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Was Commedia dell'arte Performed by Mountebanks? Album amicorum Illustrations and Thomas Platter's Description of 1598

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 January 2009


Early modern mountebanks, also known as charlatans or quacksalvers, were commercial travelling showmen associated with the sale of quack medicines and other products. They achieved wide recognition as a significant influence on the rise of professional acting, through their employment of performers to attract customers for their wares, and are frequently discussed in the context of early professional popular entertainment. Many depictions of mountebanks include commedia dell'aite costumes, but it has remained an open question whether some of their shows (as well as some of their costumes) fall within the sphere of the commedia dell'arte. Inconclusive evidence is presented by the relatively few studies which incline towards accepting a significant overlap between mountebank activity and the commedia dell'arte and clear-cut distinctions are routinely made between the repertoire of street performers, and that of the comici d'arte. Richards and Richards concede that ‘mountebank stages … may well have been the breeding grounds of many of the first regular actors’, but repeatedly emphasize the distinction ‘between performers of the trestle and those of the stage’, and are careful to dismiss mountebank stage routines as at the most ‘short playlets’. If the presently perceived lack of detailed documentation concerning mountebank entertainment is justified, then so is the cautious approach typified by Richards and Richards. On the evidence presented to date, it would appear that mountebank performances are at most distantly related to the commedia dell'arte.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 1998

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My thanks to Wimbledon School of Art, the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation and Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung for supporting this research with Fellowships. Also to Malgorzata Sugiera, Christopher Balme, Gerda Baumbach and Klaus Neiiendam for inviting spoken versions of this paper; Carol Clark, David Gentilcore, Natsu Hattori, Robert Henke, Ingeborg Krekler, Angelika Leik, Vivian Nutton, Roy Porter, Otto Schindler, Piermario Vescovo, Richard Woodfield, and the contributors to the present volume, for useful discussions; the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbiittel, DAAD, and Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation; the University of London (Institute for Historical Research, Scouloudi Fund); British Academy; European Science Foundation. Except as otherwise stated, translations into English are mine. (See also my forthcoming monograph: Mountebanks and the Commedia dell'arte in the Time of Ben Jonson: A Documentary Sourcebook).

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24. Interfoliated copies of the Antwerp 1564 edition used as albums include two in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich; mountebank picture (p. 188) is reproduced in Jurina, , Die Heilkunde in der deutschen Graphik, p. 128 & fig. 167.Google Scholar

25. Trautmann, Karl, ‘Aus altbayerischen Stammbüchern’, Altbayerische Monatsschrift, 3, 1901–, pp. 5361, 7285 and 132140Google Scholar; Nevinson, J. L., ‘Illustrations of Costume in the Alba Amicorum’, Archaeologia, 106, 1979, pp. 167–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Use O'Dell, , ‘Jost Amman and the Album amicorum. Drawings after prints in autograph albums’, Print Quarterly, 9, 1992, pp. 31–6Google Scholar; Salmen, Walter, ‘Stammbuchillustrationen als musikgeschichtliche Quelle’, Hamburger fahrbuch fur Musikwissenschaft, 12, 1994, pp. 235–42Google Scholar; Katritzky, M. A., ‘Carnival and comedy in Georg Straub of St. Gallen's printed album amicorum of 1600’ [forthcoming].Google Scholar

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29. Ludovico Zorzi, commentary to illustrative supplement in C. Vivanti and Romano, R. eds., Storia d'Italia, vol.II (Turin, 1974).Google Scholar

30. Album of Jacob Heckelsberger, Royal Library, Copenhagen (reproduced: Katritzky, M. A., ‘The Recueil Fossard 1928–88’, in Cairns, Christopher, ed., The Commedia dell'arte from the Renaissance to Dario Fo (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989), pl. V).Google Scholar

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35. The dates in Platter's account conform to the customs of the country he is in. At this period, Swiss dates are ten days behind those of the Gregorian calendar, which had already been adopted in, for example, France.

36. See Appendix A, and Katritzky, M. A., ‘Mountebanks, mummers and masqueraders in the diary of Thomas Platter (1595–1600) [forthcoming].Google Scholar

37. His father Thomas I Platter (c.1499–1582) may have us ed journal records to compile his autobiography in 1572, and his brother Felix I Platter (1536–1614) revised his own student journals in 1612.

38. Their father, Thomas I, was, by his own account, born to the sound of the church bells of ‘Herren Fastnacht’ (the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday), 10 February, 1499. His activities as a Basle school-master included the regular staging of plays acted by his pupils.

