I’m going to talk about Zanni.
Disclaimer: When it comes to commedia dell’arte, nothing is absolutely certain. Nobody really bothered to write too much down, and what they did write down was from performances more than process. So... I might get some things wrong (pretty much definite, since I did not live during the commedia age) or leave something out, BUT I hope people comment if they feel strongly. Thanks!
Things I know about Zanni. Zanni was one of the very first commedia characters, if not THE first (Pulcinella goes way way back too).
The term “zanni” can mean 3 things, well more like, 2 and a half things (2 and a fun fact).
1) Zanni can refer to a type of character (a.k.a. a group or class of characters)
These “Zanni” (keep in mind, words ending in “i” in Italian are plural) are the working class characters, the everyday lower class. The people. The John Does of the world. The poor immigrants.
Which means that technically, Arlecchino and Colombina are both Zanni, as are Pulcinella, Pedrolino, and others. You have your masters and you have your servants, your Zanni. Generally, it is used to refer to the generic lower class characters, more than more well-known ones.
2) Zanni can be the name of the character named Zanni.
Zanni can have lots of different personalities, and there are many different Zanni masks. When a specific zanni is used repeatedly and becomes recognized, s/he will become a “named” Zanni, which can be like Arlecchino or Pedrolino, OR maybe more of a classification type name, such as “Cowboy Zanni” or “Zanni Stupido” or “Zanni Gatto”.
Fun Fact: “Zanni” as a name comes from Gianni, or Giovanni, basically the equivalent to “John” in English. He literally is “John Doe”, because nobody has bothered to learn his name. He is so low, he is not “deserving” of a name as a character. Think of him as “human filler”. A filler character, taking up space. This idea is portrayed to the audience, who hopefully sympathize with how shitty this is.
Traits common to Zanni...
Zanni is very earthy and grounded. He is frequently very acrobatic, but not light and flighty. Heavy and athletic. He is strong, as he has lived a lifetime of labor. But he has a lot of energy.
Zanni wants food. He is starving. Always. He will want sex when it’s right in front of him, or when s/he sees a pretty person. S/he acts on basic human instinct, with a healthy dose of fun curiosity.
Places We See Zanni Today: