Post-classical history

Re-Dreams: Virtù, Saving the Rinascimento, and the Satyr in the Garden (c. 1500–c. 1560)

Re-Dreams of Virtù: Machiavelli and Other Secular Prophets

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) would become one of the most prominent secular prophets who presented a vision of social and cultural reform that might save the Rinascimento in its time of crisis, even as he was often portrayed as one of the most dangerous satyrs in its garden – if not the Serpent himself. But there was no lack of other prophets with competing visions for saving Italy. Along with Old Nick, three other important and controversial figures seem particularly significant in the rethinking of the civiltà of the day that was a much more general phenomenon in the early sixteenth century: Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529), Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), and Pietro Aretino (1492–1556). Each in his own way wrestled with the underlying problem of the new that threatened Italy and its urban society and culture. Moreover, if at first sight their ideas seem profoundly different, at least for Machiavelli and Castiglione, their underlying answer to the problems of Italy was based upon a long established discourse that ran deeply in the shared primary culture of the Rinascimento.

Both called for a return to that virtù that had made Italy great, and both shared the vision that it was the lack of virtù that had opened the doors of Italy to conquerors from over the Alps: for it was a lack of virtù that had led to the corrupt and ineffective governments of the recent past, and it was a lack of virtù that had made the people of Italy “soft and effeminate.” Thus in returning to virtù, and to the way Machiavelli and Castiglione used the term to think about the troubled nature of their day, rather than merely examining the vision of famous writers on virtù, we are once again tracing the parameters of a particularly significant discourse of the primary culture of the day – a shared discourse that drew much of its strength from its long tradition of defining moral and social superiority with a classical pedigree.

In haunting lines of self-examination at the start of the second book of his Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, Machiavelli worried about his conviction that the times in which he was living were the worst of times. At first, seeming to offer hope, he noted perceptively that old men – as he claimed to be, in his late forties – often saw the present as corrupt and degraded and tended to see the past as superior. This appeared to prepare the ground for an assertion that the present was not as bad as it might at first seem, especially to old men like himself. But ironically, that was exactly the point he rejected: “I do not know, therefore, if I deserve to be numbered among those who deceive themselves…. Yet it is true that if the virtù which ruled in those times [the ancient Roman world] and the vices which rule today did not shine more clearly than the sun, I would not speak so strongly.” Machiavelli, then, damned his day and presented a defense of his pessimistic position that drew on a central topos of the culture of the Rinascimento: Italians had lost the virtù of the ancient Romans that had made them great and had made the Rinascimento itself possible. Not surprisingly, then, he argued that a rebirth of that virtù would return Italy and its urban society to their previous glory.

Significantly, he argued this in his most famous (and infamous) work, The Prince (c. 1513), and in his less read but no less significant Discourses (written 1513–1517) – even if in the former he focused on a prince’s need for virtù in order to rule and hold onto power, and in the latter on the need for the popolo to have virtù in order for a republic to resist a prince and survive. At first the Discourses may seem to concentrate primarily on the virtù of ancient Romans. Yet the virtù he presents as having made ancient Rome great, when looked at more closely, was less classical than contemporary. For, in fact, it was an evocative pastiche of the ancient read by Machiavelli through the lens of his primary shared culture, where virtù was, as we have seen, a measure of what made one man superior to another in the Rinascimento. As such, it was heavily reliant on contemporary civic values associated with the popolo grosso and civic morality. Indicative of this is the way Machiavelli felt comfortable using the term throughout the Discourses, to describe not only the positive ways ancient Romans behaved, but also the positive ways modern Italians behaved. And, in turn, the term, used in much the same way, and Machiavelli’s contemporary examples of its success are central to his recipe for princely survival in The Prince.

In fact, virtù, and the success it brings, flourishes at the heart of much of his apparently less serious writing as well. In his famous comedy La mandragola (The Mandrake Root), for example, virtù cleverly deployed by a corrupt priest, Fra Timoteo, and a clever Machiavellian advisor, Ligurio, allows a young lover to succeed in bedding and winning the love of a young married woman, with the unwitting aid of her foolish old husband – virtù in the service of trickery and sin – hardly ancient Roman – or Christian, for that matter – but clearly Rinascimento. More subtly, perhaps, in his Clizia – a comedy that seems to poke fun at Machiavelli’s own peccadilloes as an aged lover – an old husband, Nicomaco, blinded by his mad passion for a young woman, is saved from ruin by a clever plot that in its humorous humiliation of Nicomaco goes far beyond the ancient Roman comedy upon which it is loosely based. In the positive ending required of a comedy, he rejects the love that had rendered him a fool and regains virtù and the mature wisdom expected of the old men who rule families and society itself. Thus, he lives happily ever after as the virtù-ous patriarch of a reborn happy and well-ordered family. It might be suggested that just as virtù reborn in Nicomaco returned his family to its correct order, so virtù reborn in princes or the popolo offered the same possibility for the Rinascimento, in Machiavelli’s eyes.

But to fully appreciate how deeply Machiavelli’s vision of virtù was part of a historical moment and the shared primary culture of his day, a closer look at Machiavelli’s life and career is in order. Both are fascinating, for when one begins to look more closely at the historical Machiavelli, he refuses to fit his modern Machiavellian stereotypes in ways that are revealing. First, of course, Machiavelli was a man of action, a man deeply caught up in his early sixteenth-century Florence. From this perspective it is much harder to think of him as an intellectual merely commenting on ancient political thought, or as a prescient proto-modern thinker able to see beyond his cultural context in ways that made him a precursor of modern political theory. Like most of his contemporaries, the former was what he claimed in his Discourses, presenting the work as merely a series of commentaries on the ancient historian Livy. The latter he could hardly claim, not being aware of the way his work would be singled out by later commentators, although he did claim to reject theory and the moral hypocrisy of earlier writers in order to speak directly to the future about the real issues involved in ruling. Yet such claims are usually just that, rhetorical claims, and Machiavelli, like most, had a series of agendas that drove his analysis that involved much more than a mere dispassionate description of the political reality of his day.

In 1498 a young Machiavelli (around twenty-nine) was appointed secretary of the chancellery responsible for foreign affairs and war. Historians have wondered how this young man from an old but no longer leading family was able to win such an important post. His father had been a moderately prosperous lawyer, and the young Niccolò apparently had already held some minor posts. But his jump to that prestigious post put him at one of the important centers of Florentine affairs at a critical moment. What seems clear is that Machiavelli made the most of his position and proved himself to the emerging leader of the republican government of the city, Piero Soderini, as an invaluable colleague and analyst of the political scene. A brief review of his more important diplomatic missions suggests just how important he had become. The year 1499 found him in Forlì meeting with Caterina Sforza, an ally of Florence and the widow of Giovanni de’ Medici, whose hold on that city was being threatened by Cesare Borgia. Cesare was busily trying to take advantage of the turmoil in Italy following the French invasion to carve out a state for himself in the region, and Forlì was one of his targets. It was in Florence’s interest to see Borgia’s plans thwarted, and their ally Caterina retain her power in the region. But notwithstanding his positive impression of Caterina’s “manly virtù,” Machiavelli reluctantly concluded that it would be trumped by Borgia’s superior military power and his equal or superior virtù. And shortly after his mission, Forlì fell to Borgia, confirming his prognostication.

The next year (1500) he was sent to France, where he met with the new king, Louis XII (1462–1515; ruled 1498–1515) and was again impressed by his virtù, particularly in terms of military and political acumen. Louis, who had succeeded Charles VIII, during this period of early success had recently deposed Ludovico il Moro Sforza, claiming Milan by hereditary right, and would soon retake Naples (1501) only to lose it again (1503). Meanwhile, in 1502 and once more in 1503, Cesare Borgia and his expanding pretensions in central Italy would again claim Machiavelli’s attention. In 1502 Cesare seemed about to succeed in establishing his ministate in the Romagna; thus Machiavelli was asked to evaluate how dangerous for Florence Borgia’s success would be. In 1503, however, apparent success turned to failure with the unexpected death of Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI. One last time Machiavelli was asked to evaluate Cesare’s future, which he correctly judged as negative. Later, in The Prince he also used his observations on the rapid demise of Cesare that followed to analyze how it was that a leader who demonstrated such exceptional virtù could fall so quickly, obviously a problem for Machiavelli, who put so much emphasis on the power of virtù.

The year 1504 found him again travelling to France to evaluate the Florentine/French alliance, after the defeat of the French in Italy and their loss of Naples. In 1506 he journeyed with the new pope, Julius II (1443–1513; pope 1503–1513), on his successful military campaign to retake parts of the Papal States that had been lost under his predecessors. Once again in his political writings Machiavelli would return several times to the troubling figure of Julius, whose impetuousness and lack of reason and forethought seemed to doom him to failure – and, more importantly, appeared to make him the perfect figure of anti-virtù, winning out repeatedly where his impetuous lack of planning should have led to catastrophe. But in the end, with evident discomfort and some ingenious qualifications, Machiavelli managed to wrestle even this unlikely pope into a figure who grabbed the moment with virtù and won out over less courageous and hard-headed opponents.

Again in 1508 he was on the road, journeying to Bolzano in the context of the League of Cambrai’s planned war on Venice, to meet with the Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519; emperor 1493–1519); 1510 found him moving on to France as the League was breaking up and alliances were quickly being rearranged, requiring a careful analysis of where the French and Florence would fall in the new order of things. But these were only the most important missions of Machiavelli. He also travelled regularly to lesser hot spots and potential hot spots, sending back to his Florentine superiors important reports noted for their close and careful analysis of the leaders he met and the political and military situations he encountered. Many of his dispatches still exist and, supplemented by his letters, provide a fascinating picture of the political and diplomatic world in which he moved as a young man and upon which he based his later political writings.

During this same period Machiavelli was also intimately involved in Florence’s military adventures. Foremost among them was its fifteen-year campaign to regain Pisa, lost after the fall of the Medici in 1494. Machiavelli took part in several ineffective sieges that apparently confirmed what would become his lifelong distrust and dislike of mercenaries. As he would later argue in his Art of War and more briefly in The Prince and Discourses, he was convinced that armies made up of professional soldiers were neither as loyal nor as committed as well-trained citizen militias. They were unwilling to spill sufficient blood or to fight to the end for employers, who were just that, employers, much preferring easy or at least secure victories or retreating to fight another day. Behind his apparently hard-headed analysis, however, there lay a deeper belief in the necessity of cultivating a citizenry imbued with virtù, along with a fairly traditional form of civic morality. Machiavelli believed that loyal citizens fighting for their patria, and for a cause in which they believed, with equal training and skill (military virtù) would always outperform mercenaries, because they had the more powerful virtù of good citizens defending their families and their homeland.

Like a true Rinascimento thinker, Machiavelli drew on the example of ancient Rome and its successful citizen armies to support his case, noting the special virtù they displayed in their many triumphs. But well before he wrote his famous tracts on the matter, he was busy trying to convince his superiors in government that Florence needed a civilian militia to fight its wars, rather than relying on the unreliable and costly condottiere armies that had produced so little for the city. Finally, in 1506, he convinced Soderini and was given the responsibility of organizing and training a citizen militia. Many were unimpressed with Machiavelli’s plans, especially as they required the dangerous strategy of arming the lower classes. But it seems that his militia did play a role in the final taking of Pisa in 1509. And he, at least, claimed that victory as one of his greatest successes. With the fall of the Soderini government in 1512 and the return of the Medici, however, the militia was shelved, along with Machiavelli himself. Hard-headed economic and military realities won out over Machiavelli’s idealistic beliefs – even if, ironically, the latter would live on in his writings, depicted as hard-headed and realistic.

With the return of the Medici, Machiavelli’s active civic life was over. Too closely associated with the republican government of Soderini, and without strong defenders in the aristocratic faction that supported the returned Medici, he was fired. To make matters worse, shortly thereafter he was accused of having taken part in a plot to overthrow the new Medici regime. Arrested, he apparently successfully avoided confessing under torture; was eventually released; and went into a form of self-imposed exile at his family estate just south of Florence. At forty-three and, from his perspective, at the height of his political powers, Machiavelli found himself suddenly and unwillingly retired. His responses were several. And they virtually all turned around regaining the political place and prominence he had lost. Most notable, of course, were the famous works he wrote on government and politics, the Prince and the Discourses along with the Art of War, in an attempt to regain entrance to the political arena of his day. He also continued an important epistolary campaign to win friends, influence people, and maintain a circle of intimate friends who might support his return to power.

Although some of those letters have been lost, the significant body that remains provides a revealing record of the strategies of self-presentation of a man anxious to represent himself as a subtle analyst of the political situation of Florence, Italy, and the broader world that had so troublingly changed the political reality of Italy. At the same time, however, the letters represent Machiavelli not just as a man of virtù because of his political analysis and abilities, but also as a man of virtù because of his ability to cleverly laugh at himself and others. His illicit sexual exploits and fantasies, which are often quite explicitly detailed, provided a rich source of often self-mocking humor. In this way we might claim that he presented himself as the perfect satyr in the garden of his own attempted rinascita – half virtù-ous political mind, from the waist up, half virtù-ous licentious flesh, from the waist down. These same themes are central to his more literary works, the Mandragola, Clizia, and his egregiously misogynistic novella, Belfagor. Each presents its author as a man capable of laughing at the world around him and at himself, with a clever honesty that demonstrated to his contemporaries and their consensus reality judgments of him that he was literally one of the boys (albeit a bit old for the role) and full of virtù.

Yet the works that evoke virtù as the answer to the problems of an Italy overrun by foreign powers, The Prince and The Discourses, are Machiavelli’s most famous. Both have been so carefully and diversely interpreted, often in ways that would have surprised Machiavelli, that it is difficult to say anything about them definitively. Actually, as argued more fully in my earlier book Machiavelli in Love, to a large extent the power of the term virtù for the Rinascimento and Machiavelli was to be found in the way it permitted multiple interpretations, its polysemous nature and flexibility. This gave it the ability to rhetorically evoke consensus, even as its meaning slid across a spectrum of meanings that included everything from the precepts of Christian morality to the ruthlessly rational calculation of self-interest. At first this might seem strange in a culture where social and moral values tended to be viewed as absolutes and where cultural relativity was not so much shunned as virtually unthinkable. But it is in just such cultures that a range of evaluative terms that are not closely defined, or that unwittingly allow for a broader range of meanings, become virtually necessary to deal with the complexity of life as lived. During the Rinascimento a number of especially significant terms fulfilled this need – for example, “old,” “ancient,” “honorable,” “natural,” “good,” “beautiful,” “customary,” “mannerly,” “courteous,” and “honest.” Each in its own way tended to be highly flexible and had a wide range of discursive uses that make precise definition impossible. Their very polyvalent nature, in fact, was one of their important strengths, as it allowed them to be adapted to the situation at hand with absolute certainty and usually unnoted flexibility.

Philosophers or theologians could perhaps deal in terms of absolutes and attempt tight definitions of such terms, but writers of the day concerned with practice, and with presenting a convincing argument, tended to use them with more flexibility – rhetorical tools to win support for often contending opinions. Thus a term like virtù, which at first glance might seem to have a straightforward meaning – the quality or skill that made one man superior to others – and which might seem to have endured unchanged from the ancient world up to and through the Rinascimento, as regularly claimed, was anything but unchanging and enduring, as we have seen. Significantly, the ability to sustain a complex discourse on what made one person better than another, rather than requiring a simple, straightforward definition, made the term one capable of changing dramatically – and not just over time, but also adapting to different cultural frames in terms of class, gender, moral values, ideology, and even pragmatic concerns.

In this respect, Machiavelli’s use of the term provides a particularly good perspective on the equivocal nature of virtù in the Rinascimento. Like many a powerful rhetorician, he used the term to win acceptance for his arguments, even when they were troubling or questionable. Perhaps most regularly, however, he used the term in what might be deemed a rather traditional republican sense, drawing on the old popolo grosso values that had won out across much of northern Italy in the second half of the fourteenth and early years of the fifteenth century. As we have seen, that vision of virtù emphasized an ability/skill to successfully accomplish things via reasoned calculation, where calculation often slid over into cunning and tended to involve more problematic behavior in terms of honor or morality. Ghismonda’s virtù-driven defense of her morally questionable affair to her father, the prince of Salerno, discussed in Chapter 5, which turned into a lecture on virtù in Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century tale, seems to offer a foretaste of Machiavelli’s own virtù-driven defense of the morally questionable deeds required to gain and hold power in The Prince. And neatly, both are presented in the form of lessons for a prince.

Perhaps the best example of this use of virtù in The Prince can be found in Machiavelli’s depiction of the ruthless career of Cesare Borgia. Even Machiavelli was troubled by Borgia’s cold-blooded brutality and lack of moral scruples. Yet Borgia, with his clever calculation, cunning, and success, also served as a perfect model of virtù, at least until evil fortune undermined even his virtù and led to his fall. That was a twist of fate at the expense of virtù that he was at pains to explain. For if Fortuna could sweep away the best laid plans of the virtù-ous prince, could virtù really be counted upon? His answer was a troubled yes. Comparing Fortuna to a flood that sweeps all before it, Machiavelli argued that with planning and forethought (virtù) even the damage of a flood can be contained by canals and dikes that would deflect its force – in the same way, the virtù-ous prince anticipated misfortune by preparing his political canals and dikes to deflect the force of evil fortune. Thus he noted that Borgia had planned ahead, only to be foiled by the one thing he did not anticipate, that he would be ill when his father, the pope, died and thus unable to put in motion his carefully prepared plans. Significantly, then, rather than drawing the conclusion that fortune had bested virtù, Machiavelli preferred to see Borgia’s demise as merely a failure to foresee one particular eventuality and construct a plan to deal with it. Virtù, with a bit of tricky reasoning, then retained the power to overcome, or at least to limit, the damage of Fortuna and save the prince and Italy.

Still, Machiavelli had another recipe for dealing with Fortuna that has added to his reputation as a misogynist. Playing on the gendered nature of Italian nouns (Fortuna is a noun gendered feminine in Italian), he argued that Fortuna should be treated like a woman: grabbed and violently handled to keep her in line. Indicative of the slippery nature of the apparently clear language used, it should be noted, however, that virtù itself was also a feminine noun, and thus, to be consistent, Machiavelli might well have felt troubled in making it a crucial aspect of aggressive males. Of course, it did not hurt that the root of virtù, vir, meant “man,” which may have made it easier to overlook its feminine gender as a word.

Fortuna, obviously, was not always negative. In fact, again thinking in terms of gender, Machiavelli envisioned fortune as a woman who tended to favor young men, especially young men in love. In La Mandragola, his best-known comedy, for example, the young would-be lover Callimaco – whose name in Greek suggests a once-upon-a-time youthful Machiavelli himself (kalli – young and handsome; maco – Machiavelli was referred to as “el Maco” by his friends) – appears at first glance to be a model of anti-virtù in action, with his wild and unlikely passion for a married woman whom he has barely seen and never actually met. He wanders the streets in a daze, mouthing lovesick lines that are clearly meant to elicit laughter. But in the end, with the aid of a clever plot designed with the best Machiavellian cunning by the sycophant Ligurio – who is, by contrast, a model of virtù – the young lover succeeds not only in bedding Lucrezia, the object of his desire, but in convincing her to overlook his trickery and accept him as her lover. In fact, he is so successful that she later describes her acceptance of his love as her own personal “rinascita.” That success in bed, however, undermines the easy reading of Callimaco as simply a young fool in love. Of course, he is presented as such, but once again, as was the case in much of the literature of the Rinascimento, love has the power to make even foolish young lovers capable of virtù-ous deeds and of winning the support of a smiling feminine Fortuna. Callimaco, in his ultimate success with Lucrezia, seems to fall into that lucky category.

In The Prince, Fortuna could also at times smile on would-be princes, catapulting them unexpectedly to power. But Machiavelli was not so enthusiastic about such unearned success; for what Fortuna gave, she could easily take away. Thus he was adamant that those who had gained power thanks merely to good fortune had to quickly develop the virtù necessary to maintain it. And the same was true for those who inherited rule. Clearly thinking of Florentines such as Piero de’ Medici, along with other contemporary and ancient examples, he argued that the fatal flaw of those who inherited power was that they did so without having developed the virtù to rule effectively. By contrast, those who gained power without the aid of Fortuna had to develop virtù in order to act with the necessary forethought, skill, and cunning to succeed. Thus they were able to rule successfully using that virtù. The negative implications of this analysis, although rather quietly passed over in The Prince, are carefully examined in The Discourses and are presented as a significant reason for the problems Italy faced in Machiavelli’s day. In that work he sees governments dominated by princes or signori as having become progressively more corrupt and unstable, easy victims of more powerful and more virtù-ous foreigners.

This use of virtù, at least as presented in The Prince, seems to be, and is often interpreted as, quite amoral, although there are good reasons for questioning that too-easy conclusion. Even in the most apparently immoral moments of The Prince, Machiavelli is capable of a quick change of register that underlines the polyvalent nature of the term virtù. Undoubtedly the most notable example of this, and the most troubling for commentators, is his famous shifting judgment of the ancient Greek tyrant Agathocles. He introduces the tyrant with a description of his evil ways, stressing that Agathocles led an “infamous life” but nonetheless accompanied his infamy with such “virtù” of the “soul and body” that he won control of the rich city of Syracuse. He then briefly outlines the tyrant’s strategy of rule, emphasizing his ruthless domination of the city and his willingness to use whatever means necessary to maintain power, which Machiavelli notes was based solely upon Agathocles’ strong will and reasoned, amoral approach to rule – once again, his “virtù.”

But without warning Machiavelli suddenly shifts registers and the meaning of virtù to claim: “Still one cannot call it virtù to kill one’s subjects, betray one’s friends, to be unfaithful, without pity, without religion. Such practices win rule, but not glory.” When necessary, virtù could require the amoral rationality and cunning of a Cesare Borgia or even the ruthless cruelty of a tyrant like Agathocles, whose very soul demonstrated virtù, according to Machiavelli. Still, glory requires more, and Machiavelli’s use ofvirtùshifts accordingly. In fact, in The Discourses the balance shifts decidedly toward a more moral use of the term, especially in the context of his deeper vision of civic morality. That work, which Machiavelli clearly saw as the summa of his ideal of how society and government should function based upon a life of service to the state, political action, and reflection on ancient and contemporary examples, was expressly aimed at recreating in his day a rebirth of the ancient Roman republic and its virtù.

Yet once again the actual virtù he described was less ancient than contemporary. To have an enduring republic, he argued, required a popolo imbued with virtù, a civic and moral virtù in the sense of the civic morality of the civiltà of the first Rinascimento. Citizens who lacked such virtù could not be counted upon to act virtù-ously, make wise decisions, live peacefully together, follow the law, or serve the republic honestly and faithfully. To encourage such virtù or actually require it, the republic needed virtù-ous laws that organized society in a rational and just manner, protecting the weak from the powerful and literally cutting off the offending members of society who did not follow the path of virtù. Such laws were necessary because Machiavelli unquestioningly accepted the Christian vision that people were inherently evil. He often referred to his contemporaries as “triste” – not so much “sad,” as a literal translation might suggest, but inherently evil in the sense of having a stain on their souls that made them ultimately asocial. Not really antisocial, but rather constantly tending to pull apart and disaggregate society in order to gain their own personal desires or those of their family – something still seen by some as a deep problem in modern society. Overcoming that triste aspect of human nature was the essential problem of civil society and government for Machiavelli. And to succeed in that project, a republic required both virtù-ous citizen/leaders and virtù-ous laws to keep its populace virtù-ous.

In this vision of civic morality, in fact, there may lurk a potential single underlying definition of Machiavellian virtù. For, as Machiavelli notes often in The Prince, and from time to time in The Discourses as well, rulers when dealing with triste citizens cannot enjoy the luxury of a moral approach to rule. Agathocles or Cesare Borgia, dealing with subjects lacking virtù in a society without good laws or just government, in order to rule and survive had to make use of a sterner and more amoral virtù, one that was capable of overcoming the untrustworthy and ultimately evil populace they were attempting to control. Such stern virtù could secure their rule, and perhaps even provide the grounds for implementing better laws and eventually building a more virtù-ous citizenry, one of the goals of The Prince. But in The Discourses, discussing his ideal ancient Roman republic and his dream of its modern rebirth, he is clear that with truly virtù-ous citizens and rulers kept truly virtù-ous by laws, virtù could become finally moral. In such a republic violence and immoral actions would no longer be necessary, and the virtù-ous ruler could win glory and be virtuous in a truly moral sense. Whether or not that was Machiavelli’s underlying vision, until that ideal state was reached, virtù remained polysemous and often amoral in Machiavelli’s writings and in the shared culture of his day.

For Machiavelli, the question was obviously how to realize the rebirth of his dream of the ancient Roman republic and its virtù in the troubled days of early sixteenth-century Italy, where the new seemed to breaking out all over. One possible answer was The Prince. For behind the famous Machiavellian advice on how a prince might ruthlessly gain power and hold it, there may well have lain hidden a less recognized Machiavellian dream. In The Discourses, which were written in the second decade of the century – before, after, and as he was writing The Prince – Machiavelli tackled the troubling question of how a corrupt state and citizenry where virtù no longer existed could be reformed and virtù reborn. After admitting the difficulty of the task, he argued that it could be done only by a truly exceptional prince. And he noted (sadly?) that such a ruler, in order to gain and hold power in a corrupt state where the people were triste, had to be ready to use the ruthless and amoral tactics that were necessary to subdue and control such a populace. But once in power, that same prince had to implement virtù-ous laws and slowly transform his subjects into virtù-ous citizens capable of sustaining a republic. With virtù restored and enforced, a true republic could be reborn. From this perspective the last section of The Prince, often dismissed as an afterthought or an attempt to soften the harsh message of the work, with its call for a strong leader to reform the states of Italy and lead them back to power, success, and virtù, seems less an afterthought and more an anticipation of the political dream of The Discourses.

That dream was based, in a way true to the Rinascimento, upon a suggestive mix of ancient history, philosophy, and contemporary ideals and observations that explained for Machiavelli the success and endurance of the ancient Roman republic. The issue was, in a world where everything seemed to decay and become corrupt, how had the Roman republic maintained and cultivated virtù for so long, and in turn how could an ideal state – or, ideally, the modern world – do the same? Reading Livy’s account of the ancient republic and commenting on it in The Discourses, Machiavelli “discovered” that it was the mixed nature of that republic that had made it so successful. In essence, Roman republican government had been successful because it was based on a mixture of rule by the people as a whole, rule by the best people, and rule by a strong leader. In such a mixed rule the defects of each were overcome and held in check. For Machiavelli those defects were clear: rule by the people or democracy became mob rule; rule by the best people devolved into oligarchy; and rule by one man became tyranny. But when all three coexisted such degeneration was blocked by the interests of the other forms involved.

Whether or not the Roman republic ever actually functioned as a mixed government, this “discovery” of Machiavelli’s was supported by the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle, whose well-known political vision of an ideal government was one that mixed democracy, aristocracy, and princely rule in order to avoid the same decay. One might be tempted to accuse Machiavelli of shamelessly stealing Aristotle’s ideas and claiming them for his own. But that would be too easy, for the idea of mixed government had already been stolen (or reborn) to become a strong current in the political ideals and mythology of the Rinascimento. Venice had long touted its mixed government as one of the primary explanations for the city’s success and peacefulness. Florentines had also tried from time to time to reimagine their government as somehow fulfilling similar ideas, with less success. In fact, when Machiavelli was a young man, the followers of Savonarola had toyed with similar ideas for their renewed republic. Even the Soderini government that he served experimented with adopting its own vision of mixed government based upon the Venetian model.

In sum, the shared primary culture of Machiavelli’s day was awash with the ideal of mixed government, so the fact that he discovered it as the source of the longevity and success of the Roman republic and advocated it for his own ideal is hardly a surprise. More significantly, this demonstrates the complex way thinkers and writers of the Rinascimento actually interacted with the cultures to which they were exposed and how their supposedly original ideas were often overdetermined in ways that make claims of originality or of one ancient source difficult to sustain. Behind the complexity of that cultural interaction it is clear, however, that Machiavelli believed that virtù was the key to the success of ancient Rome and a necessity if the corruption and “effeminacy” of the Italians of his day were to be overcome. And although some may disagree, it seems that the prince of The Prince, or at least the prince of The Discourses, was to be the one to lead Italy back to virtù.

Castiglione: Re-Dreams of Love and Virtù

Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, written at much the same time as The Prince and The Discourses, once again offers virtù and a prince as the remedy for overcoming the crisis of an Italy overrun by invaders. Nine years Machiavelli’s junior, Castiglione’s political and diplomatic career in service to the lords of Urbino was also cut short by the Medici, in his case when the ruler of that city was ousted by the Medici pope, Leo X in 1516. Much like Machiavelli, before that date he had served as an administrator and diplomat, but for the lords of the cities and courts of Modena and Urbino rather than for a republic. He also shared with Machiavelli military interests and experience, but unlike him, he actually served as a military officer and fought in several major battles against both the Spanish and the French. Also unlike Machiavelli, his career as an administrator and diplomat was not cut short when he lost his post in Urbino. He merely transferred his services to new lords and actually ended up for a time serving the Medici pope, Clement VII.

Castiglione shared with Machiavelli and many of his Italian contemporaries a deep concern about the apparent fall from grace of Italy. Italy appeared unable to stem or even to respond to the ongoing invasions that seemed to be destroying not just its great cities and courts, but the very social and cultural fabric that had made it the leader and measure of Europe, at least from its own perspective. Thus, again like Machiavelli, in the second decade of the new century he took pen in hand to write The Book of the Courtier. On the surface the work was a handbook for life at court: a manual on how to be a successful gentleman or lady of court. As such, it might seem light years away from Machiavelli’s princes, virtù-ous citizens, and republics. Yet, much as was the case with Machiavelli, the key to his vision of the successful courtier turned on virtù. And once again Castiglione’s pivotal discussion of virtù opened the door for deeper reflections on how Italy might regain its lost glory, guided by the leadership of strong and virtù-ous princes, in this case advised by strong and virtù-ous courtiers.

Castiglione used the popular form of the dialogue to present an apparently wide range of views on how to form a perfect courtier and court lady. Set at the court of Urbino, the discussion was actually organized as a game, like many at court, to display thevirtùand courtly graces of the participants. Speakers were chosen by a court lady, herself chosen by the duchess, who oversaw the conversation. They then displayed their rhetorical skills and brilliance and responded to the challenges and questions of other members of the court. The discussants, nineteen men and four largely silent women, were all well-known intellectual figures of the day, including the future cardinal Pietro Bembo (1470–1547, cardinal 1539–1547), at the time a famous love poet and lover; Giuliano de’ Medici (1478–1516), the third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who lived for a time in exile at the court; Bernardo Accolti (1458–1534), known as L’Unico Aretino, noted for his extemporaneous poetry and courtly skills; Bernardo Dovizi (1470–1520; cardinal 1513–1520), called Il Bibbiena and best known today for his risqué comedy La Calandra; Ottavio Fregoso (1470–1524), briefly doge and then governor for the French of Genoa; and Gasparo Pallavicino (1486–1511), who had already died at the early age of twenty-five when the dialogue was written.

