Mirandolina, or the Mistress of the Inn
Mirandolina, or the Mistress of the Inn
THE LITERARY WORK
A play in three acts set in Florence in the middle of the eighteenth century; first staged in Venice in 1753; published in Italian (as La locandiera) in 1753, in English in 1912.
Admired and courted by the guests of her inn, the innkeeper Mirandolina charms a misogynist aristocrat, the Cavaliere of Ripafratta, who ends up falling in love with her but loses out to an unexpected rival.
An extraordinarily prolific playwright, Carlo Goldoni is considered the most significant Italian dramatist of the eighteenth century. The father of reform in Italy’s comic theater, he was born in Venice on February 25, 1707, in his grandfather’s mansion. Goldoni spent his childhood in a happy family’s circle governed by his mother while his father studied and practiced medicine in Rome. The boy later joined his father in Perugia, attending a Jesuit school before being sent to the School of the Dominican Father in Rimini to study philosophy and logic. Goldoni spent much of his time there reading Latin, Italian, and French plays. He went on to study law in Pavia, getting expelled but then finally earning his law degree at the University of Padua in 1731. He embarked on a legal career and began to pen tragicomedies and cornmedia dell’arte scenarios for Antonio Sacchi, one of the greatest comic actors of the day. Goldoni eventually quit the law and settled into a career as a playwright in Venice with his wife, Nicoletta. Almost single-handedly he would transform the improvised, stereotypical commedia dell’arte performances of his era into the scripted plays of the modern theater. He would also become the first modern, bourgeois intellectual no longer to depend upon a noble patron but rather, to earn his living entirely by writing. Enormously prolific, Goldoni wrote about 150 works, some in Italian, others in Venetian dialect and later in French. They range from comedies, to tragedies, tragicomedies, scenarios for commedia dell’arte, intermezzi for musical theater, libretti for opera buff a (comic opera), and musical farces. His finest plays were written in Venice in the first two phases of his career: at the Sant’Angelo Theater (1748-53), where he wrote The Mistress of the Inn (La Locandiera, 1753), and at the San Luca Theater (1753-62), where he composed such works as The Boors (I rusteghi, 1760), The Superior Residence (La casa nova, 1760), Mr. Todero, the Grumper (Sior Todero Brontolon, 1762), and The Squabbles of Chioggia (Le baruffe chiozzotte, 1762).
Annoyed by the competition among playwrights and by the controversy provoked by his reforms, Goldoni left Venice in 1762 for Paris, where he spent the remainder of his life. He continued working in theater, penning 24 commedia dell’arte scenarios, until he grew so disillusioned with the world of the theater that he became an Italian tutor for the royal princesses at Versailles.
In this late third phase of his career, Goldoni wrote in French, producing a few additional plays and his Memoirs (Mémoires, 1787), one of the most remarkable eighteenth-century autobiographies. In 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, Goldoni died poor and blind, his royal pension having been abolished by the revolutionaries. The very same day, unaware of his death, the National Convention (an assembly to decide France’s future) reinstated his pension, voicing appreciation for the subtle, barbed criticism of the nobility that pervades many of his plays. One such play, The Mistress of the Inn, features the witty intrigues of a charming middle-class woman and relegates to the background, in ridiculous silhouette, men of a declining aristocracy.
The splendid decline of the Serenissima
Though ostensibly set in Florence, The Mistress of the Inn depicts eighteenth-century Venetian society. Goldoni masked the true target of his irony and disguised the true setting of his work to avoid censorship by the city’s aristocracy.
