I SERVI (THE SERVANTS)
Zanni, Zani, Zane, Zan, Zuane, Zuan, Zagno, Zanin, Zuanin… Giovanni, Gianni, Juan, Joan, Joaõ, John, Jean, Hans… e then Zagna, Zana, Zuana, Zuanina… the name of all the people in on name only.
Other interpretations of the origin of the name are forced or fantastical for example that one that makes Zanni derive from sannio, one of the Latin synonyms of histrio, buffoon, fool, comic.
In the speech of regions south of the Emilian-Tuscan Appennines, the name is clearly pronounced: Gianni and Gian, which are diminutives of Giovanni. The alpine-Paduan “Z” gives a dialectal pronunciation to the name but changes neither its roots nor its meaning.
The name Zanni is the given name of a Commedia dell’Arte servant, historically the first of the Commedia characters, when it was performed with small groups of similar characters that were all similar in appearance, mask, behavior, and name. “Zan” was a sort of prefix before all their names, followed by the name that characterized the individual: Zan Salciccia, Zan Fritello, Zan Tabacco, and so on. Each actor invented his own.
With these characters, the first Commedia actors performed short, harsh comic stories of hunger, thievery, and fights in a shamelessly outlandish style, which they called zannate. The zannate, or zannesque comedies, staged by zanni actors, is the original form of Commedia dell’Arte, characterized by these very characters, who exaggerated the social types well known to the audience, the mountain people who had immigrated into the cities in search of work, shelter, food. With the evolution of this form, due primarily to the introduction of the actress, the woman on stage, the elementary dramaturgy grows more complex, becoming comedy in the classic sense, and the various Zan become fixed as servants of various masters.
By extension, used as a noun, zanni signifies a generic servant, the character of the servant in Commedia, any servant. The given name Zanni is thus used in plays when there is no more than one of the type, since no two Commedia characters can have the same name in a single story. The noun zanni is a technical term not used in performance. A master, for example, never calls for “his zanni”, but rather for “his servant”; if his servant happens to be named Zanni, then Pantalone calls for Zanni. An actor can play “a zanni” and this ‘zanni’ might be named Zanni or some other name. On stage therefore, we may have “many zanni”, who might be named Zanni, Brighella, Franceschina, Truffaldino, or Zan Trivella, Zan Farina, Zagna, Zan Tager, all interpreted by different actors, each a specialist in his own zanni.
2nd zanni. One of the great masks of Commedia dell’Arte, Pulcinella – from “pulcino”, chick, and “pollastrello”, cockerel – is the most important zanni from the southern regions of Italy. Beyond being a great comic protagonist ever since his origin in the early Seventeenth century, he is also the most important reference point for observing and understanding the historical survival of Improvised comedy. While Commedia dell’Arte as an economic structure suddenly disappears after – or because of – the French Revolution, a victim of the people’s hatred of the king and his minions, and therefore against the mask theatre so prized at the French court, Pulcinella holds on in Naples and other parts of the south, especially Calabria. He holds on precisely because he begins to argue about political topics; he sides with the winners. But if Pulcinella ends badly in one sense, he triumphs in another. He then enters as the only mask in the new bourgeois comedy of the Nineteenth century, and keeps himself warm in that new setting, giving up his great passions of the past – except in exceptional cases, such as that of Antonio Petito - to become a marginal figure who tosses in occasional witty observations from the side of the stage. But this great Mask finds his outlet in popular festivals. In Calabria, the tradition of Pulcinella is decidedly freer and more articulated: every festival has its Pulcinella, who acts as a solo actor – narrator – storyteller – entertainer – acrobat – magician – juggler, as well as functioning as a sort of overall director of the entire festival.
Today, Pulcinella has perhaps too much history to be able to be described in a single way. Like Pirandello’s famous character, he is one, nobody, and a hundred thousand. Whoever he may be, he is always the comic symbol of the urgency of survival pure and simple. That’s what makes him stand for everyone; he couldn’t make it on his own.
I VECCHI (THE OLDS)
Magnifico, that is, great, grand, generous. Which means the exact opposite, since the Commedia dell’Arte Magnifico is decidedly avaricious. But besides this extremely human defect, the Magnifico represents the highest authority in the family. He is the one who runs not only the economy, the finances, but also the destiny of the household and all who live there. He decides whether or not to pay the servants (he generally inclines against it, not without good reason); he decides where his son or daughter (the Lovers) will marry, when, and with whom, and he thus sets in play the great drama of the lovers, whose solution becomes the material for the three traditional acts of the comedy. Magnifico is thus the technical term that indicates the character. His given name is determined by dialect and geography: Pantalone if he is Venetian, Stefanel Botarga if Milanese; Zanobio da Piombino if Tuscan, Biscegliese if from Puglia, and he can be “Pep” and something more if we make him Catalan, or a “Mc” and something more if we make him Scottish. And so on and so forth, without any change in his character, behavior, or function. The most famous and historically most common Magnifico is the Venetian one, Pantalone. The name is probably a contraction of “pianta il leone”, he who plants the lion, the symbol of the Venetian Republic. Venetian merchants “planted the lion” in southern and Mediterranean markets, they conquered the world by opening plants and dominating local economies. Our Pantalone, therefore, is a Venetian merchant, a perfect example of the shrewd, cunning, vulgar, and proud dynamism of the refined, opulent, and marvelous city-state.
The “Oxonian Pantalone” was created for Love is a Drug with the Oxford Stage Company, 1995.
Dottor Plus Quam Perfectus
Gratiano is the most ancient of the given names of the Doctor. The forehead of this mask is “astronomical”; the lumps are laid out in the form of a constellation, symbolizing universal thought and consciousness.
A classic Bologna-dialect Doctor with multilinguistic layers. Great expert in everything, “Grand Old Man,” father of one of the two lovers, friend-enemy of Magnifico, with whom he is in eternal conflict-complicity.
This mask has the most reduced structure: just forehead and nose. The forehead is indispensable as a symbol of genius, the nose as the comic center of the face.
Doctor-like in everything, he is in reality a continuation of the ancient charlatan, who demonstrates spectacular but doubtful knowledge that depends on the ignorance of others – the other characters – which he can always count on, because they are indeed either more ignorant than he (servants, Capitano) or terribly distracted by the great joys and suffering (the lovers) to notice his blunders. The audience immediately recognizes him for what he is, shameless and pompous.
But he is truly, truly great in one thing: gastronomy. There, he excels. He goes into exaltation, he becomes deeply moved, he slobbers all over himself while describing the recipe, for instance, of the real lasagna, and he is scandalized, indignant, furious when reporting barbarous variations or ignoble practices.
The Doctor is the projection of the aspirations of an entire starving population that sees in him, in his immense gut, his fat pronunciation, his language that explosively re-invents all languages, and his intestinal outbursts, as overflowing as his gestures, the realization of their most gluttonous, prohibited internal desires.
I CAPITANI (LES CAPITAINES)