Origin of the name – Harlequin

There are many hypotheses as to the origin of Arlecchino’s name. The most probable one is that Arlecchino is based on the myth of the ‘damned devils’ – Germanic knights that fought against the Normans and died. These warriors, it was believed , would rise from the dead to play tricks on the living.


The linguistic roots of the name Arlecchino also trace his birth in Medieval Italy and France, where popular legends about a spirit named Hellequin, whose deeds are similar to those of Shakespeare’s Puck , circulated in both Langue D’Oc and Langue D’Oil. Hellequin was a pagan spirit of the earth, connected with nature and crops. However beneficial though, Hellequin’s spriting was to be contained well under the earth, with otherwise disastrous consequences. Slowly, partly to do with the influence of the Church against paganism, the spirit of Hellequin was demonised: in Italy a famous “Alichino” made it into Dante’s Inferno among other devils:

“Tra’ti avante, Alichino et Calcabrina”

cominciò elli a dire, “et tu Cagnazzo;

e Barbariccia guidi la decina”

Roughly at the same time as Dante’ writing, Italian sacred drama began to flourish in the cities; the perception of devils as something too evil to be imagined and represented on the stage by a human being began to dictate the necessity for the use of a mask to perform the Devil character. If Hellequin/Alichino was by this time a traditional devil, it is likely that he was represented on stage alongside colleagues, now wearing a mask.


As a parallel history, Arlecchino is often said to be descended of the classical Roman comedy servants. The similarities of misfortunes adjusted by wit and constant hunger with Plautus’ servants are definitely to be found in the archetypal Commedia Zanni, really Arlecchino’s closest relation. The Zanni began his career as a market seller’s servant. On market days, his job was to attract the crowd to his master the salesman by using a loud voice and acrobatics (still used in the Commedia). To do so, he wore a black leather mask and white clothes as his instantly recognisable costume. The selling became such a spectacular attraction that by the end of 16th Century some Zanni had become professional saltimbanques and organised themselves and their families in touring companies, and formed an Arte (a sort of trade union) thus becoming professional entertainers of the so-called Commedia dell’Arte.


Soon after, Arlecchino made his debut on the Commedia’s professional stages, first as a walk-on Zanni, then gradually rising to be Commedia’s first and most popular Mask. Exactly when and how the devilish spirit of legends made it into the theatre as a Mask per se is not known, but the Commedia Arlecchino certainly did keep traits of his former devilish self. 



~ by hanathebanana on January 14, 2009.

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