In the mid-eighteenth century, when the playwright wrote The Mistress of the Inn, the Republic of Venice could boast of a glorious history that spanned more than a thousand years. Elsewhere in Europe, France and England were establishing themselves as superpowers, while the various Italian city-states lay fragmented largely under the rule of Spain and Austria. An exception, Venice continued to enjoy independence and a republican constitution, thanks to a shrewd decision to remain politically neutral in the European wars. But its golden age would soon dissolve entirely. As the center of trade between East and West, the Serenissima (”most serene”), as Venice was called, had reached its apogee as a maritime and imperial republic in the 1400s, thereafter suffering the slow, inexorable political and economic decline that afflicted it during Goldoni’s day. In 1797, the city would lose its independence; betrayed by France’s general Napoleon Bonaparte, it was ceded to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Though relegated to the margins of international trade and politics, eighteenth-century Venice occupied a pivotal place on the cultural and artistic horizon of Europe, equal to, if not surpassing, that of Paris and London. An obligatory stopover on the Grand Tour—the educational trip undertaken by young members of the European aristocracy—the city exuded a sophisticated, cosmopolitan atmosphere and foreigners flocked to the lagoon. In cafés such as the Florian in Piazza San Marco and salons such as those hosted by Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi and Giustina Renier Michiel (both famous locales for learned debate and polite conversation), Venice’s elite discussed art, literature, and the new Enlightenment principles from France, such as reason and tolerance, equality and philosophical materialism. The Venetian publishing industry and book market were the most vibrant on the Italian peninsula. It was in Venice that all the literature coming from the rest of Europe was printed, translated, and distributed to various locations throughout Italy. Among the most important English novels that circulated in Venice were Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.
No longer the dominant power in the politics of the Mediterranean, Venice turned to the cultivation of spectacle and pleasure, offering a life of unparalleled hedonism. There were sumptuous parades, public processions, and ceremonies, which transformed the city into something of an open theater. The annual Carnival before Lent brought galas, masquerades, and gambling into its streets and palazzi (buildings), fostering an atmosphere of gaiety and amusement. Theatrical and operatic productions flourished. Venice boasted five times as many theaters as Paris at the time. All social classes, including the working class, crowded the theaters during the three theatrical seasons of the year. Against this extraordinary urban background, the great libertines of the century staged their amorous intrigues in life and art. Among them were Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1830), author of the text for the opera Don Giovanni, and Giacomo Casanova (1725-98), author of The Duel (also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times) and a landmark autobiography. It was during this period that Venice experienced its grand moment in music, with such luminaries as Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), composer of The Four Seasons and more than 600 other concertos. The city also achieved heights in painting at the time. While Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) painted his famous frescoed ceilings, Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) and Francesco Guardi (1712-93) immortalized the lagoon in famous views that foreigners took home as souvenirs. At the same time, Pietro Longhi (1701-85), Goldoni’s friend, painted interiors and intimate scenes of Venetian life with great realism. Like Goldoni’s newly reformed dramas, Longhi’s images provide glimpses into the daily rites, gestures, and habits not only of Italian nobles, but also of the bourgeois and working classes.
The reform of the theater
When Carlo Goldoni decided to commit himself to playwriting, the world of the stage in Venice (as in the other states of the Italian peninsula) was dominated by a very popular theatrical form known as the commedia dell’arte, in addition to the various genres of musical performances such as opera, opera buffa (comic opera), and intermezzi (brief entertainment provided between the acts of a play). By then, the commedia dell’arte had already grown stale and repetitive: often amounting to a vulgar farce, it was based on stereotyped comedy, obscene humor, and slapstick physicality. Inspired by the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Goldoni aimed to transform the obsolete commedia dell’arte theater, rejecting its obscenity and buffoonery, and injecting it with a greater sense of verisimilitude and naturalness. It was through the playwright’s reforms, in fact, that principles of realism began to enter Italian literature and theater started to become a reflection of social reality. As he asserts in the preface to the first edition of his plays (Commedie, 1750), the “World” and “Theater”—contemporary reality and his experiential knowledge of theatrical production—are his only sources of inspiration.
