Over the course of a busy three days, we taught three Italian classes and one theater class about the history and classic characters of commedia dell’arte, and showed them some of the tricks of the commedia actor’s trade. They learned not only how to wear the masks of the stock characters, but also how to create a “mask” with their bodies, adjusting their posture and movements to reflect the physicality, social status, and motivations of Zanni, Arlecchino, Colombina, Pantalone, and others. They also learned how the music of the commedia dell’arte not only entertained the audience, but helped to make each character even more recognizable and to give an indication of his or her background and relationship to the other characters. After a little preparation, the students in the advanced Italian class even tried acting out their own improvised scenes in Italian, based on some classic Renaissance scenarios! In addition to the classes, we gave two public presentations: a lecture/performance on the development of commedia and its place in the urban life of Renaissance Italy (including a chance for students and teachers to learn a 16th-century Italian social dance), and our performance Aria di Commedia – An Evening of Commedia dell’Arte and Italian Renaissance Music with three original scenarios, featuring four actors and two musicians and performed (mostly!) in English.
When we weren’t teaching or performing, we enjoyed good meals and good conversation with the Italian faculty of Dartmouth College, who were gracious hosts and also very good sports, often participating “con brio” in our class warmups and improvisations! Prof. Nancy Canepa, who organized our visit to Dartmouth, even sent us on our way with signed copies of her translation of Giambattista Basile’s “Lo Cunto de li Cunti” (The Tale of Tales), one of the most entertaining works of 17th-century Neapolitan literature.