Goldoni, Carlo (1707–1793)

views updated Jun 08 2018

GOLDONI, CARLO (17071793)

GOLDONI, CARLO (17071793), Italian dramatist. Carlo Goldoni was born in Venice to a family that had immigrated from Modena and that had members in both the professional class and the nobility. Fascinated by the theater from an early age, Goldoni wrote his first play before he was ten. While attending school in Rimini, he became friendly with a comedy troupe that included women, banned from the stage in much of Italy, and departed with them for Chioggia. In 1723 he undertook the study of law at the University of Pavia, but he was expelled in 1725 for a satire of the city's women. After his father died in 1731, Goldoni completed his degree at the University of Padua, but he departed for Milan in 1732 to avoid financial and sentimental obligations.

In 1734 he began his association with the Imer troupe of actors. By the late 1730s he was working regularly in theaters in Venice and other cities and had begun his reform of the improvised commedia dell'arte tradition. He wrote out individual parts and then entire plays, blending Tuscan-speaking aristocratic characters of the erudite tradition with dialect-speaking nonaristocratic characters. While retaining some elements of commedia dell'arte masks and writing a masterpiece in Il servitore di due padroni (1747; Servant of two masters) Goldoni endowed his characters with new psychological depth and realism. La vedova scaltra (The artful widow) of 1748, the first comedy fully implementing these reforms, was favorably received by many. It was also criticized by others, especially Goldoni's rival and imitator Pietro Chiari, the polemic resulting in the censure of theaters by the Venetian government.

Goldoni responded with plays in a wide range of styles, including the famous sixteen comedies of the 1751 Carnival season and his memorable dialect comedies. Mirandolina (The mistress of the inn), staged in 1753, tells of a young proprietress of an inn who exercises great freedom in her dealings with aristocratic suitors. The Villeggiatura (The country vacation) trilogy (1761) pokes fun at city aristocrats who take their artifice-filled habits with them on country vacations. In Le baruffe chiozzotte (Chioggian quarrels) (1762) a girl whose needlework earns her good money attracts rival suitors. Opposition to Goldoni's work intensified, with accusations by the satirist and author of theatrical fables Carlo Gozzi (17201806) that Goldoni was inverting the social order by associating aristocratic characters with vice and the popular classes with virtue. Gozzi mounted a successful theatrical alternative, a series of exotic tales set in a world of aristocratic privilege.

In 1762, worn down by polemics, Goldoni moved to Paris to work with the Comédie italienne. The French public's expectation that Italian comedy conform to the traditional commedia dell'arte style left him few professional satisfactions. He nevertheless remained in Paris, writing a number of well-received plays and his memoirs.

The strength of Goldoni's theater lies in its inclusion of divergent and even conflicting elements that occur in daily life and that are part of theatrical tradition. The complicated relations of men and women, the generations, and social classes fascinated him. His most consistent focus is on forces that strengthen those bonds or that, on the contrary, break them by setting individuals on destructive paths. While Goldoni appreciated the vitality of the lower social orders, he feared their violence, and while he appreciated aristocrats' elegance, he feared their arrogant vanity. What remained was the sober and directed energy of the middle social orders.

As the plots of his plays show, Goldoni understood that bad choices often result either from indulgence in pleasure or from despair. He also knew that human beings favor those who attract them, and that this causes them to neglect those to whom they are obligated. Thus his plays include husbands who abandon their wives for their drinking companions, wives who prefer their husbands to the children who depend upon them, and servants more interested in gossip than work.

Goldoni experimented with a variety of measures designed to maintain prudent behavior, both internalized social rules, such as an acceptance of authority figures, and severe consequences for irregular behavior, such as the poverty that results from gambling and the damage and death that result from violence. He also showed how authority figures, including fathers and members of the aristocratic class, bring their subordinates into line through both kind and harsh measures, as he kept his characters in line by writing out the parts rather than continuing the improvisation of the commedia dell'arte.

At the same time Goldoni understood that subordination to men creates difficulties and even dangers for women. While most of his numerous and prominent female characters accept and even embrace submissiveness to men, a few of them enjoy a combination of financial security and a lack of male relatives that permits an unprecedented emotional independence. Mirandolina the innkeeper's marriage to her servant rather than to a misogynistic nobleman shows that she intends to remain mistress of her life.