Refashioning Italian drama, Goldoni forged innovations in the structure, content, and performance of a play. Most notably, the script was no longer improvised on the basis of generic rough drafts but written by the author in its entirety and memorized by the actors. Goldoni’s The Clever Woman (La donna di garbo, 1743) was the first fully scripted comedy, making authorship more important than actorship. In Goldoni’s comedies, language became truer to contemporary idiom, fresh and lively, with all its social and vernacular subtleties and nuances, rather than
SOCIETY IN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY VENICE
An acute observer of his contemporary reality, Goldoni stages in his plays the complex social stratification of the Venice of the epoch, focusing on social boundaries and their permeability In 1766, the city claimed a population of 137,000 inhabitants, who were divided into a rigid class system. The aristocracy, just one-fortieth of the population, was subdivided into grandi (the old nobility that governed the city), quarantiotti (minor nobility excluded from senatorial power), and bamaboti (impoverished nobility with no financial standing). Originally linked to commerce and imperial and mercantile expansion, the aristocracy had immobilized their capital in real estate investments and lived in idleness, largely causing the economic and political decline of the republic. The common class, known as the popolo, was subdivided into various economic strata: the most dynamic and prestigious sector, which threatened social stability, was that of the rich professionals and the merchant middle class (lawyers, doctors, factory owners, and individuals involved in manufacture, trade, and commerce). Further down the scale, the lower middle class included shopkeepers and innkeepers, while porters, servants, artisans, boatmen, lace-makers, silk-weavers, and laundresses comprised the popolo minuto. Finally there were the, marginali, people perceived as marginal—the disabled, women without families, abandoned children, beggars—who were supported by charity.
stuffed with stereotyped jokes or obscene lazzi (jests), as in the commedia dell’arte. The stage and sets acquired new significance, shifting from the abstract, stylized backgrounds of traditional theater to fully historicized realistic scenery. Thus, for the first time calli and campielli (Venetian streets and squares) as well as the interiors of bourgeois, aristocratic, and even lower-class homes began to appear on the stage. Meanwhile, the performance was entrusted to entirely new figures; stock characters and masks symbolizing abstract virtues and vices (the custom in commedia dell’arte) were replaced by largely, though not completely, individualized characters. They were psychologically well developed yet representative of the different social classes that intermixed in
THE COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE
Performed by troupes of professional actors in cities across Europe, the commedia dell’arte or commedia ali’im prowiso flourished from the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. Originating in Renaissance Italy as a popular reaction to the commedia erudita (learned literary drama), the commedia dell’arte was a type of performance based purely on spectacle and diversion: a creative and exuberant mix of body language and acrobatics, improvised dialogue and verbal pungency, jokes and gags, pantomime and tricks, music and dances. Staged on a small platform, invariably representing a stylized street with a house front or marketplace, the performance was enacted by a gallery of stock characters often wearing masks and costumes: the old men (the greedy merchant Pantalone from Venice, the pedantic doctor from Bologna); the zanni, or male servants (the naïve Artecchino, the cunning Brighella, both from the Bergamask countryside, and the Neapolitan Pulcinella); the charming and quick-witted servetta, or servant (Colombina or Franceschina); the young lovers; and the Captain (an unmasked character resembling a Spanish hidalgo, sometimes a hero, sometimes a villain). The production depended on a canovaccio (a skeletal outline of the plot); the rest was entrusted to the talents of the actors, who improvised standard situations and gags, basing their performances on a repertoire of lazzi (verbal and physical routines) and tirale (speeches and monologues). The most famous professional companies—the Gelosi (1571-1604), the Confident! (1574-1639), the Unit! (1578-1640), and the Fedeli (1601-40)—traveled from the squares and courts of the Italian peninsula to Paris, Dresden, Lisbon, Warsaw, and St. Petersburg.
the republic’s dynamic urban environments. In Goldoni, the city and theater became entwined and began to mirror each other. His theory of playwriting is literally enacted in the play The Comic Theater (II teatro comico, 1750), in which the actors themselves, preparing a play within the play, explain the rationale behind Goldoni’s reforms.
