Carlo Goldoni was born in Venice in 1707 and spent his early childhood in the house of his grandfather, a keen enthusiast for the theatre. A toy theatre was the boy’s favorite plaything, and plays his favorite reading.
He was sent to school at Rimini and escaped back to Venice with a theatrical company; he studied law at Pavia, but was expelled from his college on account of a satire which he had written. He took his degree in law at Padua in 1731 and practiced as a lawyer for some time at Venice. But the theatre always interested him more than the law, and from 1734 onwards he wrote regularly for the stage.
His earliest efforts were tragedies in verse and libretti for operas; in 1747 he definitely abandoned the law for the theatre, and produced some hundred comedies and a large number of comic operas. It is by his comedies alone that Goldoni is generally remembered, but his comic operas, set to music by Galuppi, enjoyed in their day a popularity, both in Italy and in England, comparable to that of Gilbert and Sullivan.
The Servant of Two Masters is one of his earliest plays; it was written in 1743 at the request of the actor Sacchi, who suggested the subject and himself played the part of Truffaldino. The Italian theatre of that day was dominated by the improvising actors who wore the traditional masks, and in the original form of this play the comic scenes were left to the actor’s own invention. Goldoni wrote them down when he printed the play in 1753, and there can be no doubt that he incorporated a great deal of Sacchi’s traditional business. Mozart had a great admiration for The Servant of Two Masters, and in 1783 contemplated turning it into a comic opera.
The improvised Comedy of Masks, the history of which goes back to the days of ancient Rome, was frequently coarse and obscene. In the early eighteenth century, as Goldoni himself says, there was an English theatre and a French theatre, but no real Italian theatre. The Opera had become the most popular entertainment of the cultivated classes, and even the opera stood badly in need of reform until Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio gave it real literary distinction. Goldoni made it his mission to give an artistic form to the spoken comedy. The four traditional masks which appear in his plays are Pantalone, the Doctor, Brighella and Arlecchino. Pantalone is the old Venetian merchant, wearing the dress of the sixteenth century. By tradition he was merely senile and lascivious; Goldoni made him a model of respectability, while never losing sight of his comic character. The Doctor represents the old man of the educated classes; he is a Doctor of Law of the University of Bologna, pompous and pedantic, much given to Latin quotations. He plays a small part in Goldoni’s plays. Brighella and Harlequin come from Bergamo and represent the two types of servant, knave and fool. Truffaldino is also from Bergamo and is much the same person as Harlequin.
Goldoni is at his best when he lays his scene in his native Venice. His heroes and heroines are conventional figures, often of little interest, but he gives a vivid presentation of types from humbler life, porters, waiters, fisher-folk and gondoliers.
The trend of the age was towards sentimental comedy, and this becomes more and more noticeable in Goldoni’s later plays, especially those written after 1762 for the Théâtre Italien in Paris. The masks disappear and the scene is laid in more aristocratic circles. The earlier plays, written for Venice, deal with middle-class family life; Goldoni’s Venice is the Venice of the remoter streets, not the gay international city of pleasure shown us in Volpone and in the Memoirs of Casanova. Goldoni’s plays are conventional in construction, trivial in incident, undistinguished in dialogue and strictly moral in intention; yet when they are seen on the stage, especially if acted by a Venetian company, no one could fail to enjoy their delightful humour. Goldoni’s puritanism was in fact of an entirely negative type; he simply ignored the coarser and rougher jests because, like Mozart’s Don Alfonso, he saw every little event of daily life from a comic point of view.