Pulcinella (Italian pronunciation: [pultʃiˈnɛlla]), a name derived from "pulcino," meaning chick, and "pollastrello," meaning rooster, is a classical character that originated in commedia dell'arte of the 17th century and became a stock character in Neapolitan puppetry. Engineered specifically to be the star of southern Italy, he is described as "the voice of the people, as the direct expression of a people as lively and spirited as the Neapolitans is never questioned." Pulcinella's versatility in status and attitude has captivated audiences worldwide and kept the character popular in countless forms since his introduction to commedia dell'arte by Silvio Fiorillo in 1620.
Pulcinella was raised by two "fathers," Maccus and Bucco, who were as different as two parents could be. Maccus is described as being terribly witty, sarcastic, rude, and cruel, while Bucco is a nervous thief who is as silly as he is full of himself. This duality manifested itself in both the way Pulcinella is shaped and the way he acts. Physically, the characteristics he inherited from his fathers attributed to his topheavy, chicken-like shape. He inherited his humpback, his large, crooked nose, and his gangly legs from Maccus. His potbelly, large cheeks, and gigantic mouth come from Bucco] Due to this duality of parental lineage, Pulcinella can be portrayed as both a servant and master depending on the scenario. "Upper" Pulcinella is more like Bucco, with a scheming nature, an aggressive sensuality, and great intelligence. "Lower" Pulcinella, however, favors Maccus, and is brilliantly described by Pierre Louis Duchartre as being "a dull and coarse bumpkin." This juxtaposition of proud, cunning thief from the upper class and loud, crass pervert from the servant class is one that is key to understanding Pulcinella's behaviors.
Duality is the name of the game with Pulcinella. He either plays dumb, though he is very much aware of the situation or- he acts as though he is the most intelligent and competent, though he is woefully ignorant. He is incessantly trying to rise above his station, though he does not intend to work for it. He is a social chameleon, who tries to get those below him to think highly of him, but is sure to appease those in positions of power. Pulcinella's closing couplet translates to "I am Prince of everything, Lord of land and main. Except for my public whose faithful servant I remain." However, because his world is often that of a servant, he has no real investment in preserving the socio-political world of his master. Nevertheless, he is always on the side of the winner, though he often doesn't decide this until after they've won. No matter his initial intent, Pulcinella always manages to win. If something ends poorly, another thing is successful. If he is put out in a sense, he is rewarded in another. This often accidental triumph is his normal. Another important characteristic of Pulcinella is that he fears nothing. Consequences are of no mind to him, as he will be victorious no matter what. It is said that he is so wonderful to watch because he does what audience members would do were they not afraid of the consequences.
Engraving of Pulcinella in 1700 (1860) by Maurice Sand, found in Masques et bouffons: comédie italienne.
Pulcinella is, however, the ultimate self-preservationist, looking out for himself in most every situation, yet he still manages to sort out the affairs of everyone around him. Antonio Fava, a world-renowned maskmaker and Maestro of Commedia dell'arte is particularly fond of the character in both performance and study due to his influence and continuity throughout history. Of him, Fava explained that "Pulcinella, a man without dignity, is nevertheless indespensable to us all: without [him] ... none of his countless 'bosses' could ever escape from the awkward tangle of troubles in which they find themselves. Pulcinella is everyone's saviour, saved by no one." This accidental helpfulness is key to his success. He goes out of his way to avoid responsibility, yet always ends up with more of it than he bargained for.
His movements are broad and laborious, allowing him to aggressively emphasize his speech and simultaneously exhausting him. He will also get excited about something and move very quickly and deliberately, leaving him with no choice but to halt the action and catch his breath. He is to be thought of as a rebellious delinquent in the body of an old man.