Throughout the history of Ballet, there have been moments when it has been influenced by enigmatic characters. They were ‘Visionaries’ and imperative to Ballet and its many traditions. One such person and would put Ballet on the road towards becoming a ‘Theatre Art’. She was a young Italian princess of 27 years who would become the Queen of France, Catherine de Médicis.
Still to this very day, the circumstance surrounding her ascension to the French throne continues to be a contentious one among various historians and academics. This is due to the manner of death of her brother-in-law the Dauphin de Viennois (Crowned Prince), Duke Francis III of Brittany, the elder brother of her husband, then Prince Henri, Duke of Orléans.
Caterina married the Duke of Orléans by proxy in 1533 at the tender age of 14, who later became the unexpected future King Henri II as a result of the tragic death of his brother, the Dauphin in 1536. Many of the French Court suspected that Caterina had him poisoned as the Medici family was known for its knowledge of poisons and the Occult. This was in spite of a confession extracted from a suspect by torture declaring the Emperor Charles V was behind the assassination. However, for the sake of Ballet it was important that Caterina would become next in line to the French throne as the Dauphine with Henri, now the Dauphin; otherwise it may have been a very different story for Ballet.
In 1547, Henri was crowned King of France following the death of his father, Francis. In honour of the occasion, Caterina now called “Catherine” had many things Italian brought to the French Court. Among the many items and pursuits imported from Florence and other parts of Italy included gelati, new perfumes, various citrus fruits, and most importantly, ‘Commedia dell’Arte’. This introduction of the ‘Commedia’ to the French Court was a turning point for Ballet as was Catherine becoming Queen of France. It was combined with the convention of ‘Court Dress’ and the developing ‘Court Ballets’, as a result the first true ballet, “The Queen’s Comique Ballet” (Le Balet Comique de la Royne, 1589), would flower from this recipe of creative disciplines. The Commedia gave early Ballet three costuming traditions that were to last for over two centuries – ‘Character Dress’, ‘Masks’ and ‘Cross Dressing’.
The term “Commedia dell’Arte” basically translates as ‘Comedy of the Arts’ or ‘Artistic Comedy’. Performed by a troupe of Italian actors it was a particular type of drama that was unwritten and improvised. Its emphasis was on the manner and style of performance rather than to the subject matter of the play, which only served as an excuse for their comic antics. Even though it was not a choreographed or fully rehearsed drama, it isn’t to say it was performed completely at a moment’s inspiration. The subject was chosen and the characters conceived and named with their relations to one another determined. The storyline always centred on the ‘Inamorati’ or ‘Amorosi’, one or two couples of star crossed lovers who longed to be together. It was the task of the ‘Zanni’ (Servants) to bring them together after a variety of comic situations involving the ‘Numeries’. All situations were clearly outlined beforehand in order for all to know what to do, with the material divided into acts and scenes, usually with a prologue. The situations, then together with the turn of action, were given an outcome from each scene. When the general outcome was agreed upon by the actors to each satisfaction with plenty left to opportunity for the actors in their roles to heighten, vary and embellish their parts with their own genius. These outcomes were referred to as “Scenari”.
This was in essence the antithesis of what was performed in the Grand Courts, which was often austere and serious derivatives of the Medieval dramas that centred on spiritual morality and religious dogma. Instead, the ‘Commedia’ was a bold and brash satire which appealed to the general populace, drawing on topics of the day. The ‘Commedia’ was a form of theatre developed primarily by travelling actors performing in town squares in the major centres of Italy. Some of its earliest forms dating to the mid-14th Century, it was to flourish and enjoy continued support for nearly five centuries with its height of popularity in the late 16th and 17th Centuries. But why would a Queen have a troupe of buskers brought to one of the most powerful Courts in Europe? It has much to do with what happened to her as a young girl.
Catherine was a Florentine noble, but her childhood was wrought with episodes of fear and violence. In 1527, the ruling Medici family was expelled from the city of Florence by a rebellion. However, the rebel leaders ordered that the young Catherine to be left behind as a valuable hostage. Whilst in their care, Catherine was eventually placed in various convents in and around Florence. This was in essence a blessing as during the next five years, it would be within these convents she received an education that allowed her to become one of the best educated women of her time.
