"THE JEW": On Stage...

l'ebreo comm[edi]a bozza =
 the jew comedy rough draft

Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger left us more than two hundred pages of dialogue, stage notes and song lyrics for L'Ebreo - but not a complete and final draft of this intriguing and often very funny comedy. 

So, in the course of four hundred years - from 1614 until now - the work was never performed nor published nor even circulated in manuscript.

Archivio Buonarroti 81, folios 123verso-124recto

Two questions come immediately to mind...

How would the play have looked and sounded if it had been produced in early seventeenth century Florence? 

Then, how might it look and sound if we produced it today? 

Turning the pages of this densely annotated text, we can project ourselves into the creative process -  sharing the author's ideas and watching them take shape.

Michelangelo Cerquozzi, The Rehearsal (Private Collection, c.1630-40

 L'Ebreo was conceived for the Carnival of 1614. It was evidently intended for performance at the Medici Court.

The rulers of Tuscany were enthusiastic patrons of the theater, mobilizing a vast and varied team of writers, actors, singers, dancers, musicians, painters, architects and engineers. 

Together they produced a lively program of theatrical events - ranging from grandiose spectacles to everyday fun.

 By Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger; Left, Il Giudizio di Paride/
The Judgement of Paris (1608), a huge mythological production for 
a granducal wedding.  Right, La Tancia (1612), a "Rustic Comedy" in 
Tuscan dialect. (Tancia = Costanza, the name of the chief character.)

Even when working for these great patrons, Michelangelo's compositions were not always noble and courtly. In 1619, La Fiera/The Fair (his most ambitious and original play) was denounced by the Medici themselves for its licentiousness and vulgarity - nearly ending his Florentine career.

The frontispiece from I Balli di Sfessania (1621), Jacques Callot's 
homage to the Italian comedy of that time.

Michelangelo was a master of the Commedia erudita (Learned Comedy) - plays with classical or moralizing themes, usually performed by amateur literati in private academies.

He also appreciated the more spontaneous and amusing Commedia dell'arte all'improvviso  ("Improvised Comedy by Professionals")- or simply Commedia dell'arte, as it came to be known.

A  company of rag-tag comedians performing on the outskirts of Rome,
Karel Dujardin (1657); Paris, Louvre Museum

The Commedia dell'Arte began as a popular entertainment, presented by roving bands of players on temporary stages in piazzas and fairgrounds.

Each member of the itinerant troupe was identified with a single stock character in all productions. There was the Foolish Old Man, the Young Lovers, the Pompous Doctor, the Scheming Manservant, the Flirtatious Maidservant and so on...

These Comici dell'Arte always worked "in character", drawing on a repertoire of recognized comic situations, improvising dialogue and action along the way. Sight gags and physical comedy (often crude or risqué) kept the play moving - giving edge and impetus to an often preposterous story line.

An elegantly staged entertainment at the Hôtel de Bourgogne in Paris, 
featuring Italian Comedians in  Frenchified costumes.
(Abraham Bosse, c.1633)

Although the Commedia dell'Arte began life as a humble diversion, the most accomplished companies caught the attention of nobles and princes - who vied for their services, especially during the Carnival season.

While shifting their performances from street corners to palaces, these elite comedians upgraded their skills and refined their art.  Traditionally, they had worked from simple dramatic outlines  (canovacci), but with time they came to rely on scripted dialogue as well.

Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger produced many dramatic compositions - but in L'Ebreo, we see him closest in spirit to the Commedia dell'Arte.


In L'Ebreo,  the playwright runs us through a dizzying sequence of  implausible scenes. Crazy coincidences and breathtaking escapes... Mistaken identities and absurd impersonations... Punctuated by sudden outbursts of comic mayhem.

Mugging for the camera... Commedia dell'Arte-inspired statues
 in the Boboli Garden in Florence

Again and again, Michelangelo inserts complicated bits of theatrical business. Giving his actors a chance to show what they could do - in the brash and jokey style of the Commedia dell'Arte.

For example...

Archivio Buonarroti 81, folio 111 recto (detail)

Act Four, scene 11

Alamanno Tolosini (the Old Fool) breaks off the engagement of his daughter Oretta (the Young Woman in Love) to Giovanni Barba (the Young Man in Love) - but forgets to stop payment on the dowry, which he deposited in a local bank in Giovanni's name.  Giovanni wants to claim this money, but Girolamo Amieri (the Young Lover's Best Friend) warns that the police are out to arrest him. By way of disguise, the handsome Giovanni needs to alter his dashing appearance - which he effects onstage in full view of the audience.

                                        Giovanni: Al sangue di me che l’è bella <ma io l’ho per cosa                                         pericolosa> ma che la riesca.