As a game showcasing rhetorical skill and the discussants’ understanding of the culture of court, Castiglione’s dialogue provides an interesting measure of the way virtù could be deployed to win arguments and elicit consent. In turn, the varied use of the term in those discussions provides a good measure of its flexibility and polysemous nature once again. The first three of the four books that make up the work focus on the virtù of the courtier (in books one and two) and the court lady (in book three). Although there wassome difference in emphasis among speakers, the list of attributes that demonstrated the virtù of the courtier included noble birth, honor, masculine ways (in distinction to feminine, soft or effeminate ones), courtly manners, grace, sprezzatura, quick wit, playful spirit, military prowess, musical ability, artistic taste, ability as a lover, and, crucially, the ability to advise the prince. Clearly things have changed from the vision of virtù embraced by Boccaccio or the fourteenth-century merchant/banker elites and are far removed from ancient Roman ideals. Notably, noble birth, although questioned by some of the discussants, has here regained ground along with military prowess, while reason, calculation, and cunning, although underpinning many of the other attributes, are not nearly as visible as they were a century and a half earlier. Not surprisingly, the agenda of virtù at court emphasized more aristocratic values than those of an earlier day or those of Castiglione’s contemporary Machiavelli. Thus, although they shared a faith invirtù, and both used the term as a measure of the behavioral changes that they felt would save their Italy, the different meanings they gave it suggests once again its polyvalent nature.

In the political world of Machiavelli, women figured only occasionally, although he does from time to time note particularly virtù-ous women, often with a “complimentary” and revealing nod to their virtually masculine virtù. Castiglione, by contrast, devotes the third book of his work to a discussion of the virtù of the court lady, suggesting a significant difference between the courtly and republican cultures of the day. At court, at least in theory, women played an important role as social arbiters, and especially in the courtly game of courtship, they exercised some real power over men, even if the extent of that power remains problematic. In fact, the problematic nature of such power is clearly on display in book three. The discussion heats up when a group of courtiers more sympathetic to women begin to argue that courtiers should not joke or gossip about a woman’s behavior, pointing out that a double standard existed that allowed men the freedom to misbehave sexually while punishing women severely for any sign of promiscuity.

Gasparo Pallavicino, one of the most aggressive traditionalists and misogynists in the group (and safely dead), objected that if women were to be treated as equals, then they should be open to the same jokes and gossip as men. The future cardinal, Bernardo Dovizi, countered: “We men have ourselves made a law that a dissolute life is not considered a vice or a fault or infamous, but for women the same life is considered so shameful and worthy of great opprobrium that whether what is said about her is true or false … [she] is forever disgraced.” Castiglione then turns over the misogynist response to Ottavio Fregoso, who aggressively attacks Dovizi, “[It is] perhaps not as unreasonable as it seems to you. For given that women are very imperfect animals and of little or no dignity in comparison with men, by necessity they are not capable of any virtù-ous deeds.” [italics mine] By arguing that women were incapable of virtù, and “imperfect animals” at that, he opened the way for a claim that they needed a different form of discipline than men, which in turn justified a double standard. Lacking virtù, they were not able to control their emotions or desires like men – even if men obviously did not always do so – and so, he concluded, they needed to be controlled by a sense of shame and fear. Shame and fear, in turn, worked to control those “imperfect animals” via the public evaluation of their behavior, and women who lacked chastity actually required gossip and negative comments from men – once again, here consensus realities structure the disciplining of behavior.

This essentially traditional sexual ideology, perhaps most definitively articulated in the ancient world by Aristotle and masquerading here as based on nature and natural, did not go unchallenged, however. In fact, most of the group advanced a decidedly different vision of the gender division between men and women, once again framed in terms of virtù. The defenders of women began a long series of descriptions of historical women who had displayed virtù, starting with classical times (much in the cultural context of the Rinascimento) and moving up to the present. But, of course, it was court ladies who were really the ultimate end of the discussion, and their virtù was crucial; a virtù that at first glance seemed quite similar to that of the courtier. Giuliano de’ Medici argued, “I hold that many of the virtù of the soul that are necessary for a woman [at court] are much the same as for a man [at court]: the same nobility, the same avoidance of affectation, the same natural grace in all deeds, the same good manners, the same wit, the same prudence, avoiding pride, avoiding envy, avoiding insults, avoiding vanity, avoiding conflict, avoiding foolishness.” Clearly Giuliano’s list of virtù-ous qualities went well beyond the traditional vision of womanly virtue, with its emphasis on social attributes that were required of the courtier as well, such as courtly manners, grace, and, most notably, wit. Yet the inclusion on the list of behaviors that were more traditionally associated with unruly women and seldom attributed to men suggests how difficult it was to escape traditional gender ideology – court ladies, even their defenders admitted, must avoid vanity, envy, insults, conflict, and foolishness.

This lack of parity went deeper, for Giuliano continued, “It seems to me that it is more necessary that she [the court lady] be beautiful than is the case for the courtier, because to tell the truth a woman is most wanting who lacks beauty.” In the face of that beauty, he warned, “She must also be very cautious and take special care not to do anything that would cause others to speak badly of her. She must act in such a way that she is not stained by misdeeds or even suspected of them, because a woman is not capable of defending herself against false accusations as is a man.” Beauty and a lack of the ability to defend oneself against false accusations – apparently referring to a lack of physical ability to defend one’s virtù via a duel or simple violence – allowed the double standard to reenter the discussion even from the perspective of the defenders of women. That return of the double standard and the emphasis on a woman’s body as a “natural” limit on her freedom notwithstanding, Castiglione’s supporters of women allowed them a much wider range of virtù. Giuliano concluded, aptly revealing this mix: “And although continence, magnanimity, temperance, strength of spirit, prudence and the other virtù may not seem important for social life [at court] I want [the court lady] to be adorned with all these not so much for social life as in order to be virtù-ous and so that these virtù make her a person worthy of honor.”

All this was much too much for Gasparo. He returned to the attack with, “I am surprised that now that you have given to women literature, continence, magnanimity, and temperance that you do not want them to govern cities, make laws and lead armies” and continued with a famous diatribe against women that ended with his claiming on the authority of Aristotle that a woman was “a defect of nature.” He conceded that for this they should not be despised but rather accepted for what they were, “a manifest error.” Few of the discussants were willing to accept Gasparo’s harsh judgment. But as far as ruling was concerned, even Giuliano, after noting that Plato had posited that women should rule along with men in his ideal republic, sidestepped the issue by insisting that he was talking about a court lady, not a queen. Yet Gasparo’s challenge that the claims for the wide-ranging virtù of women implied that they were as capable as men of ruling was not addressed – perhaps because it was too dangerous an idea even for the supporters of women.

Significantly, however, that missed discussion of the relationship between virtù and the ability to rule presaged the crucial concluding discussion of book four. For much as in The Prince, the goal of Castiglione’s ideal courtier was to encourage a prince to act with virtù and overcome the travails of Italy. Ottaviano Fregoso opened this theme by pointing out that he did not think that all the previous discussion was really worth much if the courtier sought only to make himself “noble, graceful, and pleasant” without offering “other fruits.” In fact, such a courtier seemed merely “frivolous and vain.” He thus suggested, in a manner that echoed both Aristotle and Machiavelli, that true virtù must be measured not simply by personal aggrandizement or accomplishments, but rather by “the ends” that it made possible. A pleasing personality, a winning lover, a noble disposition were not enough: “[O]ften these skills merely make the spirits of men effeminate (effeminare la anima), corrupt youth, and reduce [the courtier] to a most lascivious life” – once again the dangerous satyr in the garden. The courtier must instead use his virtù to pursue a more significant goal, or the game was not worth playing.

Fregoso’s argument had called into question the whole project of Castiglione’s ideal courtier as well as the significance of actual courtiers and courts. But, tellingly, Fregoso’s critique opened the door to a vision of a critical goal that the virtù of the perfect courtier might serve, a goal that just might save the Rinascimento. “The end/goal of the perfect courtier,” he argued, “I hold to be to win the grace and heart of the prince he serves.” This, however, was not merely to dissimulate one’s true nature, as is sometimes claimed, in order to win favor or power. For he explained,

[I]n this way [the courtier] is able to tell him [the prince] and always say to him the truth of everything that he should know without fear or danger of displeasing him. And when [the courtier] sees that he [the prince] is inclined toward something that is unwise, he has the courage to contradict him thanks to the grace he has gained with those good qualities [of the ideal courtier]. Thus he leads [his prince] away from every evil intention and onto the path of virtù. [italics mine]

And he concluded leaving no doubt that the ultimate goal was virtù both for the courtier and the prince,

[B]ecause the courtier has in himself the fullness [of virtù] … he will know in every situation how to smoothly make his prince see how much honor and utility he and his supporters can gain from justice, generosity, magnanimity, gentleness and the othervirtùwhich are required of good princes and, in contrast, how much infamy and damage are the results of the vices which contradict them.

At virtually the same moment that Machiavelli was attempting to advise a prince on the way to succeed by following the path of virtù, Castiglione had given one of his central speakers an argument that required the ideal courtier to advise his prince and guide him on the path of virtù. And if one overlooks for a moment the flexible nature of the term, the projects seem exactly the same – a prince with the advice of Machiavelli, or Castiglione’s perfect courtiers following the path of virtù, will overcome the “effeminacy” (both writers use the gendered term) and immorality of the day to return Italy to its lost greatness.

Machiavelli may have seen his prince as merely a transitional figure necessary to return to a republic of virtù, and at its most ruthless, his virtù was probably much more amoral and aggressive than Castiglione’s. But for both men virtù was the key, and moreover, both saw it as creating a moral state and society that might overcome the vices and “effeminacy” of the present. Behind their shared hope for virtù, however, lay a deeper shared assumption, for both agreed that the morality of true virtù was ultimately measured by the state and its duty to create an ordered and disciplined society. Individuals, both courtiers and princes, could act immorally at times in order to secure the goal of a stable and moral state; in fact, Machiavelli saw clearly that that was often necessary. Castiglione’s courtiers were more circumspect, yet the virtù that they saw as central required a careful tailoring of self to present a personality that was pleasing to the prince, their peers, and their consensus realities, in order to serve the purpose of guiding the prince in creating and sustaining a just state. And while to a degree this tailoring may have required a certain dissimulation and manipulation of appearances, for both men it was driven at its heart by an honest deeper commitment to virtù in the true prince or courtier. Thus in a deep way the civic morality of the shared primary culture of the Rinascimento sustained by the state had become the basis of morality for both .

Was this the discovery of the modern state? Or was it a step on a path to a vision of the state as the ultimate arbiter of morality, a path that tends to lead to modern totalitarian thinkers of both the left and the right? Or was it merely a moment of perceived moral crisis, when thinkers who saw the state as the only answer to that crisis reasserted its moral imperatives more aggressively? My guess is that the last option is the case and that as far as the future of the ideal is concerned, periodically across the Western tradition the state has had the potential to emerge as the ultimate arbiter of morality and occasionally has done so, if seldom with happy results. The irony in all this is that, of course, for both thinkers the real arbiter of morality behind the state was the social evaluation ofvirtù – a constant evaluation that ideally was carried on in the daily life at court, in the halls of government, in the home, and in the streets via consensus realities. A kind of regime of virtù – socially judged, enforced, and reinforced by state, church, tradition, and the groups that surrounded one in daily life – actually ruled and created a relatively stable and disciplined society, often much more powerful than the limited disciplining powers of government. From that perspective it is hardly surprising that not only Castiglione and Machiavelli, but a host of writers of the first half of the sixteenth century turned to virtù as the unquestioned cure to overcome the crisis of their society.

