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La Virtu et la volupté. Models for the Actress in Early Modern Italy and France

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2009


In 1982 Ferdinando Taviani proposed in Il segreto della commedia dell'arte that the earliest known actresses in Italy may have been drawn from the ranks of the courtesans, the oneste meretrici, forced from Rome after the Council of Trent (1545–63) by papal reforming zeal. This hypothesis has been affirmed by several other scholars in Europe and the United States and is becoming widely accepted not just as a feasible theory but as gospel, the exclusive conduit through which women entered the western theatre.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 1998

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1. Taviani, Ferdinando and Schino, Mirella, Le Secret de la commedia dell'arte, trans. Liebert, Yves (Carcassone: Contrastes Bouffonneries, 1984), pp. 305–8Google Scholar. First published as Il segreto della commedia dell'arte (Florence: La Casa Usher, 1982). Taviani expands his ideas in ‘La fleur et le guerrier: les actrices de la commedia dell'arte’, Bouffonneries, No. 15/16, 1986, pp. 61–93.

2. See Hecker, Kristine, ‘Die Frauen in den frühen Commedia dell'Arte-Truppen’ in Die Schauspielerin, zur Kulturgeschichte der weiblichen Bühnenkunst, ed. Möhrmann, Renate (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1989), pp. 2758Google Scholar, and McGill, Kathleen, ‘Woman and Performance: The Development of Improvisation by the Sixteenth Century Commedia dell'Arte’, Theatre Journal 43, 1991, pp. 5969.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3. Re, Emilio, ‘Commedianti a Roma nel secolo xvi’. Giornale storico della letteratura italiana, 63, 1914, pp. 291300Google Scholar. Quoted in Taviani, and Schino, , p. 167.Google Scholar

4. Taviani, and Schino, , pp. 306–8Google Scholar; Taviani, , pp. 6876.Google Scholar

5. Taviano, and Schino, , p. 308.Google Scholar

6. From a letter, quoted in Mongrédien, Georges, La Vie quotidienne des comédiens au temps de Molière (Paris: Hachette, 1966), p. 28.Google Scholar

7. Taviani, , p. 62Google Scholar. The first record of Italians playing in France may be relevant here. Italian actors and actresses were brought to Lyon in 1548, sixteen years before the contract signed by Donna Lucrezia, to play Dovizi di Bibbiena's La Calandria for Henri II and Catherine de Médicis. The troupe was from Florence and included women. Brantôme notes that ‘j'ay ouy dire à plusieurs seigneurs et dames que si la tragicomédie de ce grand Cardinal fut belle, elle fut aussi trés bien représentée par les comédiens et comédientes, qui estoient trés belles, parloient trés-bien et de fort bonne grace’. This troupe also appears to have been to some degree professional, since the king gave them 500 gold scudi and the queen 300, so they could go home ‘con una borsa piena di scudi per ciascuno’. For the best discussion of this production see Solerti, Angelo, ‘La Rappresentazione della Calandria a Lione nel 1548’ in Raccolta di Studi critici dedicata ad Alessandro d'Ancona (Florence: Tip. di G. Barbèra, 1901), pp. 693–8Google Scholar. Detenbeck, Laurie notes in ‘Women and the Management of Dramaturgy in La CalandriaGoogle Scholar (Testaferri, Ada, ed., Donna: Women in Italian Culture (Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, 1989), pp. 246–51)Google Scholar, that the female characters in La Calandria are unusually important, which may help to explain why actresses were employed. ‘Male and female characters possess a similar ability to act, to comprehend what is happening, and to control a situation.’ Fulvia, a liberated or emancipated woman, has thirteen speaking appearances, Santilla has sixteen, and Sarnia has nineteen. If professional troupes including women were performing in Italy as early as 1548, most of what is presently believed about the introduction of the actress will have to be reconsidered.

