Il Capitano

This article is about the commedia dell'arte character. For the 1991 film, see Il Capitano: A Swedish Requiem. For other uses, see Capitan.

Il Capitano [il kapiˈtaːno] ("The Captain") is one of the 4 stock characters of commedia dell'arte.[1]

The Captain uses bravado and excessive shows of manliness to hide his true cowardly nature. Engraving by Abraham Bosse.

He is often a henchman who can maintain his claims only by benefit of the fact that none of the locals know him. He is usually a Spaniard given the fact that for most of the late Renaissance to well into 17th century, parts of Italy were under Spanish domination. He was most likely inspired by the boisterous Iberic caudillos who told tall tales of their exploits either in the conquest of the Americas or in the wars with Germany.

Il Capitano often talks at length about made up conquests of both the militaristic and carnal nature in attempts to impress others, but often only ends up impressing himself. He gets easily carried away in his tales and doesn't realise when those around him don't buy his act. He would be the first to run away from any and all battles and he has trouble enough talking to and being around men. He is also extremely opportunistic and greedy. If hired by Pantalone to protect his daughter from her many suitors, Capitano would set up a bidding war for his services or aid between the suitors and Pantalone while wooing her himself. If he is hired to fight the Turks, he will bluster about fighting them to his last drop of blood, but when the Turks seem to be winning, he will join them. When they are driven off, he will change sides again and boast about his loyalty and bravery.

He stands in a high posture with a straight back and most often has one hand in the air and the other hand on his sword or hip.


In this case, his cowardice is usually overcome by the fury of his passion, which he makes every effort to demonstrate. Typically, however, his cowardice is such that when one of the characters orders him to do something, he often steps down out of fear, but is able to make up an excuse that ensures the other characters still see him as a brave and fierce individual. Columbina sometimes uses him to make Arlecchino jealous, much to Capitano's bewilderment and fright.

Description of the character

The Captain is sometimes depicted without a mask. When a mask is used, it is usually flesh-hued with a large nose and a moustache that is either straight and bristly or turned up at the ends. Sometimes older versions are shown wearing a pair of glasses; although used to compensate for his poor vision, Capitano will insist that it is so the brilliant or fierce glint in his handsome eyes will not outshine the sun.

He is dressed in his military uniform, which is multi-colored and covered in shiny buttons, but often shown patched and looking very worn. In one famous scenario, the Captain makes up a lie regarding the reason for his lack of an undershirt by claiming that it got that way because "I used to be an exceedingly fierce and violent man, and when I was made angry the hair which covers my body in goodly quantity stood on end and so riddled my shirt with holes that you would have taken it for a sieve." The real reason is that he has been too poor to afford one. Sometimes he wears it with a helmet or a bicorne or tricorne hat with a huge plume. Spanish characters often wear an exaggerated large neck-ruff.

He also wears his trademark sword at all times, only a little. If he were to ever work up enough nerve to draw it, it is usually too long to draw easily or too heavy or wobbly to wield properly. Even if he cut somebody with it, he would faint at the very sight of the blood.

When frightened, he often screams in a high and womanly falsetto, or else faints.

Noms de guerre

Il Capitano usually has a properly showy name for himself, preferably several lines long and followed by many made-up titles and lists of relations.

Some names are fierce-sounding, like: Escobombardon ("Fired Out of a Cannon"), Rodomonte ("Mountain-crumbler"), Sangre y Fuego (Spanish: "Blood and Fire"), Spaccamonti ("Mountain-splitter"), Spezzaferro ("Iron-breaker"), or Terremoto ("Earthquake"). Some names are ironic, like: Bellavista ("Beautiful View", a vain but ugly man) or Fracasso ("Skirmish" or "Big Noise"). Some are dismissive, like: Cerimonia ("Ceremony", all proper manners and rigid, slavish devotion to pointless details), Coccodrillo ("Crocodile", because he preys on others), Fanfarone ("Trumpeter" or "Loudmouth"), Giangurgulo ("John the Glutton"), Grillo ("Grasshopper", because he is small and 'hops' sides), Malagamba ("Lame Leg"), Squaquara ("Little Shi*"), Papirotonda ("Round Letter", a complaint signed by mutinous soldiers or sailors in a circle around the main text so the ringleaders or originators cannot be discerned), Tagliacantoni ("Small-Sized"), and Zerbino ("Doormat"). He is also prone to awarding himself ridiculous titles like Capitan Spavento della Vall'Inferna ("Captain Fear, (Lord) of Hell's Valley"), Salvador de los Vírgenes Borrachos (Spanish: "Savior of Drunken Virgins"), or Sieur de Fracasse et Brise-tout (French: "Lord of 'Knock it down' and 'Break everything'").


The French coined characters like Boudoufle (Norman French: "Puffed up with hurt pride"), Taille-bras (either "Limb-Cutter" or "Arm's Length"), and Engoulevent (either "Night-bird" or "Big-mouth"). England has the Irish dramatist George Farquhar's play The Recruiting Officer. Major Bloodnok of the Goon Show bears some resemblance to Il Capitano and shares many of his traits, such as lust, greed and cowardice. In modern theater, the character Miles Gloriosus (Latin: "Famous or Boastful Soldier") from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is an obvious form of the character, though modeled from the earlier Roman plays.


Matamoros (Spanish: "Killer of Moors") – the original Spanish mercenary – was created by Francesco Andreini. He is powerfully built and very lavishly dressed. The clothes of his servants were supposedly made from the turbans of his victims. Has a hedgehog on his coat of arms, the result of his exploits at the battle of Trebizonde, where he claims to have fought his way into the tent of the Sultan himself. He then dragged him through the camp with one hand while fighting off the entire enemy army with the other hand. Afterwards, there were so many arrows stuck in him by the time he fought free that he resembled a hedgehog.


Scaramuccia (Italian), or Scaramouche (French) ("skirmish") was a reinvention of the character by Tiberio Fiorilli. He is more of a man of action than he is a braggart and is clever, brave, and quick-witted rather than ignorant, cowardly and foolish. He is also a good singer and musician, and is usually depicted with a lute or guitar. Although quite a heartbreaker, he is usually indirectly or unobtrusively helpful to the innamorati.

See also


  1. Fava, Antonio (2004). The Comic Mask in the Commedia dell'Arte. Antonio Fava. p. 1463.

External links

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