The reform of drama proceeded at a gradual, cautious pace and for good reason. Goldoni’s innovations met with success as well as disfavor: the actors did not want to memorize the texts; the public preferred to be entertained with the grossly comic, somewhat obscene gags of the cornmedia dell’arte, and theater managers feared losing their profits. Despite all these obstacles, Goldoni’s innovations were indelible and enduring. His texts are counted among the ones that best exemplify the climate of the Enlightenment. Rationality, order, decorum, naturalness—the values privileged in Goldoni’s plays—were the new philosophical and aesthetic tenets imposing themselves all over Europe, superseding the artifice, extravagance, and irrationality of the Baroque age. Goldoni’s infusion of social critique into his works fits with Europe’s bourgeoning Enlightenment culture: his pen is ironic and cutting in its portrayal of the privileges and excesses of the aristocratic class; at the same time, it exalts and endorses the ethics and ideals of a newly ascendant social group, the merchants and bourgeoisie. The Mistress of the Inn is, in this regard, an exemplary text. However, in a later phase of his dramaturgy, Goldoni would expose the contradictions and flaws inherent in the middle class itself, ending his creative career in Venice with a dazzling portrayal of a working-class community of noisy fishermen and their squabbling wives.
Venetian women and the Enlightenment
While still a predominantly patriarchal society, eighteenth-century Venice offered women more freedom and independence than their predecessors as Enlightenment ideas spread throughout the city. In everyday life, women of the era were less likely to be subjected to cloistering than before, and, while arranged marriages remained common among the nobility, women of all social classes were increasingly able to dissolve their unhappy marriages. Venetian women also had a valid alternative to marriage or the convent: the option of lay spinsterhood. Some forms of sexual freedom and adultery—although not uncommon among the aristocracy even in earlier years—were tolerated with indulgence in the relatively uninhibited city. Venetian women also enjoyed an exceptional degree of economic power. Although noblewomen were subject to somewhat complicated laws, most daughters could inherit assets of all kinds from their fathers, as special emphasis was placed on wills, like the testament left by Mirandolina’s father. Also, women’s dowries remained their own property, and were restored to them if they were widowed, rather than being directly absorbed into their husbands’ holdings. As a result, some Venetian women “were enabled—and obliged at the same time—to play a patriarchal role, dowering their daughters, sisters, and nieces, sometimes supporting their whole family’s, including their own husbands” (Ambrosini, p. 435). Literacy played an essential role in shaping a life of independence: an increasing number of women were taught to read and write, even among the lower social ranks, while in 1678 the noblewoman Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia became the first female to be granted a doctorate (at the University of Padova). Goldoni himself, in his 1743 play The Clever Woman, defended the right of women to be wise and highly educated against men who resisted this social development. Champions of the Enlightenment argued that educating women would serve society in good stead, a claim supported by living examples of Venetian women who worked as journalists (Elisabetta Caminer Turra, Gioseffa Cornoldi Caminer), as writers and critics (Luisa Bergalli, Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, Giustina Renier Michiel, Elisabetta Mosconi Contarini), and as painters (Rosalba Carriera).
In keeping with these trends, female characters occupy a central place in Goldoni’s theater and often embody the Enlightenment principle of rationality. Always spirited and vivacious, many of his female characters become the mediators of tensions between social classes and generations; often bearers of good sense and reason, they are seen as civilizing agents, a force that can temper the irrational impulses inherent in society and in men. The innkeeper Mirandolina, protagonist of The Mistress of the Inn, is one such protagonist; enigmatic in her own way, she evinces a sharp-tongued wit in the course of the play, and a sober intelligence in her final selection of a mate.
The play takes place at an inn in Florence (a stand-in for Venice), which Mirandolina, a charming young woman of intelligence and poise, has inherited from her father. Often the aristocratic patrons of the inn fall in love with her; at the play’s end however, she chooses to marry the plebeian Fabrizio in keeping with her father’s last wishes.
Act I begins with the rivalry between two guests, the Marquis of Forlimpopoli and the Count of Albafiorita, for the romantic conquest of the innkeeper. While the two aristocrats continue their ridiculous quarrel in the background, seeking unsuccessfully to seduce Mirandolina with gifts or with offers to protect her, a third character enters the inn, the Cavaliere (knight) of Ripafratta. A fierce misogynist, he derides his noble companions for their silly infatuation and treats Mirandolina with rude arrogance: “A female’s upset you? A female’s ruffled your feathers? A FEMALE! It’s absurd! I’ll never fall into that trap. Brrrr! Women! Never been in love with one. Never even liked one. You want my opinion? A woman’s like a bad bout of flu: exhausting, and hard to shake off’ (Goldoni, Mirandolina, p. 108). Irked by the gentleman’s dismissive attitude and touched at the core of her feminine pride, the innkeeper—for her own amusement—decides to vindicate herself by making the Cavaliere fall in love with her. The act ends with a soliloquy that discloses her subtle plot: “I’m going to make that woman-hater love me if it’s the last thing I do. I’m not giving up a pleasure like that easily. … Who can resist a woman, when she gets a chance to use her skills?” (Mirandolina, pp. 132-33).
In Act II, the innkeeper puts her artful strategy of conquest in motion. First with the excuse of offering him a gourmet tidbit, then with a precious wine from Burgundy, Mirandolina enters the Cavaliere’s room. She finally wins his trust, managing to entice him with her charm and even agreeing with him when he slanders the female sex. Mirandolina meanwhile exposes two new guests—a pair of extravagant professional actresses masquerading as noblewomen—for who they truly are. They try to seduce the Cavaliere as well, but without success. Aware of his risky situation (”She’s trying to destroy me. But she does it so beautifully, the little witch!” [Mirandolina, p. 147]), the Cavaliere decides to leave the inn, but he is hindered by the innkeeper, who first pretends to cry and then to collapse (”Women have all sort of methods for conquering men, but when in doubt—pass out”[Mirandolina, p. 157]). Mirandolina’s fainting act seals the nobleman’s defeat.
Act III opens with the innkeeper intent on ironing the linens. Now insensitive and pitiless, she stubbornly rejects the Cavaliere’s offers of love (”Would you mind telling me why you’re tormenting me like this? I love you”[Mirandolina, p. 167]), as well as the precious gift he offers her, a gold vial of lemon balm essence. Conquered and publicly humiliated, the Cavaliere loses his temper and begins raving. Mirandolina, realizing the risk of her own game (”I am starting to regret my little scheme. Oh, it was fun, getting him to chase after me like that—but things are out of control now”[Mirandolina, p. 177]), wisely decides to marry Fabrizio, a faithful and humble servant of her inn, thus fulfilling her father’s wishes for her: “I’ve got a husband now: I shan’t need admirers, or presents. I’ve always pleased myself, you see—sometimes at other people’s expense. I’ve risked my reputation now and then. But not anymore” (Mirandolina, p. 187).
Staging social rivalry
The first exchange of retorts between the Marquis of Forlimpopoli and the Count of Albafiorita, which opens the text (”Marquesses before counts”; “This is an inn. My money’s as good as yours”), is dense with symbolic significance (Mirandolina, p. 104). The exchange introduces the issue of differences between social classes in the eighteenth century. Not only a delightful inn where a woman-hater is defeated, the lodge is also, metaphorically, a microcosm of Venetian society: an open space in which various social groups intermingle, a stage where the rivalry between the aristocracy and the emerging merchant middle class is enacted. The characters of the Marquis and the Count embody two variants of Venetian aristocracy in the mid-1700s, both subtly critiqued by Goldoni’s barbed pen. On one hand, the Marquis represents the decline of the older nobility, which has lost its economic power and prestige; on the other hand, the Count exemplifies the more recently minted nobility, the aristocrats with more promising financial possibilities (”Economics is everything these days” [Mirandolina, p. 107]). While the Marquis believes that Mirandolina should submit to his courtly game because of an ancient privilege given to his class (”rank still counts for something”; “Blue blood. That’s the only commodity of real value”), the Count plans to entrap her in dependence through his economic power (“We’re both in love with Mirandolina. I’m trying to get her for cash. He’s trying to get her on tick. Only he calls it nobility” [Mirandolina, pp. 105, 107]). In the competition between the two ethical and economic systems, the Marquis proves the loser: his money is scarce, his social prestige insignificant, and the presents he is able to offer Mirandolina are all too humble (a lace handkerchief, a light wine of poor quality) in comparison with the Count’s ostentatious gifts (a gold necklace, diamond earrings). At the opposite end of the social scale is the humble servant Fabrizio, who wins Mirandolina in marriage: as a young peasant inurbato (migrant from the country to the city), he transgresses geographical and social boundaries. Through hard work and sacrifice, he achieves a marriage with a petit-bourgeois property owner, earning love (perhaps), upward social mobility, and economic power.
