c. 1530–1569, Italy
To me, one of the most delightful parts of this Scribblewits project is discovering that comedy history didn’t unfold the way I thought it did. For example, improv comedy. In my head, improv started in the ‘50s and ‘60s with Viola Spolin and became popularized at places like Second City and UCB.
BUT IMPROV STARTED SO MUCH LONGER AGO!
AND ITS MOST CELEBRATED PERFORMERS WERE…
You guessed it…
One such woman was Vincenza Armani of 16th century Italy.
Vincenza was considered a bricoleuse—an artist in many genres, including poetry, music, singing, embroidery, wax sculpture and acting. You might say she was… a Renaissance Woman. *rimshot!*
The dictionary definition of a bricoleuse is “one who creates using whatever materials are available.” I think that beautifully defines an improv comedian as well. And improv is what made Vincenza famous.
With so many talents, it’s no surprise that Vincenza found her way to the commedia dell’arte stage. In commedia, multi-talented women ruled. They acted, they directed and they oversaw the management of their troupes. And they displayed improvisational ability that had never been seen before in traditionally male performance spaces.
Historian Kathleen McGill believes this was due to women being shut out of men’s literary traditions, therefore becoming more comfortable with speaking than with reading and writing. Also, some women who joined commedia were successful sex workers who privately entertained clients with amusing stories and anecdotes, told off-the-cuff. They brought this conversational skill to the stage.
The men of commedia improvised, too, but their contributions to the art form were more along the lines of “simple buffoonery.” (Yes, that is an exact quote from my hero, Kathleen McGill.)
Vincenza was universally praised for her comedic ability. She was called "a perfect commedienne,” and it was said she “succeeded better in improvisation than did more consummate authors who wrote with careful thought.”
Vicenza was summoned to perform in a contest at the behest of the Duke of Mantua in 1568, where she faced off against rival diva, Barbara Flaminia. The Duke was so impressed with both Vincenza and Barbara that he appointed them as founding members of a brand new troupe, I Gelosi (The Jealous Ones). It would become the most famous commedia troupe of all time. They toured across the country, and entertained at high-class royal gatherings and weddings.
In a very sad ending, the hilarious Vincenza was murdered at the age of 39. She was either stabbed or poisoned, purportedly by an angry former lover. Fuck him.