Vagabonding Masks: The Italian Commedia dell’Arte in the Russian Artistic Imagination

Vagabonding Masks: The Italian Commedia dell’Arte in the Russian Artistic Imagination


Olga Partan

Series: Liber Primus
ISBN: 9781618115713 (hardcover)
Pages: 294 pp.; 24 illus.
Publication Date: April 2017

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The iconic masks of the Italian commedia dell’arte—Harlequin, Pierrot, Colombina, Pulcinella, and others—have been vagabonding the roads of Russian cultural history for more than three centuries. This book explores how these masks, and the artistic principles of the commedia dell’arte that they embody, have profoundly affected the Russian artistic imagination, providing a source of inspiration for leading Russian artists as diverse as nineteenth-century writer Nikolai Gogol, modernist theater director Evgenii Vakhtangov, Vladimir Nabokov, and the empress of Russian popular culture Alla Pugacheva. The author presents a new perspective on this topic, showing how the commedia dell’arte has nourished a rich cultural tradition in Russia.

Olga Partan is assistant professor of Russian at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts. She received her PhD with a dissertation on the commedia dell’arte in Russian culture from Brown University in 2004. She has authored several articles and book chapters on Russian literature and the performing arts, and a Russian-language memoir You were right, Filumena! (Moscow: PROZAiK, 2012).


Olga Partan’s research is interdisciplinary and innovative. … Russian literature of the 18th century, literature of the 19th century, Russian and Western medieval folk theater, Silver Age studies, Nabokov literary works, and finally (not expected at all) Soviet and Russian Estrada (popular music and culture) are masterfully combined in the book. … Partan easily combines a variety of different fields in the overall picture of Russian culture’s infatuation with the commedia dell’arte. The author enthusiastically and fascinatingly surfs in the immense world of literature and art, substantiating her very interesting and innovative hypothesis that the impact of Italian commedia dell’arte on Russian culture was significant not only during the epoch of Russian modernism, but from its very first performances in early modern Russia until the beginning of the twenty first century.
— Elena Yushkova, Independent Scholar, Women East-West Vol. 7, No. 2
While the Silver Age’s engagement with figures from commedia dell’arte is well studied, until now there has been virtually no consideration of how this vital genre of improvisational performance art ramified in earlier and later periods of Russian culture. Olga Partan’s Vagabonding Masks remedies this scholarly lacuna by tracing the history of the Italian theatrical tradition in Russia starting in the early eighteenth century and extending up to the present moment. In her chronologically-organized study, Partan offers new insights into the commedia dell’arte’s deep imprimatur on three hundred years of Russian culture. ... Partan’s case studies, in which she applies her concept of harlequinization to subject matter ranging from literary text to self-stylization, illuminate the remarkable extent to which the commedia dell’arte tradition reverberates in Russian culture. Vagabonding Masks will appeal to scholars and students working in the fields of literature, cultural studies, cultural history, and performance studies. ... Olga Partan’s impressive work of scholarship reveals a much fuller picture of the harlequinade’s impact in Russia and gives us a ‘harlequinizing lens’ for reading other case studies on our own.
— Colleen McQuillen, University of Illinois at Chicago, Slavic Review Vol. 77, No. 3
By choosing to employ the case study approach, the author is able to explore some of the most distinguished examples of harlequinized art and literature in Russia over the period of three hundred years. ... [T]here is much to attract both literary scholars and cultural historians to Partan’s study. Overall, it is a rich, well-researched overview of the world of Russian harlequinized imagination.
— Evgeniya Koroleva, The Graduate Center, CUNY, the Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 62, No. 1
A treasure-trove of a book, Partan’s meticulously researched and thought-provoking exploration of the influence of the Italian commedia dell’arte on the Russian cultural developments in the last three hundred years will be of significant interest not only to scholars of Russian studies and comparative literature but also to specialists in theater and performance studies. Its breadth of thinking and range of reference are truly astonishing. The book offers an entertainingly readable and widely informative account of early harlequinized art forms found in Russia in the eighteenth century; Trediakovsky’s Russified versions of commedia dell’arte’s plays; Gogol’s works; Diaghilev’s ballets; Blok’s plays; and Nabokov’s Look at the Harlequins!; as well as Soviet and post-Soviet engagement with this Italian tradition, including Vakhtangov’s production of Princess Turandot and Alla Pugacheva’s artistic persona. This timely and relevant book is marked by its crisply organized structure and lucid narration. It is also richly supplemented by visual materials that will enable the reader to visualize the many-faceted forms of Russian laughter infused with merry childishness and the flamboyant spirit of the Italian artistic imagination rooted in the Renaissance culture.
— Alexandra Smith, Reader in Russian Studies, University of Edinburgh
Partan’s argument for the Italian Commedia dell’Arte’s weighty role in Russia’s culture throughout several centuries is original, alluring, and persuasive. She deftly navigates the historical development of an improvisational form with stock characters, humor, and quick action perhaps most commonly associated with medieval itinerant minstrels (skoromokhi), Italian opera (Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci), and carnival/puppet booths in public squares (balagan), but also profoundly influential within mainstream theater to this day. Adducing a wealth of eloquent examples, which she analyzes with acumen and panache, Partan traverses a sizable temporal and generic terrain, stimulating the reader to reevaluate familiar works from a fresh, enriching perspective.
— Helena Goscilo, Professor of Slavic Studies, The Ohio State University
Olga Partan’s book demonstrates a truly impressive depth of expertise, innovative thinking, and profound knowledge of the history of the commedia dell’Arte in Italy as well as other European countries through which its influence penetrated. Most impressively, the book describes and analyzes the commedia’s presence in Russia across centuries, from the seventeenth to the twenty-first. This first book on commedia dell’Arte in Russia written by a true expert in the field, Vagabonding Masks is a must read for literary and cultural historians as well as for historians of theater. Clearly written and lively, it can be used in courses on literature and the history of theater.
— Irina Reyfman, Columbia University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Transliteration

Chapter 1: Early Harlequinized Art         
Chapter 2: Anna Ioannovna’s Italian Decade      
Chapter 3: Russifying the Commedia dell’Arte: Vasilii Trediakovsky and Aleksandr Sumarokov        
Chapter 4: Ramifications of the Italian Decade  
Chapter 5: Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat: The Italian Ancestry of Akakii Bashmachkin          
Chapter 6: The Modernist Revival of the Commedia dell’Arte  
Chapter 7: The Commedia dell’Arte in Evgenii Vakhtangov’s Princess Turandot        
Chapter 8: Harlequin and His Lath: Vladimir Nabokov’s Last Novel Look at the Harlequins!
Chapter 9: From the Empress Anna Ioannovna to the Empress of Popular Culture, Alla Pugacheva    
Epilogue: The Italian Arlecchino on the Post-Soviet Stage