespeare and many others are also so reduced.

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