The Captain, Il Capitano in Italian, is one of the stock characters of the Commedia dell’arte, a centuries-old form of amusing and satirical comedy performed by masked players. He wears a nose mask, known as the Captain, to portray his pompus and comical character, he appears as a Spanish soldier but he is dishonest and arrogant
Il Capitano claims to be a Spanish soldier fighting in the war and he manages to maintain this fiction through a number of devices. Firstly, during most of the late Renaissance and well into the 17th century, parts of Italy were under Spanish domination and Il Capitano spoke boldly with a Castilian accent. Secondly, he is constantly moving from place to place and sees to it that no one in his company recognises him. Most significantly, he stands tall and intimidating in his military uniform, affecting his supposedly high status. Wearing a wide plumed hat, 17th century tight-fitting clothes sometimes diagonally striped or slashed in the style of François I, a flamboyant plethora of neck-ruffles, ostentatious breeches with an extraordinarily long sword hanging from his belt, and huge boots, Il Capitano indeed looks magnificent and every bit the part.
Everything about Il Capitano is calculated to emphasise his feigned bravado to the audience, particularly the women, whose adulation he keenly seeks. From his customary ‘at ease’ stance – feet planted firmly apart in order to maximise his presence – to his goose-step marching and standing rigidly to attention, he is convinced that all eyes are fixed appreciatively on him. During his first entrance, or during his stock comedic routines (Lazzi) that are associated with Commedia dell’arte, he will make a salutation so that he can be admired by the audience.
One of the earliest of the Commedia characters, Il Capitano is often said to have been inspired by the Iberic caudillos, military leaders who channelled their aggressive and brash self-assurance to gain political and economic power during the 19th century. However, the true origins of Il Capitano may perhaps be found in two much earlier literary works: “Miles Gloriosus” (“The Swaggering Soldier”) by Plautus and “Eunuchus” (“The Eunuch”) by Terence. These two Roman playwrights, writing in the last centuries of the pre-Christian era, both produced comic plays that introduced loud, arrogant, boastful mercenaries. Whatever his genesis, by the late 17th century the character of Il Capitano had lost most of its political overtones and in today’s performances he is simply represented as an egoistic fabricator.
Il Capitano is depicted with two different masks. One looks rather stern and menacing, with a long phallic nose and large holes for the eyes. The overly large nose represents manliness, to emphasise his virility and machismo. The other mask is more humorous, with a smaller nose and eyes, larger cheeks, and a fierce-looking handlebar moustache. Originally, the masks were probably flesh-coloured, but today they are produced in vibrant colours such as bright pink, yellow, and powder blue. Il Capitano’s masks are intended to accentuate the contrast between the two aspects of his nature: pompous and comical.
It doesn’t take long to work out Il Capitano’s static character. His distinguishing attributes reveal themselves almost immediately. Traits like dishonesty, self-importance, and arrogance are part and parcel of his role. He also likes to think of himself as a successful womaniser, when in fact he comes across as a blustering old fool who is overly keen on blowing his own trumpet. At the first sign of danger, he cowers with fear, throws his head back and lets out a shrill squeak, thus exposing the reality behind his bogus claims to bravado.
As in real life, the way that a theatrical character acts says a great deal about who they are and thus we may gather clues about Il Capitano’s personality through his words, reactions, feelings, movements, mannerisms and, last but not least, his actions. He is portrayed as having some kind of panache, living in a make-believe world where he strives to impress others and gain their approval. However, this vicious treadmill of constantly seeking approval and acceptance never stops and here we can see his emotional frailty and lack of self-worth. He very rarely secures the reactions he craves and this presents an endless challenge to him. At the same time, he is easily carried away with his own sham persona, which he apparently enjoys, not realising that those around him aren’t being taken in by it.
He is, in reality, quite the opposite of the person he wants to present to the world. For example, when hired by Pantalone, one of the principal characters found in Commedia dell’arte, to protect his daughter from unsuitable admirers, he unscrupulously offers his services to them instead, and at a high price, whilst pursuing the girl himself. On another occasion, when hired to take part in combat on the grounds of his apparent bravery, he is seen to play the disloyal turncoat, joining the opposition in a bid to save his hide.
Il Capitano is a yellow-belly, there is no doubt about it. He always finds some silly reason to justify why he cannot do what he has promised. When he is frightened, he runs on the spot, head thrown back, arms in the air, kicking his feet and howling piteously. Where, the audience may ask, is the courageous soldier of war now?
Despite his claims to grandiosity, it is obvious that he is in fact poverty-stricken. When confronted about his tattered undergarments, he claims these are the result of the amazing virility of his body hair shredding them when he gets angry!
Il Capitano is in some regards the character that tends to evoke the greatest pity amongst audiences of the Commedia dell’arte. Self-important, brash and deceitful though he may be, he has a comic side and always plays to the crowds. While he is portrayed as a pompous though cowardly military man, a pretentious braggart, he is a popular figure in Renaissance theatre who appears in himself to be quite happy and anything but vainglorious.
If you are a cosplay fan, and like the idea of emulating the Captain at your next Venetian Ball, check out all Snub Nose Masks