It is also worth considering that although the courtier’s virtù is measured largely in terms of the court’s perception of it, it seems that behind the self-fashioning and consensus realities involved, Castiglione’s discussion implies that there was also an interior sense of self and inner virtù that had to be maintained. One played the courtier on the stage of court, but behind the poses of virtù there needed to exist a truly virtù-ous person. If this reading is correct, it would fit well with the views of scholars who see the court and its atmosphere of simulation and conscious self-fashioning as one of the sources of a stronger sense of self, an interior, self-evaluating self on the way to a modern, more inner sense of individuality. In an ironic way, the court as the quintessential place of appearances and judging action, in such interpretations, becomes the birthplace as well for a more careful evaluation of the inner “truths” of self; for as one carefully covered one’s inner self with a courtly masquerade of mannered and refined behavior, one was forced in that external self-fashioning to face more squarely the internal self that was being restrained and masked. Discovering the origins of the modern inner self is a tricky business, but along with a more confessional emphasis – which, as we shall see, in thenext chapter, was a major focus of the spiritual enthusiasms of the century and its reforms – the sixteenth century with its many crises seems to be one where a greater attention to a “true” inner self and self-evaluation was called for and made sense.

Returning to Castiglione and his courtiers, Gasparo, ever the contrarian, raised an objection to the courtier guiding the prince to the path of virtù. “Reviewing what has been said to this point,” he observed, “one may draw one conclusion: that the courtier who leads the prince to virtù … must almost certainly be old.” Yet being a successful courtier turned on winning the love of the women of court; for all had earlier agreed that women were the judges of the perfect courtier and that winning their love was required. In turn, virtually all had agreed as well that young men were more attractive and successful lovers than old. To make his point Gasparo turned to a particularly popular ancient example, Aristotle, who had served as an advisor to Alexander the Great. At first glance Aristotle might have seemed from the perspective of the Rinascimento the perfect example of a courtier who had guided perhaps the most powerful prince of the ancient world on the path of virtù, with impressive success. Yet Gasparo mockingly noted, “If your old courtier Aristotle were in love and were to do the things that we see some young lovers do today, I doubt that he would find the correct harmony to teach his prince [virtù] and … women would delight in making fun of him.” Gasparo’s irony threatened to return the court to an empty game and courtiers to young lovers, with wiser older men and their virtù condemned to the sidelines because they were not competitive as lovers.

Gasparo, however, had moved the discussion on to another crucial disciplining word of the day, amore (love), with his attack on older lovers. Rising to their defense was a champion Pietro Bembo, who took over the fourth book of The Book of the Courtierat this point with an impassioned monologue that not only defended old men as lovers, but also made them the perfect advisors to the prince. Bembo foiled Gasparo’s irony, insisting that “the [older] courtier can love in a way that not only would not bring him any censure but rather much praise and the highest felicity … something that the young seldom find; and as a result he would not have to give up on advising the prince.” Following in the footsteps of a long tradition that included Ficino, Petrarch, Dante, and, of course, the ancient philosopher Plato and his followers, he exalted the love of truly virtù-ous old men that left behind the passions and sensual pleasures of the physical to seek the higher reality that stood behind those pleasures.

The beauty and love that young lovers found in the physical world, Bembo reasoned, were mere reflections of true beauty and love, which existed only in the real, unchanging world that stood eternally behind this world of change. The older courtier, with the true wisdom of that world, unclouded by youthful passions – once again ultimately virtù – understood that what he loved in his court lady was at its best merely a reflection of a true, unchanging beauty and goodness. Crucially, that love and that realization made him a lover of the enduring truth and beauty beyond this world and thus not only an ideal lover, but also a perfect advisor to the prince. He did not let his physical passions cloud his judgment, and his desires were all turned toward truth, virtù, and ultimately the author of that perfect spiritual world, God.

Bembo contrasted this lover with all the negatives of the young lover dominated by his emotions, detailing his unruly passions, dishonors, disgraces, and even violence, all of which he saw as stemming from the fact that his emotions and love were not yet disciplined by virtù. Young lovers were ensnared by a passion for “corrupt bodies,” which were in the end merely “dreams and weak shadows of beauty,” in contrast to true mature lovers and courtiers, who had discovered “the sweet flame,” “the gracious fire,” and “divine beauty” of the true spiritual world and ultimately of God. Although such a lover might enjoy a “spiritual kiss” or two with his beloved, his love and his finely tuned courtly graces merely served to elevate the courtier into a perfect lover of virtùwhose ultimate goal was to lead his prince in a similar development. Thus court life and its games of love became, in Bembo’s vision, a serious school of virtù for courtiers and ultimately for princes. Evidently this was a utopian vision and perhaps, with its addition of perfect spiritual love, an even more unlikely utopian vision than Machiavelli’s ideal republic based on virtù-ous citizens and laws. Yet both thinkers, like many of their contemporaries, facing what they saw as a crisis that threatened their society and its cultural leadership in the world, turned to the promise and disciplining truism of virtù as the answer to regaining what had been lost.

Ariosto: Doubts about Re-Dreams of Virtù

Ludovico Ariosto might seem at first glance both the most noted literary figure of sixteenth-century Italy and the least interested in providing answers to the crisis of his day. His most famous work, then as now, was his long epic romance Orlando furioso. It returned to one of the favorite literary fantasies of the Rinascimento, the chivalric romances of Charlemagne and his knights, freely intermixed with the Breton heroes of twelfth-century French Arthurian cycles, to weave a rich tapestry of the adventures and loves of a number of already popular characters from that genre. Many at the time read it as escape literature, and among critics it long garnered a certain disregard because of its apparent irrelevance to the issues of the day and also because of its apparent indifference to the increasingly strict genre and language requirements of humanist critics. To those disciplinarians the work seemed to offer an escape to the wrong first time (a fantastic early Middle Ages) in the wrong language (Italian) and with the wrong heroes (chivalric knights) while breaking all the rules of genre as a narrative poem, a romance, or an epic, and moreover with what seemed like proscribed jumps in time, space, and action. To make matters worse, a certain irony shimmered barely beneath the poetry’s soaring beauty to undermine its heroes, who often were seemingly being subtly mocked, undercutting even the pleasurable escape of the fantasy. Still, it was immensely popular, reprinted almost one hundred times in the sixteenth century alone.

Adding to its importance, its narrative served the needs of Ariosto’s powerful courtly patrons, the Este family of Ferrara, because it traced their origins back to the heroic past of yet another first time, the first time of the Middle Ages. Bradamante, the impressive female warrior who spends most of the poem dressed in armor passing as a male paladin and who defeats in various battles most of the heroes of the genre, in the end appears to be tamed by the somewhat less impressive and heroic Ruggiero, descended, however, from the Trojan hero Hector. From their marriage Ariosto traces the foundation of the house of Este and his patrons, Alfonso d’Este and the Cardinal Ippolito d’Este. Yet this impressive genealogy begins to suggest that the work and Ariosto’s vision might not be quite so escapist and irrelevant to the big issues of his day as is sometimes claimed.

Certainly Ariosto was deeply involved in the political struggles and the courtly world of his day, even as he often lamented that fact and the way it interfered with his writing. Born in 1474 as the first of at least ten children (the number varies in different accounts), his father served the Este family, and he was raised in close association with their court in Ferrara. He studied law, unhappily, at the behest of his father, but early on moved on to the studia humanitatis with the noted scholar and Augustinian monk Gregorio da Spoleto. He also reportedly studied philosophy at the University of Ferrara, and one of his first letters in Latin that survives is written to Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1498 asking him to send him whatever he had by Ficino or the Greek Platonists translated into Latin. During this period it appears he also met the older Pietro Bembo at the Este court, whom he adopted as a mentor given their common interests in Plato, Ficino, and love poetry. Bembo would remain an important literary guide throughout his life, and his stout advocacy of the Tuscan of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio as the foundational works of a literary Italian language would have a strong impact on Ariosto and his writing. In fact, in the 1520s we find him asking Bembo in his letters to help him correct the Italian for the final definitive version of Orlando furioso published in 1532 in order to bring it in line as much as possible with the former’s vision of a literate Italian.

Ariosto’s youthful studies were cut short in his mid-twenties when his father died in 1500, leaving him in charge of his large family. Although he had already received small subsidies from the Este family, he began almost immediately to work for them as a courtier and bureaucrat. In 1503 he joined the household of Cardinal Ippolito d’Este and served him – unhappily, according to his letters – for a number of years as the cardinal traveled around Italy. Ippolito was infamous for his violent, high-handed ways, a reputation that Ariosto confirmed in full. During this period Ariosto clearly experienced personally the many negatives of life as a courtier serving a difficult patron in the troubled times of the early sixteenth century – troubled days in which he was deeply involved at the side of a major player. And in those same years he began the Orlando furioso, probably in 1504. Shortly after he finished the first version of the poem, printed with the support of the cardinal in 1516 and dedicated to him, Ariosto finally abandoned him. In 1517, pleading illness and advancing old age at forty-three, he refused to accompany Ippolito when he moved to Hungary to take up a lucrative bishopric. His decision was probably influenced by an apparently unrelated event, the death in 1515 of the Florentine merchant Tito Strozzi. What made that so important to Ariosto was that Tito was the husband of his secret love, Alessandra Benucci. After her husband’s death she moved to Ferrara, and the lovers took up a quiet life together (reportedly later formalized by a secret marriage), which Ariosto was apparently unwilling to abandon to follow his difficult patron.

Fortunately, Ariosto’s growing literary fame, based on the first enthusiastic responses to the Furioso as well as a couple of popular comedies written for court and a large number of more ephemeral pieces, won him the patronage in 1518 of Alfonso I d’Este, Ippolito’s brother and duke of Ferrara. Although Alfonso was less difficult than his brother, Ariosto soon found himself tasting once more the unhappy fruits of being dependent on a powerful patron. In 1522 he accepted the onerous task of serving as the governor of the Garfagnana for Alfonso. A mountainous territory on the disputed borders between Florentine territory and lands claimed by the papacy, it had long had a reputation for ferocious conflicts between local clans and a large population of criminals banned from neighboring states who added to the violent tenor of life in the region. Attempts at quelling that violence with reason and diplomacy brought few results, and Ariosto was soon reduced to adopting the expedients that Machiavelli had advocated inThe Prince a few years earlier. For, as he lamented, the people he was dealing with were triste, in virtually the sense that Machiavelli had used the term – that is, lacking in civility and virtù and thus incapable of being ruled without recourse to deceit and violence. To make matters worse, it seems that his patron, Alfonso, and his agents were not entirely trustworthy or straightforward either. In sum, his experience was bitter and disillusioning in ways that seemed to call into question the unquestionable Rinascimento verities of virtù, reason, and even courtly aristocratic values.

