Prizes Awarded – Papers Submitted

Spring 2017

In 2016, ICHFSB had approved a prize of $1,000 for a senior honors thesis written by a UCSB Italian major during the 2016-2017 academic year.  During the winter and spring quarters, Italian major Isabella DiLisio wrote a well-researched Senior Honors Thesis titled “Le metamorfosi della Commedia dell’Arte.” Professor Jon Snyder supervised the project. Ms. DiLisio was awarded the prize in late May, at the French and Italian Annual Reception, where the Italian Department acknowledges its best students of the year.

In Professor Snyder’s own words: “Il cuore della sua ricerca è una traduzione annotata di un canovaccio anonimo della Commedia dell’Arte del primissimo Settecento.” (Translation: “The heart of her research is a noted translation of an anonymous plotline of the Commedia dell’Arte of the early 1700′.”)

Happy Reading!

Le Metamorfosi della Commedia dell’Arte
Isabella DiLisio

Commedia dell’arte, rooted in Italian history and culture, has left its mark in the world of theater and performance across the globe. Begun in 16th Century Italy, it rooted itself in accessibility for a mass public, by employing readily recognizable masks and accompanying character traits, common plotlines and themes, and relatable character types that appealed to a wide range of audiences. This thesis translates and analyzes an anonymous Neapolitan canovaccio, a loosely structured script-like text, from 1704 in order to discuss the differences between the text’s featured mask Pulcinella and a fellow zanno (clown) mask, Arlecchino. This thesis also considers the work of Dario Fo in expanding Arlecchino’s applicability to modern contexts and in using theater as an artistic tool to inspire political and social change.

Introduction & History

The most renowned mode of early modern European comic theater is the commedia dell’arte, whose roots may be traced back to 16th-century Italy. This art form has stood the test of time, not only in the way that it has evolved and adapted to modern tastes, but in its extensive influence on subsequent comedy on stage and screen, as this thesis will try to demonstrate.

First, we should begin by understanding the commedia dell’arte (or “Arte”) in its original form: ‘arte’ as a term indicates “profession,” so this was the first professional theater in Europe. As far as is currently known, itinerant companies of Italian professional comic actors circulated throughout Northern Italy in the 16th century, playing at a wide variety of venues (markets, fairs, festivals, Carnival, aristocratic celebrations), often outdoors. These actors played readily recognizable stock characters in often-improvised scenes using few props or scenery, together with music and dance. They drew crowds, and often the ire of local authorities, by performing in the open, frequently in marketplaces and public squares.

Italy at this this period of time was not yet unified as a country either physically or politically, and this period saw shifting power balances due to changing leadership over the territories of the peninsula.[i] Commedia dell’arte emerged at a time of increasingly difficult economic conditions and sociopolitical upheaval in much of Italy, in the wake of the Italian wars (1494-1559). Nevertheless, by the mid-16th century, Italian commedia dell’arte had become woven into the very fabric of European society, and even nobles were fans of the staged scenes that attracted the attention of the common people.[ii] Like many Italian cultural products of the later Cinquecento, the commedia dell’arte was exported successfully abroad, and Italian comic players were soon in great demand in France and elsewhere. Arlecchino and Pulcinella – two of the greatest clowns in the Arte tradition – became bywords throughout Europe for sophisticated slapstick comedy.

This theatrical form began in this period to develop new traditions and mannerisms that would one day become its lasting legacy to European culture. The Italian actors would delve deeply into their mask’s unique quirks and attributes, keeping detailed journals (zibaldoni) of everything they needed to present the character type consistently, from costume to dialect to posture to movement, so that audiences could appreciate and recognize exactly which mask the actor was representing. In this way, actors provided a sort of “shorthand” that allowed the audiences – those everywhere, not just in Italy – to understand the play without having to be provided any context. Each troupe would have stock characters: the lovers (innamorati), serious characters that spoke in literary Italian; the clowns and servants (zanni), who were common and clever and always up to something; and the “old men” who were shrewd and stubborn.[iii]

Masks were not merely part of a costume for actors to wear and use in order to pretend to be someone else; when an actor donned a mask, he became another being, fully embodying that character’s entire essence. While the mask did identify for the audience which person the actor was embodying on stage for that performance, it was also an indispensible portal that assisted in the actor’s transformation. The mask serves as a transitional tool, “presuppos[ing]… a constant and perfected play of the body which is an art in itself, requiring thorough study; in other words, the body must become a supplement to the mask – a new face, in fact.”[iv] As soon as the mask was on, the character would come to life, with the actor merely a vessel for performance. Antonio Fava, a renowned performer and teacher in the commedia tradition, wrote that from his experience, the mask is “at one and the same time a utilitarian object and an artistic principle,” and explained that “at the moment of its appearance onstage, [it causes] the immediate forging of an eminently social contract of complicity between actors and audience, a guarantee of…collective intelligence,”[v] implying that everyone present in the performance (those performing and those viewing) are aware of the mask’s significance and the context that surrounds it.

Even audiences of other regions or countries, who spoke a different language, and who therefore could not understand the verbal interplay of the Arte actors, could still understand the mask’s or character’s actions and movements. Audiences everywhere (if familiar with the conventions of commedia dell’arte) would already understand the masks because they never changed. The Doctor Balanzone (one of the “old men”), for example, was from Bologna, a city renowned for its great learning as it is the home to the world’s oldest university (the University of Bologna, founded in 1088). Each mask, such as that of the Doctor, was tied to a specific region or city, and would thus speak in a different dialect, as well as embody local or regional cultural tendencies. Because Bologna was a city of learning, the Doctor would carry around with him a book that he would constantly be reading, thus appearing to be a man of erudition; however, his Latin was mostly incorrect, often with a macaronic mix of dialect and Italian words added to it, making him quite laughable for the audience.


As part of demonstrating the evolution of commedia dell’arte, I have translated an original canovaccio or loosely sketched-out scenario for the actors to follow when they perform onstage. Before introducing the translated work itself, it is imperative to give some insight and background as to what a canovaccio is and why it was such a key part of distinguishing commedia dell’arte from other acting and performance art at the time of its advent. These scenes are not strictly scripted, i.e. the actors’ lines and stage cues are not written out scene-by-scene with all of their actions and interactions clearly defined. Rather, the canovaccio provides an outline of a sketch, more similar to stage directions that give the actors a general idea of what to perform and how, or with whom, to perform it. Beyond that, the canovacci do not give any detailed instructions to the actor as far as how to phrase the words used in the scene, or how to deliver the lines the actor will supply. The actors thus maintain some creative freedom to improvise to an extent; however, the canovacci ensure that they perform within the context of the general scene and within the scope of how their respective masks would typically behave on stage – after all, these masks were famous for having extremely recognizable qualities, as noted earlier.

This canovaccio is from the very end of the 17th century and features the lazzaro Pulcinella, an extremely poor man from the streets of Naples and a character very relatable to common audiences at the time of the commedia’s heyday. In this canovaccio Pulcinella agrees to a variety of schemes on behalf of the lovers, who convince him by bribes of food and money to help unite them with the daughters of the old man – the Doctor. The script, therefore, is riddled with references that are specific to the context of the time and of the region; footnotes are provided in order to explain to today’s readers certain jokes and gags intended to be comical for those contemporary audiences watching the play around 1700.

Pulcinella’s Transformations

Doctor, father of
Clelia and
Rosetta, their servant.


PULCINELLA enters singing, then delivers his speech[1] about the Doctor’s love for his servant[2] and the great jealousy with which the Doctor holds his servant and daughters. He delivers his speech about love, then he exits stage.

