John Rudlin, Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook
Generically, the female of zanni: zagne. The role was first called sobretta(soubrette in French, later known as fantesca (maid) or servetta (female servant). Although Columbina became the dominant name, especially as Columbine in France and England, she was originally also called Franceschina, Smeraldina, Oliva, Nespola, Spinetta, Ricciolina, Corallina, Diamantina, Lisetta, etc.
Le ballerine and/or le cantarine (French chanteuses) – with a tambourine provided entr’acte entertainment before women were allowed into the stage action proper. Here, for once, there is an indisputable link with Roman theatre. Its relatively late development meant that the role, unlike the male Masks derived from Carnival, was much more dependent on the character of the performer herself and on the taste of the audience. The early street performers (who were more often called Franceschina, Smeraldina, etc.) were older, lustier and more buxom than the later seventeenth and eighteenth century Colombinas, who as well as being younger and more graceful and engaging, were less overtly sexual. In borrowing from the commedia erudita, which had a tradition of the maid appearing in place of her mistress, the servetta would have had a lot to do. But once the Lovers actually appeared, the role was reduced to confidant and message carrier. Later she became the counterpart of Zanni in function and the reflection of her mistress in manner and mood.
Her appearance was initially strong and attractive like a circus artist, later petite and pretty. She goes unmasked, but with eyes wide and well made-up.
Loves Arlecchino, but sees through him. Feels a need to look after him, educate him in the hope that he too can break the bounds of being a fixed type. She therefore scolds him, punishes him, deserts him, takes him back, but in the end he does not change and she has to accept him for what he is, which is still more lovable than Il Dottore, Pantalone , Il Capitano, etc. She can be very affectionate to other characters as well, and her affections seem to flow through her physically, but she always holds something back. As a result she is pestered by other men, especially Il Capitano and Pantalone. She is always ready to help the Lovers, perhaps through natural sympathy with their plight.
She has a collusive relationship to the audience as she is a spectator herself. Almost confidential in the sense that she too can see what fools the rest of them are. Flirts with spectators moving closer so they can see her eyes, but not too close.
By her keen and active wit, she was able to hold her own in every situation and emerge with ease and dignity from the most involved intrigues. The only lucid, rational person in commedia dell’arte, analogous to Maria in Twelfth Night. Autonomous and self-sufficient, she has no negative attributes; she has enough to eat, decent clothes and no ambition to be rich. She can read and write: in fact she is very fond of books and owns several. She sings, dances captivates, but has gone beyond her entremetteuse origins to become a self-educated woman. In this respect she is influenced by contact with Isabella, indeed it is difficult to see how the later could confide in anyone who did not share her outlook on life. The main difference between servette and zanni is that whereas Arlecchino thinks on his feet, Colombina uses her brain and thinks things through. Like Il Capitano she is a lone figure, capable of appearing solo. Often, in fact, the prologue is entrusted to her. Although capricious and coquettish she is good at her job, careful with money, and will, with great reluctance, make an excellent housekeeper one day. Although she is very sexually knowing she is sometimes a virgin, when it suits her.