Traditional Italian Carnival costumes

Traditional Italian Carnival costumes

With Carnival approaching, here’s a look at some of Italy’s most traditional costumes.

Every age has its own costume. The last decade will be remembered as the one in which Elsa from “Frozen” had expanded her domain to the homes of all the children of the world in the form of her blue costume. The Power Rangers reigned undisputed in all the Carnival parades of the 1990s while the children of the 1970s proudly dressed up as Zorro and the Blue Fairy from “Pinocchio”.

However, there are timeless costumes that go beyond temporary fashions: The characters of Commedia dell’Arte that not only appear at every Carnival, but that are part of our cultural heritage. Irreverent and sometimes melancholic, these costumes boast a charm of yesteryear that makes them immortal.

Here’s a look at the history of the oldest and most famous Italian Carnival costumes and some curiosities about them.

1. Arlecchino

Costume: A colorful-diamond-print costume, black leather or cardboard mask complete with a wooden spatula in the pocket and a handbag.

Arlecchino is a Commedia dell’Arte character who, according to famous Italian theater director Giorgio Strehler,  is “always the same and always different”.  Arlecchino performed in front of Catherine de’ Medici in 1572, and in the seventeenth century, actor Domenico Biancolelli evolved him into the more refined, witty and brilliant character for which he is known today.  Arlecchino’s elegant costume, which originated as fabric scraps, eventually gave way to the distinct elegant lozenge-printed attire.  Biancolelli’s interpretation of the role became so interesting that it took Arlecchino across the Alps into France. There, he was portrayed as a crippled macaronic Frenchman with an irresistible comic vision that is later called the langue d’arlequin.

Contrary to what one thinks, the origins of Arlecchino’s costume lie beyond Bergamo and the Lombard borders reaching all the way to Turkey. His colorful attire recalls that of Karaghoz, a character of the Turkish folk theatre who wore yellow, green and red cloves, while his black mask recalls those of the Far East. Arlecchino is perhaps the most famous and beloved Commedia dell’Arte  character and his adventures have been a source of inspiration for many theatrical directors, including Strehler who directed the 1947 production of Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters starring Ferruccio Soleri at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan, which then went to make a world tour.

2. Colombina

Costume: An elegant dress with a fitted bodice, flounce skirt, crestina and apron.

Colombina is a “servant” of Venice, but her personality is anything but servile: She is the only female character of the Commedia dell’Arte. Shrewd and intelligent with a big mouth, Colombina is a true teacher of intrigue because she knows all the secrets of the masters she serves. A little seductive and very charming, men fall at her feet. Colombina embodies the cunning handmaid (a similar character is found in Plautine comedy) and appears for the first time in 1530. La Colomba is the Italian word for dove and Colombina’s name derives from the fact that Isabella Franchini, the actress who played her, entered the scene carrying a basket with two doves.

3. Pulcinella

Costume: White costume, white cap, black mask with a hooked nose and a humpback.

Actor Silvio Fiorillo created Pulcinella in 1620, and his name derives from pulcino, which means day-old chicken in Italian, and indicates his nose, which is hooked like a chicken beak. The king of the double game, Pulcinella knows how to be stupid and intelligent, brave and cowardly, and when he has to say something awkward, he does it using a  whistle that distorts the voice so that his insults are barely understandable. From Naples, Pulcinella has known a lot of success in Europe, so much to have inspired characters like the English Punch or the French Polichinelle. His most famous portrayer in Italy was the great Eduardo De Filippo.

4. Pantalone

Costume: red jacket and trousers, black zimarra, a rimless beret, long nose, goatee and leather handbag.

A wealthy Venetian merchant, Pantalone is a miserable miser and a sweet talker who is one of the fixed Commedia dell‘ Arte characters. Pantalone is a typical old-fashioned gentleman who feels young and for this reason, has a weakness for young beautiful girls who are preferably servants so he can exercise his power on them. For these aspects of his character, he is often portrayed as a mocked libertine.

5. Rugantino

Costume: Trousers, waistcoats, red tailcoat, bucked shoes and a high hat.

“Roma nun fa’ la stupida stasera
damme ‘na mano a faje di’ de sì…”

These lyrics, many of us recognize them from Andrea Bocelli’s repertoire, are as integral to Italian culture as pasta pomodoro. Everyone knows this song, but not everyone might know that it was part of the Rugantino musical comedy that was staged at the Teatro Sistina in Rome in 1962.  Rugantino is traditionally a ruffled and arrogant brawler. In fact, his name derives from ruganza, the Italian word for arrogance, and he is a caricature of the Roman bully. Rugantino’s costume dates back to the late eighteenth century and although he often took on the role of a policeman or robber, he became the symbol of the Roman villages in the collective imagination.


L. Stucchi, M. VerdoneLe maschere italiane: nell’interpretazione di Flavio Bucci, Pino Caruso, Luciano De Crescenzo, Luca De Filippo, Carla Fracci, Saverio Marconi, Enrico Montesano, Renzo Palmer, Paolo Poli, Gigi Proietti, Mariano Rigillo, Ferruccio Soleri, Carlo Verdone, Milena Vukotic; Newton Compton, Roma 1984.  Intervista con gli interpreti di Paola Dessy.

N. FanoLe maschere italiane, Il Mulino, Bologna 2001

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