PULCINELLA looks for help from COVIELLO; Coviello is also looking for help and says how his master is in love with one of the Doctor’s daughters; enter

ORAZIO and LUZIO, the lovers, who say that they have taken a fancy to the Doctor’s daughters and have written a letter, but they don’t know how to deliver the letter by hand. They perform funny, silent gags.[3] Orazio catches sight of Coviello; he says that if they give ten ducats to Pulcinella, he will deliver the letter immediately. They promise him the money, and the lovers exit. Coviello then dresses Pulcinella as the statue of a little Moorish servant boy.[4] Pulcinella performs his gags, and then everyone exits to change.


THE DOCTOR gives his speech against the female sex, and delivers the monologue while the scene is being set, in which Pulcinella appears dressed as a little Moorish servant boy; then the Doctor calls

CLELIA, ROSAURA, ROSETTA. The Doctor urges the women to study literature; Rosetta says she wants nice facts and not words. The Doctor scolds her, then there is a knock at the door: Rosetta goes to see who it is, returns, and says it’s a carpenter. The Doctor sends the women away.

PULCINELLA is disguised as the Moorish servant statue, with tray in hand; Pulcinella is carried by two porters. COVIELLO, the master craftsman, says he just got his hands on this beautiful coffee table in the latest style, and tells the Doctor that he should buy it. Their gags about the price: they agree; the Doctor grabs a wicker wine flask, pours wine into the glass and, while they are talking, Pulcinella drinks it; the gag is repeated twice; the Doctor acts amazed; Coviello says that it must be like distilled spirits that evaporate; then Coviello drinks, and leaves with the porters. The Doctor calls

CLELIA, ROSAURA, ROSETTA. The Doctor shows them the purchase that he’s made, then exits. Pulcinella immediately engages in gags with Rosetta; the women scream; the Doctor returns; they tell him that the table is alive; the Doctor writes them off as just being silly women, and exits. Pulcinella repeats his gags; they scream; the Doctor returns just as before; the third time the Doctor realizes, beats Pulcinella, and everyone exits.


ORAZIO, LUZIO are anxious about what Coviello has done with the letter; their flattering words have been delivered into the hands of their ladies; they hope for a happy outcome. Enter

COVIELLO, anxious to know the outcome of Pulcinella’s scheme. The lovers see Coviello, and ask what he’s done. Coviello tells them about Pulcinella’s disguise as the little Moorish statue and that things went well, it being a rather clever idea. Enter

PULCINELLA, he performs his gags. Coviello asks what happened to the letter; Pulcinella tells him that he should get a look at his back.[5] He says he doesn’t want to have anything more to do with this. The lovers beg him, and (here the gag about the female pilgrim[6] is to be used) Pulcinella promises to help; the lovers exit; Coviello teaches Pulcinella about the mannerisms of the white-robed monk[7] and Coviello says he will dress up as an astrologer[8]. They perform their gags and then exit to change.


THE DOCTOR, entering, pretends to fall, and recites the monologue of tripping over himself[9]; then calls

ROSETTA. The Doctor tells his maid to call his daughters; he praises them; he says that virtue is necessary for women; there’s a knock at the door. Rosetta goes to answer it, and says there are two astrologers; the Doctor says they should come in.

PULCINELLA is holding an illuminated globe and compass, COVIELLO is holding a giant book; everyone sits around the coffee table. The Doctor does his monologue about astrology, Pulcinella does his gags with Rosetta, then they look at the map of the stars; Pulcinella sticks the letter to the point of the compass, and then says that these stars mean a little song in musical terms; the Doctor asks him to sing it, and Pulcinella sings:

Take up this piece of paper

My little girl

Don’t leave me hanging here

and points the compass toward Clelia, who looks at it after the second attempt; the Doctor realizes this; noise: the chairs falls, the Doctor falls, and the act ends.



THE DOCTOR, CLELIA, ROSAURA, ROSETTA. The Doctor complains that too many con artists are coming around because of the women. The women say that they want husbands; the Doctor says that thanks to astrology he has gathered that two sons of a great king from the Indies [10]will come to marry them; he tells them to study, then exits. The women complain that they have to turn the pages of books, when they would like to embrace lovers, and exit.


PULCINELLA performs a monologue, then doesn’t want to hear any more. Enter

LUZIO, ORAZIO, COVIELLO. Pulcinella says that he was looking for them; Coviello says that they need to take back the letter, not wanting to be the go-between; they beg him; he refuses; they say they will give him 20 scudi. Pulcinella promises[11]; they tell Coviello to take care of it, and exit; Coviello convinces Pulcinella to play a statue, Pulcinella performs gags in which he doesn’t walk, but spins around; Coviello, instead, says that this is entirely make-believe. Pulcinella and Coviello exit to change.


THE DOCTOR says he is now in love with Rosetta and has called her in order to confess his love.

ROSETTA performs her gags about what she needs[12]; the Doctor says that he too has needs[13]; Rosetta says that he should explain them to her; the Doctor says that he is in love with her; he plays a love scene. Rosetta (in an aside) makes fun of him: she pretends to reciprocate; the Doctor says that, as soon as his daughters are married, he wants to marry her and make her the lady of the house; Rosetta says she’s just a poor little woman, and isn’t worthy of this. The Doctor says that this is the way he wants it. (Give Pulcinella time to change.) There’s a knock at the door; Rosetta runs to the door, and comes back, saying that there’s a sculptor; the Doctor says for him to enter.

COVIELLO with TWO PORTERS, who carry PULCINELLA as a statue on a pedestal. Coviello with great formality, then, one at a time moves the statue’s legs, then its head, saying it’s all mathematical art. The Doctor asks the price; they agree on a price; the Doctor pays; Coviello exits. The Doctor tells Rosetta to show the statue to the women, and exits.

CLELIA, ROSAURA. Rosetta says that the Doctor has bought a statue; they say they don’t care, and they want stuff made of flesh and blood[14]. Pulcinella steps down off the pedestal and stands between them; the women are frightened.

THE DOCTOR comes in, and asks why they’re afraid; they say the statue moves; he says he knows that already, and that they don’t know how to handle the statue: he moves Pulcinella’s arm, Pulcinella gets up onto the pedestal; the Doctor exits. The women return to their discussion about wanting husbands; Pulcinella steps between them, and everything is as it was before.

THE DOCTOR enters; the Doctor stands at the base of the pedestal; the women scream; Pulcinella tries to escape; the Doctor beats him, and he exits.


LUZIO, ORAZIO, are anxious about the outcome of the letter and the latest scheme. Enter

COVIELLO. Orazio asks Coviello what happened; Coviello gives him hope of a positive outcome, hoping that the statue scheme worked out. Enter

PULCINELLA. Coviello asks about the scheme; Pulcinella says that if he hadn’t turned from a still statue into an express train[15], the Doctor would have maimed him. The lovers are desperate. Coviello tries to cheer them up; they plead with Coviello. He says that they should go, and leave it to him. They exit. Coviello dresses Pulcinella as a big baby named Cicco, son of Porziella, the Doctor’s laundry woman, and he will pretend to be the laundry woman. Pulcinella refuses; Coviello promises him a plate of macaroni; Pulcinella will do it[16]. They exit to change.


THE WOMEN are seated around the table with books in hand; Rosetta dusts off the books. They complain about not having husbands; Rosetta says she would’ve taken the statue as her husband. The women don’t want a statue, but young men of flesh and blood. Enter

THE DOCTOR, who asks if they have done their studies; they say yes; there’s a knock at the door; Rosetta goes and returns, and says it’s the laundry woman.

