Venezia header: Piazza San Marco - Riva degli Schiavoni

CHARLATANS: Doctors, Magicians, Dentists, Entertainers

... and other profit seekers

Charlatans, magicians, acrobats always have been at the heart of the Carnival in Venice.

In the St. Mark's Square blossom different stages for various types of shows, magic tricks, dentists, healers, Hope sellers, music, Puppet shows and Comedy shows blossomed during Carnival time.

And the suckers tourists coming from all over the known world for having fun in Carnival, gladly participated to the celebrations and eventually the rip offs.

Things haven't changed that much, in our modern times, after all ...

Nicolaes Van Haeften: "A Quack"
etching - 1694

Charlatans and Tumblers in St. Mark's Square

by Giacomo Franco - 1550-1620

Charlatans, magicians, acrobats always have been the heart of the Carnival of Venice.

In the St. Mark's Square different stages for various types of shows, magic tricks, music, blossomed during Carnival time.

And suckers tourists coming from all over the (known!) world, gladly participated to the celebrations.

In the 17th century as of today, things don't change that much, after all …


"Intartenimento che dano ogni giorno
li ciarlatani in Piazza di S.Marco
al Populo d'ogni natione
che matina e sera,
ordinariamente, un concore."

"Entertainment given every day
from charlatans in St. Mark's Square
to the Populations of every country
which, from morning to night, ordinarily, everyone participates."

Engraving by Giacomo Franco: Ciarlatani in Piazza San Marco - 1610
Giacomo Franco: "Ciarlatani in Piazza San Marco"
engraving (1610)

Charlatan in a Market Fair

by Jan de Velde - 1593-1641

Jan de Velde: "Charlatan in a Market Fair" - engraving (ca. 1603-1652)

Charlatanism is not an Italian only phenomenon, quite the opposite.

All over Europe existed these "market vendors", called Quack, Quacksalver or Mountebank , which reunited these "skills" to make money, sometimes in an illicit way.

And the Public Market, the place in which everybody reunited to buy goods, was the perfect location (even nowadays!) for proposing whatever you want to sell: Long Life Elixir, your skills as a dentist, whatever.

Charlatan is the English word for the Italian word ciarlatano, which has been widely recognized to come from ciarla (that means chatter, relentlessy talking) and cerretano.

Cerretano is somebody who is a native of this little village in the region of Umbria (Central Italy): Cerreto di Spoleto which, at the present time, has around 200 inhabitants, but it probably wasn't that big even then, all perched on the top of a hill as it is.

As things go, it must have been one guy coming from Cerreto, who was so powerful in hawking and quacking for selling his stuff, that the name stuck, and became history.

The term "Ciarlatano" was recognized as such in 1612 by the Accademia della Crusca, a reknowned institution for the use of the Italian Language.

Charlatan in Bologna with a snake

by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli - 1634-1718

What the Charlatan is, in the end:

  • Elixirs, dubious medicines seller
  • Dentist and doctor if necessary
  • He has to be a relentless and convincing talker
  • Sometimes he shows uncommon animals (snakes, monkeys) to attract the audience attention
  • He moves from market to market, so he has a precarious way of living. Also to avoid to get caught by the people who he had conned the day before ... I would say.
  • He is a free entertainer to:
  • - attract his public (Music, Puppets)
    - create positive and relaxed vibes
    in the audience
    - get the trust of his potential clients
    - do some tricks or acrobatic excercises

Not an easy life maybe, but with its advantages for sure.


"Costui, che d'angue, e vipere pungenti
Vuol far de l'Anatomico facondo,
Sol mostra sù l'autentiche patenti
Il privilegio d'ingannare il Mondo."

"This guy that with eels
and stinging vipers
pretends to be an important
expert in Anatomy,
Only shows, without any doubt,
the privilege of cheating the World."

Giuseppe Maria Mitelli: "Itinerant medicine vendor on stage
with a snake" Engraving (1660)

IL CAVADENTI - The Tooth Extraction

by Francesco Maggiotto - 1738-1805

On the public square or market, the charlatan/doctor would also perform some small surgery or tooth pulling.

"It hurts, we take it out", no other solution in those times, of course, but enough to show how "knowledge" is Magic and Technology and Solutions.

The panel on the back is the Doctor's advertisement "Fama volat" (Reputation Flies), that the doctor uses to be recognized from one market to the other, as his reputation grows.


