During the 1730s and 1740s, Meissen introduced a series of porcelain figures based on characters of the Commedia dell’arte, a type of traveling theater that originated in Italy. The Commedia is based on improvised sketches that found inspiration in the scandals and intrigues of the royal court at which they were performed. The characters of the Commedia were recognizable through the costumes and masks they wore and the props they used.
The figures were designed primarily as decorations for the dessert table. They were arranged thematically and in groups, and provided intellectual stimulation or entertainment for the host and his guests, who it can be assumed understood the underlying political or social messages conveyed through the arrangement of the figures. Johann Joachim Kaendler was a skilled modeler and was successfully able to capture the comic nature of the characters.
Harlequin is probably the best-known and most popular of characters from the Commedia dell’arte. He always appears in a checkered costume and is portrayed as a cheerful and carefree servant who is determined to thwart the plans of his master. Columbine, likewise a servant, is Harlequin’s main love interest. She is flirtatious, but wise, and often resorts to disguises to help fend off amorous advances from other Commedia characters.
In the original Commedia, women were not allowed to be part of the story on stage. However, they were allowed to appear and dance between the story’s main action. In an attempt to woo his mistress, Harlequin often cajoled Columbine into a dance. The little pug at his feet, a popular dog in eighteenth-century Germany, was a symbol of his loyalty and trustworthiness.