8. Garzoni, Tommaso, La Piazza universale de tutti le professioni del mondo, nobili et ignobili (1584)Google Scholar, quoted in Taviani, and Schino, , p. 112.Google Scholar

9. Boyer, M., Mémoires de la Société historique du Cher, 1888Google Scholar. Quoted in Lacour, Léopold, Les premières actrices françaises (Paris: Librairie Française, 1921), p. 6.Google Scholar

10. des Réaux, Tallement, Historiettes, ed. Adam, Antoine (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), II, 773.Google Scholar

11. de Gaufreteau, Jean, Chronique bordelaise, ed. Delpit, Jules (Bordeaux: G. Gounouilhou, 1876), pp. 306–8. The chronicle covers events that took place in Bordeaux from 1240 to 1639, thus it is possible that the chronicler was an eyewitness in 1592.Google Scholar

12. Quoted in Rasi, Luigi, I comici italiani (Florence: Fratelli Bocca, 1897 & 1905) II, 2, 288Google Scholar; I, 88. Kathleen McGill has proposed that Isabella, too, was a courtesan or raised to be one. This seems unlikely for various reasons, prime among them being McGill's assertion, taken from an article by Kristine Hecker, that Isabella made her debut in a male role in Tasso's Aminta when she was eleven years old. Hecker has no evidence for this assertion that is contradicted by Taviani and by others.

13. Rasi, , I, 92.Google Scholar

14. ‘Del Cavalier Marino per la Signora Isabella Andreini’. Quoted in Rasi, , I, 92.Google Scholar

15. Trans, from Smith, Winifred, Italian Actors of the Renaissance (New York: Coward-McCann, 1930), p. 53Google Scholar. The original: ‘Isabella Andreina Patavina Mulier magna virtute praedita. Honestatis ornamentum, maritalique, pudicitiae decus, ore facunda, mente fecunda, religiosa, pia, Musis amica, & artis Scenicae caput hic resurrectionen espectat’. Taviani and Schino, p. 116.

16. Although a number of Italian troupes performed in France in the last third of the sixteenth century, little is recorded about their composition and less about their repertories. The divine Vittoria may have been the first of the Italian divas to travel to France. We hear of her as a major attraction of the Gelosi in 1574, when Henri III saw the company perform in Venice. Henri was bewitched by this ‘sorceress of love’ and invited the troupe to France. Although its exact composition is not known, it included women and it certainly included Vittoria if the king had his way. L'Etoile writes of the Gelosi in 1577: ‘Ces représentations ont un charme particulier pour les libertins qui vont surtout admirer les femmes. Car elles faisaient montre de leurs seins et poictrines ouvertes et autres parties pectorales, qui ont un perpétuel mouvement, que ces bonnes dames faisoient aller par compas ou mesure, comme une horloge, ou pour mieux dire, comme les soufflets des maréchaux.’ Quoted in Sadron, Pierre, ‘Les plus anciens comédiens français connus’, Revue d'histoire du théâtre 7, 1955, pp. 3843.Google Scholar

17. Rasi, , I, 96.Google Scholar

18. Baschet, Armand, Les Comédiens italiens à la cour de France (Paris: E. Plon et Cie, 1882), pp. 147–8.Google Scholar

19. Le Testament de Gaultier-Garguille, cited in Tallement, , II, 1519 n. 13.Google Scholar

20. By ‘emancipated’ is meant legally free of the tutelage of her father, although she was seven years under the age of majority. She went to court and petitioned for this status in order to have the right to make an offer to buy a little house in the Marais.

21. de Scudéry, Georges, Almahide (Paris: Augustin Courbé, 1661), V, 1536–7.Google Scholar

22. La Gazette quoted by Mongrédien, , pp. 30–1.Google Scholar

23. Chappuzeau, Samuel, Le théâtre français (Bruxelles: Mertens et fils, 1867), pp. 75–7.Google Scholar

24. Picard, Raymond, La Carrière de Jean Racine (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), p. 269.Google Scholar

25. Quoted in Mélèse, Pierre, Le Théâtre et le public à Paris sous Louis XIV (Geneva: Slatkine, 1976), p. 172.Google Scholar

26. This verse first appeared in print in 1688 in an appendix to La fameuse comédienne, a pamphlet attacking Armande Béjart. Picard, , p. 272n.Google Scholar

27. Mongrédien, , p. 82.Google Scholar

28. Mongrédien, Georges, La Vie privée de Molière (Paris: Hachette, 1950), p. 125.Google Scholar

29. Notes et documents sur l'histoire des théâtres de Paris au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Librairie des Bibliophiles, 1880), pp. 13–14.

30. de Courville, Xavier, Lélio, premier historien de la comédie italienne et premier animateur du théâtre de Marivaux (Paris: Librairie Théâtrale, 1958), pp. 259–61.Google Scholar