PULCINELLA enters dressed as a big baby, and COVIELLO as a laundress. Coviello asks the Doctor to keep an eye on baby Cicco in the house, as she must go wash the laundry; the Doctor tells her to leave him. Coviello exits. Pulcinella does his gags about poop and food[17]; the Doctor asks him if he wants ricotta or something else. Pulcinella does more gags; the women scream; the Doctor enters with the ricotta, yells at them, then spoon-feeds Pulcinella. Rosetta goes to get some little cookies and returns; the women spoon-feed Pulcinella, and the act ends.



PULCINELLA discusses his views on love. Enter

ORAZIO, LUZIO, COVIELLO. Coviello asks Pulcinella how the scheme went; Pulcinella says, like always, poorly. Coviello says that he has learned that the Doctor expects a mummy to be delivered from the Levant[18], and Coviello plans for Pulcinella to be the mummy; he gives his speech; then they promise him that Rosetta will be his wife, and everyone exits.


THE DOCTOR, alone, gives his speech of wanting to marry off his daughters so he can marry Rosetta, then says that they have written him that a friend wanted to send a mummy by way of a Levantine merchant, and the Doctor wants to buy it; then he calls

THE WOMEN. The Doctor asks if they’ve done their studies well; the women throw their books to the ground and say that they want husbands. The Doctor consoles them, and says that soon the time will come when someone else will console them; in the meantime, he says they should sit down and study. They snatch up their books again and study. The Doctor performs his silent love gags with Rosetta. There’s a knock; Rosetta goes to answer and returns, saying there’s a Levantine merchant; the Doctor says for him to enter, and the women exit.

COVIELLO enters as the Levantine merchant; there are two porters with a coffin and PULCINELLA as the mummy. They reach an agreement; the Doctor pays and Coviello exits. The Doctor sits at the table: he delivers a monologue about anatomy. Pulcinella performs his silent gags. Then the Doctor calls the women, says he tells them to do their studies, and exits.

THE WOMEN say they’re tired of all this nonsense, they want husbands, and they ask Rosetta to put in a good word for them. Rosetta says their father won’t even let a tomcat into the house[19]. Pulcinella places himself in their midst: they’re frightened, and they scream. Enter

THE DOCTOR who treats the women as though they are being hysterical, then he discovers the truth: there are noises, things fall, and Pulcinella exits.


THE LOVERS hope that their plan was successful; COVIELLO hopes so too, given that Pulcinella is in love with Rosetta. Enter

PULCINELLA. Everyone gathers around him, happy and excited, and they try to figure out what happened; he says nothing. Coviello wants to try another scheme, but Pulcinella doesn’t want anything to do with it. They beg him; Pulcinella says that he wants to try it his way with a new plan; they ask him to tell it to them, but he says he doesn’t want to say it, but rather do it, and everyone exits.


THE DOCTOR doesn’t know where all the ruses and tricks are coming from, and he has resolved, in order to protect his home, to hire a guard. He has told one of his relatives to send him a good henchman to guard the house well. He calls

THE WOMEN. He tells them to be careful at home, because he’s aware that there are many clever con artists around and he wants to hire a guard to watch over them, and that he’s told one of his relatives about this. The women say that they need a man; they hear a knock at the door. Rosetta goes to see who it is and returns, saying it’s a guard. The Doctor tells him to enter.

PULCINELLA, dressed as a guard, says he’d heard that the Doctor was looking for a strong man to guard the house; he’s just the man the Doctor is looking for and will do the job. They agree upon a wage; then the Doctor orders Pulcinella to stand at attention and show him his skills. Pulcinella fences with his hands, first against the Doctor, then against Rosetta and the women, to whom he tosses the letter hidden under his shirt. The women exit. Pulcinella gives his speech about his skills; then the women return with letters of reply hidden under their blouses. Pulcinella fences with them and grabs their letters, then says he wants to get himself a gun and will return soon: he exits. The Doctor tells them to take care of the house, then exits. The women talk about how two handsome young men are in love with them and have written them a letter, and they have replied detailing the strict conditions in which they’re kept, and their father’s madness in wanting to marry them off to two princes, sons of a king from the Indies; they want them to try to persuade their father that they are ready and want to be married.


THE LOVERS, COVIELLO. The lovers at this point are exhausted from all the schemes without having anything work out in their favor. Coviello no longer knows what to come up with. Enter

PULCINELLA by himself, happy, singing, waving the letter, asking for the 20 scudi and wanting Rosetta. They promise him the woman, and pay him. He gives them the letter, and they read it; Coviello needs to make up Pulcinella to look like a king, himself an ambassador, the lovers as princes from the Indies, and thus they will trick the Doctor. All of them are happy; they exit to change.


THE WOMEN are anxious to know what their lovers have done; Rosetta says that she is in love with the guard and that he thinks she has seen through his disguise, and says he is maybe someone who has come around under another disguise. The women are of the same belief and think he will definitely return. Rosetta hopes so, because he has given her some amorous signals. The women ask how she will do this, having realized that the Doctor is in love with her. Rosetta will pretend to reciprocate; she doesn’t want the old rich man, but rather the poor young man. Enter

THE DOCTOR. The women ask when he will provide them a husband; the Doctor says that he hopes it’ll happen soon, and that the guard has told him that at any moment he should expect a great king with his two sons, princes, and he hopes that this is what has been predicted through astrology. The women say that this cannot be true. The Doctor says that, if this isn’t true, he will look for someone else. There’s a knock at the door. Rosetta goes to answer, returns, and says that there’s an ambassador prince. The Doctor says for him to enter.

COVIELLO is dressed as a Chinese ambassador. Their ceremonial gags; Coviello says that he is the prince of Sangoriccio, the ambassador of King Tiritappiatacù, who has arrived with his two sons, princes; one is named Guagnao, the other named Barabao, and they want to marry the Doctor’s two daughters. The Doctor says that his home isn’t worthy to receive such an honor. Coviello says that King Tiratappiatacù wants it this way, and is already on his way. Trumpets and tambourines sound.

PULCINELLA is dressed as a king from the Indies; THE LOVERS are dressed as princes. Pulcinella is carried on a chair. They perform their Chinese ceremonial acts; Pulcinella says that, thanks to astrology, under the sign of Capricorn, he knew that the Doctor had two beautiful and virtuous daughters, and he wants them as his daughters by marrying them to prince Guagnao and to prince Barabao. The Doctor performs his gags of humble respect, then brings in his daughters. Pulcinella gives Clelia to Orazio and Rosaura to Luzio. The Doctor: his bowing and scraping. Pulcinella says that prince Guagnao and prince Barabao will each have many sons. Then he has Rosetta brought to him, and jokes with her; the Doctor shows his irritation, and says the servant isn’t worthy of being near the king[20]. Pulcinella says to leave her alone, because he rather likes her. The Doctor displays silent agitation. Pulcinella wants her to be his wife, because he has made a vow to Jove in order to save his life during a storm, to marry a servant woman. The Doctor again shows his silent irritation; Pulcinella marries Rosetta, then reveals everything. The Doctor calms down, and everyone, happy, shouts: — Hurray for Pulcinella’s schemes! [21]


The three acts of the above translation echo exactly what their title advertises: Pulcinella’s transformations. However, they are not metaphorical metamorphoses in the form of a character arc or coming-of-age tale, but rather literal, in the sense that Pulcinella is made to disguise himself in a variety of different ways. He disguises himself, with the help of Coviello, in order to trick the Doctor and carry out the grand scheme of marrying off the Doctor’s daughters and stealing the servant (and the Doctor’s love), Rosetta, right from under his nose.

