Artists throughout time

The city of Mantua is among the
birthplaces of theatre and of Italian language. Here Poliziano wrote his Fabula di Orfeo; here Isabella d’Este
enjoyed the first representation of an Italian comedy, Il Formicone; here Monteverdi presented the first masterpiece in
the tradition of Italian opera, his Orfeo.
Tristano Martinelli invented the mask of Harlequin here, and the actors of the
Commedia dell’Arte regularly visited the city. Finally Mozart inaugurated the
Bibiena Theatre. Traces of these artistic events are to be found in documents
but are also visible in the paintings and in the collective memories of the

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (2009) by Andrea JoriTeatro Bibiena


"In my life I have never seen anything of its kind, more beautiful... It is not strictly a theater, but a room with boxes, built on the type of opera houses. Where it should be the stage there is a forum for the performing artist; behind it runs a gallery that resembles a series of boxes and is usable by spectators". This is what Leopold Mozart wrote to his wife January 26, 1770, ten days before the performance of his thirteen year old son at the Bibiena theatre. It was the child prodigy’s first trip to Italy: he stopped in Rovereto and Verona, spent a week in Mantua, accompanied by a letter of recommendation by the Count Giorgio d'Arco. A prominent audience attended the concert on the 16th; amidst splendid garments and hairstyles, Wolfgang performed wearing a simple crimson gown.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (2009) by Andrea JoriTeatro Bibiena

Immortal music

The evening ended in triumph: the chronicles of the time describe the virtuosity of the child, who besides presenting some of his compositions, improvised several pieces that had never been heard before, and played a long fugue that was a variation of of a theme he was shown only once. The program of the evening reads: "the skilled young man Mr Amadeo Motzzart". He was to perform fourteen pieces and two unspecified symphonies, one at the beginning and one at the end of the evening. The sculpture by the Mantuan artist Andrea Jori, placed in the entrance hall, celebrates the event, which was actually the inauguration of the theater. As fate would have it, the protagonist of the memorable day was a young boy who would soon become the greatest genius in the history of music. Born in Salzburg in 1756, during his short life (in fact he died in Vienna in 1791) Mozart wrote an impressive number of pieces; his compositions are listed in a catalogue that goes from the work K1 to K626, the unfinished Requiem.

Commedia dell'Arte at Bibiena Theater (2012)Teatro Bibiena

Commedia dell'Arte

The Foundation “Mantova Capitale Europea dello Spettacolo” has organized numerous performances and competitions to be held at the Bibiena Theatre to celebrate the fundamental contribution given by the city of Mantua to the tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte. Commedia dell’Arte, a form of comedy, was born in Italy in the sixteenth century, when actors and comedians created, with regular contracts, companies that travelled around Italy and Europe. This is the origin of the modern theatre in the form of a mutual collaboration among actors that still today defines the nature of a company. Originally, the actors didn’t perform following pre-fixed scripts, instead they improvised on “canovacci” that provided a very fast-paced plot to follow. 

Commedia dell'Arte at Bibiena Theater (2012)Teatro Bibiena

From past to future

Italian Commedia dell’Arte is also characterized by the use of masks that today are famous around the world. Each mask personifies a precise type, both physically and morally; each character wears a costume that must amaze the audience. Hence, protagonists of this popular genre, Harlequin, Pantalone, Brighella and many others, became timeless interpreters of human vices, their masquerades provoking laughter and amusement.

The tradition of the Commedia dell’Arte is still alive. In this photo some young actors bring back to life the gestures and the words of the comedians

Commedia dell'Arte at Bibiena Theatre (2012)Teatro Bibiena

The mask is an essential element for a comedian. If on the one hand it makes the representation more abstract and emblematic, on the other hand, by partly covering the face of the actor, it gives a universal value to the performance, which is however always determined by the particular nature of the specific character.

Harlequin and his mill (1618)Teatro Bibiena

Harlequin and his mill

This seventeenth century finding shows Tristano Martinelli (Marcaria 1557, Mantova 1630) dressed up as Harlequin standing next to a mill, symbol of well being, a condition the character has painfully reached after a life of hard work. Martinelli is one of the most important protagonists of the Commedia dell’Arte.

He worked with companies, some of them patronised by the Duke of Mantua Vincenzo Gonzaga. According to twentieth century studies it was Martinelli who invented the character of Harlequin, by merging the popular character of Zanni, a silly servant who performed labour, from the tradition of Bergamo and Venice, with a more charming demon from North European tales. This demon, Herla or Herla King, is the leader of an infernal gang. Martinelli thus created the character of the wise servant, his costume made of multicoloured patches and a masque with animal-like features. Martinelli made Harlequin immortal in courts around Europe.


Berla Palace, representation of Zanni (1500)Teatro Bibiena

Painted comics

In one of the rooms of Palazzo Berla, in Mantua, located not far from the Bibiena Theatre, a particular fresco, unique among its kind, shows some characters of the Commedia dell'Arte. Five grotesque scenes in late Mannerist style depict some masked characters performing tricks. In particular, this image shows Zanni holding a bird, bowing in front of other two Zannis with a much larger bird. In other pictures we can see the better known Pantalone. The palace, once owned by the Cavriani family, was located at the border of the ghetto. It is interesting to note that in the late sixteenth century the Commedia dell'Arte had become popular to the point that these characters and their folkloric masquerades were painted here for the enjoyment of the banqueters attending the palace.  

The cyrcus (1971) by Ferruccio BolognesiTeatro Bibiena

A modern happiness

In the foyer of the Bibiena Theatre a great work by Ferruccio Bolognesi is visible. Bolognesi, native of Mantua, exhibited in Italy and Europe from the sixties of the twentieth century onwards. At the time his style was defined naȉf; today these works have won many awards and are viewed as examples of a harmonious surrealist style. Bolognesi also had the opportunity to work on numerous musical and opera productions as a costume and set designer, some of which were staged at the Bibiena Theatre. These works were the result of the fruitful relationship with Claudio Gallico, conductor, musicologist and leading Italian Monteverdi scholar.   The work shown here, which represents a group of players, and which reflects the interest of Bolognesi for enchanted and playful aspects of life, was created for a restaurant near Mantua and was immediately praised by Cesare Zavattini. The owner of the restaurant, Guido Guidetti, nicknamed “Moustache”, donated the drawing to MAC, Mantova Arte Contemporanea in 2012.  

The cyrcus (1971) by Ferruccio BolognesiTeatro Bibiena

A detail of the work.

The cyrcus (1971) by Ferruccio BolognesiTeatro Bibiena

La felicità del tratto sembra accogliere all’interno del teatro i musicanti di strada.

Credits: Story

Ideato e promosso da / Founded and Promoted by:
Mattia Palazzi (Sindaco del Comune di Mantova)
con Lorenza Baroncelli (Assessore alla rigenerazione urbana e del territorio, marketing urbano, progetti e relazioni internazionali del Comune di Mantova)

Coordinamento Scientifico / Scientific Coordinator:
Sebastiano Sali

Curatore testi e immagini / Superintendent texts and images:
Giovanni Pasetti

Foto di / Photo by:
Gian Maria Pontiroli

Redazione/ Editors:
Erica Beccalossi
Sara Crimella
Carlotta Depalmas
Veronica Zirelli

Un ringraziamento speciale a / A special thanks to:
Emma Catherine Gainsforth
Chiara Pisani
Paola Somenzi
Custodi del Bibiena
Orchestra da Camera di Mantova - Ocm

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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