Commedia dell'arte (Italian pronunciation: [komˈmɛːdja delˈlarte]), the closest translation being "comedy of art", (shortened from commedia dell'arte all'improviso, or "comedy through the art of improvisation")is a form of theatre that began in Italy in the year 1560, characterized by masked "types", the advent of the actress and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios.
Italian theatre historians, such as Roberto Tessari and Ferdinando Taviani, have claimed that commedia developed as a response to the political and economic crisis of the 16th century, and, as a consequence, became the first entirely professional form of theatre and is commonly referred to as the origin of comedy.
Sometimes the performers were referred to as "mountebanks" because they played on outside, temporary stages, and relied on various props (robbe) in place of extensive scenery. The better troupes were patronized by nobility, and during carnival time might be funded by the various towns or cities, in which they played. Extra funds were received by donations (essentially passing the hat) so anyone could view the performance free of charge. Key to the success of the commedia was their reliance on travel to achieve fame and financial success. The most successful troupes performed before kings and nobility allowing individual actors, such as Isabella Andreini and Dionisio Martinelli, to become international stars.
Various characters evolved outside Italy, such as Hanswurst (Germany), Pierrot (France), Petrushka (Russia), and Clown (England). This phenomenon has assured the persistence of commedia to this day.
Although Commedia dell'arte flourished in Italy during the Mannerist period, the roots date to the period of the Roman Empire, and descend from Greek theatre and from Etruscan festivals, which shared characteristics with the Commedia dell'arte of the later medieval period. Paul C. Castagno's The Early Commedia dell'Arte (1550–1621): The Mannerist Context explores the aesthetic and cultural links to mannerism and maniera across the arts.
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