See also Commedia dell'Arte ; Drama: Italian .


Primary Sources

Goldoni, Carlo. Four Comedies. Translated by Frederick Davies. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1968. Translations of I due gemelli Veneziani (1750), La vedova scaltra (1748), La locandiera (1753), and La casa nova (1761).

. Memoirs of Carlo Goldoni. Translated by John Black, edited by William A. Drake. New York and London, 1926. Translation of Mémoires (1787).

. The Servant of Two Masters. Translated and adapted by Frederick H. Davies. London, 1961. Translation of Il servitore di due padroni (1747).

. Tutte le opere. Edited by Giuseppe Ortolani. Milan, 19351956.

. Carlo Goldoni's Villeggiatura Trilogy. Translated by Robert Cornthwaite. Lyme, N.H., 1994. Translation of Le smanie della villeggiatura, Le avventure della villeggiatura, and Il ritorno dalla villeggiatura.

Secondary Sources

Angelini, Franca. Vita di Goldoni. Rome, 1993.

Baratto, Mario. La letteratura teatrale del Settecento in Italia: studi e letture su Carlo Goldoni. Vicenza, 1985.

Branca, Vittore, and Nicola Mangini, eds. Studi goldoniani. Venice, 1960. The acts of an important conference with papers by respected scholars.

Ferroni, Giulio. Storia della letteratura italiana dal Cinquecento al Settecento. Milan, 1991.

Fido, Franco. Guida a Goldoni: Teatro e società nel Settecento Turin, 1977.

. Nuova guida a Goldoni: Teatro e società nel Settecento. Turin, 2000.

Günsberg, Maggie. Playing with Gender: The Comedies of Goldoni. Leeds, U.K., 2001.

Siciliano, Enzo. La letteratura italiana. 3 vols. Milan, 19861988.

Spezzani, Pietro. Dalla commedia dell'arte a Goldoni: studi linguistici. Padua, 1997.

Linda L. Carroll

Goldoni, Carlo

views updated Jun 27 2018

Carlo Goldoni

BORN: 1707, Venice, Italy

DIED: 1793, Paris, France


GENRE: Drama

The Good Wife (1749)
The Arcadia in Brenta (1749)
The Hostess (1753)
The Boors (1762)


Known as the reformer of Italian drama, Carlo Goldoni introduced elements of naturalism to the Italian stage. His innovative comedies, including The Hostess (1753) and The Boors (1762), placed a new emphasis on realistic representation in drama. The importance of Gold-oni's contribution to Italian literature lies in his substitution for an outworn dramatic tradition with a new kind of comedy that has been called the comedy of character.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Childhood on the Move Goldoni was born in Venice in 1707 to an upper-middle-class family. Throughout Goldoni's childhood, changing family fortunes and his father's medical practice necessitated frequent travel around the Italian peninsula, with the result that Goldoni obtained his early education at several different schools. At the time, Italy was not a unified country but a group of principalities, territories, and city-states that were sometimes hostile to each other. Political and military conflicts were on the rise, and the region was in the midst of an economic decline.

Tumultuous Early Life Goldini's fascination with the theater manifested itself early. At the time, commedia dell'arte, an improvised type of comedy originating in medieval Italy, was in decline but still the leading theatrical form in what would become Italy. There were also some popular farces, and opera was still in its infancy. At the age of fourteen, while unwillingly studying medicine in Rimini, Goldoni became acquainted with the members of a traveling theater troupe. So entranced was he by their company that when the troupe left Rimini, Goldoni ran away to spend three days with the actors before returning to his family.

Goldoni's life was one of frequent upheavals, including a series of unsuitable love affairs. At age sixteen, he entered Ghislieri College in Pavia, from which he was expelled three years later for writing an unflattering satire of several young women of prominent Pavia families. He returned to the study of law in Udine, but due to another illicit romance was obliged to remove to Modena for further study. Here he developed and pursued an interest in religion and would have become a monk had his father not intervened.

After holding a number of jobs, Goldoni completed his law degree at the University of Padua in 1731 and because of a clerical error was admitted to the Venetian bar without serving the mandatory two-year apprenticeship. However, Goldoni never fully applied himself to the practice of law. He interrupted his legal career several times to accept various temporary government posts. His propensity for financial and romantic indiscretions also disrupted his career, frequently forcing him to move abruptly.