At the center of this dynamic microcosm stands the innkeeper, representative of an urban class of artisans and entrepreneurs. Beyond the splendid palaces of the nobility on the Grand Canal, mid-century Venice is full of shops, inns, and taverns where individuals like Mirandolina—artisans, hotel-keepers, dyers, glass-blowers, cobblers, gondoliers, vendors—produce wealth, commodities, and material goods. They also create a new morality, based on common sense, honesty, thrift, and hard work, in contrast to the arrogant world of the aristocracy, based on appearances and a lack of productivity. Mirandolina adheres to the new mercantile ethic, constant in her impeccably professional demeanor and her focus on the good of her business. The tools of her trade that surround her (sheets, table linens, food, wine, laundry) symbolize a productive bourgeois world, while her language (dominated by the verbs, fare, to do; sapere, to know; volere, to want) demonstrates her willful entrepreneurial character. Her value system is based on pragmatism and prudence: ultimately she renounces the pleasures of the game of seduction and returns to her everyday duties, deciding wisely to marry the dependable Fabrizio, rather than yield to the noble Cavaliere. Her choice is both expedient and dutiful; as an obedient daughter, she fulfills her father’s last wishes for her to marry the faithful servant. As a docile representative of an emerging social group, Mirandolina does not step over the confines of her proper position, which would threaten the stability of social hierarchies. As an honest woman herself, she instead marries a healthy, hard-working young man, making a match that contributes to the growth of her class and city. The ending—typical for Goldoni—moralizes and reassures.
It cannot escape the modern reader’s attention, however, that under the tranquil surface of this play lies a subtly disquieting quality; by marrying the lowly waiter Fabrizio, Mirandolina continues to exert her social and economic power, as a wife and as mistress of the inn, maintaining for herself a margin of freedom (” Perhaps I should marry him! At least I’d be able to protect my interests—and keep my freedom”[Mirandolina, p. 177]). She in fact reverses the hierarchy of gender roles within the nuclear family’s, just as she earlier subverted social and sexual roles in her clever game of seduction, making three noblemen fall in love with her without surrendering herself to any one of them. Such an assertion of agency and sexual independence constitutes a remarkable achievement for an eighteenth-century fictional heroine.
Playing with gender
On closer inspection, the inn is a much more complex place than it seems to be. It is not just a mirror of Venetian society but also, metaphorically, a theater and a salon. It is the setting in which Mirandolina—mimicking the famous aristocratic salonniéres (salon-holders) of her time—displays her wit and cunning as she engages her guests in a game of clever seduction. She is the rational individual of the age of Enlightenment and also, paradoxically, the actress, demonstrating a propensity for pretence, deception, and theatricality. In her careful game of seduction, she manipulates masculine and feminine gender roles, confusing the traits associated with them. At first, she feigns a feminine timidity and naivete, entering the Cavaliere’s room to bring him fine white linen from Flanders. Then, to win over the Cavaliere, she pretends to be different from other women (“Women. … But I shouldn’t malign on my own sex”; “A toast: DOWN WITH WOMEN” [Mirandolina, p. 119, 139). All feigning aside, she shows a tendency toward traditionally male attributes—freedom, independence, honesty (”Freedom is priceless” [Mirandolina, p. 119]). She even goes so far as to belittle emasculated men who stupidly fall in love with women (”Oh, come on sir—you are an intelligent man. Leave falling in love to fools like the count” [Mirandolina, p. 140]). The subtle stratagem succeeds and the Cavaliere believes Mirandolina’s feigned sincerity: “Know what I like best? Her honesty. That’s what I can’t stand about women, you see—all that affectation. But in this case … “(Mirandolina, p. 136). Once the Cavaliere is reassured, she is ready to perform a game of exquisite femininity: she flatters him, she goes to his room to tempt him with delicate gourmet foods and rich wine from Burgundy. She cleverly transforms the everyday tools of her trade (sheets, wine, and food) into potent instruments of seduction, into aphrodisiac foods and magical love potions. Her performance of beguiling femininity is sealed with tears and fainting, a gesture of superb drama.
