What does commedia dell’arte, a form of theatre born in Italy in the mid-16th century, have to do with Russian cultural history? In “Vagabonding Masks: The Italian Commedia dell’Arte in the Russian Artistic Imagination” (Academic Studies Press, 2017), Olga Partan, assistant professor of Russian at the College of the Holy Cross, explores how the artistic principles of the commedia dell’arte have profoundly affected the Russian artistic imagination, providing a source of inspiration for leading Russian artists for more than three centuries.
Commedia dell’arte is characterized by the absence of dramatic text and the use of improvisational dialogue and comic stock characters wearing masks, and was a unique type of theatrical performance, relying on improvisation and the actors’ virtuosity, explains Partan. With her main research interests lying in the performing arts and theatricality of Russian literature and culture, Partan became interested in Russia’s prerevolutionary fascination with Italian commedia dell’ arte masks, such as Harlequin, Pierrot, and Columbine, during the era of Russian modernism before the Revolution of 1917.
“In Russia during this time, the performing arts, literature, poetry, drama, music and visual arts all exhibited a real commedia dell’arte-mania, so to speak,” Partan explains. “I became very curious about this phenomenon and started to investigate its deeper roots, which go back to the 17th century, and tracing the ‘vagabonding Italian masks,’ analyzing their cultural significance in various historical surroundings and genres.”
In this book, Partan offers a comparative cultural study with an emphasis on what she defines as “harlequinized” Russian art and literature, with an analysis that spans from Russia’s cultural landscape before its westernization by Peter the Great in the 18th century to popular culture in Putin’s Russia.
“I hope that readers will be able to trace the interconnectedness between Russia and the West, following the narrative that balances between high and low cultural spheres, such as royal masquerades and market square entertainment, Nikolai Gogol and Vladimir Nabokov’s literary narratives, and the performing arts,” says Partan. “I hope they will better understand how leading Russian writers and artists were able to draw on the commedia to produce innovative works of art in the Russian context, and that a better understanding of the commedia influences in these works can shed new light on how we interpret them, as well as appreciate inspirational linkages between Russian and Western art and artists.”
Partan’s book has been well received from fellow scholars, one reviewer calling it “original, alluring, and persuasive.”
“A treasure-trove of a book, Partan’s meticulously researched and thought-provoking exploration of the influence of the Italian commedia dell’arte on the Russian cultural developments in the last three hundred years will be of significant interest not only to scholars of Russian studies and comparative literature but also to specialists in theater and performance studies,” says Alexandra Smith, reader in Russian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. “Its breadth of thinking and range of reference are truly astonishing.”
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