Launched Career as a Dramatist Goldoni's efforts in serious opera had an inauspicious beginning. By his own account he brought a new drama, Amalasunta, to Milan in 1732 in hopes of selling it to an opera director. During an informal gathering of a group of friends, including the great singer Caffarelli, he gave the drama its first public reading—and it was laughed to scorn—at least partially because he had ignored most of the conventional “rules” of the genre. In the years to come, however, his willingness to ignore the “rules” would eventually mark his work as unique and influential.

It was in comedy that Goldoni truly excelled. In the 1730s and early 1740s he merely dabbled in theatrical poetry, while otherwise practicing law. It was only after 1748 that his career in the theater was assured. Contracted to write six spoken comedies for Venice, he simultaneously began a long and fruitful opera collaboration with the composer Baldassare Galuppi. Their first effort, The Arcadia in Brenta (1749), was an enormous success. In this work, which satirizes the summer retreats of the Venetian aristocracy and the affectatious behavior of cultivated society, Goldoni's elegant poetry and witty, fast-paced dialogue was ideally matched with Galuppi's comic musical pacing, his facile, tuneful melodies and lucid orchestration. Over the ensuing years, a long stream of collaborative works followed.

Redefined Drama It was not until 1747 that Gold-oni at last found his niche as dramatist for the Teatro Sant'Angelo in Venice. It was for this theater that he made good his boast to write sixteen comedies in one year. Goldoni's gradual attempts to redefine drama inspired emphatic and widely divergent reactions. Those who preferred the old commedia dell'arte style were unsparing of their censure, while those who welcomed Goldoni's changes were equally lavish in their praise. Voltaire pronounced Goldoni the “painter and son of nature.”

Ended His Life in France Goldoni left the Teatro Sant'Angelo to work for other theaters in Venice and Rome until 1762 when he journeyed to Paris to accept a position at the Comedie-Italienne where he was expected to write plays in the commedia dell'arte tradition. After a short while, he left the Comedie-Italienne and became the tutor of the illegitimate daughter of Louis XV of France.

Pensioned by the French king, Goldoni eventually settled in Paris, where he spent the remainder of his life writing memoirs and plays, which included the critically acclaimed The Beneficent Bear (1771). Unfortunately, his pension was discontinued in the wake of the French Revolution which began in 1789. The revolution saw the French monarchy removed from power, and after a bloody conflict, a republican form of government was put in its place. Following Goldoni's death in 1793, the court reversed its decision and ordered the monies reinstated and given to his widow.

Works in Literary Context

Goldoni is most widely known as the “father of Italian comedy.” From the 1730s to the 1760s, he revolutionized Italian spoken theater, purging many of the most affected, stylized traits of the commedia dell'arte and developing characters of more natural expression with believable and identifiable personalities.

Realism in Drama Goldoni has often been called the “Italian Molière,” because he, like the French dramatist, drew his characters and plots from his observations of real life. Goldoni is also credited with increasing the significance of characters in his plays and decreasing the role played by the plot and plot twists. In turn, his characters have often been cited as being extremely realistic. In this, Goldoni defied the dramatic tradition of the commedia dell'arte, established in the sixteenth century and still dominant in Goldoni's day. The commedia dell'arte—almost entirely improvisational in nature, creative and spontaneous at its inception—had degenerated into a stagnant formula by the eighteenth century, relying increasingly on “lazzi,” outrageous and often indecent interludes of buffoonery. In The Beneficent Bear, for example, Goldoni deals with the superficial aspects of humanity in an imaginative, spontaneous way. He is genial and more kindly in his judgments, and, while lacking none of Molière's keenness of observation, is devoid of his bitter satire.

Works in Critical Context

Goldoni's role as a reformer of the Italian stage is a significant one. He was the first dramatist in Italy to provide an alternative to the standardized roles and stale scenarios of the commedia dell'arte. He has never been called a literary genius, but his innovations broke new dramatic ground and made possible the development of naturalism in Italian drama. Though his works are often conventionally structured around trivial incidents and employ morally traditional characters who speak plain language, it is his humor that, critics contend, never fails to delight and spark his audiences.


Goldoni's famous contemporaries include:

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790): One of the founding fathers of the United States of America, Franklin had many talents, including those of a politician, a scientist, an inventor, and a writer.

