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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Origin of “Masks” in the Italian Comedy
By Carlo Goldoni (1707–1793)
 
From the ‘Memoirs of Carlo Goldoni’: Translation of John Black

THE AMATEURS of the old comedy, on seeing the rapid progress of the new, declared everywhere that it was unworthy of an Italian to give a blow to a species of comedy in which Italy had attained great distinction, and which no other nation had ever yet been able to imitate. But what made the greatest impression on the discontented was the suppression of masks, which my system appeared to threaten. It was said that these personages had for two centuries been the amusement of Italy, and that it ought not to be deprived of a species of comic diversion which it had created and so well supported.  1
  Before venturing to give any opinion on this subject, I imagine the reader will have no objection to listen for a few minutes to a short account of the origin, employment, and effects of these four masks. Comedy, which in all ages has been the favorite entertainment of polished nations, shared the fate of the arts and sciences, and was buried under the ruins of the Empire during the decay of letters. The germ of comedy, however, was never altogether extinguished in the fertile bosom of Italy. Those who first endeavored to bring about its revival, not finding in an ignorant age writers of sufficient skill, had the boldness to draw out plans, to distribute them into acts and scenes, and to utter extempore the subjects, thoughts, and witticisms which they had concerted among themselves. Those who could read (and neither the great nor the rich were of the number) found that in the comedies of Plautus and Terence there were always duped fathers, debauched sons, enamored girls, knavish servants, and mercenary maids; and, running over the different districts of Italy, they took the fathers from Venice and Bologna, the servants from Bergamo, and the lovers and waiting-maids from the dominions of Rome and Tuscany. Written proofs are not to be expected of what took place in a time when writing was not in use; but I prove my assertion in this way: Pantaloon has always been a Venetian, the Doctor a Bolognese, and Brighella and Harlequin Bergamasks; and from these places, therefore, the comic personages called the four masks of the Italian comedy were taken by the players. What I say on this subject is not altogether the creature of my imagination; I possess a manuscript of the fifteenth century, in very good preservation and bound in parchment, containing a hundred and twenty subjects or sketches of Italian pieces, called comedies of art, and of which the basis of the comic humor is always Pantaloon, a Venetian merchant; the Doctor, a Bolognese jurisconsult; and Brighella and Harlequin, Bergamask valets,—the first clever and sprightly, and the other a mere dolt. Their antiquity and their long existence indicate their origin.  2
  With respect to their employment, Pantaloon and the Doctor, called by the Italians the two old men, represent the part of fathers, and the other parts where cloaks are worn. The first is a merchant, because Venice in its ancient times was the richest and most extensively commercial country of Italy. He has always preserved the ancient Venetian costume; the black dress and the woolen bonnet are still worn in Venice; and the red under-waistcoat and breeches, cut out like drawers, with red stockings and slippers, are a most exact representation of the equipment of the first inhabitants of the Adriatic marshes. The beard, which was considered as an ornament in those remote ages, has been caricatured and rendered ridiculous in subsequent periods.  3
  The second old man, called the Doctor, was taken from among the lawyers, for the sake of opposing a learned man to a merchant; and Bologna was selected because in that city there existed a university, which, notwithstanding the ignorance of the times, still preserved the offices and emoluments of the professors. In the dress of the Doctor we observe the ancient costume of the university and bar of Bologna, which is nearly the same at this day; and the idea of the singular mask which covers his face and nose was taken from a wine stain which disfigured the countenance of a jurisconsult in those times. This is a tradition still existing among the amateurs of the comedy of art.  4
  Brighella and Harlequin, called in Italy the two Zani, were taken from Bergamo; because, the former being a very sharp fellow and the other a stupid clown, these two extremes are only to be found among the lower orders of that part of the country. Brighella represents an intriguing, deceitful, and knavish valet. His dress is a species of livery; his swarthy mask is a caricature of the color of the inhabitants of those high mountains, tanned by the heat of the sun. Some comedians, in this character, have taken the name of Fenocchio, Fiqueto, and Scapin; but they have always represented the same valet and the same Bergamask. The harlequins have also assumed other names: they have been sometimes Tracagnins, Truffaldins, Gradelins, and Mezetins; but they have always been stupid Bergamasks. Their dress is an exact representation of that of a poor devil who has picked up pieces of stuffs of different colors to patch his dress; his hat corresponds with his mendicity, and the hare’s tail with which it is ornamented is still common in the dress of the peasantry of Bergamo.  5
  I have thus, I trust, sufficiently demonstrated the origin and employment of the four masks of the Italian comedy; it now remains for me to mention the effects resulting from them. The mask must always be very prejudicial to the action of the performer, either in joy or sorrow: whether he be in love, cross, or good-humored, the same features are always exhibited; and however he may gesticulate and vary the tone, he can never convey by the countenance, which is the interpreter of the heart, the different passions with which he is inwardly agitated. The masks of the Greeks and Romans were a sort of speaking-trumpets, invented for the purpose of conveying the sound through the vast extent of their amphitheatres. Passion and sentiment were not in those times carried to the pitch of delicacy now actually necessary. The actor must in our days possess a soul; and the soul under a mask is like a fire under ashes. These were the reasons which induced me to endeavor the reform of the Italian theatre; and to supply the place of farces with comedies. But the complaints became louder and louder: I was disgusted with the two parties, and I endeavored to satisfy both; I undertook to produce a few pieces merely sketched, without ceasing to give comedies of character. I employed the masks in the former, and I displayed a more noble and interesting comic humor in the others: each participated in the species of pleasure with which they were most delighted; with time and patience I brought about a reconciliation between them; and I had the satisfaction at length to see myself authorized in following my own taste, which became in a few years the most general and prevailing in Italy. I willingly pardoned the partisans of the comedians with masks the injuries they laid to my charge; for they were very able amateurs, who had the merit of giving themselves an interest to sketched comedies.  6
 
 
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