Thursday, April 7, 2011


5 Italian Renaissance Comedies

That’s mandrake root up above, and it is featured in Machiavelli’s comedy, Mandragola, one of the Five Comedies from the Italian Renaissance that we’ll be talking about briefly.

I did an earlier post about humanist comedies. As I recall those were from the quattrocento or 15th century, while these are from the early part of the cinquecento or 16th. The plots center around marriage, or sex. Primarily between men and women, but in at least one case gay sex functions as an ever present theme.

As with most books from university presses it comes with an introduction and many, many footnotes. While some of the notes are useful, the introduction should be skimmed rather than devoured.

La Calandra by Bernard Dovizi da Bibbiena—Bibbiena was a Cardinal, and might have become pope. Unfortunately, for Bibbiena if not for the Church, he met an untimely demise. The comedy itself concerns a brother and sister, who have been separated at an early age, and who indulge in a bit of cross-dressing for purposes of deception. Readers of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights should have no problem with the cross-dressing as it occurs quite often in English plays of the period. It even occurs in operas such as Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The brother seeks access to a married woman, and the sister pursues her own interests. The play has some of the energy and feverishness of Mozart’s Figaro, and almost cries out for an adaptation by da Ponte and Mozart.

La Mandragola by Niccolo Machiavelli—This, along with La Venexiana, is relatively short, about 40 pages. As before it focuses on sex and lust.

Il Marescalo by Pietro Aretino—Back in the 1970s I taught classes at Northern Va. Community College and we used a textbook called Patterns of Exposition as I recall. Many of the texts were about sex, and one that I used was D. H. Lawrence’s essay on obscenity. Lawrence mentions the bawdy Renaissance tales. To me that referred to Boccaccio and the Decameron. I was also vaguely aware of Pietro Aretino, and his Dialogues, which I thought would be in the same vein as the Decameron. In 1996 I came across an edition at MLA convention, and bought it. Unfortunately, I hated it. So it was with some trepidation that I read Il Marescalo.

Renaissance Italians, like the ancient Greeks, took a different view of homosexual activity than we do. Just as one drop of Negro blood was sufficient in its day to cause a person to be considered black, there was, and may still be, a tendency to consider that one homosexual act made one a homosexual. During the time period and in the place under consideration, such things, if they happened during a person’s youth, the gioventi, were regarded as a passing phase. The person would be expected to put aside his youthful playmates and assume his role as husband and father. In the case of Il Marescalo the main character is a determined and committed homosexual. His duke has ordered his marriage, and spends the whole of the play, about 80 pages, complaining bitterly about being forced into marriage. I’m afraid that for whatever reason, I was not overwhelmed by love and affection for this play.

Gl’ingannati by The Academy of the Intronati of Siena—This has a girl who pretends to be a man. There may be some relation to Twelfth Night here, but whether Shakespeare knew the play or not I can’t say. One rarely sees homosexual activity portrayed or implied in Renaissance English drama. Marlowe’s Edward II, implies that Edward’s relationship with his favorite Gaveston was gay, and the execution of Edward, via a hot poker inserted in his rump, references his sodomitical tendencies. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, also has some gay passages. Other passages, such as certain passages in Shakespeare’s sonnets, are more debatable. In the course of Gl’ingannati, however, the female character who impersonates a man is asked what she will do if she is attacked by a guy. The implication is that she is sexually desirable as either an effeminate boy or as a girl. The comedy is resolved in a far different way than Il Marescalo.

La Venexiana by Anonymous—This was discovered in the 20th century, and may not have been known prior to that discovery. The plot concerns two women who are both interested in the same youth. Let’s just say that nobody sings the Rolling Stone’s Satisfaction at the end.

Next up a series of notes, recipes, and jottings from Marilyn Monroe.

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