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THE Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto is the purpose-built home of the ceramics collection of George Gardiner, a Toronto businessman (fast food restaurants and discount stockbrokering) whose interest in porcelain was triggered by an article in an investment journal which concluded that European ceramics was one of the best investments and hedges against inflation.

Seeing two Meissen Harlequin figures at the Toronto home of the president of publishers, Harlequin Enterprises, Mr Gardiner was captivated and decided to collect figures of the wily Harlequin, “who in fear or self-interest takes on all sorts of deceits” and about whom there is now even a question over his sexual identity.

This was the beginning of a 139-strong collection from 22 European factories which includes Kaendler’s fearsome Scowling Harlequin Meissen figure which features on the book’s back cover, and the Bow figure by the “Muses Modeller” of Pulcinella, ”a provocative two-faced character with a volcanic temper”.

Written by the curator of the museum, this book investigates the history of the commedia dell’arte’s transformation into sculpture. Each of the pieces in the collection is described and placed in context by chapters on theatre, costume, dance, courtly entertainment , porcelain design and manufacture in order to portray the fascinating story of commedia dell’arte, that form of improvised theatre which developed in Italy by the mid-16th century and was performed by itinerant players all over Europe, from town squares during markets and festivals to the palaces and gardens of the nobility.

Much copied today, commedia dell’arte was base, unpredictable and adaptable, full of biting satire, buffoonery, slapstick and innuendo.
The five main chapters in this book are The Masquerade, The Court, The Gestures and The Cast. With a useful reference catologue of the commedia dell’arte sculpture in the Gardiner Museum and some cracking photographs of 18th century commedia dell’arte costume used in comparison with the gaily painted porcelain costumes, this book is of particular interest to those interested in theatre art and history, as well as collectors of commedia dell’arte porcelain. Mr Gardiner’s investment is probably a lot sounder than fast food and is certainly much more aesthetic.