restricted access The Work of Italian Theater
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The Work of Italian Theater

On March 27, 1552, Silvestro Cartaio—Silvestro the papermaker—was expelled for five months from the Sienese organization with which he had been associated since 1544, the Congrega dei Rozzi. The charge, according to the documents of the Congrega, was that he had performed a “chomedia” in Rome without the consent of his fellow Rozzi, all of them artisans like himself.1 It’s not entirely clear what the offending play was called. But most of Cartaio’s nine extant plays are blistering critiques of contemporary Sienese social norms and politics, delivered by the figure of the villano (peasant), who was the focus of many of the Rozzi’s works. Of interest is that this maker and seller of paper was blamed not for any material in the play itself—the title of which is, in any case, unknown—but simply for undertaking to perform it without the consent of his colleagues.

That theatrical practice in at least one town in sixteenth-century Italy was so rigorously collaborative even, as we shall see, in an era before the commedia dell’arte was officially launched—the first charter of this new kind of arte (artisans’ guild) dates to Padua in the 1540s—says a great deal about the way that early modern Italian theater should ideally be approached. For it was, it seems, a rigorously collective enterprise that held in check the kind of “individualism” typically associated with narratives about the Renaissance. And indeed, much work in recent decades has gone into exploring the [End Page 171] social organization of the commedia troupes.2 Yet while much has been made of the gentrification of the acting business in Europe, comparatively little attention has been given to the theatrical trade as practiced by actual tradesmen, such as the artisans in Siena who made up the ranks of the Rozzi, as well as the many artisans who performed in Siena, Rome, and elsewhere prior to the formation of the Congrega.3Comici-artigiani (actor-artisans), as Cristina Valenti has usefully called these tradesmen; it might be tempting to see them as the original “rude mechanicals.”4

But in fact they were very different from Shakespeare’s maligned actors. In the absence of a court or a real or imagined Theseus in Siena in 1531, when a dozen of these actor-artisans—including a bell ringer, a seller of linens, a painter, and a trumpeter—first came together to dedicate themselves to the “exercises” of reading, writing, and performing, they were beholden to no one except one another. Moreover, they depicted not themselves but members of another laboring class, the contadino (peasant), as the earlier Sienese writer and actor Niccolò Campani had done. During the 1510s, Campani “si vestiva da contadino in presenza d’ognuno” (he would dress himself like a peasant in front of everyone) thus becoming identified with his creation, the villano Strascino, much as Andrea Beolco would become known as Ruzante. And like Campani, the Rozzi used the economic and social situation of the peasant to define their own relationship to their city and to their writing.5

The name rozzo—applied simultaneously to the playwright and the villano he depicted—means “uncouth, unpolished, or uneducated.” It was in this context that Giuliano de’Medici, in Prose della lingua volgare, a dialogue written in 1525 by Italy’s cultural arbiter Pietro Bembo, referred to the condition of the Florentine dialect at its inception. Or to finish the phrase, it was “rozzo e grosso e materiale” (uncouth and coarse and roughshod), a state of affairs fortunately ameliorated with the advent of Dante and particularly Petrarch, and one that had its own origins in the at times overbearing influence of the country on the city.6 Sixteenth-century Italian literature, inclusive of its theater, as Bembo’s prophetic and prescriptive dialogue (and eventually, the Counter-Reformation) virtually ensures, is a literature largely in flight from the “rozzo e grosso e materiale,” as the emergence of elite and courtly forms suggests. [End Page 172]

And I was in flight from the same, when writing my dissertation in Florence in the mid-1980s...