Throughout the play, we notice various points of repetition, which is the driving force behind the comedic value of the plot. Pulcinella and Coviello repeatedly come up with new schemes to get into the Doctor’s home in attempts to deliver letters between the lovers and the daughters. Pulcinella continues to frighten the women as soon as the Doctor leaves the room – he seems to have issues with breaking character, stemming from his lack of self-restraint, indicative of his Neapolitan roots given that people from Naples are often stereotyped as dominated by their impulses. Repetition is also seen in the Doctor’s reactions to the pranks: every time the Doctor discovers that Pulcinella is tricking him, he beats Pulcinella. Then there are the persistent women: the women insist that they need real men and that they want to be wed. The Doctor also repeatedly buys ridiculous trinkets from seemingly random vendors and believes in false information from non-credible sources, despite the fact that he is a scholarly man. This particular example of repetition revolves around uncovering the Doctor’s weakness: he is so full of himself and assured of his assumed intelligence that ironically he is actually made to be foolish and gullible. His narcissism makes him susceptible to trickery, indicated by his glasses that metaphorically allude to nearsightedness in the way that he believes what is given to him at face value.

The humor, therefore, lies in the structure of repetition of the plot, and the ability of the audience to predict what will happen next. There is not a new plotline in which the audience finds itself lost, but rather they can expect that the tricksters will finally pull the wool over the eyes of the gullible, curmudgeonly Doctor in the name of love conquering all. The first few tricks, performed by Pulcinella flying solo, are unsuccessful thanks to Pulcinella’s aforementioned impulsivity and lack of self-control. However the final scheme, performed by the entire group of the lovers as well as Coviello and Pulcinella, is successful in fully deceiving the Doctor; the other masks involved in the scheme preclude Pulcinella from giving everything away.

This “love conquers all” theme is to be expected in the commedia dell’arte setting, as comedies feature happy endings; the commedia plays, with their consistent cast of characters, were no exception as they centered around using the central plot device of comedy, uniting the lovers in marriage in the final scene. The audience expect the lovers to be together in the end, as social norms surrounding the notion of “happy endings” involves a wedding as the culmination of the struggle for lovers to finally be together. Marriage itself as a social practice symbolizes displacing the old with the new, confirming the defeat of the older generation by the younger generation and creating conditions for society to renew itself through young love. Marriage is also consistent in the comedic theme. Comedy is socially conservative in nature, meaning that often hierarchy is not breached. Earlier in the canovaccio, the Doctor indicates he wants to marry Rosetta; this violates the social norms as a wealthy man is in love with a servant woman. However in the end, he does not marry Rosetta – instead, the lovers marry the Doctor’s daughters, all people within the same social class. The adherence to social values thus adds to the predictability of the plot.

While Pulcinella remains a very popular zanni mask and survived even the demise of Comedia dell’Arte in the 19th century through dialect theatre played in Southern Italy, he is not the only or most famous zanni mask. That privilege belongs to Arlecchino, a mask made famous by the Italian actor Tristano Martinelli performing in Paris in the second half of the 16th Century. The two zanni are important because they diverge considerably, and their divergence has ended up representing marked regional differences between northern and southern Italy. This divergence stems from the very notion that each character and related mask is associated with a particular region as well as peculiar characteristics that make that character unique on the commedia dell’arte stage. As mentioned earlier, this distinction between characters is so pronounced in order to make commedia dell’arte as simple to perform as possible: with instantly recognizable character traits, there is no reason to provide any further narrative or psychological context, and the actors can simply carry on with the production without having to concern themselves with whether or not the audience will understand what is going on or what the characters’ motivations are for acting a certain way.

Pulcinella, one of the zanni characters, is defined by several contrasting qualities: he is “cunning, [a] simpleton, lively, happy-go-lucky, melancholy, optimistic, lazy, [a] troublemaker, gluttonous, witty, cynical, irreverent, [a] womanizer…” and more.[vi] Physically he is defined by “his hooked nose, his hump, and his long, spindling legs, which [give] him the look of a topheavy chicken when he walk[s].”[vii] His humpback makes him a sympathetic figure, as it is a physical deformity, however it also makes him a more likable character because hunchbacks are considered good luck in superstitious Italy. His giant nose, however, adds to his comedic role as it alludes to him having a correspondingly large sex organ, also relating to his alleged womanizing tendency. Not only does he speak Neapolitan, but he is inextricably rooted in Neapolitan culture, to the point that it is observed and asserted that there exists a bit of Pulcinella in each Neapolitan citizen: stereotypically Neapolitans are considered by other Italians to be cunning, lazy, and passionate, all qualities associated with Pulcinella.[viii]

Pulcinella’s influence on the theater can be seen in the adaptability of his chief characteristics for successive avatars. Most notably, the puppet Punch from The Adventures of Punch and Judy is an English adaptation of Pulcinella’s spirit and name, embodying Pulcinella’s womanizing quality, along with his humpback deformity.[ix] However the most exaggerated quality of Pulcinella’s that Punch emulates is the use of slapstick violence in order to incite laughter from the audience – as we see in the above translation, as well as many other plays that feature Pulcinella, Pulcinella is beaten often for his antics. Similarly, Judy and Punch often beat each other up (as ironically detestable as it sounds) for comic effect. Comic violence means that the lower-order characters like the zanni do not suffer real bodily harm, but are once again shown to be powerless in the social world represented by the Arte. Just as the lower-class characters are beaten and nothing happens to them, when the upper-class characters are intellectually defeated by the wit of the lower-class characters, nothing changes.

The Development of Arlecchino

The most famous ‘author’ in Commedia dell’Arte is the 18th-century playwright Carlo Goldoni who was responsible for both the institutionalization of Comedia dell’Arte as legitimate ‘theatre’, and its demise as Arte, that is, improvisational spectacle organized by actors and connected also to peasant traditions such as Carnival. And with Goldoni, Commedia dell’Arte’s masks were drastically reduced in number, with Arlecchino surging to become the quintessential zanni. Always a crowd favorite whose name was and is synonymous with the commedia dell’arte, the zanni character Arlecchino gained notoriety in modern adaptations thanks to the efforts of Dario Fo. But first it is important to understand Arlecchino’s roots and how that alone sets him apart from Pulcinella. Arlecchino is from Bergamo, distinctly different from Pulcinella as he comes from the foothills of the Alps in the far north of Italy, while Pulcinella hails from the south. Pulcinella appears to be urban, whereas Arlecchino is from the mountains – although he comes from rustic Bergamo, he is always part of Venetian masks – and although he speaks the dialect of his native region even an economic migrant to Venice. He is also known for his stupendous agility, as his comedic value also lies in his ability to turn acrobatic tricks at the drop of a hat. His mask includes bushy eyebrows and a beard, a forehead lined with wrinkles, and small eyes.[x] As Duchartre recounts from Marmontel’s description of Arlecchino’s personality, “His character is a mixture of ignorance, naiveté, wit, stupidity, and grace. He is both a rake and an overgrown boy with occasional gleams of intelligence, and his mistakes and clumsiness often have a wayward charm.”[xi]

In direct opposition to Goldoni’s domestication of Commedia dell’Arte in the 18th Century, the popular roots of this theatrical form and of Arlecchino have been revived and highlighted in the work of the late Dario Fo. Fo, famous for his revival of commedia dell’arte beginning in the 1970’s with his wife and theatrical partner Franca Rame, Fo so thoroughly researched and so skillfully portrayed commedia dell’arte characters such as Arlecchino that his work was recognized in 1997 with the Nobel Prize in Literature.[xii] Fo was known for his ability to politicize commedia dell’arte and satirize relevant contemporary social themes, and in doing so his focus was primarily on developing and adapting the character Arlecchino to be a figurehead of political movements of the time. Fo perhaps specialized in developing the mask of Arlecchino because of a profound sense of identification with Arlecchino’s roots. His works typically reflect a “concern for the poor and their struggle against the political establishment”[xiii] just as the general theme of commedia dell’arte is the triumph of the underdog, or the young overcoming the old. Born to working-class parents, Dario Fo recognized and witnessed first-hand the inherent socioeconomic structural challenges faced by those in the lower tiers of Italian society after World War II. To him, Arlecchino appeared to be the perfect figurehead for reinvigorating the downtrodden and connecting them back to a common language and culture.[xiv] Fo changed and adapted commedia dell’arte because he saw it as problematic, part of the early modern theatrical system in which lowly performers would acquiesce to the bourgeoisie’s standards or perform for royal courts.[xv] However he saw that the commedia, performed typically in public spaces and common areas and made easily accessible to all classes of people, had an undisputable ability to reach far and wide and potentially inspire those most in need of uplifting.