39. MS. AXV 7 & 8. ff. 262r–265v (= Appendix A). The fair-copy manuscript of Thomas II's travel journal, compiled during the period 1604–5, now in the University Library, Basle (with his album amicorum), was published in 1968 (Keiser, , Thomas Platter d.J.Google Scholar): Vischer, Christoph, ‘Die Stammbücher der Universitätsbibliothek Basel. Ein beschreibendes Verzeichnis’, in Festschrift Karl Schwarber (Basel, 1949), pp. 247–66Google Scholar. Numerous earlier publications give partial and inaccurate impressions of Platter's experiences: Félix et Thomas Platter à Montpellier 1552–1559—1595–1599. Notes de voyage de deux étudiants balois, publiées d'après les manuscrits originaux appartenant à la bibliothèque de l'université de Bâle (Montpellier: Chez Camille Coulet, Libraire, 1892); Jennett, Sean, Journal of a younger brother. The life of Thomas Platter as a medical student in Montpellier at the close of the sixteenth-century (London: Frederick Muller, 1963)Google Scholar. Bibliography: Hans Lieb, ‘Römische Inschriften in der Reisebeschreibung des jüngeren Platter, Thomas, Basler Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Altertumskunde, 1955, p. 53, n.6.Google Scholar

40. See Appendix A.

41. Platter (University Library, Basle, MS. AXV 7 & 8, f. 78r). Real tennis was played in large covered halls free of central pillars, with tiered seating around the sides.

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45. Rastel, , The third booke (1566), f.(Aiii)rGoogle Scholar; Moryson (1590s, in MS. CCC94, pp. 415, 469, 600 and 631); MS. Sloane 682 f.19r, 13 May 1610; Coryat, , Coryat's crudities, 1611 (1905, I, pp. 267 and 410)Google Scholar; Scala 1611 (in Pandolfi, , La commedia dell'arte, II, p. 181)Google Scholar; de Courval, Sonnet, Satyre contre les charlatans, p. 94.Google Scholar

46. Appendix B: VI, VII, XVII, XVIII, XXII.

47. Appendix B: XXI.

48. Coryat, , Coryat's crudities, 1611 (1905, I, p. 410).Google Scholar

49. See Katritzky, M. A., ‘The mountebank: a case study in early modern theatre iconography’Google Scholar [forthcoming in a volume edited by William Twining].

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52. Coryat, , Coryat's crudities, 1611 (1905, I, p. 411).Google Scholar

53. See Appendix A.

54. Henke, (‘The Italian mountebank’, pp. 1314)Google Scholar suggests that mountebanks played an important role in the dissemination of humanist literature by selling, performing and in some cases even publishing short printed pamphlets and anthologies of literary works.

55. Whetstone, , An Heptameron of Civill Discourses, 1582, f.(Liii)vGoogle Scholar; Decreti conferred on Martinelli in 1599 & 1613 (in Ferrone, (ed.), Comici dell'arte, I, pp. 365 and 395)Google Scholar; Coryat, , Coryat's crudities, 1611 (1905, I, pp. 410–2)Google Scholar; Rastel, , The third booke, 1566, f.(Aiii)vGoogle Scholar; Jonson, , Volpone, 1605, II ii. 6, 16, 59, 74, 90–1, 129, 141, 222–3.Google Scholar

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57. Appendix B: I & II.

58. Appendix B: I & II.

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60. de Courval, Sonnet, Satyre centre les charlatans, pp. 93–4.Google Scholar

61. Moryson, (1590s, in MS CCC.94, p. 600).Google Scholar

62. Jurina, , Die Heilkunde in der deutschen Graphik, figs. 155170.Google Scholar

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65. Coryat, , Coryat's crudities, 1611 (1905, I, p. 412).Google Scholar

66. Jones, Inigo and Davenant, William, Britannia Triumphans (1638, in Orgel & Strong 1973, figs. 343 and 356).Google Scholar

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70. Quoted in translation in Gentilcore, , ‘Protomedici and protomedicati’, 1994, p. 133.Google Scholar

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72. Whetstone, An Heptameron of Civill Discourses, 1582, f.(Mi)v; Moryson, (1590s, in MS. CCC.94, 600)Google Scholar; letter of 1602 (in Lea, , Italian Popular Comedy, II, p. 361)Google Scholar; Guarinonius, , Die Grewel (1610), p. 214Google Scholar; de Courval, Sonnet, Satyre contre les charlatans, pp. 94–5, 102–3 and 173–4Google Scholar; Coryat, , Coryat's crudities (1611, 1905 edition, I, pp. 410 and 412)Google Scholar; Scala 1611 (in Pandolfi, , La commedia dell'arte, E, pp. 181 and 185).Google Scholar

