- "Ambasciatore della risa": La commedia dell'arte nel secondo Cinquecento (1545-1590)
For his description of the situation of the commedia dell'arte in the second half of the sixteenth century, Philiep Bossier summarizes a large current body of research on the commedia, particularly that produced at the Universities of Florence and Rome. The central period of oral, improvised, professional comedy opens in Padua with the first-known contract for a troupe, three years after the era of individual court buffoons and author-actors was brought to a close with the death of Angelo Beolco (Ruzante). Its end was signaled by shifts in entertainment bringing a predominant role to music, the return of the single author-actor, and written norms. For Bossier, the primary methodological issue is the difficulty of composing the vastly diversified material grouped under the convenient label commedia dell'arte within a single framework, a task rendered more difficult by the material's oral nature. He chose for his "omogenea interpretazione" (homogeneous interpretation) the role of commedia dell'arte within Italian literary history (15, 88). While offering advantages, his choices also impose limits.
Bossier is at his best when forming insights based upon his extensive knowledge of commedia dell'arte practice, which included a prominent role for women. He emphasizes the players' professionalization, one of the results of which, in his view, was the success of the Aminta. He analyzes their increasingly public role and the ambiguities and paradoxes characterizing the commedia dell'arte and its situation within Italian states. Cities countered the troupes' mobility and social irregularity, for example, by fixing their performance space in marginal, yet connected and observed, buildings. Inclusion of the scholarship on the sociopolitical dynamics of contemporary states or of theater's role in them would have enriched Bossier's discussion. One thinks of the lucid analysis of the relationships of theater, understanding, and order in William Bouwsma's The Waning of the Renaissance 1550-1640 (2000). Similarly, the value of Bossier's characterization of the commedia dell'arte's expansion beyond the Carnival season to a role in everyday life [End Page 1198] would have been augmented by a connection with Victor Turner's revolutionary understanding of the transition of theater's role from liminal to liminoid with the change from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy.
Given the title of the book and its cover illustration, a detail of Vittore Carpaccio's Departure of the Ambassadors, the reader would be forgiven for expecting Bossier to devote significant space to the functioning of commedia dell'arte troupes as ambassadors, either to courts in the usual political sense or to other actors or artists. However, he makes only brief allusions to a few well-known episodes; it is from the description of a peasant character as an "ambasciatore dela risa" (delle risa?) in one of these that he takes his title. The peasant was played by an Italian actor in entertainment for the 1568 marriage of Renée of Lorraine with Duke William of Bavaria also associated with a series of frescoes in the duke's castle that included commedia dell'arte figures (a more-relevant cover illustration). Unmentioned are the political and religious implications of a marriage between exponents of territories that were Catholic yet resistant to Habsburg rule in a period in which Philip II was marching his troops, including Italian mercenaries, through Lorraine to suppress incipient rebellion in the Netherlands. It is intriguing to wonder what role an Italian troupe with evident Paduan and Florentine roots might have had, especially in a year in which a peasant figure played a prominent role in Mantuan Carnival entertainment.
Bossier's neglect of the earlier theatrical tradition leads to some curious omissions and errors. Beolco's role as a transitional figure in such crucial areas as troupe formation, travel, the Zanni-Magnifico duet, and the basing of comedy on action is absent. The idea of a "sala" for comedies in the Este castle did not come from outside...