His version of farcical and satirical theater was entirely unprecedented, taking commedia one step further in order to not only inspire his audience but make them think and engage with contemporary issues affecting their own lives. While his plays were scripted, he would amend them during his performances at will, improvising in order to reflect what he deemed appropriate in the moment in order to get the message across most effectively.[xvi] He would also seek audience participation and discussion in order to avoid merely delivering a message, instead inviting others to interact collaboratively and stake their claim in the social and political arena, thus using theater as a means of mass mobilization. It is in this very notion that one is able to note Fo’s adherence to Marxist values, the very beliefs that made him such a controversial figure in Italy.

But the real momentum in Fo’s movement lay in his ability to use art as an outlet to reach the masses and relate important issues to them in a way that they could enjoy and understand. Recognizing Arlecchino’s incredible qualities in regards to his adaptability, Dario Fo was able to manipulate the Arlecchino figure and more effectively create a distinction between him and his fellow zanno Pulcinella. Ironically enough, though we observed Pulcinella’s transformations, Arlecchino is known to be the mask that exudes malleability. With his acrobatic physicality and his naïve yet well-meaning eagerness to learn, he was the perfect character for Dario Fo to use as the icon for the way that traditional theater could change and modernize in order to adjust to the contemporary world. Fo wanted to encourage audiences to reject social hierarchy and throw away the social rules telling them that they were doomed to remain the underclass. While Pulcinella and Arlecchino were both masks of servants, with whom the lower class members of the public could easily identify, Arlecchino possesses an extraordinary vitality of the Medieval jester that sets him apart and makes him appear not to be bound by the normal rules of nature and society. Fo’s Arlecchino is a trickster who speaks truth to power in all situations. Despite his economic hardships (hunger, poverty, and so on), Arlecchino embodies a kind of radical freedom, both in body (his acrobatics) and spirit (his unconventionality). Fo identified himself as well with that same vigor and freedom, as someone leading a politically charged movement to spur critical thinking and questioning of authority among the audience of his plays.

Arlecchino was also a Northern character, more known and appealing to general audiences. Pulcinella, as discussed earlier, was an icon in the South, the hallmark of Neapolitan culture and essence. In this way he served as a meaningful figurehead for those specifically from the South, but was not necessarily the right figure to inspire the masses. In this way again Arlecchino was the ideal mask to whom Fo could attach his ideals – a relatable figure who could speak to all and be a beacon of hope for not just one region but many – a civil servant suited for the masses.


Modern comic theater owes much of its trademark style to its roots in commedia dell’arte, which it has used as a blueprint and inspiration for its development. Commedia dell’arte began as street performances done by what later came to be professional troupes; as seen in the translation of Pulcinella’s Transformations, the troupe would use its repertory of masks, with their accompanying personalities and attributes, and with the addition of exaggerated physical humor, in order to entertain the masses. And they were masses indeed – those all across Europe at the advent of commedia dell’arte could understand and enjoy what it had to offer, regardless of whether or not they spoke Italian, because of its consistency and the distinguishability of the masks. Pulcinella and Arlecchino, two of the masks of the zanni family, were well-known for essentially serving as the play’s comedic crux, utilizing outright foolishness in order to shed light on other characters’ flaws and bring out the humor in their missteps.

The further development of commedia, more specifically its zanni masks, in order to adapt to the modern world is not only seen with Dario Fo, nor is it only seen in Italian-specific contexts. Commedia dell’arte has had a lasting influence on many forms of modern-day comedy, permeating every corner of the entertainment industry on a global scale. Most prominently and universally recognized are the parallels between the Arte characters Pulcinella and Arlecchino, on the one hand, and the actor Charlie Chaplin on the other. Arlecchino, known for his acrobatic feats and for using his entire body in order to communicate the comedic aspect of whatever scene he is portraying, embodies the same qualities on which Charlie Chaplin would draw for his portrayal of “The Tramp,” probably the cinema’s single most popular character in the slapstick comedies of the 1920s and 1930s. The term slapstick comedy, in fact, actually derives from commedia dell’arte, for it refers to the stick (battocchio) that each of the zanni carried around in order to hit or to be hit. Beyond Charlie Chaplin and slapstick comedy, elements of the commedia are evident in today’s television programs (such as the sitcom), and the traditions it has left behind are likely to continue to develop and remain forever within the realms of theater and entertainment. Pulcinella and Arlecchino, therefore, must be credited with not only physical transformations; their styles have metaphorically metamorphosed comedy and its trajectory, with only time to tell what direction it will take next.


Dixon, Michael Bigalow, and Val Smith. 500 Years of Theatre History. Smith and Kraus Publishers, 2000.

Duchartre, Pierre Louis. The Italian Comedy: The Improvisation Scenarios, Lives, Attributes, Portraits, and Masks of the Illustrious Characters of the Commedia dell’Arte. Dover Publications, 1966.

Fassò, Luigi. Teatro dialettale del Seicento: Scenari della commedia dell’arte. Einaudi. 1979.

Fava, Antonio. The Comic Mask in the Commedia dell’Arte. Northwestern University Press, 2007.

Maceri, Domenico. “Dario Fo: Jester of the Working Class.” World Literature Today, vol. 72, no. 1, 1998.

“Pulcinella Maschera del Teatro Barocco.” Letteratura al Femminile, 15 May 2017,


[1] A “scena” is a speech that the stock character has in his/her repertoire, one of many memorized monologue-type of speeches that they are prepared to deliver when relevant.

[2] Vaiassa is a term to mean a “low life woman” or “woman of the people,” here more closely translated to mean a servant, as she is a lower-class woman who works in the Doctor’s house

[3] Actors would perform “lazzi” which were gags/funny stunts, physical elements that would add to the scene’s comedic value.

[4] The Moorish servant boy statue was a common piece of art that would’ve been well known to the audience of the period. In this instance, the statue holds a tray, and is used as a coffee table piece of furniture.

[5] Referencing that the Doctor beat him upon learning he wasn’t a statue, indicating that the plan didn’t go well after all.

[6] This is one of various specific gags in Pulcinella’s repertoire, as each character has a repertory of gags and monologues they perform. This particular one is when the lovers beg either Pulcinella or Coviello, who take turns turning their backs on one while talking to the other.

[7] The Cistercian monastery, inspired by St. Bernard de Clairvaux, houses monks who wear white robes. In this scene, Coviello likely grabs a white tablecloth to wrap around Pulcinella for comic effect.

[8] At this period in time, astrologers were considered heretical, which is why this is so funny: they are going to try to trick the Doctor, supposedly a learned man, dressed as two untrustworthy figures.

[9] The Doctor either trips over his own feet because he is too fat to see his feet below him, or he is nearsighted from reading so often. This gag is to emphasize his foolishness, despite the fact that he is supposedly so educated.

[10] “The Indies” refers to the Southeast Asian region.

[11] Pulcinella, a poor and extremely impoverished lower-class man, is immediately enticed back into the lovers’ scheme when they offer him money.