Many of these convents were adjacent to the many city squares in Florence with balconies overlooking them. It was from one of these balconies, the vivid imagination of the young Catherine was to be captured by those lively actors of the Commedia performing below. So it was inevitable that the young queen would have the Commedia brought to France. It was there for the greater part of Catherine’s life, providing her with great solace and comfort. It was even when as one of the most powerful women in Europe during the 16th Century, the Commedia meant so much to her. This can be seen in this image of the French Court, fig. 02, with Catherine as a widow looking on in the background while a scene from the Commedia was being played out before her and the courtiers
Upon its introduction to the French Court, the Commedia enjoyed instant success as it was a form of theatre never before seen in France, well not in the respectable surroundings of the French Court. The clever wit and lively action did prove most pleasing for the French Nobles had a great appreciation for satire and the odd pun. All this was helped by the colourful costumes worn by the characters of the Commedia with ‘Arlecchino’, fig.03, at the centre of it all. He came among them wearing a costume of bright colours holding a prop called “Slapstick” from behind a mask of innocent wide eyes which hid a nature of sprightly mischief.
The tradition of costume design for the various characters of the ‘Commedia’ was purely for the purpose of easy identification either as a poor servant, a bumbling doctor, or a forlorn lover. The ‘Commedia’ was rich in symbolism that was relevant to the popular culture of the day. It was dressed in a manner that the people of the marketplaces, town squares and taverns could readily identify with, be it with added slight exaggerations giving emphasis to their personality and to give some idea of their plight. The many colours of the costume worn by ‘Arelcchino’ were due to him being a poor servant that his clothes were ‘patched’ together from off-cuts and scrap pieces of fabrics. Another perfect example of this was the character ‘Pedrolino’, a simpleminded and honest servant, usually a valet or stable hand. His costume was ill fitting with his pants always too short when his sleeves too long. This was to show he was too poor to even afford proper fitting clothes that he was forced to wear ‘hand-me-downs’.
Furthermore, the Commedia was inhabited by characters that represented the changing social and political spectrum of the day. These characters can best likened to those seen in television sitcoms or political satires of today. One such character from the Commedia best represent this aspect was ‘Il Capitano’ (the Captain), fig. 04. ‘Capitano’ was always dressed fashionably and as a noble complete with a sword representing his military authority. It was not unusual that his costume was padded to give an idea of exaggerated physical prowess such as false calves worn under his stockings, a padded belly in his doublet with exaggerated epaulettes from the shoulders and a rigid oversized ‘Ruff’ at the neck. He always tried to give an air of bravado in order to hide his true nature of a snivelling coward. This depiction was due to as the United States today is regarded as a ‘Super Power, Spain was definitely one during the 16th Century. ‘Capitano’ was a personification arising from the Italian public’s ire of the Spanish continued presence and interference in their affairs. This can be best appreciated if one considers ‘Capitano’ in the same likeness to Kenny Everett’s classic satirical send up of American military arrogance with his ‘General Cheeseburger’, a very ‘MacArthuresque’ character from the 1980s. The Spanish in much of Western Europe during the 16th Century were regarded with as much cynicism and ire from the general public as are the Americans and Russians today. Both ‘Capitano’ and ‘General Cheeseburger’ were depicted in the same mocking parody that was often bordering upon being contemptuous.
What is interesting, Catherine would often have the Commedia perform whenever the Spanish diplomats and envoys were in town, meaning Paris at the French Royal Court. It appears even she shared in the common people’s disdain for the Spanish. Vive Le Capitain!
From what little has been described, one can surmise that the Italian actors of the Commedia drew on many obvious stereotypes and topics of the day that delighted many in their familiarity and identifiable mockery of life’s circumstances in the world around them. The endearing characters these actors brought to life at the French Court also brought with them rich traditions that was almost a century old. Some of them have stemmed from the theatrics of the more ancient, ‘Atellan Farce’. These traditions helped shape the nature of these characters, both in how they were performed and how they were dressed.
