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RTF Character | Zanni the Commedia dell'Arte

Zanni is probably not the first character that springs to mind when you think of Commedia dell'Arte characters.  That is because the Zanni character is seminal to many other characters in the Commedia dell'Arte theater, including Arlechino, Brighella, and Pulcinella.  The name 'Zanni' is a diminutive of Venetian name 'Giovanni' (John) and we get our English word 'zany' from this, which gives you an idea of the nature of this character!  The Zanni character was a buffoon or clown and known in those days as a simpleton or 'stupid incompetent fool'!

This character was drawn from the lower classes of the time, the peasant or migrant worker who worked in Venetian society as a servant, valet or porter.  Sometimes also as an odd job person or hawker.

Comedian Del Guy

The term Zanni therefore refers to a class of mask although in some cases was a specific character as well.  This clown was an important aspect of Commedia dell'Arte theatre, representing the peasant class of society.  Zanni reflected the role of the Bergamo peasants, who at that time were facing a famine in the rural areas they lived in due to cheaper imports from Greece (sound familiar?) after their region was conquered by the Venetian army in the early 1400's.  They flooded in to the urban cities such as Venice, offering themselves for whatever work they could find and eeking out a living in anyway they could.  In their favour, they were famous for their nimbleness and agility on the positive side and on the other side - their crudeness.  Overlaid on all of this was their fantastic dialect and manner of speaking - these traits formed the basis of an important character in Commedia dell'Arte.

In the early days of Commedia dell'Arte, the Zanni mask used in the theatre was a full face mask with a long nose.  It developed from here into a half mask covering the upper half of the face only with an extended, long nose.  The longer the nose on the mask, then the more stupid was the character.

The costume of the Zanni character reinforced for the audience the nature of this character.  Usually dressed in sacking and hunched over through carrying heavy loads as a porter, with knees in a 'bowed' position and feet splayed apart.  This was in sharp contrast to the aristocracy characters in the Commedia dell'Arte who always carried themselves with erect deportment.  Zanni was always highly animated, waving arms and gesticulating with hands when speaking in a coarse manner with erratic body movements thrown in!  Some Zanni characters were known for their acrobatic feats, including hand-stands and flips.  Others displayed their roots and were constantly ravenously hungry (coming from a famine in their home towns) but their coarseness also introduced mirth into the theatre with farting, burping and resounding snoring.

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