The final act presents all of the play’s psychological elements and symbolic objects: Mirandolina, in the laundry room, intent on ironing, has renounced the pleasure of games and pretense. The servant Fabrizio, jealous, enters with the hot iron—a humble working tool and a symbol of the young peasant’s sexual potency. The Cavaliere, raving by now, insists on (uselessly) giving a vial of lemon balm to a Mirandolina who grows colder and more disdainful by the minute. This precious object symbolizes the Cavaliere’s defeat: he, like the other noblemen, wrongly expects to create a relationship of almost feudal dependence with the lady through a material object. But the gold flask of lemon balm, though precious, does not suit Mirandolina: traditionally used to revive a fainting lady, it is useless to her, an outmoded object that stands for a passive, frivolous notion of femininity. Thus, Mirandolina redefines herself apart from the cultural construction of gender. Finally, all the intrigue and Mirandolina’s rejection of the passionate love that the Cavaliere offers her are a reflection of the tempered character that love acquired in Goldoni’s day. She resists passion because she embodies the very spirit of the Enlightenment—an age in which love is only a gallant game, lacking any emotional depth or irrational complication.
One of Goldoni’s most original creations, Mirandolina represents a highly sophisticated evolution of the servitore (servant). Departing from the comic and ridiculous representations of this character typically found in classical and Renaissance theater, the Venetian playwright invested the role with human dignity as well as the capacity for insight and social critique. The feminine version of the servitore, the servetta plays a pivotal role in Goldoni’s theater, always shrewd and high-spirited, or steady and kind-hearted, often the agent of intrigue. If indeed, as Goldoni maintains,”the World” and “the Theater” are the two books upon which he fashioned his dramatic work, it is in these models that one should seek the inspiration for the protagonist of La locandiera. In many ways Mirandolina recalls one of the traditional characters of the commedia dell’arte, the artful servant or witty chambermaid (known as Corallina or Smeraldina). Goldoni’s character also echoes the quick-witted servant-girl of Gian Battista Pergolesi’s opera buffa, Servant-girl as Mistress (La serva padrona, 1733), in which the servetta succeeds in marrying her rich and foolish master. Goldoni’s protagonist also has ties with a character seemingly very different from her: the libertine Don Giovanni. Originally created by the Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina in 1630, Don Giovanni became the protagonist of a renowned play by the French dramatist Moliere (1622-73). The same character would become famous in theaters all over Europe at the end of the century, through Mozart’s celebrated opera. Both Don Giovanni and Mirandolina, motivated by strong narcissistic tendencies, share the subtle art of seduction and a taste for the game of love, without becoming emotionally involved in its intricacies.
Beyond such theatrical exemplars, sources for the figure of Mirandolina can be found in a real historical woman. As Goldoni himself recounted, the character was patterned on the actress Maddalena Riffi Marliani of the Medebac Company who specialized in the role of the servetta: “Madame Marliani, who was lively, witty, and naturally artful, gave a new flight to my imagination, and encouraged me to labor in that species of comedy which requires a display of finesse and artifice” (Goldoni, Memoirs, p. 272) Goldoni revolutionized the structure of traditional theater for this actress, transforming the normally marginal role of the servetta into that of protagonist.
Finally Mirandolina is suggestive of the spirit and vivacity of groundbreaking Venetian women in the century of the Enlightenment. Like these women, she is a fascinating mixture of rationality, cleverness, grace, and allure.