[12] Rosetta, a lower-class servant woman, needs the Doctor’s riches.

[13] The Doctor’s needs are of a more intimate variety than Rosetta’s.

[14] They want real men, not a statue of a man.

[15] He likens himself to an express train to emphasize how quickly he had to run in order to escape the Doctor’s wrath.

[16] Again, Pulcinella is quick to change his mind because he is so impoverished that even a plate of macaroni is an enticing offer.

[17] Pulcinella acts like a giant baby for comic effect, incorporating gags that would have to do with things that babies do (like eating and pooping).

[18] This is an old term referring to the Middle East.

[19] Rosetta makes a joke here that the Doctor is so against marrying off the women that he wouldn’t even let a male animal into the house, let alone husbands for them.

[20] The Doctor is irritated that someone else has captured Rosetta’s attention, and makes up an excuse that because Rosetta is just a lowly servant, she shouldn’t be near a king.

[21] Despite the fact that he was duped the entire time, even the Doctor joins in rejoicing because comedies have happy endings.

[i] See Dixon & Smith 4.

[ii] See Dixon & Smith 5.

[iii] See Dixon & Smith 8-9.

[iv] See Duchartre 42.

[v] See Fava 22.

[vi] See “Pulcinella Maschera del Teatro Barocco.”

[vii] See Duchartre 209.

[viii] See Duchartre 214.

[ix] See Duchartre 224.

[x] See Duchartre 135.

[xi] See Duchartre 132.

[xii] See Maceri 9.

[xiii] See Maceri 10.

[xiv] See Maceri 10.

[xv] See Maceri 11.

[xvi] See Maceri 12.

FALL  2016

In 2016, ICHFSB had approved a prize of $500 for the best student(s) of the UCSB class Italian 161 AX, The European Union.  This class, taught in English, is part of the classes Italian majors and minors can take in order to graduate.  It is a class listed at UCSB’s French and Italian Department.  The faculty teaching it was Professor Valentina Padula.

After a strict selection of the papers submitted by the 9 students competing for the prize, two students were selected.  They shared the prize equally.
They were: Daniela Capone and Alicia Carducci.

The title of Daniela’s paper was: Conjunction with Europe.  In this paper Daniela analyzes Italy’s history in the last two centuries with insight and clarity.  This essay focuses on the reasons why Italy voted to join the European Union first and the Euro zone second. As a conclusion, Daniela tells us that in her opinion, the participation in the European Project has actually strengthened Italy, in spite of present-day popular doubts.

Alicia’s paper was equally interesting. Entitled Italy and the Decline of Female Fertility Rates, is an analysis of why Italy has such an abysmal birth rate.  She suggests that this situation is not because Italian women are against motherhood but it is instead a response to Italian economic insecurity and socio-cultural factors such as Italy’s rigid labor market and lack of institutional support for new mothers.  So, women choose to have only one child and bypass the possibility of having a second or a third child.



Italy in Conjunction with Europe


It is often said that the purpose of studying history is to hinder its repetition in future society. While this can prove to be an optimistic strategy, it is first necessary to analyze how the past has brought a certain civilization, people, or nation to its current status before one can begin to project future strategies. In the study of Italy as an actor in the European Union, it is first essential to analyze the history of Italy and how it has come to align itself with the ideals expressed by EU institutions.

Primarily, one must ask what role Italy has played in the grand scheme of European identity. In doing so, one will notice that the Italian struggle for a definition of national identity makes for an even more complicated understanding of its place within a European identity. The initial fascination with Italy as a finale to the Grand Tour clearly demonstrates the assigned function of Italy as the “beauty” of Europe. This provides little confidence or conviction in assigning major political roles to the nation, as well as inflicting a sense of self-apprehension in Italy’s own political atmosphere. While many would argue that this timidity was overturned by the fascist regime of Mussolini, it is clear that this faux-confidence was not long lasting or significant in the long-term political struggle that has overwhelmed Italy throughout recent decades.

Upon the analysis of history, one must then apply these findings to the status of Italy within the European Union. While Italy was a founding member and continuously showed strong support for the EU in its early stages, it is necessary to question what seems to be a sense of euroskepticism in current Italian public opinion. Why has Italy’s loyalty and dedication to the integration of Europe faded so pungently throughout the nation in recent years? In doing so one finds that, as a result of its unsure political past, Italy has not developed a negative position on membership of the European Union; however, the nation has an exceedingly incredulous outlook on politics as a whole. Therefore, the nation cannot rightfully accept its place within a strong and politically power-driven Europe, yet it can be further argued that perhaps there is no need for Italy to do so.

History: Italy in the Eyes of Europe

The Grand Tour took place between the late 17th to early 19th centuries CE. It was a journey that European elites took from England to Naples, usually stopping in Paris and few other significant European cities. This journey served as education for the elite European youths and was seen as their pass into adulthood. Writers, such as Charles Dickens and Goethe went on the Grand Tour and produced travel narratives such as Pictures from Italy and Travels in Italy. The influx of tourists to Italy allowed for an array of depictions of the nation, in which northern Europeans dominated the discourse.

The Grand Tour was, especially, made famous by Sir William Hamilton and his wife Lady Hamilton in the late 18th century CE. Lady Hamilton was said to have “gone native” because she immersed herself into the culture of Naples. “Europeans were fascinated by southern Italian people who to many visitors appeared to embody a different human type,” said Tommasso Astarita, a noted scholar in the area of Italian History (Astarita 221). This is why the immersion of Lady Hamilton into this new “human type” was seen as incongruous in the minds of the enlightenment-thinkers and other elites of Europe. This new type proved to assign gender to Italy as feminine because it was a place that women could relate to and go to find themselves; therefore, Italy was rendered a superfluous region for educated men of the time to visit. This is significant in terms of Italy’s relationship with the entirety of Europe because Italy, as a whole, would now be labeled feminine, and furthermore, weak.

This ideology was, later, strongly contested by the fascist regime. The idea of a Fascist

Mediterranean brings to mind many changes in culture as well as reception by the rest of Europe. In enacting this culture change, the fascists refused to adhere to one style or another. They aspired to the fusion and inclusion of many different styles by adopting the aesthetics of futurism, as well as cubism, and other movements of the time— all the while, they refused to define themselves by a certain style (Falasca-Zamponi). This was key because although the fascist regime portrayed a strong united front, it was clear that there was some confusion in the objectives that the nation as a whole was working towards. Nevertheless, the goal of the fascists was to strengthen Italy as an international actor by providing a more effeminate or weaker people for Europeans to focus on. An extreme example of this can be seen in the interactions with African nations, such as Libya, as Italy had colonized them, only 10 years prior. Italian politicians on international stages would depict the Africans as “other,” rendering themselves higher on the social ladder.

EU Membership: Italy at the Hands of Europe

            While the conclusion of World War II brought about an overall desire for European integration and all of the complications that this movement would entail, it also instigated the manifestation of severe political unrest in Italy. The fall of the fascist regime, along with ties with Nazi Germany, did not allow for strength or positive reception of Italy throughout Europe. In order to combat these notions, however, Italy became a main supporter of European integration, beginning with the European Economic Community. Italy had much to gain from the resources that the rest of Europe could provide for its lack-luster industrial strength, as well as for a reconstruction from the struggling post-wartime economy. Sonia Lucarelli summarizes this precisely in saying, “far from being exclusively a material and economic problem, the postwar reconstruction of the country was a fundamental moment of reflection over what Italy was and stood for in the newly defined international order: it was a question of identity” (Lucarelli 47). Therefore, not only was Italy intent on improving the conditions of the nation itself, but further creating an international platform from which to advocate for itself on a world-wide stage.

