Commedia Characters: Zanni (The Servants)

Arlechino- one of the Zanni of the Commedia dell'arte


The Zanni are the class of servants that are on the bottom of the food chain– they are porters, servants, and lower class citizens who serve their masters hare-brained schemes, bungle their own hare-brained schemes, and once in a long while make out like bandits, only to have their loot pulled away from them at the last second.

Zanni is a shortening of the name Giovanni, which is a nice way of making a socio-economic /racial insult- it’s as if you were American in San Francisco in  the 1860’s, and you called all of the Chinese construction workers Chang.  It’s also where we get the word Zany from.

Within the Zanni characters, there were a number of types.  Zanni is the general term, and in fact some throwaway characters were called Zanni.  But the five main characters who are mostly remembered are Arlechino, Truffaldino, Brighella,  Pedrolino, and Pulchinella.

A lot of these characters can be characterized by their levels of innocence.  By this I don’t mean how not guilty they are– I mean how much the cares of the world get them or bring them down.  In order of innocence (most to least):

Zanni in order of innocence (most to least)


Pedrolino- one of the zanni of the commedia dell'arte

Pedrolino is the most innocent of the lot.  He’s the fool who is sent out to stand guard for intruders, but falls in love with the beauty of the moon.  He later gets… (Romanticized?  He’s already Roman… Francofied?  Gallicized?) into the French ballet character Pierrot.

Arlechino is perhaps the most classic of the commedia characters, whose name gets Anglicized (now that’s the right word!) to Harlequin.  He’s dumb but in a good natured way, like a dog who keeps seeing his tail and thinking it might be somebody behind him.   He’s also very good natured, and will drop everything and anything if you have a little food for him.


Less Innocent Servants


Brighella- one of the Zanni of the commedia dell'arte

Some may disagree with me, but I think of Truffaldino as a slightly smarter Arlechino. His name comes from the Italian word for Trick, and he has a little bit of the trickster in him- Arlechino with a little bit of his innocence removed.

Brighella is the big brother to Arlechino, the one to his two.  Brighella likes to think he’s smarter than everybody else, but somehow it never quite works out the way he plans it. Brighella can be nasty at times, but he can also be nice.  Sometimes he’s a swindler, but he rarely gets away with it.  The other thing about Brighella is that he’s a two face– he’s a kiss ass to those above him, and a tyrant to those below him.

Honeymooners-- one of the modern examples of Zanni

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How I like to explain these two characters is by using a modern television analogy:  Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, as Ralph and Norton on the Honeymooners.  They are trying to open a locked door.  Ralph thinks he knows how to open the door, and comes up with many plots on how to do it.  Meanwhile, Carney tries out the door and sees that it is unlocked and opens it.



And finally we come to Pulcinella, who has the least innocence of all of them.  He is guilty, a crook, a swindler, a con man, and he probably gets away with it all.  His name means “Little chicken”  but at dell’arte we used to call him “Little Spitter” because he serves you food that he spits in.

Mr. Punch- an anglicized version of the zanni PulcinellaLater Pulcinella becomes Anglicized and a lot smaller, and gets immortalized as Mr. Punch of  Punch and Judy.  Punch also has a guilty streak (in the original shows he murders nearly everybody he comes in contact with) Yet somehow he has a charm too, and we the audience seem to like him.  I would say that’s true about all these characters.  They all have faults, but they all have charms too!



Some video examples of Zanni

Here’s a video of Ferrucio Soleri playing Arlechino: Notice how he talks nearly constantly, and everything he says is reflected in the body.

And here are is a hilarious clip of the Honeymooners, “Ralph Learns To Play Golf”
You can see some commedia elements right from the get-go:

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