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  • Befriending the Commedia dell’Arte of Flaminio Scala: The Comic Scenarios by Natalie Crohn Schmitt
  • Jenna Soleo-Shanks (bio)
Natalie Crohn Schmitt. Befriending the Commedia dell’Arte of Flaminio Scala: The Comic Scenarios. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. Pp. xiii + 328. $80.00.

For all of the unique qualities that define the commedia dell’arte, one of its most distinguishing characteristics is something it lacks. As any theater student can tell you, there are no play scripts. Yet, significantly, more than 800 extant scenarios attest to the structure, style, and vitality of the tradition that has been called the most important theatrical movement of early modern Europe. Among these documents, only fifty were published during the height of the movement’s popularity, printed as a single collection in 1611 by Flaminio Scala. While the value of Scala’s collection as evidence of the tradition has never been questioned, the merits of the individual scenarios have been dismissed for a variety of reasons. According to Natalie Crohn Schmitt, the foundational issue lies in a misunderstanding of Scala’s role in preserving the scenarios. In Befriending the Commedia dell’Arte of Flaminio Scala: The Comic Scenarios, Schmitt sets out not only to illuminate the richness of Scala’s work within the context of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Italian culture, but also to reclaim Scala as an “inventor” of the art within the specific Renaissance context of the word.

Schmitt’s project offers an important new perspective on the history of commedia dell’arte, for while scholarship on the tradition is robust, there is clearly opportunity for further work focused specifically on the texts and their genesis. The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte (2014), for example, includes more than fifty essays, but only two focus on the scenarios. Schmitt’s lucid and incisive argument, grounded by extensive research into sixteenth-century Italian society as well as contemporary aesthetic theory, makes a compelling case for the complex relationship between the scenarios and the culture out of which they emerged. While Befriending the Commedia dell’Arte does not exhaustively analyze Scala’s oeuvre, it does open the door for future scholars, revealing areas ripe for further investigation and an appropriate methodology for approaching such inquiries. The first half of Schmitt’s monograph sets up this methodology with general examples garnered from a myriad of Scala’s works; the second half applies the approach in depth to four select scenarios: Day 6: The Jealous Old Man, Day 21: The Fake Sorcerer, Day 25: The Jealous Isabella, and Day 36: Isabella [the] Astrologer.

In part 1, Schmitt argues for the value of Scala’s work on two distinct fronts. Firstly, she refutes the prevailing notion that commedia dell’arte scenarios represent an autonomous theatrical world that existed primarily in relation to stage conventions. Instead, she establishes the precise social and political contexts through which contemporary audiences would have appreciated the form’s most common settings and characters, specifically in terms of relationships. Thus, [End Page 240] Schmitt does not merely discuss the details of particular cities, but considers themes such as civic violence or the mobility of women in terms of Renaissance urban culture, often with pointed examples linking Scala’s texts to unique communities. Likewise, instead of examining the conventions of individual comic types, Schmitt considers the dynamics between social pairings, such as fathers and sons or citizens and servants. A particularly interesting investigation of Capitano, for example, highlights a section entitled “Outsiders and Society.” While some of the background given may seem to rehash well-known aspects of Renaissance culture, such as the ubiquity of mercenaries in Italian cities, Schmitt’s contextualization of the dynamics between Italian citizens and Spanish soldiers opens her argument up to non-specialists in useful ways.

The second level on which Schmitt investigates the value of Scala and his collection is through an analysis of the notion of “invention” grounded in Renaissance aesthetic theory. Whereas other scholars have characterized Scala as a theater functionary or mere redactor of preexisting scenarios, Schmitt provides vital historical context for the concept of artistic creation. Renaissance artists, she explains, honored imitation and valued it as the “invention” of something...