As a result of this deep desire to affect change, one would presume that Italy would be eager to implement changes prescribed by the EU, such as the implementation of a single currency, the Euro. While public opinion strongly favored the idea, presented in a 74% vote in favor (higher than that of France, Germany, or the EU average), there were unfortunate political strategies that would later skew this opinion (Lucarelli 48). Moreover, following the Maastricht Treaty, the Italian government, “declined not only to emphasize the importance of this event, but also to exert any control on the effective exchange rate between the lira and euro” (Lucarelli 52). The reasons for this seem to be a combination of the confused political party system that ran Italy at the time, as well as an encroaching fear of the government that the public had become too fond of a centralized European government. The drastic change from a lack of Italian identity to citizens, throughout the 1990s, identifying as Italo-Europeans was overwhelmingly detrimental to the goal of Italy as an international actor.

Many Italian politicians used the implementation of the euro to inject the Italian public with a newfound euroskepticism. The integration that followed the introduction the single market was brought very close to the citizens of Member States after the enactment of the single currency. In 2002, choosing to take a passive role in the establishment of exchange rates, the Italian government allowed for storeowners to inflate prices with the scapegoat of the new single currency. This instilled anger in the people of Italy because this new single currency that they had voted in favor of was not providing them with the economic stability or support that was anticipated. It is imperative, however, to understand that while one may wish to blame the Italian government for this euroskepticism, the European Union had not taken an active role in regulating the implementation of the Euro after it had proposed it as a grand solution to the growing economic issues throughout Europe.

Upon the discovery of Italy’s passive stance on the euro, Europe re-established the notion of Italy as weak, described by Lucarelli in saying that there was, “a reinforced image of a ‘Cinderella Italy’ that needed an internal clearance and an external controller” (Lucarelli 48). Finally, the relevance of this statement must be questioned in terms of the goals of Europe versus the goals of Italy. While the EU plans to integrate Europe economically, politically, and socially, Italy, in joining the EU, was attempting to rebuild a nation that had been fraught with economic crisis due to political unrest. Consequently, one may understand that the refusal of Italy abide by each guideline presented in Maastricht was not to undermine the EU; but, the government intended to strengthen Italy by providing economic competition and stimulation on the basis of the European single currency.

This contemporary goal can be argued further upon the acknowledgment of public opinion surrounding Italian politics circa 2009-2010. It is clear that while there was not a widespread appreciation for the existing integration process, Italy had gained much from the existence of the EU and the resources that it could bring to aid in the prosperity of the nation as a whole (Lucarelli 53). Furthermore, there is no need to question the membership of Italy in the EU, as in the case of the UK, because the public exhibits a “soft-skepticism” which simply provides for a distinction between Europeanism and the Italian identity. This is clear in the campaign of Italy’s current Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi. Lucarelli says of Renzi that he and other officials portray a campaign for “a proud Europeanist Italy eager to set things straight in order to be able to make its voice heard in a united Europe” (Lucarelli 56). Notice, however, that while Renzi is in favor of Europeanist ideals, there is an emphasis on Italy, independently, as a strong player in international affairs.

Further Implications: Italy in Conjunction with Europe

While it is imperative to understand the confusion that encompassed Italy over the years, one can also notice an attempt to impose a notion of multi-versality, as opposed to universality throughout its public sphere. By this, it is meant that nations should not be defined by their ability to be like other, wealthier, modern nations, but should be praised for their own unique characteristics. Franco Cassano, an Italian sociologist and politician, summarizes this idea in saying, “the Mediterranean has long been regarded as a sea of the past. It is in fact a central place of contemporary history – a place in which the north and the west meet the east and the south of the world, and a model for understanding how multiple faiths, cultures and economies can coexist peacefully” (Cassano 1). In saying this it can be understood that the emphasis that Cassano places on coexisting and peace is a call to action for other nations to perhaps admire the Mediterranean for this ability and realize that Italy, with it’s picturesque scenery and puzzling inhabitants, is not incapable of political success. Quite contrarily, Italy stands as a societal framework that is to be looked upon as a fusion of cultures and an acceptance of diversity.


            With many condemnatory opinions of Italy throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, one must question how the Italians could ever conjure up a united national identity, let alone act on an international stage with some of the world strongest nations. It is clearly evident that its participation in the European Union has strengthened Italy’s ability to make governmental decisions that would affect the entirety of the nation, as well as strive towards common agreement on what is best for the public. While clearly not all aspects of Italian politics have been addressed here, the understanding of Italy’s reaction to the EU’s proposition and implementation of a single currency is a clear depiction of the strength that is growing within the nation itself, as well as within Europe. Nations such as France and Germany wish to solve worldwide issues with European integration; however, one must acknowledge the efforts of Italy in self-preservation. This is especially the case in terms of the analysis of its wide array of cultural acceptance and growing diversity, which is arguably lacking in nations that pride themselves on their roles, such as: America’s “Greatness,” France as a “global superpower,” or other European nations claiming that their success is a product of “integration,” while social unrest runs rampant among their citizens.


Italy and the Decline of Female Fertility Rate


In this paper I will examine the factors that have contributed to Italy’s lowest-low fertility rates and suggest solutions to spur population growth. This topic is and increasingly relevant concern of politicians and scholars, particularly over the last thirty years. Fertility rates are falling in many European countries and Italy has one of the lowest. The total fertility rate (TFR) explains “the average number of children a woman will have over the course of her lifetime” (Krause & Marchesi, 351). Italy’s low levels of fertility are not because women stopped having children entirely, but that they are having fewer total children overall (Fiori, 580). The difference is largely in the decision whether or not to have a second child. Northern and Central Italy have been known for their low fertility, but since the 1990s this “only-child model” has spread to the South (Fiori, 581). This raises the questions: what determines whether Italian women will have a (second) child and what can be done to promote sustainable levels of fertility?

During the 1970s there was a downward shift in total fertility rates in many European countries as women entered the workforce in and began postponing childbearing. This was attributed to increased access to education, changing notions of family formation, and a cultural shift in gender roles for women (Modena et al., 2). In the 1980s and 90s the decline was credited to the tenuous economic situation, in which excess children were an unsupportable expense. While this economic situation improved in the early 2000s, fertility rates fell again following the global economy crisis. Italy’s total fertility rate has fallen from 2.37 births per woman in 1960 to 1.37 in 2014 (Eurostat). I argue that economic stability and gender dynamics have the greatest significance in determining family size. These unsustainable figures have sparked government concern, leading to struggles “to exercise control over reproduction” (Krause & Marchesi, 353). Italy is just one country in Europe that faces this problem. Discussions about Italy’s falling fertility rate have become increasingly linked to discourse about the nation’s future.

Economic Factors

Economic stability is a determinate factor in having a child. A family’s income, housing status, efficacy of local welfare system, and quality of familial support system determine this stability. Wealth insecurity is a major factor in women’s decision to have children (Modena et al, 19). Higher wealth insecurity indirectly correlates with fertility intentions (14). Modena et al.’s study did not find this factor affect rate of first births but did see it “negatively affect successive pregnancies” (18). Wealth insecurity affects family decisions to have a second child more so than the first. This can be attributed to the attention Italian parents—especially the mothers—pay to their children’s upbringing; this is related to the modern notion of a strong family that is small but well provided for (Krause & Marchesi, 353). There is a widely acknowledged income effect—couples earning less are less likely to plan on a second child (Fiori, 588). This new development of low fertility contrasts the Malthusian model of “high birth rates and low levels of human capital.” Instead, it emphasizes a low fertility to maximize capital benefits for one child (Becker et al, 325). This shift emphasized the single child. Similar rates of women are still having children but they are doing so later in life and less.

