The <em>Commedia all'improvviso</em> Illustrations of the Corsini Manuscript: A New Reading


  • Stefano Mengarelli University of Bern



The two-volume anonymous manuscript Raccolta di Scenari Più scelti D’istrioni in Rome’s Biblioteca Corsiniana is one of the oldestscenari collections of the commedia all’improvviso, and the only one that is illustrated. Because each of its one hundred scenari is preceded by a hand-drawn, coloured title page illustration depicting actors on a perspective stage, international researchers have long identified the Corsini manuscript as a key document for European theatre history. The central question raised by these pictures concerns the extent to which they depict actual sets and actors of their time. Did their illustrators draw on their own knowledge of the theatre, or did they rely on iconographic borrowings? Detailed investigations into the relationship between the manuscript’s illustrations and text, and the illustration’s compositional strategies, distance this visual material from the literal reflection of stage practice many previous scholars hoped to identify in it. Separate examination of the fore- and background of the Corsini illustrations has the advantage of allowing access to two branches of iconographic tradition, those associated with courtly academic performances, and with the professional players. Uniquely, the composition of the watercolours merges these two traditions into one. By embedding commedia all’improvviso iconography into the Corsini manuscript as decorative ornament in its own right, these pictures raise the manuscript’s status as a whole to an exemplary paradigm of academic collecting activity.






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