Thomas Paine (1737–1809): The English political writer who influenced both the American and French revolutions through such pieces as “Common Sense” (1776).

Stanislaw Konarski (1700–1773): A Polish author whose work inspired the Polish Enlightenment. His writings include Effective Way of Debating (1760–1763).

David Hume (1711–1776): This Scottish philosopher wrote about theories of knowledge and is known as an important empiricist—a philosopher who holds that knowledge is based on experience. He wrote Essays Moral and Political (1744).

Marie Antoinette (1755–1793): Queen of France and wife of Louis XVI, she was executed by guillotine during the French Revolution.

Denis Diderot (1713–1784): The French philosopher and encyclopedist whose many fields of study included the subject of free will and the conventions that defined the novels of his time. His works include Rameau's Nephew (c. 1761).

Goldoni's Comedies The author of more than 250 works, Goldoni wrote in a variety of dramatic genres—comedy, tragedy, melodrama, and opera bouffe—but his comedies are universally acknowledged to be his most important contribution to Italian literature. Commentators often claim that Goldoni's greatest attribute as a comic dramatist was his engaging naturalism. They have

preferred those comedies that portray worlds similar to Goldoni's own, in which the characters speak the Venetian dialect and represent members of the Italian middle class. The comedies, in particular, also display the inventiveness that critics have characterized as ingenious and intuitive, though Goldoni's naturalism is faulted for being unenlightening, as it operates like a photographic rather than an interpretational device.

Goldoni's realistic depiction of families was specifically praised by critics. Joseph Spencer Kennard wrote in his book Goldoni and the Venice of His Time, “The distinctive quality of Goldoni's work, the trait that sets him entirely apart from every other modern playwriter, is his insight into painting family groups. Compared with even the greatest, Goldoni better understood the psychology of the family, more subtly investigated the bonds that unite the members of a household and give it the unity of a living organism.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Read The Good Wife (1749). In what ways would you say this play is “realistic”? In your written response, cite specific examples.
  2. Watch a few action and horror films. Then, read a couple of Goldoni's plays. Action and horror films are generally plot driven, while Goldoni's plays are often described as being more concerned with character than with plot. Based on the films you watched and the plays you read, what would you say is the difference between plot-driven literature and film and character-driven literature and film? Write a paper in which you share your findings. Support your response with examples from the films and plays you examined.
  3. Goldoni's work is considered realistic in its representation of its characters. In order to practice your ability at accurately representing the lives of those around you, write a short paragraph describing in appearance a person or animal you love. Try to choose those aspects of the person or animal that you think represent the personality of the described. For instance, maybe your dog is a bumbling, blundering, sloppy animal, so you might describe in greater detail your dog's long, slimy, textured tongue.
  4. Goldoni has been quoted as saying, “The world is a beautiful book, but of little use to him who cannot read it.” What do you think Goldoni meant by this? How do you think one learns to “read” the world? Consider these questions while responding to the Goldoni quote in a short essay in which you engage with the idea it expresses.


Goldoni is lauded for his realism. Here are some more works considered prime examples of literary realism:

Middlemarch (1871–1872), a novel by George Eliot. This novel by Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) is considered a landmark work of realism in English language literature. It focuses on the details of everyday people in 1830s England.

Madame Bovary (1857), a novel by Gustave Flaubert. French writers are credited with originating the realism movement, and Flaubert was chief among French realists. Madame Bovary centers on the adulterous affair of a bored provincial doctor's wife.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), a novel by Mark Twain. Considered one of the greatest American novels ever written, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is also a masterwork of American realism.



Browning, J. D., ed. The Stage in the 18th Century. New York: Garland, 1981.

Howells, W. D. My Literary Passions. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1895.

Kennard, Joseph Spencer. Goldoni and the Venice of His Time. New York: Macmillan, 1920.

Nicoll, Allardyce. World Drama from Aeschylus to Anouilh. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.

Perry, Henry ten Eyck. Masters of Dramatic Comedy and Their Social Themes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1939.

Wilkins, Ernest Hatch. A History of Italian Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Carlo Goldoni

views updated May 14 2018

Carlo Goldoni

The plays of the Italian dramatist, poet, and librettist Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793) brought new realism and more credible characterization to the Italian stage. He wrote more than 250 works in Italian, Venetian dialect, and French.

