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This is the most popular character in the whole Commedia dell’arte. His role is, basically secondo zanni or second manservant, and he comes, or so it is said, from the stagnant marshes of Lower Bergamo.

Different then from his Upper Bergamo counterpart Brighella, Harlequin is stupid, gullible and constantly on the lookout for food. This legend of Harlequin's being born in lower Bergamo is interesting if we look at what Tommaso Garzoni has to say about the real inhabitants.

He is describing the trade called the facchini or porters, which had in many ways become a Bergamasque closed shop. "Born in the Bergamo hills, where they are flushed out of theiy hides like so many animals out of a cage, they are sent out o f the valley into the service of the world which uses them like donkeys or beasts of burden all day long... they are thick-set to look at, but within they are as thick as wood.

Such obtusity is rare... and they have such a strange way of speaking that the zani of the comedies have taken it over and make sport of it for the whole band to laugh at."

Some would have it that Harlequin's dress comes from that of the Roman mimus centunculus. Clumsy and always being hoodwinked, on a social level he is a step below his friend, enemy and general companion in crime, Brighella.

A porter, cheat by name and cheat by nature, he is forever hungry, in the completest sense of that word when one thinks that the actor who played Harlequin often shared his bitter wretchedness.
The oldest pictorial evidence we have of Harlequin is a 1570 painting by Porous the Elder. He also appears in the Grevembroch collection, however, in the clothes of a bawd.

His costume is made up of a jacket with irregular, multicoloured patches, a white felt cap decorated with a piece of rabbit's or fox's tail and a belt from which a wooden polenta spoon, or batocio hangs. His black half mask has demoniac or feline features, often accompanied by bristling eyebrows, a moustache a snub nose. A large bump on his forehead provides the finishing touch.

He too speaks the archaic dialect of Bergamo with some other slang dialect expressions thrown in. Harlequin is acrobatic, particularly complex in his gestures and with a gait that is almost a dance.
The butt of all, Harlequin is nonetheless the most wrangled over Commedia dell'arte character. Some would have it that he descends from some demon out of the Anglo-Saxon sagas. But Dante too, in the Inferno (cantos XXI and XXII) tells of a demon called "Alichino"among Malebranche's band of robbers.

Still in the middle ages, there was a count of Boulogne called Harnequin who died in a skirmish with the Normans but lived on to be the protagonist of many demonic tales. And in the Jeu de la Feuillèe, by Adam de la Halle, there is a devil with a name very similar to Harlequin. Migliorini sees a clear connection between this character and the traditional figure of the Harlequins, a clown-like degeneration of the mesnie Harequin, a procession of the damned, known as far back as the eleventh century.

France, then, says that he belongs to her and Italy, for her part, traces this name back to Herculinus or Hercules the Glutton from the Greek-Campania tradition of the fliaci. Wherever it may have originated, though, many Italians have, elped to make Harlequin famous. Among them are Domenico Biancolelli, Tristano Martinelli, Evaristo Gherardi, the Goldoni actor Antonio Sacchi.

Coming up to the present, there is the famous Strehler interpreter, Marcello Moretti and, most recent of all of this family of great actors, Ferruccio Soleri. They have kept the secret across the centuries and maybe it is true that Harlequin himself, as Petrolini, another of his great living interpreters, has said, will disperse all our learned disquisitions by saying, with the wisdom of Solomon, that, when all is said and done, “each one of us descends only from the stairs o four own house”. An incontestable truth, that, and perfectly in the part for Harlequin.

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