Goldoni, Carlo

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Goldoni, Carlo (1707-93): Italian Playwright.

Carlo Goldoni is widely held to be the father of modern Italian comedy and Italy’s greatest comic dramatist. A native of Venice, much of his work is associated with this city’s tenure as the last stronghold of the then dwindling commedia dell’arte. Commedia was a popular form of improvised professional comic theater that developed in Italy around the middle of the 16th century, and quickly spread throughout Europe. Entering an artistic climate where popular sentimentalism made the formerly prosperous commedia dell’arte seem crude and unfeeling, Goldoni, who began writing scenarios for the form in 1734, drastically altered the nature of commedia characters and abolished most of its improvisational aspects during the following decades.

In 1750, Goldoni produced The Comic Theatre, a treatise that attacked the traditional methods of commedia, called for the abandonment of masks (since they made subtle facial expressions impossible), the refining of theatrical speech, and the replacement of conventionalized scenarios with subjects based on everyday life. By 1761, when Goldoni left Venice to work with the Parisian Comédie Italienne, he had done much to substitute the vulgarity, fantasy, nonrealistic elements, and ridiculous stock roles of commedia dell’arte with humor, sentiment, realism, and humanized characterization. The Servant of Two Masters is considered his greatest commedia play.

Goldoni was one of the most prolific stage authors of the 18th century, producing 10 tragedies, 83 musical dramas, and approximately 150 comedies. Notable comedies include: The Coffee House, Belisarus, The Antiquarian’s Family, The Respected Young Girl, Pamela, and The Innkeeper. He is noted for his comic inventiveness and the clever methods he used to unify his plots, but more for his positive depiction of the middle and lower classes and his idealized female characters. However, he sufficiently tempered his sentimentality with wit, charm, and vivacity, and it is likely this quality that sustained his popularity beyond the 18th century.

His opera buffa libretti formed the backbone of late 18th century European comic opera, set to music by such composers as Haydn, Franz Joseph, Paisiello, Picini, Gassman, and Salieri. These texts demonstrate a similar integration of commedia dell’arte devices and middle-class concerns. Goldoni considerably affected the repertoire and helped elevate the buffa to a level equal with serious opera. He transformed the type roles into engaging characters, added ironic undertones to the arias, and fleshed out ensembles and finales. Two of his libretti, The Country Philosopher (1752) and The Good Girl (1760), were among the most successful musical comedies of the century.

While his time with the Comédie Italienne was brief (he left it for Versailles in 1769, to serve as tutor to Louis XV’s daughter), his plays in French, among them The Beneficent Bear, a 1771 triumph at the Comédie, and The Resourceful Woman, have a distinct quality and demonstrate a mastery of French language. His Paris productions helped form French appreciation for modern Italian comic theater.

Further Reading:

Farrell, Joseph, ed., Carlo Goldoni and the Eighteenth Century Theatre, 1997.

Benjamin Fisler