Finally he stepped down, returned to the court at Ferrara, and lived out his last years working on revising his Orlando furioso, which in the meantime had made him famous. His third and last revision was published in 1532, the year before his death, and included a considerable amount of new material and a significant revision of the language to make it conform to the new ideal of Italian as a literary language. Not surprisingly, given Ariosto’s difficult life and his disappointment with his Estense patrons, although the poem celebrates the distinguished founding of their family in a chivalric first time, lying just below the surface polish of the poetry and the swirling detail of its myriad adventures there runs a more disillusioned commentary on his contemporary world. Much as Albert Ascoli argued in his path-breaking work on the poem, Ariosto’s Bitter Harmony, beneath the harmony of the work lies a bitter vision that was anything but escapist fantasy. At the most obvious level, rather than celebrating the beauty and excitement of warfare as was typical of the epic genre, he portrays it as brutal, bloody, and senseless. In fact, his descriptions of the violence and destruction of battles is at times so over the top, with shorn limbs and heads flying through the air and piling up in pools of blood, that it seems hard to escape the conclusion that he is mocking the chivalric tradition’s celebration of martial violence and in the process making a strongly negative reflection on the Italian wars of his day.

But at a deeper level the tensions that lay at the heart of the Rinascimento vision of life, which both Machiavelli and Castiglione worked so hard to return to harmony, are presented in the Furioso as ultimately irreconcilable. Thus, although he shares both writers’ vision that things have come apart and that Italy has lost its place as the leader and the measure of the world, over and over again in the Furioso, virtù fails to deliver. Reason is blown away by the whims of fortune, courtly grace and honor are cut short by the merely strong or the unjust, and love is portrayed as destructive and dangerous rather than as the tie that holds society together. Far from an escape into a realm of fantasy, the work, when looked at more closely, seems a denial of the Rinascimento, even as it dutifully provides Ariosto’s patrons with a noble heritage in a glorious first time and in an artful way provides a series of fascinatingly intertwined tales and characters that grab and hold a reader’s attention – bitter harmony indeed.

One thing that caught the attention of readers in the sixteenth century and that has recently reignited discussion of the work is the prominent role women play in the romance. Of course, this was part of a chivalric tradition in which women were required as the objects of desire and the prizes of noble paladins, where love drove much of the action. In fact, the Ferrarese author Matteo Maria Boiardo (c. 1440–1494), whose unfinished earlier chivalric romance Orlando innamorato Ariosto took up officially to complete, had already introduced the two dominating female figures of the Furioso, Angelica and Bradamante. Deanna Shemek has suggestively rethought the centrality of their characters in her important study, Ladies Errant, pointing out that the heroes and the action of the poem are largely driven by the two. Although she does not use the image, Angelica in her analysis appears rather like Helen of Troy – rather than the face that launched a thousand ships, she is the object of desire that launches a thousand adventures. The mere sight of her angelic visage evokes overwhelming love in the males who encounter her, and in the face of their serial mad passions Angelica flees through dark woods, deserted terrain, and many adventures attempting to escape their love. In turn, her would-be lovers desert their comrades in need, lose their way metaphorically in life and their lives literally in battles for her, while the supposed hero of the work, Orlando, even loses his mind (hence the furioso [mad] of the title) when she falls in love and marries another. Love of Angelica brings not harmony but disaster.

Bradamante, by contrast, was at once a more positive and more troubling character. Early in the story she has been informed that she will marry Ruggiero, founding the great Este family, a foreknowledge of that foundational match that awaits her at the end of the poem. But before that marriage she is one of the most impressive military figures of the poem, as perhaps befits the future mother of the Este line, which prided itself on its warrior virtues. Still, for a future maternal figure, she spends most of her time in armor, unhorsing one seemingly invincible warrior after another in a way that has troubled many in the sixteenth century and thereafter. In several episodes, in fact, she seems almost to deny that she is a woman, a decidedly uncomfortable claim for one destined to give birth to Ariosto’s patron’s noble family.

Recently, however, critics with a different vision of gender have come down hard on Bradamante, lamenting that after all her courageous breaking of gender codes and her adventures demonstrating her more-than-full equality with men, in the end she sheds her armor to become once more a loyal daughter and seems ready to bow down to her father’s plans to marry her against her wishes to the son of the emperor of Constantinople. Yet it might be argued that her loyal daughter act reads more like just that, an act. She does shed her armor, and she does seem to give up her love for Ruggiero (and her promised destiny) in order to obey her father’s wishes. But she does so only in the context of her clever strategy to thwart his plans, for she insists that she will marry only a man who can defeat her in battle. Thus she re-dons her armor and reenters the lists, only to be defeated apparently by the very man her father has chosen to marry her. But it turns out that that knight who bested her was actually Ruggiero in disguise, and thus she has her desire in the end, marrying exactly the person she loved with the approval of her father and Ariosto’s patrons, who after all needed a mother for their line. They may have received a stronger and more martial one than they really appreciated, which may explain Ippolito’s cool response to the first edition of the poem dedicated to him. In fact, if Bradamante has a weakness it may be the fact that she must give the poem a positive ending, and thus, for all the disillusionment and negative vision of Ariosto, the poem must end with a certain harmony given by her maternal promise, which partially obscures its deep pessimism.

The same cannot be said for Angelica. For, although she is a character who has fascinated not just the males of the poem, but males ever since in literature, art, and fantasy, with a minimum of reconsideration she seems considerably less attractive than her name and her famed beauty might suggest. Simply, Angelica is no Angel. Actually, for all her beauty, she is duplicitous and ever ready to con other characters into serving her in her never-ending times of need. Of course, as a character – and a plot-driving character at that – she can hardly be faulted. But the point is that with a name like Angelica a reader is set up to see her as Angelic, the epitome of beauty and all that goes with it. And therein lies the rub. In the vision of love and beauty that went back to Plato and more recently to Ariosto’s own mentor, Bembo, the love of beauty in nature, in literature, or in a beautiful woman turned on the way in which that beauty reflected a deeper truth. Outer beauty was merely a reflection of inner beauty, and that, as we have seen, was merely a reflection of a deeper harmony and the highest truth. Angelica was the most beautiful woman any of the heroes had ever seen, immediately eliciting love; yet in her case, her beauty did not reflect a deeper truth. And love for her did not make men better. It made them worse and often destroyed them. Beauty, then, is not truth, Ariosto seems to be saying. And evoking that bitter realization, Angelica flees love through a series of dark woods that suggest that she and her beauty are constantly fleeing not just lovers but the light of knowledge. If this reading is correct, love did not make perfect courtiers, as Castiglione and Bembo opined, or offer a solution to the day’s problems; in fact, it rendered heroes mad, as was the case with Orlando. Dante, lost in a dark wood, discovered Virgil, who brought him an ancient wisdom that helped him to find a modern paradise. Orlando discovered in a dark wood that his Angelica had deserted him for another once and for all and found only madness. In Ariosto’s vision the certainties of the Rinascimento were dissolving in the dark woods of an Italy that seemed to have lost its glory and promise.

The Virtù of Exceptional Women and Recapturing Italy’s Lost Glory

While for Castiglione the virtù that might save the Rinascimento was to be found in the aristocratic and courtly worlds that he imagined, for Ariosto, who had lost faith in that virtù and the life of a courtier, the only character whom he could imagine as consistently demonstrating its efficacy was a woman, Bradamante. And, in fact, the arbiters of virtù in the sixteenth century were over and over women. Not all women, of course, although from time to time a nod might be made in that direction, but rather those who were deemed the very best of women, the most aristocratic, and the most virtù-ous. Women like the imaginary Bradamante and the apparently real Isabella d’Este and the other women of aristocratic courts, who were seen as literally larger than life and works of art in their day. “Apparently real,” for, as noted earlier, these outstanding individuals could hardly have existed as they were imagined and lionized. In a way, they were extraordinary Bradamante characters written on historical personages; thus, it is not surprising that historians and critics have easily picked holes in their heroic images. But in the way those images were deployed at the time and the way they played for contemporaries, we can begin to discover their importance for the hope of recapturing lost glory.

Significantly, the actual historical Pietro Bembo and Ludovico Ariosto agreed that a number of contemporary women demonstrated the virtù to help Italy regain its lost cultural and political leadership. Two that they singled out for leadership were Veronica Gambara (1485–1550) and Vittoria Colonna (c. 1490–1547). Ariosto, in his 1532 rewrite of Orlando furioso, named both as exceptional and styled Colonna as literally an archetype of female virtù, who in her person brought together the traditional ideals of chastity and love for her husband with learning and literary skill. In turn, not only was Bembo willing to exchange letters with both and include their poetry in his anthologies, he also selected what he saw as the most flattering of their letters to be published in his own collected letters. In addition, he actively encouraged the poetry of both, and Gambara even claimed him as a valued mentor. Finally, he also wrote a number of sonnets praising both women that portrayed them as heroic literary figures, as the titles dedicated to Colonna suggest: “Crown Her Temple with the Beloved Laurel,” “Lofty Column (Colonna), Firm against the Storms,” and perhaps most telling, “Beloved and Sovereign of the Honor of Our Age” – no small compliment.

Gambara and Colonna were from the very highest ranks of the aristocratic world of their day, which allowed them to move beyond the normal restraints that limited would-be women writers and intellectuals – although, as we shall see, even they never entirely escaped gender’s disciplining power. Thus unlike many women writers of the fifteenth century, their literary careers and their fame did not end when their status as youthful prodigies passed after marriage. If anything, their fame grew, especially after they became widows (Gambara in 1518, Colonna in 1521). Both wrote love poetry early in their lives, for the most part safely dedicated to their husbands. Suggestively, their fame was even in a way confirmed together in Bologna in 1529–1530. There the two women, one literally (Gambara), one poetically (Colonna), were significant players in the political events that swirled around the Emperor Charles V, who, following the peace signed at Cambrai in 1529 that consolidated his power in Italy, came to Bologna to be crowned emperor by the pope.

Charles was greeted there by a host of Italian leaders, their representatives, petitioners, and the courtiers and supporters who swirled around them. Even Isabella d’Este was on hand, playing politics; in return for her support, it will be remembered, the emperor named her son while there marquis of Mantua. When Charles arrived, Gambara was already on hand, and not just as a well-known poet; for she was a major player as the countess of Correggio, a title that she held officially from the emperor as a prized ally. Making her position in Bologna even more significant was the fact that her brother Umberto, who would eventually become a cardinal, had been made papal governor of the city in 1528. Thus he was officially responsible for hosting the emperor’s visit. A second brother who had followed a military career had also fought in Charles’s armies. An indication of how close she stood to the emperor is the fact that he visited her not once but twice at her estates in Correggio during his time in Italy. Even her poetry proclaimed their closeness, as she wrote at least four sonnets celebrating him and his military successes.