It was particularly the stylised movements and graceful gestures combined with the exaggerated, fanciful costumes that captured the French imagination. These gestures were born from out of necessity which had a lot to do with the fact that many of the actors performed whilst wearing masks. Another was due to the settings of their performances before they were introduced to the French Court by Catherine. They had mostly performed wherever and whenever they could, be it on a wagon in the middle of a town square, in the market place, or even on a busy roadside. They were often seen performing within the noisy interiors of taverns and public halls. They performed where ever they could in order to make a quid or two, or whatever the local currency was. This meant they had to compete with the drunken din of taverns and the catch cries of vendors and fish mongers in the market places. So they reinforced what they were saying with exaggerated gestures in order to be understood even by those who were several metres away. From it was born the ‘Language of Gestures’ that would later become important to Ballet’s development.
The characters and the Commedia itself would continue to change and evolve within the French Court under Catherine’s guidance even when, long after she had become the ‘Dowager’ (Widowed Queen) with the death of King Henri II. From the time of her ascension to the French Throne, Catherine had already established a long standing exchange of actors travelling to and from the French Court with various courts in Italy, particularly those in Florence, Genoa, Milan and Venice. This was imperative because it was from this, by design or default; bring some of the creative minds that would help nurture Ballet in its infancy. This included the likes of Cesare Negri, Fabritio Caroso, Pompeo Diobono, and most importantly, Baltazarini de Belgioioso who would remain and take up residence in Paris. With each new artist who arrived at the French Court, they would bring the latest in the performance arts of Music, Dance and Drama, all of which are essential elements for any Ballet today.
She would have some of the various performance skills from the Commedia incorporated with those of the evolving ‘Balletti’ also imported from Italy, but before Catherine’s arrival to the French Court under King Louis XII. With each new creation, Catherine would have them at any given opportunity tested and performed before unsuspecting audiences. This would culminate with assistance from Beaujoyeulx (née Belgioioso) in the performance of the first true ballet, “Le Balet Comique de la Royne” in 1581. All this was made possible with the steps taken from ‘Court Dance’, performance skills from the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ and the steady flow of new techniques from Italy.
At the French Court, long after Catherine’s death in 1589, the ‘Commedia’ would continue to undergo various evolutionary changes, acquiring many new idiosyncrasies in order to adapt to the taste of a new generation of French audiences. This was further helped by another Italian queen from Florence, Marie de Médicis. However, it would be under her son, King Louis XIII, was the French to give the characters their ‘Frenchness’ in accordance with their notion of how they should be.
What is also interesting is through the French Court, King James I & VI of the United Kingdom would invite a troupe of Italian actors to his court in London to take up residence. This is where Ballet and the English ‘Pantomime’ share a common heritage in the Italian theatre art of the “Commedia dell’Arte”. There it became known as the ‘Italian Comedy’ and it was said by a courtier at one of the early performances, describing the appearance of ‘Arlecchino’ (Harlequin), “He came in a tunic of bright colours”. From this it was inevitable that ‘Harlequin’ would personify what was to come with the ‘Panto’. It is not to say during the ‘Elizabethan Era’ there weren’t troupes of Italian actors who toured England performing their ‘Commedia’. There was and there were several. They performed to the general populace in the streets, marketplaces and various public theatres. They even performed at the Court of Queen Elizabeth I. Their influence on many local artists was profound that it would inspire them to create new works in the ‘Italian Comic Style’. This can be found in several works by Shakespeare, particularly with his “Twelfth Night” which has the leading lady in ‘En Travesti’ and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the lovers. This perhaps can have the visiting actors’ success attributed to the Commedia’s very ‘real’ subject matters that those of the general populace would have appreciated even though sometimes to the ire of English authorities. However, it wasn’t until the reign of King James I & VI did a troupe of Venetian performers would assume residence in England. Only then, at the Court of King James, would begin a long tradition that has been performed continuously with the only interruption being the ‘Commonwealth Years’ under Oliver Cromwell. It combined the ‘Italian Comedy’ with the English ‘Christmas Pageant’ to become what is now known as the ‘Pantomime’.
