Andreini, Isabella (1562-1604)

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Born in Padua to Venetian parents in 1562, Isabella Andreini (née Canali) would become the most celebrated commedia dell'arte actress of her century by the time of her death in 1604. Praised by contemporaries such as Tasso, Marino, and Chiabrera and famed in France as well as Italy, Andreini was renowned both for the prima donna innamorata role she played on the stage and for the erudition she displayed in her written works. These included a pastoral play, a volume of poetry, a collection of Lettere, and a compilation of Fragmenti; the last two works published posthumously by her husband. Her verse was second only to that of Tasso in a poetic contest sponsored by Cardinal Giorgio Cinthio Aldobrandini in Rome and later described by one of her sons. She was one of few women to be admitted into a literary academy in Renaissance Italy: the Accademia degli Intenti of Pavia, which she joined with the name "Accesa." After her death at age forty-two, not only was Andreini's legacy felt in the realms of theater and literature, but a number of her madrigals and other poetic compositions were set to music (MacNeil 2003).

Little is known of Andreini's early years. In 1576, at age fourteen, she joined the Gelosi acting troupe in Bologna, which included Flaminio Scala, and began playing the role of the prima donna innamorata with which she would become so closely associated. After traveling to France with the Gelosi to perform for Henry III, she returned to Italy in 1578 where she married Francesco Andreini, fifteen years her senior and also a comedian with the Gelosi. The pair continued to act in commedia performances with Isabella playing the prima donna and Francesco her romantic counterpart; soon Francesco added a comic role to his repertoire for which he would become famous, that of the braggart Captain Spavento. With Francesco now the director of the Gelosi, Isabella continued to perform and her fame to grow. Her signature piece, a tour de force called the Pazzia d'Isabella (The Madness of Isabella), generated accolades when she performed it in Florence on May 13, 1589, during the festivities for the wedding of Ferdinand de' Medici and Christine of Lorraine. The piece, which required Isabella to feign madness, play the parts of all the comedians in her troupe, male and female, and to speak in several languages, was described admiringly by one spectator, Giuseppe Pavoni, in his Diario. Pavoni exclaimed that Isabella's performance so awed her audience that her name would never be forgotten: "mentre durerá il mondo, sempre sará lodata la sua bella eloquenza, & valore" ("as long as the world goes on, her beautiful eloquence and worth will be praised;" ctd. in MacNeil 1995, 198-9). Isabella's virtuoso performance generated further excitement because it followed that of her rival in the Gelosi, the actress Vittoria Piisimi, who performed another play for the court on the preceding day.

Isabella occasionally performed with troupes other than the Gelosi, appearing with the Confidenti in Genoa in October 1589 and with the Uniti in 1601. In 1603-4, she traveled for a third time to France with the Gelosi, performing for the court of Henry IV at Fontainebleau and Paris. Pregnant with her eighth child, she miscarried during the trip back to Italy, and died in Lyon. Her passing was marked with a public funeral and a medallion was struck to commemorate her, her likeness on one side and an image of Fame on the other.

Isabella was an accomplished, versatile, and admired writer. By 1587, her verse had begun to circulate in poetic compilations. She followed the currents of orthodox literary culture but injected her works with the some of the proto-feminist commentary that inflected many texts produced in the climate of the sixteenth-century querelle des femmes, or debate over women. Her first published work was La Mirtilla, a pastoral play that appeared in 1588. The Mirtilla capitalized on Isabella's firsthand experience of the stage, re-writing a typical pastoral scenario with a pro-woman twist. In Isabella's hands, the nymph Filli does not succumb to the misogynist snares of the satyr, but rather turns the tables on him, thereby inverting and satirizing a standard element of pastoral literature (Ray 1997).

Andreini devoted the next decade to honing her reputation as an actress of impeccable skill and reputation. Only in 1601 did she publish her second work, a volume of Rime, which, like the Mirtilla, reflected the influence of her experience on the stage. Heavily inflected with the discourse of Petrarchism, Isabella's verse also demonstrates an awareness of the artificiality inherent in the literary as well as the dramatic process. The work's proemial sonnet cautions readers not to be taken in by the poet's artful naturalism, the product of her acting experience, warning, "S'Alcun fia mai, che i versi miei negletti /Legga, non creda á questi finti ardori, /Che ne le Scene imaginati amori /Usa á trattar con non leali affetti ("If ever there is anyone who reads/ these my neglected poems, don't believe/in their feigned ardors; /loves imagined in their scenes /I've handled with emotions false (MacNeil and Cook 2005, 31).

Also in 1601, Isabella signaled, in a letter to the humanist Erycius Puteanus, that she had undertaken a third literary project, a collection of letters. This work, the Lettere di Isabella Andreini padovana comica gelosa, was edited and published three years after Isabella's death by Francesco Andreini, with an apocryphal dedicatory letter composed by him under her name. Despite the title, the Lettere are, like Isabella's other works, a distinctly theatrical text. A series of dramatic monologues clearly derived from the on-stage discourse of commedia dell'arte's innamorati characters, these highly stylized compositions address all aspects of the love relationship, again with heavy doses of Petrarchism and neoplatonism. Most interestingly, these fictive missives are written in both male and female voices, echoing Isabella's skill for adopting a hermaphroditic persona as she did when performing the Pazzia. The Lettere met with great success and were reprinted more than a dozen times by the mid-seventeenth century. Francesco also collected a number of contrasti, or dialogues, that Isabella had created from her commedia dell'arte experience. These were published some years later in 1620, with the participation of Flaminio Scala, under the title Fragmenti di alcune scritture della Signora Isabella Andreini comica gelosa e academica intenta. Francesco Andreini's editing of his wife's work in both instances has been characterized as part of a larger project on the actor's part to preserve and promote not just the memory and legacy of his wife, but that of commedia dell'arte in general (Tessari 1989).

