Commedia Dell’Arte and Porcelain

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A few years ago, I saw some photos of the porcelain Commedia Dell’ Arte collection at Gardiner Museum in Toronto.   (www.gardinermuseum.on.ca/colview.aspx).   I’ve since visited their website to view the collection a couple of times a year.   It’s so charming to see these elegant and engaging little porcelain figurines of Harlequin, Columbine, Scaramouche, Pulchinella and other stock rogues in the group.   Petite, arch and insouciant, they are of another time and culture.

Theatre groups in Naples originally performed commedia dell’arte before large crowds in the streets.   It was knock-down, obscenity-laden, street theatre.  The characters violently attacked, mocked and beat each other.  Slapstick, burlesque and ‘Punch and Judy’ shows are all said to come out of this theatrical tradition. 

It’s an interesting twist that these bawdy, brawling characters morphed into fragile and serene porcelain entities in the homes of the European aristocracy.

I have just re-read the short novel, “Utz”, by Bruce Chatwin,  about a wily and obsessive East European porcelain collector.  Kaspar Utz became fixated on Messien figurines when a small Harlequin was given to him as a boy.   He has since been fascinated by porcelain’s aesthetic, spiritual and alchemical mysteries.  Utz guards and expands his extensive Messien collection with bitter wit while living in Soviet Prague.  For Utz,  “Porcelain is the only antidote to decay.”   

The book was made into a very good movie, also called ‘Utz’, in 1992.  It stars Armin Mueller-Stahl, Paul Scofield and Brenda Fricker.

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