Meanwhile, at the French Court, the Commedia was helped by the continued flow of Italian artists with one particular actor by the name of Tiberio Fiorilli, sometimes known as Fiorillo or Fiurelli, who arrived in Paris sometime in 1640. Somehow he managed to receive an invitation to the French Court at the request of the then Dowager Queen Marie de Médicis. He was met with favour both from the Dowager Queen and the young two year old Dauphin. So much so he was commanded to return regularly to perform for the young Dauphin. His influence would grow with through the young Dauphin, who would become the future King Louis XIV. Tiberio would continue to perform for and later teach the young King Louis. This would help nurture Louis’ love of theatre and dance.
Fiorilli would also form a close friendship and professional association with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, later to be known by his stage name, Molière, the famed playwright of the ‘La Comédie Française’. Fiorilli’s influence first was as an actor, then later becoming his mentor. For Moliere, Fiorilli would later inspire him to create some of the most beloved characters of the theatre. Furthermore, Molière would help create the notion of a drama in ballet with his ‘Les Comédies Ballets’ that combined actual acting with that of the dance style seen in the ‘Court Ballets’ of King Louis XIV. So through Molière, the ‘Commedia’, soon to become the ‘Comédie Italienne’ (Italian Comedy), was re-invented as the ‘La Comédie Française’ (The French Comedy) along with the many characters therein. This was to distinguish it from the ‘Comédie Italienne’ making it completely his own and above all, French! It is from this French reinvention is how we know these characters today.
Molière would give ‘Pedrolino’, the greatest revamp, having him become more like a tragic, poetic clown than a valet renamed as, ‘Pierrot’. His ill-fitting long sleeved tunic would become a long white sleeved vest or smock furnished with a wide white floppy ruff collar. On his head he wore a white or black skull cap underneath a white brimmed hat, sometimes with its crown in a conical shape. He would also lose his mask with instead to have his face heavily powdered in white. This perhaps was the influence of Fiorilli as he did the same with his famed signature role of ‘Scaramouche’. With the success of this new personification of ‘Pierrot’, the ‘Comédie Italienne’ would quickly adopt it for many of their future productions. This exchange of ideas between Fiorilli, director of the ‘Comédie Italienne’ and Molière, the director of the ‘Comédie Française’ was expected as they were friends and the two troupes shared the theatres of the Petit Bourbon and Palais Royal performing on different nights. ‘Pierrot’ would undergo several transformations over the next two centuries, with some of which become associated with a particular regional take on the character, particularly in the two Italian cities of Venice and Florence. ‘Pierrot’ would inspire generations of painters, poets and artists well into the 20th Century and would become associated with notions of melancholy as clearly expressed in the paintings by Picasso, Cézanne and Comerre.
In England, following the death of the Lord High Protector, Oliver Cromwell, came the ‘Restoration’ of the British monarchy and with it, the ‘Pantomime’ and the ‘Commedia’ make their return. They would gain a new influence in its development thanks to the restored King Charles II. Following many years of exile at the French Court of King Louis XIV, he would bring to England with him many dancers who been trained in the latest choreographies called “Noble Danse” (Noble Dance). These were very complicated court dances that required many hours of practice. However, more was to come, over the course of his reign, Charles would invite many dancers from the Royal Academy of Dance in Paris and later, the Paris Opéra. Ballet has now arrived in England. Furthermore, the writings of the famed French playwright, Molière, were brought to the English Court giving the ‘Pantomime’ new sources for inspiration as it revel in its new found popularity. Molière’s vision of “Harlequin’ and ‘Columbine’ would assume centre stage in these new pantomimes over the course of the next 250 years. With them would develop a unique form of theatrics that would bring Ballet and Panto closer together.