In Italy, uncertain finances encourage residents to postpone or entirely forgo having children, which decreases the country’s fertility rate. The question of how to properly provide for multiple children is an issue of concern for parents. Vignoli et al. found that in Italy housing is a crucial marker for economic stability. There is a positive correlation between “the fertility intentions of couples and the degree to which they feel secure about their housing situation” (68). A quality housing situation is dependent on factors including “the geographical area of residence, the housing tenure, the degree of economic security and the number of rooms” (68). Vignoli et al. found women who were confident in their housing status to be significantly more likely to plan on having a child within the next three years than those who were not (66). Italy’s housing situation is unique, in part, due to the late average age of first purchase of a home that comes from children sharing residence with their parents into their thirties. This familial support system can be beneficial in child raising, but living with one’s family can delay starting a family and decrease the overall fertility rate.

Women’s fertility is linked to their participation in the labor force (Del Boca et al, 52). Since the 1990s, female employment in Italy rose “from 35.4% in 1994 to 47.2% in 2008” (compared to EU average of 59.1%) (Modena et al, 2). Meanwhile, fertility levels have hovered between 1.3 and 1.4 children per woman (compared to EU average of 1.6) (2). However, while women entered the labor force in new numbers, they held tenuous positions “characterized by low levels of maternal and sick leave protection, clearly penalizing women and discouraging them from having children” (18). Women face structural challenges to balancing both employment and childcare. Modena et al found “precariously employed” women have lower fertility expectancy (13). They are more likely to be pressured to not have children or to leave the career to fulfill their domestic responsibilities and take care of the home and family. The greater the uncertainty surrounding job security the lower estimated fertility. Women must often choose between pursuing their careers and having children. The job market is highly competitive and Italy is affected by high rates of unemployment. For this reason, women struggle with the decision to postpone their careers  “during childbearing years, finding it difficult to re-enter the labor market” (Del Boca et al., 54). Job instability discourages having children, from a labor opportunity standpoint. Since part-time work is difficult to find, this forces many women to choose between their careers and their families. Job instability “negatively affects the propensity to have (more) children and leads to a postponement of childbirth,” which, by shortening the window of fertility, also has the effect of lowering the expected fertility rate (Modena et al., 17). Without a more stable and flexible job market women will remain with this tough choice.

Gender Factors

Gender dynamics are, of course, a factor in fertility. Women’s roles in society are evolving and their increased participation in education and the labor force, along with the popularity of contraception, have noticeably correlated with the decline in fertility. However, Italy still has one of the lowest rates in female employment—demonstrating that factors beyond job rates must affect fertility (Mills et al., 3). Government assistance programs are one such element. The lack of welfare and infrastructure for new parents, particularly mothers, is a huge oversight. Modern low fertility rates are due, in part, to “a lack of supportive social or market provisions for maternal employment that delay age at first birth and/or reduce the likelihood of higher parity births (Kohler et al., 2002). In September 2016, a government campaign to promote “Fertility Day” caused controversy and outrage. It was widely criticized for encouraging women to have children despite a lack of government programs to support new mothers (Piangiani). It put the onus women to fix the problem, when the government should be creating programs to support their choices instead. In Italy, the primary source of childcare is the family; daycare is expensive and most employers are not accommodating to the schedules of new mothers (Piangiani). Government support is inadequate, so “grandparents represent the predominant model of childcare” (Fiori, 581; Del Boca et al., 54). The issue is widely acknowledged yet still unanswered by political action, even after Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has admitted “to increase the birthrate, structural issues like day care and services need to be addressed” (Piangiani). Until this problem is addressed fertility rates will likely continue to fall.

The insufficient labor and welfare systems inherently produce a conflict for working women pursing motherhood (and vice versa). The “dominant male-breadwinner family model,” small and inflexible childcare system, and assorted social programs that largely benefit single-income earning couples are just some of the obstacles women face (2). Women are responsible for assuming most of the domestic and household work., while men work full time and earn the majority of the family income. Therefore, women must make careful planning decisions for her family and be “very prudent about becoming pregnant” (Piangiani). In the early 2000s, the a program was designed to help new parents by providing a maternity and paternity leave extension based on European Union mandates. However, this program was unsuccessful, particularly showing low participation for men when “in 2005, only 8% of fathers had made use of their quote of parental leave, and 4% intended to benefit from it in the future” (Fiori, 581). While there are signs of increasing paternal involvement and equitable division of labor, current level still impose most tasks on the mother, or the aforementioned intergenerational network of support, i.e. the grandparents.

To increase fertility levels Modena et al. suggest creating policy to “account for—and try to reduce—insecurity about women’s future empowerment and the household income and wealth” (18). Securing steady employment for women may reduce anxiety over family income and give couples more freedom and confidence to increase fertility outcomes. There is potential in mirroring policy of Northern European countries, such a France, that have higher total fertility rates,  “with the objective of simultaneously encouraging fertility and the participation of women in the labor force” (Del Boca et al, 53). This would require government attention and support for family planning policy. Moreover, these policies must also support women and families after children are born. Programs that support new parents and enable women to remain part of the labor force are critical means of increasing fertility. “Public childcare availability, generous optional maternity leave, as well as part-time opportunities” (54) allow women to decide for themselves how to proceed economically and domestically.

Additionally, changing the gender expectations of couples could have positive impacts on fertility rates. By breaking down traditional gender roles of the male-breadwinner model and female caregiver, Italians may find a more equitable balance of labor both at home and in the workforce (Fiori, 583). This is supported by a recorded “positive relationship between fathers’ greater participation in childcare and/or domestic activities” and fertility outcomes (Fiori, 582). This observed phenomenon gives women greater freedom to plan for more children and larger families. Expected fertility outcomes for a second child increase with a “higher paternal commitment to childbirth, childcare, and household chores” as well as with “help from the informal family network” (Fiori, 591). Liberating women from the sole responsibility of domestic labor opens fertility opportunities. The impact of increased paternal involvement in childrearing deserves further study to reveal the scope of potential fertility impacts.


Evidence suggests that fertility is affected largely by market conditions that force women to choose between a job and a child. This conflict manifests in a decrease of fertility intentions for a second child. Factors like family income, housing status, childcare availability, government financial assistance programs, and quality of familial support impact family planning. These conditions are particularly relevant for Italy, but occur elsewhere in Europe as well.

Because of this phenomenon, Italy is struggling to meet sustainable population levels. Fertility is at a low point that coincides with that of other Mediterranean countries but contrasts with many states in Northern Europe. These unprecedented levels of low fertility have serious long-term consequences. Decades of these combined factors have lead to an unfavorable “ration of numbers of people of pension age to people of working age” (Maclennan, et al, 32). Countries with a significant aging population and low birth rates will find that a decline in the active working population leads to undue stress on the remaining younger generations. The current levels of Italian fertility cannot maintain the population and will have “far-reaching demographic, economic, and social consequences” (Kohler et al, 642). Thus, it is important to study the contributing factors to this phenomenon and uncover methods to supplement the population differential.

Further research may compare the decreasing fertility rates of Italy with those of other European countries, to determine causal factors and linkages. This includes Mediterranean countries suffering from similar declining rates, as well as Northern European countries that have not seen this phenomenon. Countries not suffering from low or lowest low fertility should be studied, compared, and contrasted to discover what factors lead to more sustainable populations. This research may consider the impact of immigration to boost Italy’s population and workforce. Alternatively, it may look at how changing women’s participation in the labor force could change this trend. The subject of paternal roles in childcare and domestic work is an underdeveloped area of study that may help elucidate causes and solutions to the fertility decline. All of these factors, and more, may be considered in subsequent review of this topic.


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