Zanni in the Italian Mask Tradition "La Commedia dell'Arte"

23 January, 2016 1 comments Leave a comment

The Zanni mask played a very important role in the "Commedia dell'Arte" origin of the mask tradition.

Zanni Mask Italian Tradition "Commedia dell'Arte"

This is because it benefited from an extensive visual documentation, illustrations from the early 16th century called "The Dance of Sfessania", that show devils dancing with masks and phallic noses in Venetian contexts. These Dances are the first clear images of the wide-spread and established variety of theatre movements made by characters in masks and costumes. The name comes from the Venetian slang for the Italian name Giovanni, John.

Sfessania Dance Mask Tradition Commedia dell'Arte

The iconography of the masked Zanni plays a fundamental role in the origins of the Italian Comedy: La Commedia dell’Arte. All the Zanni masks eventually evolved into the classic Italian masks - Arlecchino, Pulcinella, Pantalone, Brighella. As proof that they were all Zanni to start with, there was a time when the masks were called Zanni Pantalone, Zanni Arlecchino, Zanni Brighella…. they were all born from this, shall we say, evil mask, originated from the Middle Ages.

The Zanni in this picture is a creation by Guerrino Lovato, creator of  Mondonovo Maschere.  It is mask white as a bone, with sunken eyes and a long protruding nose. It has also been used in the movie The Merchant of Venice, based on Shakespeare’s work. In the movie, two Venetian friends are wearing masks, one wears the white Zanni and the other one wears a red Arlecchino. The film was a great success, thanks to its splendid production and to the role played by Al Pacino, the well known actor… with Italian origins.

Zanni Mask in The Merchant of Venice

Listen from the author how Zanni is an important character in the origin of the Italian mask tradition "La Commedia dell'Arte". It appears since the beginning of 16th century and evolved into the classic Italian masks.


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  1. Williambug May 17, 2016

    Thanks a lot for the article.Much thanks again. Awesome. Kena