The famed Theatre Royal on Drury Lane in London’s West End would become the focus of this revival of theatrics when it opened in 1663, just three years after the Restoration. It was here that the new ‘French Ballet’ and the return of the ‘Italian Comedy’ and popular English ‘Pantomime’ were staged. Like the French Court under Catherine, ‘Drury Lane’ under King Charles II would serve as the focus for the long tradition of creative exchange between London and Paris ensuring their continued development in England. The Molière’s plays would serve as models for a new wave of English theatre with what became known as “Restoration Plays”. These would also draw from the rich theatrical traditions of the ‘Italian Comedy’. One of the particular costuming traditions to come to the fore was ‘En Travesti’ as called in French or in the Italian, ‘Travestimento’ (Cross Dressing). This was not new to the ‘Christmas Pantomimes’ but the Italian actors called, “Comici” (Comics) would further enhance the tradition by formalising it and was embraced by English performers, actors, singers and dancers alike.
During the closing decades of the 17th Century, the interaction between Ballet and the Italian Comedy would wane in France, but in England, they would almost become inseparable. In saying this, the integration of Ballet in England was slow but steady and it would assume greater prominence within the ‘Panto’ during the 1790s. This was due to the flow of fleeing dancers from France following the French Revolution in 1789. By the ‘Regency’ era of the early 19th Century, the “Harlequinade” has been established with a clear notion of what it entailed. These would also be exported and introduced to the theatres of Paris with much favourable success following the restoration of the French monarchy. Several famed ballerinas would perform in some of these ‘Harlequinades’ as they continued to grow in popularity in Paris and across the European continent. This would help inspire the revival of ‘Mime’ in Ballet itself at the Paris Opéra during much of the ‘Romantic Era’. This would spawn a new balletic genre, ‘Ballet-Pantomime’ which included classic productions such as “Giselle” and “La Sylphide”.
The many costuming traditions within the ‘Pantomime’ and ‘Harlequinade’ have now been well established and practised with ‘cross-dressing’ at the heart of these and would continue to develop over the course of the 19th Century. Some of these would be borrowed into Ballet, Opera and other stage productions. These are famously used in Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” which premiered in 1878. However, by the latter part of the 19th Century, with the exception of ‘Harlequin’, the wearing of masks for the ‘Harlequinade’ been long abandoned and replaced by elaborate face make-up, particularly for the main characters of the colourful ‘Clown’ and the red cheeks and nose of ‘Pantaloon’. ‘Pierrot would retain his stark white face to have ‘Columbine’ often depicted more like a ‘Ballerina’ with rouged cheeks.
The ‘Harlequinade’ would revolve around the comic incidents in the lives of its five main characters being ‘Harlequin’, who loves ‘Columbine’ to the resentment of her greedy father, ‘Pantaloon’, who tries to separate the lovers in league with the mischievous ‘Clown’ and servant, ‘Pierrot’. These would often involve chaotic chase scenes with soldiers then later, policemen as in ‘Keystone Cops’ style. The humour was very ‘Slapstick’ with traces of ‘pathos’ and ‘satire’ all of which have their origins in the Italian Comedy.
During the late Victorian era, it achieved great popularity throughout most of Europe and across the Atlantic in the Americas, in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and even was seen in India, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China and Osaka and Tokyo in Japan.
It was presented as the comic closing part of a long evening of entertainment from the ‘Pantomime’ or even following a more serious presentation, such as a play or ballet in keeping with the ‘Christmas Season’. Harlequinades were a combination of fairy tales and the stock characters that have evolved from the earlier Italian Comedy, and it is in this context their influence on Ballet was the greatest. These would contain operatic and balletic elements, often with an elaborate magical transformation scene as presided over by a fairy in the personification of a ballerina. Her purpose was to connect the unrelated stories, changing the pantomime and its characters, into the ‘Harlequinade’. As the 19th Century progressed, the ‘Harlequinade’ became the greater part of the evening’s entertainment, reaching the height of its popularity with many of its transformation scenes incorporating the latest in theatrics and mechanised set design giving increasing spectacular stage effects.
