Barbara Tasca
Article by Barbara Tasca

Isabella Canali Andreini and the job of acting


Isabella Canali Andreini was the one who really started the profession of actor / actress, ennobling this often discredited and opposed profession. Just think of this 1778 decree from the Serenissima Republic, issued by the inquisitor Antonio Maria Tiepolo and addressed to the Comedians (i.e. actors): “Tonight the doors of the theatre will open, but that of the brothel does not open. Remember, that you Comedians, you are people in hatred of God, but you are tolerated by the prince for the delight of the people who take pleasure in your iniquities … Your get carried away easily, but the magistrate will watch over you. Go and work as Christians, despite being comedians”.

Isabella was cultured and charming. Her father, Paolo Canali, was of Venetian origin and humble conditions but nevertheless managed to impart to his daughter a very good education as well as a true “hunger for knowledge”, which she kept up all her life.

Isabella Canali Andreini, Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo, Casa Goldoni (Carlo Goldoni’s Home), Venice

Presumably born in 1562, in Padua, a university and philosophical centre of great importance for the city of Venice and a breeding ground for many actors, Isabella was truly an actress of extraordinary talent and became very famous, treading the boards of the major European theatres. When she died in 1604, aged only 42, she was buried with the highest honours. It is said that an immense crowd attended Isabella’s funeral in Lyon, whose solemnity and decorum matched her popularity.

It is important to underline that her name, Isabella, coincides with a specific character of the Commedia dell’Arte, that of the “Innamorata” or “l’Amorosa”, such was her skill in giving depth and credibility to the characters she played on stage.

Isabella, Maurice Sand, Masque et buffons, 1860, Biblioteca Casa Goldoni, Venezia

The commedia dell’arte and the first comedic companies

The commedia dell’arte, which began its great adventure in the second half of the 16th century, draws its name from professional comedians who performed in the squares and at the courts of Europe. Also known as subject or improvised comedy, being improvised around pre-arranged plots and subjects, it was also called comedy of masks and Italian comedy. In 1545, the first comedic company was formed in Padua and consisted solely of male actors, but then the professional commedia dell’arte brought a scandalous novelty for the time: the introduction of women on stage.

It is said that the first woman to tread the stage was the Venetian Vincenza Armani. As Pompeo Molmenti explains in his splendid “History of Venice in private life”, Isabella was, however, certainly the first theater actress to be“admired, honoured and praised in life and in death by princes and plebeians, and by the greatest poets, including Torquato Tasso, who wrote a sonnet of refined elegante for her.

Isabella Canali Andreini, ne I comici italiani di Luigi Rasi, 1897, Biblioteca Casa Goldoni, Venezia

Isabella and Francesco Andreini

Isabella entered the Compagnia dei Gelosiat a very young age, as First Woman in Love, the main serious female part. She became professional and private partner (a common tradition among actors) to Francesco Andreini, also in the Compagnia dei Gelosiand who at first played the part of the Lover, then later on created the character of the vainglorious and boastful soldier, the famous Capitan Spavento.

Capitan Spaventa, La commedia dell’arte di Laura Mangini, Filippi Editore, 1984, Venezia

“Andreini”, the surname of Isabella and Francesco, could be a stage name, chosen by the spouses themselves. Quoting Siro Ferrone, drama teacher and playwright, Isabella and Francesco are “almost suspended in the void of history … their biographies are either obscure or are lost … in the sky of myth”. The Compagnia dei Gelosiperformed in Venice in 1574 in front of King Henry III and in Florence in 1589 with La Pazzia, defined as the “comedy of Isabella comediant”, on the occasion of Ferdinando de Medici’s wedding with Christina of Lorraine. The “d’Isabella” does not mean Isabella wrote the comedy, but that she had such mastery of it on stage that she made it her own and her interpretation went down in history.

Isabella Canali Andreini, ne I comici italiani di Luigi Rasi, 1897, Biblioteca Casa Goldoni, Venezia

After a triumphal tour, I Gelosi in 1603 went to France for the third time, performing with high acclaim at the court of King Henry IV, whose wife Maria de ‘Medici became a friend to and protector of Isabella.

The two spouses had many children – some say seven, others eight – of which only Giovan Battista followed in the parents’ footsteps, entering the Gelosi with the stage name of Lelio and becoming one of the most important playwrights of the century. Isabella also distinguished herself as a talented singer and musician and was a caring mother and faithful wife, and made use of all the virtues to shield herself from the prejudices of the time that equated the profession of actress to that of harlot.

Her personality was truly multifaceted: she was also a poet and writer and, as such, she was one of the rare women to be admitted to theAccademia degli Intenti, with the name of “Accesa”. In 1603, Isabella published Le Rime, dedicated to Cardinal Aldobrandini, in whose house, in a singular poetic contest, Isabella was so good that she positioned herself second only to Tasso. Posthumous, on the other hand, is the publication of her Lettersand Enjoyable Reasonings. As a writer, she is perhaps best remembered for the pastoral fableMirtilla, which exalts marriage and conjugal love.

Regarding the iconographic diffusion of hypothetical portraits of Isabella, I find interesting what Maria Ines Aliverti writes about a painting by Paolo Veronese, kept at the Thyssen Museum in Madrid, entitledPortrait of a lady with a dog, which the scholar believes to be a portrait of the actress, datable to about 1583 or at the latest the beginning of 1584. It is “a unique document, not only as a testimony of a phase of Isabella’s life and art, but also as a testimony of a phase of the Commedia dell’Arte. The young woman is standing … her gaze thoughtful … golden blonde hair thickly curled and adherent to the head, in accordance to Venetian fashion, but so much so as to give the impression of a masculine cut. The small book held in the left hand and held open with the thumb refers to the intellectual and reflective habits of the young woman … The dress seems designed to facilitate movement. The absence of jewellery emphasizes the character of refined simplicity and “virile” measure. Finally, the pose of the woman has an “energetic trait …”.

Paolo Veronese, Ritratto di dama con cagnolino, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Isabella,beautiful in name, beautiful in body and extremely beautiful in soul, using the words of her inseparable husband Francesco, died due to an abortion and in her memory a medal was even minted with her effigy and the words Aeterna Fama. “And I will never be tired of reaching fame …”: her purpose was to be remembered both for the height of her virtue and for her glory and undying fame …! And quoting the words of Tommaso Garzoni in his work Piazza Universale di tutte le professioni del mondo (Venice, 1585), we believe that “every voice, every language, every cry will echo the celebrated name of Isabella.”

Paolo Veronese, Ritratto di dama con cagnolino, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

I hope to have intrigued you, and I look forward to seeing you in Venice… perhaps to discover the history of the women of our city between past and present.

Barbara Tasca

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