Character from the Italian puppet theatre. Initially the Zanni had the role of a valet in the commedia dell’arte. The name probably comes from Giovanni, a name which, in 16th century Venice, was applied to servants and common labourers from the valleys in the Bergamo region. The name Zuan or Zan was a dialect version from which the name Zanni or Zani, or its shortened form Zan, would derive and many actors used this in conjunction with their own name or the name of a character: Zan Bigotta, Zan Ganassa, Zan Farina, etc.
Allardyce Nicoll maintains that Zanni was initially the name of a character in his own right.
It was only later that the name came to designate a valet who was at the same time cunning, ignorant and clumsy. Andrea Perrucci (Dell’arte rappresentativa, premeditata e all’improvviso On the Art of Performance Both Scripted and Improvised, Naples, 1699) makes a distinction between the Zanni of northern Italy and the zani napoletani, of which Pulcinella was the most famous. They all retained more or less the same costume: a loose-fitting floating white one, with flat shoes, a stick by the side and, the one distinctive feature, a head-dress initially with two points which, with Pulcinella, was transformed into a soft cap with a turned-up edge before becoming the familiar pointed hat (coppolone) that everyone knows.
On the puppet stage the Zanni are present in the characters of Brighella (first Zanni) and of Arlecchino (second Zanni). We may also assume that other characters created by puppeteers in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries go back to the Zanni if we take into account their comic role, their constant hunger, and the stick which provides a solution to all their problems. As well as Sganapino, Fagiolino and Flemma, one of these characters is Gioppino, who emerged from the imagination of the Bergamo puppeteer Battaglia between 1820 and 1835. It is curious that he should originate in the very valleys around Bergamo that saw the birth of the first Zanni, in particular Arlecchino and Brighella.