While she was living in Bologna, then, where her brother ruled, she entertained a circle of noted intellectuals drawn from the diplomats and officials gathered in the city to celebrate the emperor’s coronation and work out the realities of the new order of imperial dominance in Italy. Perhaps the most famous was Pietro Bembo, who had been and was an active promoter of Gambara’s literary virtù. And while critics had long recognized that literary virtù, it certainly did not hurt that Gambara was much more than an exceptional poet and intellect. She was a major political figure able to exert real influence where it mattered. As such, she was cultivated and lionized and returned the favor in ways that confirmed her significance.

Meanwhile, Bembo had been given copies of a number of Colonna’s love poems that celebrated her ongoing love and mourning for her dead husband. Soon they were circulating among the intellectuals gathered in Bologna, with Bembo’s enthusiastic support. As Bembo was the recognized master of the genre of love poetry, that support certainly attracted attention to her writing. But once again it did not hurt that her late husband, Francesco Ferrante d’Avalos, Marquis of Pescara, had been one of Charles’s top generals, or that he had been from a prominent Spanish noble family in Naples, or that her own family, the Colonna, had been one of the most important families in Rome for centuries. Thus she was once again more than a poet. Significantly, in her person and in her love poetry for her husband, she could be presented as representing a harmonious and loving union between the old order of Italian aristocracy and the new order of imperial/Spanish power in the peninsula, now in the hands of Charles V.

Virginia Cox points out in her study of Italian women writers of this period that Colonna’s verse celebrating her husband was much more than the warm recollections of a loving wife; for it was rich with “political and ideological meanings” that literally married a leading Italian noble family of long standing with the new political realities of the peninsula. Cox goes on to point out another aspect of this complex celebration of her marital love, noting that her cousin via marriage, Alfonso d’Avalos, Marquis of Vasto, had been brought up by Colonna in her own household as virtually a “son.” He too was a major figure, earning a reputation as a leader of imperial troops, and in 1535 would become Charles’s governor of Milan and thus a prominent political figure in the new imperial order in Italy. Significantly, he was also another major promoter of Colonna. In this context it was he who in 1531 gave Ariosto a “generous pension,” and thus it was probably not by chance that in the latter’s 1532 revision of the Furioso the author added his fulsome praise of Colonna’s virtù as a poet. Making things even more intertwined, we know that Alfonso had actually met Ariosto at, of all places, Gambara’s estates in Correggio in 1531. Small world. It may have been from these contacts that a correspondence grew up between the two women in which they shared their poetry and which further increased their fame.

That exchange reveals, however, that their poetic interests were diverging. Gambara left her love poetry behind for what she saw as more serious themes for serious times. Colonna, by contrast, defended her continued emphasis on her love for her dead husband, progressively emphasizing the kind of Neo-Platonic vision of love as a path on the way to true knowledge that Bembo had long advocated. Later in life, however, Colonna turned her love poetry to more spiritual and reforming concerns. These later “rime spirituali,” as they were known, melded Petrarchian and Bembian ideals of poetry with religious verse in a manner that became a model for many later poets. Her spiritual interests, however, led her to become a leading figure, along with Bembo, in the general currents of religious enthusiasm that were sweeping Italy in the forties and fifties of the century. In this she was treading on dangerous ground, and several of her friends at the time were actually questioned by the Inquisition about her beliefs on predestination and justification by faith alone.

Her spiritual poetry stressed the importance of Christ’s passion and the central role his grace and faith played in salvation. This seemed dangerously close to what was being defined as heresy at the time, as we shall see, but it should be noted that an emphasis on love that had always been a strong theme in her poetic vision and the power of Christ’s love for humanity could be used to defend her work as more traditional. Be that as it may, in her later years she was close to more radical reformers in the Church, especially the English Cardinal Pole and Bembo himself, and perhaps too close to reformers who eventually were declared heretics, such as Pietro Carnesecchi and Bernardino Ochino. But once again her status as one of the leading women in Italy, and also as one of the leading literary figures of her day, probably saved her from closer examination by ecclesiastical authorities. She, Gambara, and Bembo all died within a few years of each other in 1547, 1550, and 1547, respectively, and while neither their poetic or politicalvirtùnor their various visions saved Italy, their lives and writings did highlight the new complex aristocratic order in Italy that was adapting to foreign rule and the spiritual enthusiasms of reform.

Re-Dreams or Nightmares? Aretino, the Satyr in the Garden, and Virtù

Even that order and the way it had been built upon the apparent verities of the Rinascimento did not go unquestioned in the crisis of the sixteenth century. For there had always been another side of that society, at times celebrated but more often uncomfortably ignored – a satyr in the Rinascimento garden that, like the satyrs of the ancient world, suggested that humans were divided between virtù and vice, reason and passion, half godlike and half animal. Perhaps the most famous critic of civic morality, the infamous satirist and irreverent wordsmith Pietro Aretino (1492–1556), might be seen as the defender and embodiment of that satyr. Almost a generation younger than Machiavelli and Castiglione, Aretino was literally a child of the crisis of the sixteenth century. And in his writing he touched critically on many of the day’s largely unquestioned verities, attacking princes, courts, and virtù with a mocking and deeply prescient irony and laughter. Born into a lower-class family, he left home at an early age to seek his fortune as an artist. In the midteens, at about the same time that Castiglione and Machiavelli were writing their most important works, he returned to Rome (where earlier he had briefly served the rich Roman banker Agostino Chigi) after the election of the Medici pope Leo X (1475–1521; pope 1513–1521), who apparently enjoyed his irreverent wit and cutting tongue. And he soon gained the pope’s favor, as a kind of racy court master of gossip and slander.

From that platform he launched his literary career with an impressive range of ephemeral writings that attracted attention because of its lively nature and its clever wordplay that often attacked contemporary events and personalities. Across his career his fame was reinforced by a series of works in praise of famous men and, perhaps more importantly, by others that offered cutting insults to the rich and famous who did not patronize him. These writings were much feared for their clever, mocking, and often earthy humor, relying heavily on evocative wordplay that elevated the insulting sexual banter of the streets into a complex pyrotechnics that captured the imagination of contemporaries. In fact, they were so popular and feared that his older contemporary Ludovico Ariosto labeled him “the scourge of princes,” perhaps echoing a label Aretino had coined for himself in his quite successful attempt to fashion himself as a decidedly dangerous piece of art – a satyr with both a smile and teeth. It certainly did not hurt that his libels often had the ring of truth, or at least probability. Evidently the rich and powerful had much to fear, for many were willing to pay handsomely to avoid Aretino’s clever cuts or to win his praises.

It has been claimed that the young Aretino actually came to the attention of the pope when he penned a send-up of the papal court in the form of a last will left by the pope’s elephant, Hanno. Whether or not that was the case, the will’s clever satire captures the rowdy and licentious tone of the papal city in the early sixteenth century during the reign of Leo X and opens another widely shared contemporary perspective on the Medici pope. For while he was an aggressive promoter of his family and his native city, as well as a major renovator of Rome and patron, he was also noted for encouraging a playful and licentious atmosphere at his court – once again the satyr in the Rinascimento garden. That court included a number of buffoons of note, a claque of mocking and laughing writers, and even Hanno, his pet elephant, who was regularly celebrated up to and after his death. In his will, then, Hanno left a series of bawdy bequests to notables at the papal court, not sparing even the most important cardinals of the day. Starting off exactly like a regular will, Hanno noted that he was of sound mind but near death, perhaps because of the Roman climate or, more likely, because of “the avarice of Giovanni Battista Branconi,” a papal favorite and courtier responsible for his care.

Things quickly became more cutting. Hanno named as the witnesses to his will “the most reverend, disgraced before God, Cardinal Adriano Gouffier de Boissy, Bishop of Costanza, protector of the corrupt and all the hypocrisy and stupidity of France; the most reverend Andrea Corner, Venetian, bastard, inadequate, presumptuous, and empty-headed Archbishop of Spoleto; and the most reverend lord Jacopo di Nino di Amelia, Bishop of Potenza, legal expert in matters of lies, calumny and insults.” He then proceeded to bequeath the various parts of his body to other victims of the will’s humor. To the cardinal of Auch (Francesco Guglielmo de Clermont) he bequeathed his trunk “so that he could always carry it with him full of wine to water his unending thirst” and to supply refreshment for his “continuous bacchanals.” He gave his jaw to Lorenzo Pucci, a cardinal noted for his expropriation of revenues, especially from the sale of offices and indulgences, “so that he can devour all the money of the whole republic of Christ and consume legally and illegally every convent and church by creating new offices [to sell].”

But perhaps most insulting and over the top were his bequests of his genitals to the cardinals Marco Vigneri and Achille Grasso. To Marco he left his testicles, “so that he will be more fertile in producing children and in generating the Antichrist … with the reverend Giulia of the nuns at [the convent of] Santa Catarina di Senigalia.” To Grasso he left his phallus, “so that he can be more able to incarnate bastards with the aid of Madonna Andriana of Bologna.” What made these bequests even more cutting was the fact that Marco was widely reported to be carrying on a relationship with Giulia, even though she was a nun, and Grasso’s relationship with Andriana de Scottis of Bologna was well known – so well known, in fact, that in the Roman census of 1527 she is listed as living near the cardinal and using the name Andriana di Grasis.

Whether or not Aretino wrote the will, he certainly referred to it approvingly in a number of other works, and it captures the tone and bite of his scathing letters, mocking poems, satirical texts, and pasquinades. In fact, Hanno’s will has much the same tone and many of the same victims as a series of pasquinades usually attributed to Aretino. Pasquinades were lampoons, usually anonymous, that were posted on or near a badly mutilated ancient statue in the center of the city referred to by Romans of the day as Pasquino. These pasquinades became so popular in a city hungry for gossip and slander that eventually an annual festival was established, with the verses attributed to the statue published. Aretino became known in Rome as a master of the form and one of the most followed and feared posters. His reputation, in fact, became so great that it appears that he often was given credit for particularly clever and cutting pasquinades not written by him, as was perhaps the case with Hanno’s will.

Nonetheless, in Aretino’s case, the pen for once almost seemed mightier than the sword. Even the king of France, Francis I (1494–1547; ruled 1515–1547) was pleased to send Aretino a heavy gold chain in reward for his compliments, a chain that Aretino frequently referred to with pride in his writings. In his famous portrait painted by Titian, now in the Frick Collection in New York, Aretino prominently displays the chain. Apparently, however, by the early 1520s he had begun to overstep the invisible but very real boundary between being a successful cutting wit and being seen as a liability in Rome. During that period he was in and out of the city and involved in controversies with various powers there. When Giulio de’ Medici was elected Pope Clement VII (1478–1534; pope 1523–1534) he returned, but soon found himself embroiled with Giovanni Matteo Giberti (1495–1543), a close advisor to the pope.