                                        Girolamo: E perché? Ne vuo’ che tu lo faccia, il tentar non nuoce.

                                        Giovanni:  A fare, proviamoci, andiamo.

                                        Girolamo: Ho no, diamola di qua per questi chiassuoli, che intorno                                         a mercato nuovo i birri vi stanno così a bottega come qualsivoglia                                         banchiere or setaiuolo e debbino a quest’ora s’ io non m’inganno star                                         a far all’amor con esso seco. Turati un poco,  manda giù quelle                                         basette arricciate, falle piovere in su le labbra, manda giù il ciuffo                                         che ti caschi in su la testa, stiacciati un po ‘l cappello, va un po’                                         zoppo.    

                                        Giovanni: Così?

                                        Girolamo: O buono a cotesto modo.

Giovanni: By my blood, that's a great idea! But risky... And who knows if I can pull it off?

Girolamo: What are you worried about? In any case, you'll never know unless you try!

Giovanni: Right! let's go! (Giovanni makes a move.)

Girolamo: Not so fast! We'd better stick to back alleys. Around the Mercato Nuovo, you see more cops than bankers or silk merchants these days. And what about you? It's time to go under cover - so, let's start by uncurling that moustache of yours.  Right! Droop it down over your mouth. And that upswept forelock...  That needs to droop too - right over your face. Nice hat, but it could do with some flattening. And finally, let's see you walk with a limp.

Giovanni: Like this?

Girolamo: You've nailed it! So, off we go...

In L'Ebreo, most of the action takes place in and around the residence of the Tolosini family - the doorway, the entrance hall and the street outside.  With people popping in and out of doors and windows - and on at least one occasion, running across the roof*.

*Act Four, scene 22. Oretta Tolosini flees her home          
to avoid marrying the pompous old lawyer Ambrogio    
Bordoni. With her maidservant Lucia, she crosses from
one roof terrace to another, taking refuge with her next
-door neighbor, Mona Simonetta. "Oretta: So what if     
someone hears us? They'll just think we're cats!"            

L'Ebreo could have been performed almost anywhere: In grand style in one of the Medici court theaters... On a low stage, with a simple but elegant set, in a palace salone... Or even on bare boards, with a meager back-drop, in a courtyard or piazza.

Commedia dell'Arte scene after J. Callot, 17th Century, in a Dutch song book.

Whether L'Ebreo was "dressed up" or "dressed down", there would have been music, singing and perhaps dancing. Major productions at the Medici Court usually featured large orchestras, massed choruses and celebrated solo singers. Meanwhile, in the Commedia dell'Arte,  actors often grabbed guitars or lutes and burst into song.

Center: Archivio Buonarroti 81, folio 111 recto, Song Lyrics for L'Ebreo.

In Michelangelo's notes for L'Ebreo, we see him working through song ideas. For example...

Volendo anche amore
Burlare scherzare
Passare liete l'ore

Tra balli e tra giuochi
Tra strali donneschi
Piaceri fanciulleschi
Di maschere e di 

If you happen to be looking for love
While cutting loose carnival style
Playing tricks and joking around
Passing happy hours

Amidst dances and games
Amidst feminine wiles
And childish pleasures
With masks and fireworks

Only the first two verses of a rollicking carnival song... We can imagine it sung by Giovanni Barba, the Young Lover. Or else, by Girolamo Amieri, his Best Friend. Perhaps as a festive introduction to the play.

Francesca Caccini, Music for One and Two Voices (Florence, 1618)

Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger wrote lyrics for many of the leading singers and composers of his day - including the celebrated Francesca Caccini.  He might well have had her in mind for the musical elements in L'Ebreo

Michelangelo did, in fact, present a widely acclaimed play at the Medici Carnival of 1614 - but it was Il Passatempo not L'Ebreo - with music by Francesca Caccini. The opening song in Il Passatempo was, Chi desia di saper che cosa è amore* (If You Want To Know What Love Is All About) - evidently a direct descendent of Volendo anche amore.

* Chi desia... was published with music as
 song number 10 in Il Primo Libro delle 
 Musiche a Uno e Due Voci (1618)            

Comedians Dancing (Venetian School, 16th Century)

So, in Michelangelo's abandoned manuscript, we see L'Ebreo  emerging as a madcap Carnival play with its roots in the Commedia dell'Arte.

But, meanwhile - in the midst of all the craziness - there was Melchisedec the Jew. 

The defining character in the title role... 

Who was he? 

Where did he come from? 

And what was he doing on the Florentine stage in 1614?

More about Michelangelo Buonarroti 
il Giovane's L'Ebreo?

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