Colombina or “Little Dove” as she is known in French is another stock comic character in the Commedia dell’Arte. Her role combines that of a disloyal wife, a fetching mistress and a saucy maid. On stage, she presents herself as a mischievous scheming soubrette!
As part of the slapstick scenarios of Commedia dell’Arte, Colombina – speaking in a Tuscan dialect – is witty, lucid and down to earth. She does, however, exhibit remarkable toughness and cunning against what she sees to be a man’s world.
She is the wife of Pierrot, the sad clown whom she treats with insensitivity. She is also the mistress of Harlequin (Arlecchino) with whom she is besotted; she takes him under her wing whilst at the same time manipulating him when counter-plotting against her greedy and lecherous master, Pantalone. She plays the role of personal maid to the prima donna innamorata.
Initially, Colombina was imagined to be strong like an acrobat, and this may in part be due to her appearance and theatrical presence.
Her costumes are often made of irregular coloured patches of fabric, or diamonds and triangles, matching those of Arlechinno. For other roles, depending on the scenario, she is portrayed as being petite and graceful, dressed in a fancy maid’s dress of pretty layered material, with frilly wide apron and mobcap.
Yet despite her garment falling below the knee, which lends a degree of modesty to her appearance, she wears heavy makeup under a domino-like mask that covers only her eyes. Her outfit is designed to emphasise a display of buxom cleavage, further stoking the amorous advances of men such as Pantalone and Il Capitano.
To escape these unwanted attentions, Colombina performs a variety of fast and nimble ballet steps and movements. She also flicks her pointed foot at the end of a grand Zanni scene or shifts from one foot to another, hands on hips while holding her apron. She sometimes wraps her foot around a male performer with a slightly forward tilt, seemingly to be provocative.
She is often portrayed holding a basket or a tambourine or both. When she speaks, she tends to move her head sharply as if searching for someone other than the person being addressed.
The character of Colombina first appeared in 1530 in texts written by the “Academic Intronati of Siena” (“the stunned Academics”).
Her true origin, however, is thought to be found in Plautus’s Latin comedies where risqué female slaves were portrayed as being older and more seductive while still aiding their mistresses with illicit affairs.
In the early days of the Commedia, such roles were associated with entr’acte (“between acts”) dancers with names such as Franceschina, Smeraldina, Olive and Nespola.
Later they progressed to becoming counterparts to the Zanni characters, and thus the coquettish Colombina was born.
The Italian actress Caterina Biancolelli (1665-1716) began playing the role of Colombina in 1683, following in her grandmother’s footsteps. Then in 1695 she went on to play “Arleccina”, a female version of Harlequin, thus taking after her father who became famous for playing the same role.
Colombina’s persona inspired several famous playwrights in the 17th and 18th centuries, including the writer and poet Molière. He created many servant characters for his comedies, such as “Dorine” the impudent maid in “Tartuffe” who is thought to be based loosely on Colombina, albeit less overtly sexual.
When Colombina first made her appearance she seldom wore a mask, which was a characteristic of most of the other stock characters in the Commedia dell’Arte.
She instead preferred to apply thick makeup and beauty spots to her face, intended to exaggerate her beauty. By the 18th century, however, she was seen sporting what is now known as a domino mask, usually black and covering only the area of the eyes.
These small, often rounded masks are frequently worn today by male and female participants in carnival celebrations and can be found in a variety of flamboyant designs, decorated with feathers, gems and brightly coloured fabrics.
Colombina may be a flirtatious and sometimes a capricious character but she plays an important role in Commedia dell’Arte.
She is an efficient, carefree servant who is intelligent enough to have achieved a higher status. She is not overly dramatic in any given situation and is able to hold her own when dealing with the ardent womanisers in her life.
As a servant of Isabella she is a faithful confidante, constantly demonstrating her improvisational skills and acting as a go-between for the innamorata.
She is literate, self-sufficient and careful with money and, although she is sexually experienced, she can be modest without being overly coy when it suits her.
Colombina is affectionate and entertaining, with no desire to be rich. However she exhibits a hint of madness in her behaviour towards Harlequin, tormenting him with precipitous changes to her appearance, personality and accent.
Having found herself through reading and books, Colombina is a self-educated woman, and she is emotionally literate too, quite capable of listening to others and emphasising with their emotions.
This is clearly seen in her relationship with the innamorata where Colombina shows real sympathy with her plight, aiding her hysterical mistress to gain the affection of her beloved, and often hiding their love letters in her pockets.
Consumed with the idea of being in love but never outwardly communicating with their paramour, the Lovers rely on Colombina to keep her composure while resolving their distress.
Harlequin on the other hand, with whom she is in love, is invariably punished with admonishments and intolerable behaviour for not being able to change.
Colombina is without doubt at the centre of everything that is going on and she certainly exerts tremendous influence over the outcome of different scenarios.
Independent and educated, loyal though unpredictable, “she is happy and carefree, yet when assigned a task moves with speed and efficiency”.
She is a feminine and sexy character, with a masculine strength and wiliness which disguises her real motives, a beautiful cunning trickster.
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