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Brighella Onklejoe, 2012

OnkleJoe, 2012

The Power of One Character

The character featured above is Brighella. As we know, Beaumarchais‘ Figaro is the culmination of the commedia dell’arte‘s Brighella. However, as Figaro, Brighella is no longer a “thief, a bully, and an intriguer.”[i] He is a clever and relatively good zanni, but he nevertheless wrestles Susanna away from Count Almaviva and becomes a national hero. Interestingly, although a bevy of French Enlightenment philosophes, from Montesquieu, to Voltaire, Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Rousseau, etc. wrote thousands of pages on the societal ills of l’Ancien Régime, Figaro, one fictional character, drove the message home.

To what extent the Count had a droit du seigneur, i.e. the right to be the first man to sleep with the bride, we cannot know. The Church was very powerful, so I doubt very much that this “right” was listed in law books. It may have been a case of entitlement.

About Bergamo…

Bergamo:  Arlecchino and Brighella

Bergamo: the Birthplace of Harlequin and Brighella

Brighella‘s importance is due not only to the role he ends up playing in France, as Figaro, but he is also connected to Bergamo, an area of current Northern Italy located near Milan. Bergamo is the birthplace of Arlecchino (Arlequin, Harlequin) and Brighella. Similarly, French dramatist Beaumarchais’ plays are the birthplace of a French Brighella, our Figaro, who differs from the commedia dell’arte‘s Brighella, but not that much.

Bergamo remembered: Debussy and Fauré

Which takes us to music. I will mention two composers. The first is Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918), who composed the lovely Suite bergamasque. The second, in alphabetical order, is Gabriel Fauré’s (12 May 1845 – 4 November 1924), the composer of Masques et Bergamasques. These are compositions inspired by the commedia dell’arte and written not long before Picasso started to paint Arlequins and guitars, or related instruments. The influence of the commedia dell’arte on French dramatists, comedians, artists and composers is considerable.

The Comédie italienne in France

In fact, France long had both its Comédie française and its Comédie italienne (until the second half of the nineteenth century). Italian comedians were driven out of France in 1697, because of a play entitled La Fausse [false] Prude. This play was offensive to Louis XIV‘s second wife, Madame de Maintenon. However, the Italians were soon recalled (in 1716). The plays of Marivaux (4 February 1688 – 12 February 1763) and Beaumarchais (24 January 1732 – 18 May 1799) are eloquent testimonials concerning the commedia dell’arte‘s influence on the history of French theatre.

Brighella’s Appearance and Gait

Brighella’s “wears a white shirt, black pants with a green tassel hanging from the side, a white cap, a belt with a purse, and a dagger.” His mask “is accented with a hooked nose, fleshy cheeks, and large eyebrows. He conveys a cynical-mawkish appearance.” (See Brighella.) He is a first among zanni and is never outdone. Zanni may originate in the lower classes, but without zanni, there may not be a happy ending to comedy. Brighella is smarter than Arlecchino (see Brighella, Wikipedia).

Distinguishing commedia dell’arte characters from one another includes the manner in which they move, which indicates they were professionals actors.

“Brighella’s weight is placed on a bent leg. The other is extended, lightly touching the ground. His elbows are up with his hands spread out. Whether or not he is moving, his feet are constantly moving, dancing back and forth. Like Arlecchino, his back is curved at the lumbar region. When Brighella walks, his head stays in place, but his legs come up to the side and his torso sways from side to side. It is a very soft walk, similar to tip-toeing, the difference being that his legs are spread.” (See Brighella.)

Brighella, by Maurice Sand

Brighella by Maurice Sand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brighella’s Legacy

Wikipedia lists the names of characters modelled on Brighella. It’s impressive. By and large, Brighella’s descendants are gentler than their ancestor. The list includes Scapino, Mezzetino, Mascarille, Sganarelle, Turlupin, Figaro, etc. Brighella-Sganarelle is Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (K 527).

Molière (1722 – 1673) was both an actor and a dramatist. He therefore played the following Brighella associated roles:


There is conflicting information regarding Brighella. According to some sources, he is a villain who fizzles out. Yet, if Figaro is heir to Brighella, he is clever and swift, but he is not a villain. It could be that Watteau‘s Fêtes galantes depictions of figures from the commedia dell’arte transformed Brighella and that the comédie larmoyante (the tearful comedy) and bourgeois drama reshaped the original Brighella, though not completely. I’ll remember him as an ancestor to Figaro. Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro and Rossini’s Barber of Seville. I suspect figures from the commedia dell’arte will remain a favourite with artists and composers: Debussy, Fauré, Mozart, Rossini…

And we close the commedia dell’arte series. Characters may reappear. They’re everywhere. For quick information, I suggest About.com, listed under sources and resources, below.

My kindest regards to all of you.

La Flûte de Brighella

La Flûte de Brighella by Enrico Brunelleshi (Photo credit: Christie’s)

Brighella, by Enrico Brunelleschi

Brighella by Enrico Brunelleschi (Photo credit: Google Images)


Sources and Resources


[i] “Brighella,” Phyllis Hartnoll, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Theatre3rd Edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1967 [1951]).

A Twenty Frank banknote, 1997

A twenty-franc banknote, from 1997, depicting Debussy (Caption & photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
23 July 2014