Anna Ioannovna’s Italian Decade and Its Impact on Russian Eighteenth-Century Culture and Beyond

Olga Partan, Wellesley College

Within the Russian cultural context, mention of the Italian commedia dell’arte often brings an immediate association with the Russian Modernist era and its icons - the characters of Harlequin, Columbine, and Pierrot. However, this paper focuses on an earlier wave of Russian fascination with the Italian commedia dell’arte and its legendary masked characters that occurred during the reign of the Empress Anna Ioannovna (1730-1740). I argue that this earlier fascination established deep roots in Russian culture that began a three-century-long tradition of transposition of the artistic devices of the commedia into Russian literature and other arts.

During Anna Ioannovna’s reign, Russia was exposed to the best representatives of the Italian performing arts for the first time. The Empress received Italian artists with royal hospitality, accommodating them in palaces and paying them enormous salaries that were unthinkable for contemporaneous Russian artists. The Italian violinist virtuoso Pietro Miro not only became Anna Ioannovna’s favorite jester Pedrillo (a possible prototype for the Russian Petrushka), but also her close confident and a cultural envoy who recruited in Venice first-rate Italian commedia dell’arte style performers, singers, musicians, as well as stage designers and technicians, to perform and work in Russia. Anna Ioannovna was particularly fond of the inventive plots of the improvised Italian comedies and the buffoonery of its stock characters—Harlequin, Pantalone and others—and commissioned Vasily Trediakovsky to translate forty of them into Russian. Trediakovsky’s forgotten translations were an important contribution that paved the way for the development of Russian theater. The success of Italian troupes was sensational, providing a powerful impetus for the development of Russian national comedy, and giving birth to literary and cultural criticism in Russia.

I then trace the impact of Anna Ioannovna’s Italian decade on Russian eighteenth-century culture and beyond. The masks and iconography of the Italian commedia dell’arte became persistent in Russia, were inseparable from the royal masquerades, and gradually migrated by the end of the eighteenth century into the sphere of popular entertainment (the theater of the marionettes and balagan style performances), before invading Russian high culture again during the Modernist era.

Select Bibliography:

Ferrazzi, Marialuisa. Commedie e Comici Dell’Arte Italiani Alla Corte Russa: 1731-1738. Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 2000.

Partan, Olga. Recurring Masks: The Impact on the Italian Commedia dell’Arte on the Russian Artistic Imagination. Doctoral dissertation, Brown University, 2004.

Starikova, Liudmila, ed. Teatral'naia Zhizn' Rossii v Epokhu Anny Ioannovny: Dokumental'naia Khronika 1730-1740. Moscow: Radiks, 1995.