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Extemporal Comedies
by [?]

Men of great genius had a passion for performing in these extemporal comedies. Salvator Rosa was famous for his character of a Calabrian clown; whose original he had probably often studied amidst that mountainous scenery in which his pencil delighted. Of their manner of acting I find an interesting anecdote in Passeri’s life of this great painter; he shall tell his own story.

“One summer Salvator Rosa joined a company of young persons who were curiously addicted to the making of commedie all’ improviso. In the midst of a vineyard they raised a rustic stage, under the direction of one Mussi, who enjoyed some literary reputation, particularly for his sermons preached in Lent.

“Their second comedy was numerously attended, and I went among the rest; I sat on the same bench, by good fortune, with the Cavalier Bernini, Romanelli, and Guido, all well-known persons. Salvator Rosa, who had already made himself a favourite with the Roman people, under the character of Formica[7] opened with a prologue, in company with other actors. He proposed, for relieving themselves of the extreme heats and ennui, that they should make a comedy, and all agreed. Formica then spoke these exact words:

Non boglio gia, che facimmo commedie come cierti, che tagliano li panni aduosso a chisto, o a chillo; perche co lo tiempo se fa vedere chiu veloce lo taglio de no rasuolo, che la penna de no poeta; e ne manco boglio, che facimmo venire nella scena porta, citazioni, acquavitari, e crapari, e ste schifenze che tengo spropositi da aseno.”

One part of this humour lies in the dialect, which is Venetian; but there was a concealed stroke of satire, a snake in the grass. The sense of the passage is, “I will not, however, that we should make a comedy like certain persons who cut clothes, and put them on this man’s back, and on that man’s back; for at last the time comes which shows how much faster went the cut of the shears than the pen of the poet; nor will we have entering on the scene, couriers, brandy-sellers, and goatherds, and there stare shy and blockish, which I think worthy the senseless invention of an ass.”

Passeri now proceeds: “At this time Bernini had made a comedy in the Carnival, very pungent and biting; and that summer he had one of Castelli’s performed in the suburbs, where, to represent the dawn of day, appeared on the stage water-carriers, couriers, and goat-herds, going about–all which is contrary to rule, which allows of no character who is not concerned in the dialogue to mix with the groups. At these words of the Formica, I, who well knew his meaning, instantly glanced my eye at Bernini, to observe his movements; but he, with an artificial carelessness, showed that this ‘cut of the shears’ did not touch him; and he made no apparent show of being hurt. But Castelli, who was also near, tossing his head and smiling in bitterness, showed clearly that he was hit.”

This Italian story, told with all the poignant relish of these vivacious natives, to whom such a stinging incident was an important event, also shows the personal freedoms taken on these occasions by a man of genius, entirely in the spirit of the ancient Roman Atellana, or the Grecian Satyra.

Riccoboni has discussed the curious subject of Extemporal Comedy with equal modesty and feeling; and Gherardi, with more exultation and egotism. “This kind of spectacle,” says Riccoboni, “is peculiar to Italy; one cannot deny that it has graces perfectly its own, and which written Comedy can never exhibit. This impromptu mode of acting furnishes opportunities for a perpetual change in the performance, so that the same scenario repeated still appears a new one: thus one Comedy may become twenty Comedies. An actor of this description, always supposing an actor of genius, is more vividly affected than one who has coldly got his part by rote.” But Riccoboni could not deny that there were inconveniences in this singular art. One difficulty not easily surmounted was the preventing of all the actors speaking together; each one eager to reply before the other had finished. It was a nice point to know when to yield up the scene entirely to a predominant character, when agitated by violent passion; nor did it require a less exercised tact to feel when to stop; the vanity of an actor often spoiled a fine scene.