In Venetian traditions

Masks and costumes are a major attraction for many visitors, who choose to come to Venice during its famous Carnival. Creativity and extravagance has turned Carnival in Venice into a world-wide known event. However, there is a tradition regarding masks used in theatrical performances in Venice which is less known and often undervalued. I am talking about the Commedia dell’Arte.

The Doctor and Pantalone with Christian Renzicchi and Bettina Andriolo @Bottegavaga Venice Photo by Diego Landi

What is the Commedia dell’Arte?

In a few words: a theatrical tradition originating in the 16th century in Italy and strongly present in Venice till the 18th century, especially during Carnival based on improvisation on a roughly sketched plot and featuring stock characters wearing specific leather masks coordinated with a costume. With a risk: to be taken as a folkloristic expression without any in-depth content. A mask behind which there can be very little.

So I decided to talk about it with somebody working in this field in Venice. Just a few days before Carnival started, I got to interview Alberta Toninato, one of the founders of the association Bottegavaga. It was a true joy! Alberta is a passionate actress and theatre director. She teaches theatre and also writes theatrical pieces. Many years ago she took a “schizophrenic choice”, as the well-known theatre director and critic Maurizio Scaparro once told her.

Writing theatre for Venice, in Venice

What was so “schizophrenic”? Alberta and her theatre company chose to stay in Venice and to invest in this territory. First with the association Kairòs and now with Bottegavaga, they have arranged for over 25 years theatrical courses for young and elderly amateurs. Writing theatrical pieces for Venice and for the ones that live in Venice was a hard choice, even before the pandemic. 

Preparing her own mask during the workshop for children arranged by ©Bottegavaga in Venice

Children’s workshop on Masks in Venice ©Bottegavaga

At the Avogaria Theatre in Venice children learn about the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte with Vanni Carpenedo and Bettina Andriolo ©Bottegavaga

Venice is a theatre stage with a “space” problem

Why is it hard? On one side Venice is a stage, everywhere you go. As we can see in the art works of the Renaissance by Vittore Carpaccio or the paintings of the 18th century by Pietro Longhi, Gabriel Bella and more, Venice would host theatrical performances outdoors and indoors, in its campos and in its theatres, also in the intimacy of the palazzos. Venice was the city where in 1637 for the first time in the history you would pay a ticket to see an opera, thus inaugurating the idea of a public theatre with a paying audience.

Paradoxically, one of the major difficulties in Venice nowadays is the availability of spaces for theatre schools. High rents are indeed discouraging. Fortunately, there are theatres where amateurs can perform, such as the Teatro dell’Avogaria, as well as also private palaces, like Palazzo Malipiero in Campo Santa Maria Formosa. And guess what? Alberta and her theatre company have also started working in open spaces!

A workshop of masks at the Lido Beach in Venice ©Bottegavaga Venice

Masks at the Lido Beach in Venice ©Bottegavaga

Investing energy in the Commedia dell’Arte

Moreover, Bottegavaga has taken the decision to “reform” the tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte and its masks and to employ a contemporary, modern language. Alberta admitted she had long “snobbed” this tradition and for long she had instead dedicated her efforts towards experimental theatre, combining theatrical language with dance, too. 

Pantalone in Arlecchino torn in three with Bettina Andriolo and Christian Renzicchi, from the play Arlecchino, servitore di due padroni by Carlo Goldoni, Venice @Bottegavaga Photo by Andrea Giordani

An essential contribution has come from an actor specialising in the Commedia dell’Arte, Vanni Carpenedo. You should see Vanni Carpenedo in action! He is a true reincarnation of Harlequin. His nervous and agile body effectively interprets this mask, that of a comic, poor, blear witted servant, wearing a chequered costume. To get a better understanding of the complexity of this character, imagine that the name seems to come from Hölle König, the King of Hell: in medieval passion plays, in fact, Harlequin was the emissary of the devil, a leader of demons. 

Arlecchino torn in three with Bettina Andriolo and Vanni Carpenedo, from the play Arlecchino, servitore di due padroni by Carlo Goldoni, Venice @Bottegavaga Photo by Andrea Giordani

Thanks to the experience of this actor, the Commedia dell’Arte in the Bottegavaga’s version has successfully overcome quite a few challenges.

How can masks interact with our contemporary world?

First of all, a multi-lingual version! Imagine arranging a performance starting from a great classic written in the 1700s by Venice-born playwright, Carlo Goldoni, and mixing Italian, Venetian dialect and English. And yet, making the plot clear for an international audience. The help of a bilingual actress, Betty Andriolo, has proved to be a key point, as you can imagine!

Pantalone alias Scrooge in the reinterpretation of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens with Vanni Carpenedo and Alberta Toninato @Bottegavaga Venice Photo by Andrea Saccoman

Masks have a super power, Alberta points out. In their workshops where they invite participants to wear masks, you can see what transformation a mask brings. There is a lot of work behind: a sort of surgical analysis studying body language, creating a grammar of physical movements as masks are no stock characters. Instead, they help new creatures find their way into the world!

Especially, masks in the Commedia dell’Arte express a strong caricature of the society, they are ironical, satyrical and irreverent. Revolutionary. And that’s where Alberta admits the highest challenge comes at stake. Humour and satire cannot just be “translated”, they need to be communicated to the audience and cultural differences can be an obstacle. 

Learning to be joyful through theatre

Alberta explains: 

I no longer care, as when I was young, to bring social commitment in my work, as my commitment lies in the research for a kind of art that releases pure joy (…) For masks, everything is a game. It’s a game when you make a mistake, when you work, love, feel hungry or are poor 

and adds:

Masks educate to happiness. They take you back into childhood and bring good humour!

In Venice, in the 1700s Carlo Goldoni reformed the Commedia dell’Arte, making sure there would not be any stereotypes on the stage, but a subtle psychological analysis of the Venetian society and its different social classes. I am sure he would have loved this contemporary version of his works. Also because it happens on a wonderful stage, the city of Venice.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy


The photo on the cover with Vanni Carpenedo interpreting Harlequin is by Benedetta Socal


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