Pulcinella, Tartaglia and Scaramuccia: three protagonists of the Commedia dell'Arte

Carnival is just around the corner, and even though the health rules against the spread of Covid-19 have severely limited the celebrations, our imagination immediately leads us to the most important and characteristic masks of this age-old festival. This is why we have decided to tell you about three great masks of Neapolitan origin, Pulcinella, Tartaglia and Scaramuccia, three protagonists of the so-called Commedia dell'Arte, also known as comedia buffonesca, or Italian comedy, which originated around the 16th century and gave rise to the most important masks in our theatre, such as Arlecchino. This cultural phenomenon has its roots in the classical tradition, and in a city like Naples, it has been interpreted on the basis of the typical moods and characters of the people of Partenope

Pulcinella, the undisputed symbol of Naples for centuries

The most important Neapolitan mask is undoubtedly Pulcinella, one of the city's best-known symbols. Pulcinella, as mentioned above, is also one of the most important masks of the Commedia dell'Arte and, together with Arlecchino, one of the best known in the world. Pulcinella's typical costume is white, with a very loose-fitting shirt and trousers and a dark half-mask on his face, which enhances his curved nose and gives the character his typical grotesque appearance.

Pulcinella embodies various aspects, often contradictory, of Neapolitan culture, such as exuberance and vitality, a propensity for instincts and carnal pleasures, accentuated mimicry and gestures, but also irony and generosity, cunning and melancholic disenchantment. Initially, his origins were sought in classical theatre, and the name itself, Pulcinella, from the Neapolitan Pulleceniello, meaning little chick, was often associated with the Oscan word Cicirrus, cock. The mask was actually invented by the famous actor Silvio Fiorillo in the early 17th century, when Pulcinella made his first artistic appearances. He appeared in 1621 in the literary work Viaggio di Parnaso by Giulio Cesare Cortese, and in 1622 in the engraving of the Balli di Sfessania by Jacques Callot of Lorraine (Pulciniello e la signora Lucrezia). 

Pulcinella's curriculum vitae is endless, since from that date to the present day he has been performed, studied and revisited by artists, writers, costume designers and theatre actors from all over the world, right up to the great Eduardo de Filippo and Lello Esposito, illustrious sons of Partenope. Pulcinella is also credited with many typically Neapolitan sayings and pearls of wisdom, such as the famous Pulcinella's Secret, a truth believed to be secret, but which is instead on everyone's lips!  

In reality, the spirit of Pulcinella can be found in all the great examples of Neapolitanism, such as in Troisi's great human frescoes or in the bitter melancholy of Pino Daniele's early pieces, for example. A mask in continuous evolution, which for centuries has collected and staged the spirits and moods of the Neapolitan people.

The mask of Tartaglia: from buffoonish servant to blundering judge

The Tartaglia mask was introduced, according to the historian Riccoboni, around the middle of the 17th century and made known to the general public by the Neapolitan comedian Cioppo. Tartaglia's invention originated from the custom of servants no longer wearing masks and starting to use their own make-up, thus representing a sort of caricature of the 'liberated servant' of the Baroque era.

Initially, his main features were a bald head, grey hat, white collar, shaved face, blue glasses, green trousers with yellow stripes and yellow leather shoes, and above all a conspicuous stutter, from which his name is said to derive: tartagliare, in Italian, is a synonym, almost onomatopoeic, for stutter. 

The Tartaglia mask was brought to the height of its success by the Neapolitan actor Fiorelli around 1750, who modified some aspects of it, both in the costume and in the way he behaved. In fact, the reformed Tartaglia wore short trousers, a beret and silver toggles. And, above all, he was no longer a simple servant, but often played the role of policeman, lawyer, doctor or judge. His actions were often ambivalent: he either cheated others or saved the innocent, making him a sort of comic Robin Hood. Tartaglia's mask has survived to the present day with further modifications to his costume. A white wig, a pointed hat and a green suit were introduced, and his continuous carousing, which was annoying and boring, was toned down. 

The story of Scaramuccia, Neapolitan mask

Scaramuccia was brought to success by the Neapolitan actor Tiberio Fiorilli, who was very popular in the 17th century. Although the inventor of the mask is unknown, there is no doubt about the Neapolitan origin of the character, who represented a man constantly engaged in a thousand quarrels and conflicts, 'scaramucce' to be precise. Its cultural roots are to be found in ancient theatre, in figures such as Plautus' Miles gloriosus, the boastful soldier, who was repeated several times in the centuries to come, with the various versions of the Captain character. A boastful and lying man, who performed great deeds in words, but in reality was constantly doomed to defeat. A type of theatre that was also very successful in Europe, to the point of being transposed into French theatre under the name of Scaramouche and brought to the stage by the great Molière. The original costume of Scaramuccia was entirely black, with a cap and sword: Fiorilli modified it, making it even more caricatured, by introducing a cap and guitar. An element that further underlined Scaramuccia's unhealthy habit of "singing lies".