Performance and reception
Staged during the Carnival of Venice in January 1753, The Mistress of the Inn was first published in Florence that same year. Goldoni himself paints a rosy picture of the play’s reception in his Memoirs: “The success of this piece was so brilliant that it was not only placed on a level with, but even preferred to, everything which I had yet done” (Memoirs, p. 277). In reality, the production was abandoned after only four performances. Goldoni’s assignment of the pivotal role to Marliani provoked “a storm of feminine rancor” behind the scenes, as well as the jealousy of the prima donna, Teodora Medebach (Chatfield-Taylor, p. 200). After its failure at the Italian Theater in Paris (under the title Camille aubergiste, 1764), the play was rediscovered only in the nineteenth century, when a company of Venetian actors performed it all over Europe. The triumphant revival of The Mistress of the Inn began with a Parisian production of 1830, starring the famous Italian actress Carolina Internari.
The name Carlo Goldoni appeared in the United States for the first time in an anthology of Italian drama, published in 1829 by Pietro Bachi for the students of Harvard University. In the place of The Mistress of the Inn, however, the editor published one of Goldoni’s less significant works. He excused himself for this omission, fearing that Mirandolina’s libertine and proto-feminist spirit would provoke a scandal in America’s puritan atmosphere. The play was first produced in New York in 1896 (in Italian), starring one of the greatest Italian divas of all time, Eleonora Duse. The first translation, in 1912, was that of Merle Pierson for the Wisconsin Dramatic Society of Madison.
The play has been performed in a variety of ways and elicited a wide range of responses since its first production. Mirandolina is a famously ambiguous character, one who has been subject to divergent interpretations over several centuries. Attesting to this ambiguity are two seminal Italian stage productions of the mid-to-late twentieth century. The first, directed by Luchino Visconti, opened in 1952 at the International Theater Festival in Venice. In Marliani’s original incarnation of her, Goldoni’s heroine had been extraordinarily high-spirited. However, under Visconti’s radically modern direction, Mirandolina was sober and spontaneous but showed no trace of her typical vivacity or coquetry. In 1972, by contrast, the director Mario Missiroli depicted Mirandolina as a petty lower-middle-class woman, selfish and greedy, oppressed by social and patriarchal conventions and so constrained to renounce true passion and marry the servant Fabrizio.
One of the most critically acclaimed of Goldoni’s works, The Mistress of the Inn remains one of his best-loved and most commonly staged plays in Italy and abroad. The comedy is regularly performed across Europe and has been translated into more than 22 languages, including Chinese and Turkish. Mirandolina’s famous ambiguity, alternately seductive and rational, is in no small part responsible for this popularity. A genuine femme fatale, the character continues to exercise her inescapable attraction, defying any stable or definitive interpretation.
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Andrieux, Maurice. Daily Life in Venice in the Time of Casanova. Trans. Mary Fitton. New York: Praeger, 1969.
Chatfield-Taylor, H. C. Goldoni: A Biography. New York: Duffield, 1913.
Farrell, Joseph, ed. Carlo Goldoni and Eighteenth-Century Theatre. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997.
Fido, Franco. Introduction to The Holiday Trilogy, by Carlo Goldoni. Trans. Anthony Oldcorn. New York: Marsilio, 1992.
_____. Nuova guida a Goldoni: Teatro e societá nel settecento, Torino: Einaudi, 2000.
Goldoni, Carlo. Memoirs of Carlo Goldoni Written by Himself. Trans. John Black. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.
_____. Mirandolina. In The Venetian Twins. Trans. Ranjit Bolt. Bristol: The Longdunn Press, 1993. Günsberg, Maggie. “Artful Women: Morality and Materialism in Goldoni.” In Gender and the Italian Stage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
_____. Playing with Gender: The Comedies of Goldoni. Leeds: Northern University Press, 2001. Richards, Kenneth, and Laura Richards. The Cormmedia dell’arte: A Documentary History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
Steele, Eugene. Carlo Goldoni. Life, Work and Times. Ravenna: Longo Editore, 1981.