In such masques and carnival fetes the Italian drama had one of its progenitors. For often some scene, usually from sacred history, would be performed on one of the floats or cars, or on temporary stages at points on the procession route. But the primary source of the Italian drama was the divozione, an episode of the Christian story acted by the members of any guild, sometimes by professional players belonging to a confraternity that made a business of presenting such spectacles. The texts of several divozioni have come down through time, and show a surprising dramatic power; so the Virgin, finding Christ in Jerusalem and then again losing him, searches frantically for him, crying out: “O my so loving Son! O my Son, where have you gone? O my so gracious Son, through what gate have you gone? O my divine Son, you were so sorrowful when you left me! Tell me, for the love of God, where, where has my Son gone?”98
In the fifteenth century, especially in Florence, a more developed form of drama, the sacra rappresentazione, was played in the oratory of a guild, or in the refectory of a convent, or in a field or public square. The scenic arrangements for these performances were often complex and ingenious: skies were simulated by vast awnings painted with stars; clouds were represented by masses of wool suspended and swaying in the air; angels were impersonated by boys supported aloft on metal frames concealed in waving draperies. The libretto was usually in poetic form, accompanied with music on the viol or the lute. Lorenzo de’ Medici and the Pulci were among the poets who wrote words for such religious plays. Politian, in his Orfeo, adapted the form of the sacra rappresentazione to a pagan theme.
Meanwhile other components of Italian life were sharing in the birth of Italian drama. The farse or farces that had long been played by passing mummers in the medieval towns contained the germ of Italian comedy. Some players excelled in improvising dialogue for simple scenarios or plots; this commedia dell’ arte was a favorite vehicle of the Italian genius for satire and burlesque. In such farces the traditional masks or characters of popular comedy took form and name: Pantalone, Arlecchino, Pulcinella or Punchinello.
The humanists played their part in the complex of factors leading to the drama by restoring the texts, and arranging performances, of ancient Roman comedies. Twelve plays of Plautus were discovered in 1427, and served as an additional stimulus. At Venice, Ferrara, Mantua, Urbino, Siena, Rome the comedies of Plautus and Terence were staged, and the old classic tradition soared over centuries to form again a secular theater. In 1486 the Menaechmi of Plautus was for the first time presented in Italian, and the transition from ancient to Renaissance drama was fully prepared. Toward the end of the fifteenth century the religious drama lost its hold on educated audiences in Italy; pagan subjects increasingly replaced Christian themes; and when native dramatists like Bibbiena, Machiavelli, Ariosto, and Aretino wrote plays, it was in the ribald style of Plautus, a world away from the once-beloved stories of Mary and Christ. All the old scenes of Roman comedy, all the superficial plots turning on mistaken sex or identity or rank, all the stock characters, including panders and prostitutes, with which Plautus had pleased the groundlings, all the old plebian coarseness and rough play, reappeared in these Italian comedies.
Despite the preservation of Seneca’s plays, and the recovery of the Greek drama, tragedy never acquired a standing on the Renaissance stage. Even the upper classes wished to be amused rather than deepened, and turned a cold eye upon Gian Trissino’sSophonisba (1515), and Giovanni Rucellai’s Rosamunda, which in the same year was performed in the Rucellai gardens at Florence before Leo X.
It was the misfortune of Italian comedy that it took form when Italian morals were at nadir. That such plays as Bibbiena’s Calandra and Machiavelli’s Mandragola could satisfy the tastes of the Italian upper classes, even at refined Urbino, and could be performed before popes without arousing protest, reveals again how intellectual freedom can comport with moral deterioration. When the Counter Reformation came with the Council of Trent (1545f), the morals of clergy and laity were severely censored, and the comedy of the Renaissance was banished from the amusements of Italian society.