A Harlequin, or alrecchino, is most commonly recognized as a comical character from the famous theatrical performance, the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. The first appearance of the harlequin was during the 16th century. There have been a number of theories attempting to describe the origins of the harlequin, which really adds to his mystery. Some say the harlequin came from Italy, while others believe he was originally French.
The general idea of a harlequin is a slow-thinking yet energetic figure. He has been associated with stupidity but throughout history, the harlequin has proved to be lively and witty. He was an entertainer, an acrobat to be more specific. He would never resort to simple and reserved acts of entertainment. He was the one performing the back flips and other acrobats as well as putting himself in mischievous situations. In other words, he possessed a very clown-like persona.
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The arlecchino was a subservient character in all of his acts. One will immediately recognize the harlequin due to his colorful outfit that was created with patches of diamond checkered fabric. Typical colors of a harlequin outfit are blue, green and red. The harlequin mask is the most significant aspect of the ensemble. The mask is usually black or white and has a low forehead along with a wart. It is meant to cover the eyes and the area around them only. These masks were often accompanied by jester hats that had bells attached at the ends. As the harlequin would walk around he would carry a slapstick with him too.
Arlecchino usually had a love interest by the name of Columbine in the Commedia dell’Arte, but he was not always able to woo her. He was a poor soul often hungry for food and thirsty for lust. While he was physically alive and energetic, his mind was rather sluggish. He could not multi-task in his mind and his thoughts were limited. In the Commedia dell’Arte, the harlequin falls for a number of strange traps that he brings upon himself.
The high-spirited and clever harlequin often appears in theatrical performances known as harlequinades. He is always caught in tight situations and is never the one to seek revenge. He often wears a black mask that he can lift in order to reveal himself.
The character of the harlequin has evolved numerous times over the centuries. The 18th Century, however, brought an end to the fantasy and witty characteristics of the harlequin. He became less complex and more one-dimensional.
The Harlequin reappears in modern culture in literature, music, cinema and celebrations. Pop culture has really embraced this acrobatic figure in movies such as Moulin Rouge and Batman. The Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a popular arena for venerating the story and character of the harlequin. They are still dressed in diamond patterned one-piece outfits and decorative masks. The masks are often covered with feathers and decorations. The harlequin masks cover the true identity of the figure behind it and it represents the complex nature of the persona. No one could ever really understand the harlequin.