The popularity of this Christmas tradition would have it serve as inspiration in 1900 for a ballet by the famed choreographer and ballet master, Marius Petipa, “Les Millions d’Arlequin”, later to become known as “Harlequinade”, for the Imperial Ballet in Russia. This ballet has become a popular virtuoso showpiece for both male and female dancers alike with several re- stagings over the course of the 20th Century; with one of the most popular versions of this being by Balanchine for the New York City Ballet in 1965.
The role of ‘Columbine’ did also serve as one of the stock roles for the famed Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, with her first performance of the role at the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia then later for the Ballets Russes in 1909 then again for the Imperial Ballet in 1912. Pavlova would assume many guises of ‘Columbine’ throughout her career with her last performance as such in 1927.
Other ballets that the ‘Harlequinade’ and the ‘Commedia’ would serve as inspiration for include the dancing dolls of ‘Harlequin’ and ‘Columbine’ appearing in both the first act of “The Nutcracker” (Imperial Ballet, 1892) and Act III of “The Sleeping Beauty” (Ballets Russes, 1922); with the ballets also staged by the ‘Ballets Russes’ – “Le Carnaval” (1910), “Pulcinella” (1920) The creative minds behind the ‘Ballets Russes’ were acutely aware of the importance of the ‘Commedia’ had in the early development of Ballet.
Following the First World War, the ‘Harlequinade’ lost popularity, becoming something of an oddity in an increasing modern world. It would wane in the 1930s following a brief revival in the 1920s with its complete disappearance altogether in the wake of the Second World War, although ‘Christmas Pantomimes’ continue to be presented in Britain be it now without the once famed ‘Harlequinade’. The profound legacy of the once famed Italian street theatre, ‘Commedia dell’Arte’, lives on in Ballet with the many elegant gestures and the practice of cross dressing in the great classics. It is only in the ballets of “Le Carnaval” and “Harlequinade” do we get an idea of its charm and magic that once held many generations of theatre goers spellbound. When performed they remind us of those enigmatic actors from the streets of the great cities of the Italian Renaissance.
This article incorporates text derived or information sourced from the following: “Encyclopaedia Britannica” “The Clothes That Wear Us” Essays on Dressing and Transgressing in Eighteenth-Century Culture Edited: Jessica Munns, Penny Richards ISBN: 0-87413-672-5, University of Delaware Press, 1999 “Commedia Dell’Arte: A Handbook for Troupes”, John Rudin, Olly Crick ISBN: 0415204089, Taylor & Francis Ltd., Routledge, 2001 “The History of Harlequin”, Cyril W. Beaumont, 1926 ISBN: 1906830681, The Noverre Press, 2014 “The Magic of Dance”, Margot Fonteyn ISBN: 0-563-17645-8, BBC, 1980. Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris Uffizi Gallery Mueum, Florence, Italy
Images:Fig. 01– Catherine de Medici, aged 21, a reproduction of a lost drawing, attributed to either Jean Clouet or Francois Clouet, c.1540.Fig. 02– Detail from coloured ink drawing attributed to Lichery of an etching, 'Royal Comédiens Italien' by Nicolas Bonnart, c. 1689.Fig. 03– Illustration of 'Arlecchino' by Maurice Sand, c.1860. Fig. 04 - Engraving of 'Il Capitano' by Abraham Bosse, 17th Century.Fig. 04– Engraving of 'Il Capitano' by Abraham Bosse, 17th Century.Fig. 05– Painting detail, “Commedia dell'arte Scene in an Italian Landscape” by Peeter van Bredael, c. late 15th -early 16th Century.Fig. 06– 'Gilles as Pierrot' by Antoine Watteau, c. 1717-19. Louvre Museum, Paris, France.Fig. 07– Illustration of 'Arlecchino' by Maurice Sand, c. 1860.Fig. 08– Illustration of 'Arlecchina' by Maurice Sand, c. 1860.Fig. 09– Madame Caroline as 'Columbine', c. 1843.Fig. 10– Harlequinade of “King of the Castle”, John Brandard, c. 1858.Fig. 11– The ballet, “Harlequinade” with Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Fokin, c. 1900. Imperial Ballet, St Petersburg, Russia.