73. Appendix B: XI.

74. Appendix B: XVII.

75. Appendix B: I, II.

76. Appendix B: IV, V, XIV.

77. Appendix B: VIII, IX, X, XII, XIII, XV, XVIII, XIX.

78. Appendix B: III, XXI.

79. Appendix B: XVI.

80. Appendix B: XX.

81. Appendix B: IV, V, VIII, IX, XX (violin); X, XIV, XXI (lute); XII (pipe).

82. Appendix B: IV, V.

83. Duchartre, , The Italian Comedy, pp. 324–5 and 331.Google Scholar

84. Appendix B: XV; XX; and XIII &. XVI.

85. Appendix B: XVI.

86. Appendix B: II, XII, XIII, XIX (violin); X, XI, XV (lute).

87. Grimmelshausen, 's Springinsfeld (1670, ed. Scholte, (Halle: Niemeyer Verlag, 1928), pp. 3843)Google Scholar, describes an episode in which Simplicius attracts a large crowd of customers for his wares by imitating animal and bird noises on his violin.

88. See Appendix A.

89. Picot, , ‘Le Monologue dramatique’, pp. 493–5.Google Scholar

90. Clark, , ‘Rabelais and the Art of the Mountebank’, p. 550 n.2 (in translation).Google Scholar

91. Il ciarlone (in Pandolfi, , La commedia dell'arte, I, p. 130).Google Scholar

92. Rastel, , The third booke, 1566, ff.(Aiv)v-(Av)r.Google Scholar

93. Moryson, (1590s, in MS. CCC.94, p. 600).Google Scholar

94. Coryat, , Coryat's crudities, 1611 (1905, I, pp. 410–2).Google Scholar

95. Rastel, , The third booke, 1566, f.(Av)r.Google Scholar

96. Braca c.1596 (in Jakens, , The Figure of the Charlatan, pp. 93 and 120).Google Scholar

97. Garzoni, (La Piazza Universale (1586), p. 761).Google Scholar

98. Moryson (1590s, in MS. CCC.94: pp. 415, 469, 600 and 631).

99. Garzoni, , The Hospitall, 1600, p. 6.Google Scholar

100. Jonson, , Volpone, 1605, II.ii. 70–1Google Scholar; 110–126, 177–194; II.v.2;–15.

101. MS. Sloane 682 f. 19r, 13 May 1610; Guarinonius, , Die Grewel (1610), p. 214Google Scholar; de Courval, Sonnet, Satyre contre les charlatans, p. 103.Google Scholar

102. Coryat, , Coryat's crudities, 1611 (1905, I, pp. 410–2).Google Scholar

103. Ottonelli 1652 (in Taviani, , La fascinazione del teatro, pp. 327, 341, 361, 385 and 504Google Scholar; Richard, and Richards, , The Commedia dell'arte, p. 28).Google Scholar

104. see Appendix B: XVI & XX.

105. Katritzky, , ‘Scenery, set and stages’, figs. 22, 24.Google Scholar

106. Molinari, Cesare, La commedia dell'arte (Milan, 1985), p. 77Google Scholar; Richards, and Richards, , The Commedia dell'arte, p. 86.Google Scholar

107. King, , ‘Curing toothache on the stage?’, pp. 396 and 412Google Scholar. His plea for the ‘open interpretation of images and their contexts’ offers a valuable corrective to methodological weaknesses of the type highlighted by Cruciani with respect to mountebank and commedia dell'arte studies ‘of German or Anglosaxon provenance’ (Kröll, and Cruciani, , ‘A debate on fairground spectacles’, pp. 152–5)Google Scholar. Cruciani's criticisms centre on points of view developed with respect to intensive research on very specific and limited groups of documents, which are then granted general applicability for a much wider range of documents. Licenses (Henke, , ‘The Italian mountebank’, p. 9)Google Scholar; the gruesome tooth-pulling scene which dominates the mid-sixteenth-century farce Il ciarlone (in Pandolfi, , La commedia dell'arte, I, pp. 125–9)Google Scholar, and pictures such as Dionisio Minaggio's vivid feather picture of 1618 of a charlatan holding up the tooth of a client seated in front of him on his trestle stage (McGill University, Montreal, reproduced: Lomer, Gerhard, ‘Feather pictures of the commedia dell'arte’, Theatre Arts Monthly, 14, 1930, pp. 807–10)Google Scholar indicate that some early modern charlatans certainly pulled actual teeth.