restricted access A Cannonade of Weapons: Signs of Transgression in the Early Commedia dell'arte
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A Cannonade of Weapons Signs of Transgression in the Early Commedia dell’arte Kyna Hamill The commedia all’improviso, more commonly known as the commedia dell’arte, was a mobile art form. Early troupes traveled all over the Italian peninsula, Bavaria, France, and beyond and carried the weight of a certain idea of “Italy” wherever they performed. To reconstruct a sixteenth-­ century commedia performance, we do not have the luxury of full scripted texts; rather we use the architecture of the canovacci, or scenarios, along with iconography, letters, contracts, and descriptions of performances. Because it is often studied over only one or two days in a theatre history or survey class, the commedia’s history regrettably becomes understood as a conflation of two hundred years of performance tradition. Thus, the commedia, like sixteenth-­ century Italy, is awash with stereotypes . In Shakespeare’s invented Italy, we see the Italian man as a young, honor-­ seeking, audacious hero. In Romeo and Juliet, we meet many “hot-­ blooded” Italians whose violent passions ruled over political and social codes of conduct. Yet, during this same period on the commedia stage, we encounter not hot-­ blooded Italians mad with passion, but rather grotesque characters sullied by social codes and political turmoil brought on by foreign dominance. This study will examine how the weapon as prop remains an important visible signifier of class transgression in the world of the commedia during the period of 1568–1620. As symbols of power, authority, and class, weaponry functioned as an apparatus of social convention . Thus, the comic exaggeration of weaponry by lower classes onstage and in the iconography during this period not only affirms the existence of an established honor system but also mocks it. If, as Andrew Sofer suggests, props “do not just identify, they characterize,”1 then to A Cannonade of Weapons      37 use a prop belonging to another class remains a transgressive act of social mobility that must inevitably be controlled. In her book The Semiotics of Theater, Erika Fischer-­ Lichte defines the idea of signified props in relation to a theatrical character type: “The prop functions as a sign that generates meaning with regard to the subject [character]. . . . [A] prop can thus point to both the general type or character of the stage figure, and to its social status, individual traits, feelings, attitudes, value judgments and view of the world.”2 In addition to signifying a character type, weaponry reveals how a character functions within the boundaries of class. Images rendered between 1570 and 1620 suggest that artistic depictions of commedia character types included well-­ established criteria in their visual appearance: the Inamorato and Capitano each carry a rapier, the Magnifico wields a dagger, while Zanni wears a wooden sword or stick in his belt. We can see that weaponry both individuated the character types in the commedia and characterized their social roles on the stage. Thus, wearing a weapon not belonging to one’s class signified an obvious social transgression and ultimately distorted the ideals of manly behavior outlined by early writers of honorable conduct such as Baldasar Castiglione. The period under study encompasses what could be considered the zenith of the major commedia dell’arte acting companies as well as the publication of play scenarios.3 Groundbreaking features of this period as they relate to the commedia include: the first documented staging of a commedia all’improviso performance in 1568 recorded by Massimo Troiano; renderings of iconographical images depicting the commedia created between 1578 and 1621; and Flaminio Scala’s collection of scenarios, published in 1611. Moreover, historical events provide a context within which to understand the development of Italy’s relationship to violence in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, including: the circulation of published fight manuals by Italian fight masters through­ out Europe; the exportation of Italian rapier techniques to foreign students, especially between 1590 and 1599; the perception of the “hot-­ blooded” Italian by foreign travelers to Italy; and the Spanish occupation of south­ ern Italian city-­ states between 1560 and 1610. It is also significant to recognize the publishing and translation history of Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (1528) just prior to this period.4 Along with the...


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