Italian theatrical form that flourished throughout Europe in the 16th–18th centuries. The characters, many portrayed by actors wearing masksincluding the witty gentleman's valet Harlequin, the Venetian merchant Pantelone, the honest and simpleminded servant Pierrot, the maidservant Columbina, the unscrupulous servant Scaramouche, and the braggart captain or Capitanowere derived from the exaggeration or parody of regional or stock fictional types. The style emphasized improvisation within a framework of conventionalized masks and stock situations. It was acted by professional companies using vernacular dialects and plenty of comic action; the first known commedia dell'arte troupe was formed in 1545. Outside Italy it had its greatest success in France as the Comédie-Italienne; in England, it was adapted in the harlequinade and the Punch-and-Judy show (see Punch). See also Andreini family.
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