Isabella's contemporaries marveled at her ability to combine the beauty, modesty, and virtue thought to constitute ideal womanhood with her considerable skill as an actress and writer. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she seems to have inspired little, if any, hostility by her literary activity and she devoted much attention to establishing and maintaining her public image as a devoted mother and wife as well as a writer and actress (MacNeil 2003). Isabella was survived by her husband and their seven children. Her four daughters entered convents, one son a monastery, and another the ducal guard. The eldest son, Giovan Battista, followed in his parents' footsteps, playing the innamorato role in the Gelosi before going on to form a new troupe, the Fedeli. In addition to writing a number of works for the stage, Giovan Battista also dedicated a collection of poetry to his mother in 1606.


  • Andreini, Isabella. Fragmenti di alcune scritture della signora Isabella Andreini comica gelosa, & academica intenta. Raccolti da Francesco Andreini comico geloso, detto il Capitan Spavento. E dati in luce da Flaminio Scala Comico. Venice: Combi, 1627.
  • ---. Lettere d'Isabella Andreini padovana, comica gelosa. Venice: Marc'Antonio Zaltieri, 1607.
  • ---. Mirtilla. Ed. Maria Luisa Doglio. Lucca: M. Pacini Fazzi, 1995.
  • ---. Rime d'Isabella Andreini Padovana... Milan: Girolamo Bordone, 1611.
  • MacNeil, Anne. "The Divine Madness of Isabella Andreini." Journal of the Royal Music Association 120 (1995): 195-215.
  • ---. Music and Women of the Commedia dell'Arte in the Late Sixteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • ---, ed. and James Wyatt Cook, trans. Selected Poems of Isabella Andreini. Trans. James Wyatt Cook. Lantham, MA: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 2005.
  • Pavoni, Giuseppe. Diario descritto da Giuseppe Pavoni. Delle feste celebrate nelle solennissime nozzi delli serenissimi sposi, il sig. Don Ferdinando Medici, & la sig. Donna Christina di Loreno gran duchi di Toscana... Bologna, 1589.
  • Ray, Meredith Kennedy. "La Castita Conquistata: The Function of the Satyr in Pastoral Drama." Romance Languages Annual (1998): 312-21.
  • Tessari, Francesco. "Sotto il segno di Giano: La Commedia dell'Arte di Isabella e Francesco Andreini."The Commedia dell'Arte From the Renaissance to Dario Fo, ed. Christopher Cairns, 1-33. Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.


  • Andreini, Isabella. La Mirtilla. Ed. and trans. Julie Campbell. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2002.
  • Andrews, Richard. "Isabella Andreini and Others: Women on Stage in the Late Cinquecento." In Women in Italian Renaissance Culture and Society, ed. Letizia Panizza, 316-33. London: Legenda, 2005.
  • Bartoli, F.S. Notizie istoriche de' comici italiani che fiorirono intorno all'anno MDC fino ai giorni presenti. Padua, 1782; facsimile edition Bologna: Arnaldo Forni, 2 vols., 1978.
  • Baschet, Armand. Les comédiens italiens a la cour de France. Paris: E. Plon et, 1882.
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  • Clubb, Louise Geoge. Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
  • ---. "The State of the Arte in the Andreini's Time." In Studies in the Italian Renaissance: Essays in Memory of Arnolfo B. Ferruolo, ed.Gian Paolo Biasin et al., 263-281. Naples: Societá editrice napoletana, 1985.
  • Costa-Zalessow, Natalia. Scrittrici italiane dal XIII al XX secolo. Ravenna, 1982.
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  • Erenstein, Robert L. "Isabella Andreini: A Lady of Virtue and High Renown." In Essays on Drama and Theatre: Liber amicorum Benjamin Hunnigher, 37-49. Amsterdam: Moussalt's Uitgeverij, 1973.
  • Fiocco, Achille. "Isabella Andreini." In Enciclopedia dello spettacolo, I: 555-58. Rome, 1954.
  • Fondi, Giovanni Malquori. "De la "lettre-canevas" á la "pièce de cabinet: les Lettere d'Isabella Andreini, tráduites par Francois de Grenaille." In Contacts culturels et échanges linguistiques au XVIIe siècle en France: actes du 3e Colloque du Centre international de rencotres sur le XViie siècle, Univesité de Fribourg (Suisse) 1996, 125-45. Paris and Seattle: Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature: 1997.
  • Kerr, Rosalind. "Isabella Andreini, Comica Gelosa 1562-1604: Petrarchism for the Theatre Public Theatre." Quaderni d'Italianistica 27.2 (2006): 71-92.
  • MacNeil, Anne. "The Virtue of Gender." In La femme lettrée a la Renaissance, ed. Michel Bastianesen, 147-64. Louvain, Belgium: Poetas, 1997.
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  • Molinari, Cesare. "L'altra faccia del 1589: Isabella Andreini e la sua 'pazzia.'" In Firenze e la Toscana dei Medici nell'Europa del Cinquecento (Florence: Olschki, 1983), vol. II, 565-73 .
  • Panella, L. "Isabella Canali." In Dizionario biografico degli italiani, 704-5. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1960-.
  • Taviani, Ferdinando. "Bella d'Asia. Torquato Tasso, gli attori e l'immortalita." In Paragone/Letteratura XXXV (1984): 3-76.
  • --- and M. Schino. Il segreto della Commedia dell'Arte. La memoria delle compagnie italiane del XVI, XVII, e XVIII secolo. Florence: La Casa Usher, 1982.

Submitted by Meredith Kennedy Ray, University of Delaware, 2008

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