Born to a prosperous middle-class family, Carlo Goldoni displayed a theatrical inclination from early childhood. As a university student, he often put aside his law books to attend performances. In 1734, after 3 years in the diplomatic service, Goldoni became poet of the Imer company in Venice and successively was appointed director of the S. Samuele and S. Giovanni Crisostomo theaters. Goldoni's marriage in 1736 to Nicoletta Connio, daughter of a prominent Genoese family, dates from this formative period.

Although he interrupted theatrical activities in 1744 to practice law, Goldoni returned to Venice in 1748 as poet of the S. Angelo theater, then under the leadership of Girolamo Medebac. Overworked and underpaid—his contract for 1750 demanded 16 new plays—Goldoni accepted a competing offer from the Vendramin brothers, impresarios of the S. Luca theater.

The years 1748-1762 represent the most successful of Goldoni's career because now he was able to incorporate his views on dramatic reform into the fabric of his works. Until Goldoni, the prevailing commedia dell'arte style depended upon actors who improvised their roles from a list of stock characters. Therefore drama revolved about the actors and the success with which their talents impressed the audience. Goldoni's works signaled a new direction in which primacy was soon restored to the playwright, whose scripts—not an actor's improvisations—determined the play.

By observing society and providing plausible motivation for his characters, Goldoni's more credible and more realistic works soon gained an immense following. Among his most successful are The Crafty Widow (1748); The Anti-quarian's Family (1749), in which Goldoni points to the conflict between the rising bourgeoisie and the decaying nobility; The Comic Theatre (1750), which he calls "less a Comedy than a Foreword to all my Comedies"; and La Locandiera (1753; Mine Hostess), in which the protagonist Mirandolina astutely manages to keep the affections and services of the headwaiter at her inn, while igniting the interest of two noble guests, one a professed woman hater, the other an old miser. From these and other works emerges the ethical content of Goldoni's character plays. A believer in modernity and progress, he championed the rights of women and the equality of all classes. In espousing these views, Goldoni frequently satirized the aristocracy and their courts.

Goldoni's successes did not spare him from criticism. During the period 1748-1753, while Goldoni was creating more realistic and thoughtful plays for the S. Angelo theater, he was often attacked by Pietro Chiari, then a writer of sentimental, romantic dramas at the S. Samuele theater. An example of their rivalry was Chiari's parody, The School for Widows, which appeared shortly after Goldoni's The Crafty Widow. After moving to the S. Luca theater, Goldoni faced the more formidable hostility of Count Carlo Gozzi. Irascible and title-conscious, Gozzi endeavored to discredit Goldoni in any possible way, for the democratic, progressive Goldoni held views diametrically opposite to those of the aristocratic conservative. Disguised as a defense of traditional dramatic forms, Gozzi's criticism of Goldoni's realism was an extension of this personal antagonism.

Goldoni, a mild-mannered, pleasant person with no desire to continue this bitter polemic, left Venice for the prestigious directorship of the Italian theater in Paris. However, after 2 unhappy years (1762-1764) he accepted appointment as tutor in Italian (1764-1768) to the daughters of King Louis XVI. While maintaining residence in Paris, Goldoni furnished new material in Italian and dialect for the Venetian stage. Also from this period come his works written in French. Especially noteworthy are the comedy Le Bourra bienfaisant (1771) and Memoirs of His Life and Theatre (1787), from which the reader gains a view of Goldoni's evolving dramatic style and detailed accounts of artists, directors, and theaters of his time.

The French Revolution brought an end to the pension Goldoni had been receiving from the French government. Already in his 80s and nearing blindness, Goldoni spent his last years in penurious suffering. Ironically, news of the reinstatement of his pension in 1793 arrived the day after his death.

Further Reading

For English texts of Goldoni's works see Carlo Goldoni, Three Comedies (1961), which contains Mine Hostess, The Boors, and The Fan; and his play The Comic Theatre: A Comedy in Three Acts (1750; trans. 1969). The best book in English on Goldoni is Joseph Spencer Kennard, Goldoni and the Venice of His Time (1920). For background information see Giacomo Oreglia, The Commedia dell'Arte (1961; trans. 1968).

Additional Sources

Holme, Timothy, A servant of many masters: the life and times of Carlo Goldoni, London: Jupiter, 1976. □

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