"Credilo, amico, un pari a me tra cento
Non v'é in quest'arte,
e il dente, che ti duole
Fidati a me fuor tratto in un momento
Mirar godrai con la radice al Sole."

"Believe it, friend, there is nobody as good as me in a hundred, in this craft,
and the tooth that hurts you ...
Trust me that I will take it out in a second and you will feel great
with its root out in the Sun."

Francesco Maggiotto: "Il Cavadenti" (The Tooth Puller)
engraving (c. 1765-1780)

Charlatans and Carnival in Venice

by Pietro Longhi - 1700(2)-1785

Pietro Longhi, in his serial paintings including masked Carnival people, proposes here a couple of fine examples of the Charlatan, or Mountbank.

With his ever raised hand offering the miraculous Elixir and the Dentist - better call him Tooth Puller, those were the times.

As is usual in Longhi's paintings, along with the ever present Carnival masks, we see normal people, not noble, maybe a little satyrical too, but everyday people all the same.

Ironic presences to be noticed in the paintings: the monkey behind the Charlatan head, and in the Dentist painting, the little kid in the center holding a tissue in his mouth (he has very likely been the one loosing his tooth ...) and the dwarf asking for charity
Silent public to the main Carnival participants.

Pietro Longhi: Il Ciarlatano (The Charlatan)
oil on canvas (1757) - Ca' Rezzonico
Pietro Longhi: "Il Cavadenti" (The Tooth Puller)
oil on canvas (ca 1750) - Milano, Pinacoteca di Brera

The Charlatan - Making crowds to sell ointments

by Giandomenico Tiepolo - 1727-1804

Giandomenico Tiepolo: "The Charlatan" oil on canvas (1756)

There is also another English term with matches quite well with the Charlatan: Mountbank.

"Mountbank" comes from an old Italian term "montambanco", which defines "who gets up onto a bench".

And we see here a crowd that is harangued by this mountbank, quacking high over their heads, offering who knows which miraculous product.

Some of them couldn't care less, though.

Charlatans and Puppets show

by Gaetano Zompini - 1700-1778

Puppet shows and story-telling have always been very popular in all Italy along the centuries, and in Venice in particular during the Carnival.

The charlatan is covered with a sheet and moves the puppets. Every day of the week shows are made in the S.Marco Square, in different spots, but also the puppet show is taken around during the festivities in the smaller towns (no TV, back then!).

This peculiar show was supposed to be made mostly for attracting the crowds, put them together and at ease, and then starting to propose the sale of a "special balsam", or a "long life elixir", to suckers that might believe in these things.
I remember selling encyclopedias in the cinemas in the ‘70s, and it worked, oh it did.

"Col far balar da un Omo i buratini,
E col mostrar sto privilegio antigo
El mio balsamo vendo ai babuini."

The Charlatan:
"By making a puppet show
and showing this ancient entertainment
I sell my ointment to the suckers."

Engraving by Gaetano Zompini: "Zaratan" - 1785
Gaetano Zompini: "Zaratan"
hand colored engraving (1785)

Dentist Charlatan in Venice

by Giacomo de Leonardis - 1723-1794

Giacomo de Leonardis: "Il Ciarlatano" (The Quack)
etching (1765) - (from a Giandomenico Tiepolo painting)

In front of this Carnival crowd we have a Charlatan selling who knows what, while the dentist is pulling out a tooth.

The dentist is wearing spectacles, a high sign of a knowledgeable élite.

"Or con la voce, ed ora con la mano
Or soldi, or denti cava il Ciarlatano."

"Either with his voice aor with the hand
Either is money, or teeth, the Charlatan pulls out."

Ciarlatani in Piazzetta

by Gabriele Bella - 1730-1799

Gabriele Bella: "Ciarlatani in Piazzetta" (Charlatans in the Piazzetta) oil on canvas (ca. 1799-1792) Pinacoteca Querini Stampalia - Venezia

Saint Mark's Square, the only really open space in Venice, during Carnival time, we can tell from the masks.

There is a little bit of everything: from charlatans (or politicians?) on high platforms, to two open theatre stages.

We can recognize some Harlequin and a Doctor on the right stage and two(!) women on the left stage with a guitarist that plays.

And a Puppet Show just on the left of this stage, and people going around to fix new areas. A microcosm: XIX century coming up.


Copyright by Roberto Delpiano 1998-2021 - visit my website www.delpiano.com