Zanni in the Art of Clowning

We get our word 'zany' from the word Zanni. It should not come as a suprise knowing how notoriously crazy or zany clowns act!

Commedia dell'Arte - Zanni
Harlequin, Pantalon, La Dona Cornelia, Zany,
the Tavern Keeper, & Tifeta, a maid.

Zanni is the Italian nickname for Giovanni, the most common name in Italy. He is a stock character in the Commedia dell' Arte and can be traced as far back as 1588. A poor, older man he is an immigrant servant for one of the other characters.

His costume consists of loose-fitting, white pants and shirt, probably made from flour sacks, often a leather belt, and some type of head gear, often with feathers.

Zanni's main interest is to satisfy his own basic needs and his constant quest for food never seems to quench his insatiable appetite. He has no manners, whatsoever, and often burps and farts. He sleeps standing up and often squats with his elbows on his knees in order to support his chin with his hands.

As the Commedia traveled to different countries, the term 'Zanni' would come to be used to refer to anyone in the 'servant class' of characters, especially those who had no official name.

Zanni Mask
Zanni in the 21st Century

The intellegence of the characters in Commedia could be determined by the size of the nose on the mask - the longer and broader the nose, the more stupid the character. Originally the Zanni wore a black, full-face mask but increased speaking lines required that the lower part of the mask move and it eventually evolved into a half-mask - with an exceptionally long and broad nose! The brow is on the mask is wrinkled, to emphasize his puzzlement with what goes on around him.

In Commedia dell 'Arte the roles were based on the characters of servants and masters and the performances were stock scenarios. As servants, the Zanni were clowns, buffoons, and practical jokers, among other things. Many became known for their acrobatic skills and that ability has remained with the character into modern times.