Giberti had arrested Marcantonio Raimondi (c. 1480–1543), a famous engraver, for engravings he had made of Giulio Romano’s (c. 1499–1546) drawings of a series of sexual positions in a classical setting, known as I Modi. It seems that while such explicit images of sexual intercourse were not all that troubling for the classical tastes of the papal court, familiar with similar depictions on ancient coins (spintria) and in classical literature, disseminating them more widely via engravings that could reach a larger public was frowned upon. Apparently Aretino used his favor with the pope to have Raimondi freed, earning the enmity of Giberti. To make matters worse, he then published a series of sonnets to accompany the engravings, with his anything-but-classical language explicating their ins and outs. Aretino soon found himself briefly jailed in 1524; once freed, he left the city again. After a reconciliation with the pope, he returned, but this stay was literally cut short when he was stabbed, perhaps as part of a conflict over a love affair or at the instigation of Giberti, or both. When the pope did not come to his defense, Aretino read the writing on the wall and left Rome for good in 1525.

In those years he wrote one of his more famous comedies, The Courtesan, which was a typically Aretine cutting attack on contemporary Rome and the papal court. The plot involves a Sienese gentleman, Messer Maco, characterized as a “studier of books,” suggesting once again a would-be humanist scholar who has been made more foolish than wise by his adherence to that discipline. He goes to Rome with the overly optimistic goal of being appointed a cardinal – a goal that Aretino’s introduction promises will produce laughter on a par with the laughter inspired by Hanno’s will or the best Roman pasquinades. In Rome, Messer Maco learns that he first must become a perfect courtier in order to succeed in winning the favor of the pope and a cardinal’s hat. Thus his path turns leeringly into the world of the prostitutes and courtesans of the city, who he discovers are the true masters of the court and its arts. His adventures in that world in many ways provide a mocking Anti-Book of the Courtier, reading at times as if it were written by Aretino with Castiglione’s book open before him. Needless to say, this attack on Rome and the papal court did not contribute to Aretino’s popularity there.

Putting Rome behind him, he moved around northern Italy, eventually settling in Venice, where he wrote his most important works and enjoyed the reputed peace and freedom of the city along with close relations with a number of its leading intellectuals and artists. His attacks on the corruption of courtly society and culture remained an important theme of his work for the rest of his life, perhaps most notably in the comedy The Marescalco, set in Mantua but with many laudatory references to Venice. In that work he mocks the fawning self-effacement required to serve a prince and survive at court, laughingly rendered in the travails of the prince’s Master of the Horse (the Marescalco of the title), who unhappily attempts to avoid the marriage imposed upon him by his lord, as discussed earlier. Adding to Aretino’s perverse humor, the Master of the Horse is portrayed as a young man on the cusp of adulthood who is not in the least interested in marriage or women, being committed to the love of younger males. Thus, the comedy also involves an aggressive ongoing defense of sodomy and a telling misogynist attack on marriage, married life, and wives. Strikingly, then, Aretino manages to attack the court, the licit sexual order of the day, and the marital base of society, along with the civic morality that most saw as the underpinning of the Rinascimento itself, all in one darkly laughing comedy.

But his most virulent attack on marriage, civic morality, and the ideal of virtù that underlay the widely shared ideology of social order evoked by both Machiavelli and Castiglione, is found in his infamous Ragionamenti (Dialogues) or Sei giornate (Six Days, because its discussions occur over six days). On the first three days of the dialogue an ex-prostitute, Nanna, discusses with her friend Antonia the options for the best life that her daughter Pippa and women in general had in the Rinascimento, concluding that prostitution was the best and most honest profession. Over the next three days the conversation moves on to consider how to make Pippa the best prostitute possible. In this discussion, Antonia, after listening to Nanna’s descriptions of her dishonest and dissolute life as a nun and a wife and her successes as a prostitute, concludes, “I believe that you should make your daughter Pippa a whore: for the nun is a traitor to her sacred vows, the wife an assassin of holy matrimony, but the whore attacks neither the convent nor the husband. In fact … her shop sells that which she has to sell…. So be openhanded with Pippa and make her a whore from the start.”

It is easy to dismiss Antonia’s words as the usual hyperbole of the irreverent Aretino. And certainly they qualify as such, but in many ways they actually sum up accurately a cleverly presented analysis of the inherent problems with love, marriage, and the very Rinascimento social order built on the ideal of civic morality and virtù. On the first day Nanna describes her experiences as a young nun. Entering the convent with some reluctance as a young girl, she discovered that the fervors of her sisters were anything but otherworldly. In one voyeuristic scene after another Nanna paints an erotic picture of the sexual life of the convent, eventually enjoying a wide range of encounters that might well be seen as a more imaginative and erotic prose replay of Raimondi’s I Modi. Clearly Aretino could not have expected his readers to believe that all convents were as sexually active and perverse; but he and they were well aware that for many young women of the upper classes, life as a nun had been forced upon them by their families when a suitable dowry could not be raised to marry them. The problem was compounded by the fact that daughters had to be married fairly quickly once they reached puberty or the delay would put them beyond the acceptable marriage age and once again compromise family honor. In the face of such exigencies, daughters, especially second and third ones, often found themselves pressed to enter convents without a vocation. In fact, in many cities this reality was recognized, and there existed a range of convents that spanned the gamut from the spiritually committed, noted for their religiosity, to the more open, noted for their more mundane ways and often lively social life.

On the second day Nanna described her life as a wife. After fleeing the dishonesties of the convent, she decided to opt for the more honest life of a wife, the life generally held up as the ideal for women in the Rinascimento. She soon found that there was little honesty in matrimony either. Lacking a father to arrange her marriage, her mother took the matter in hand, spreading a series of lies that attempted to fashion a consensus reality of her as a pious young virgin ready to take up her role as wife and mother. Her lies soon bore unhappy fruit: “An old man, who only lived because he was still eating … decided to have me for his wife or die. And as he was well-to-do, my mother … concluded the marriage.” This arranged marriage between the lively and independent Nanna and an old man “who only lived because he was still eating” was doomed from the start. Her old husband’s sexual failings soon led her to learn from neighborhood women all the little tricks necessary to find sexual pleasure outside of marriage. And once again her adulteries, motivated by the unhappiness of her arranged marriage, underlined the dishonesty of marriage for many women who were married to much older men and the dishonesty of arranged marriages based on family goals and lies from the first.

Yet Aretino saved the best for last, for Nanna reported the end of her marriage with perfect symmetry. In the beginning her old husband had wanted “to have me for his wife or die.” Discovered in bed with a lover and attacked by her husband, she coolly ended her marriage by burying “a little knife that I had in his chest and his pulse beat no longer.” Once again Aretino pushed his satire over the top, but his critique of marriage had considerable weight and could be heard by many; in fact, Nanna’s problems in her marriage were the moving force behind a great deal of literature, spanning the gamut from serious treatises on marriage, quasi-serious debates on the merits of matrimony, and more playful satires and comedies that focused on such themes. Quite literally, then, Aretino had turned the Rinascimento ideals of love, marriage, and family on their head, and, with clever irony, he had done so by attacking the very ideological base of society.

Did Aretino then reject virtù, as one might expect of one of the most caustic critics of the day? No. Actually, even he was too deeply inserted in the primary culture of his day to escape the explanatory power of virtù. As noted earlier, he had Antonia recommend the life of the prostitute for Nanna’s daughter Pippa because, in contrast to the life of nuns and wives, that life was honest. Prostitutes “sold in their shops what they had to sell.” Thus in the end Antonia, the friend who has listened to the discussion patiently, is given a concluding speech proclaiming the ultimate saving grace of the prostitute: “So [Nanna] your words force me to conclude that the vices of prostitutes are virtù.” Indeed, even Aretino, the mocking critic – the ultimate defender of the satyr in the garden – defends his radical vision by returning to virtù and claiming that the sins of prostitutes, because they are open and honest, are actually more virtù-ous than the false virtues and dishonesties of marriage or the convent – almost certainly tongue-in-cheek, butvirtùnonetheless remains the measure.

Aretino’s critique was too outrageous and too well hidden behind a perverse and at times sexually explicit narrative to win many supporters, although it did have considerable impact on a group of writers often referred to as polymaths. These writers, like Aretino, attempted to use their critical vision, wit, and lively writing (usually in Italian) to actually make a living as writers. Often from quite humble backgrounds, they churned out a large volume of work whose impact has begun to be studied more closely following Paul Grendler’s pioneering work, Critics of the Italian World (1530–1560), which focused on the fascinating and controversial figures Anton Francesco Doni, Nicolò Franco, and Ortensio Landi. Actually, all three had troubled relations with Aretino, in part because of their similarity to him and their competition with him. Franco, who early on seemed to have been a kind of disciple, was reported to have been slashed and disfigured by his former friend after a highly public disagreement in Venice and to have fled the city, at least in part, to avoid the latter’s ire. These polymaths, along with an increasingly vocal group of fellow travelers, critically and often mockingly broke free from the tightening ideals of humanist scholarship as a discipline and challenged the verities of the day, much in the mold of Aretino. In the process they helped to lay the groundwork for what was seen at the time as a new intellectual movement that consciously rejected the social values and traditions of their society. As the Rinascimento wound to its end, at least some of their number would be labeled Libertines and would become more important (and feared) in aristocratic and scholarly circles. Some of the thinkers in this group were taken by Aretino’s claim that virtù was actually to be found in the illicit world of sex and pleasure and claimed that true virtù was limited to an elite who were capable of breaking all sexual and social taboos and traditions – not so much amoral as beyond morality and apparently well beyond the Rinascimento.

The Satyr in the Garden: The Pleasures and Dangers of the Rinascimento Illicit World

Yet Aretino claimed both less and more, for unlike many of the later Libertines, he ultimately argued that the illicit world of sex and pleasure was a central part of the Rinascimento. And from that perspective his open and celebratory relationship with that world warrants a closer examination of it. For across our period, in the larger cities of the peninsula, a complex counterculture of passion, pleasure, and what were often deemed the “natural sins of the flesh” had developed that had its own traditions, forms, and rules. In theory, of course, this culture was officially rejected by the primary culture’s civic morality and Christian ideals; but in fact, it was deeply intertwined with both. In fact, with apparent paradox but actually a certain logic, the illicit world of the Rinascimento often adapted the forms of the primary culture to its own ends and, perhaps unwittingly, often reinforced the values of that culture even. In that world houses of prostitution could be organized like convents, with abbesses disciplining the life of the brothel; concubines could be treated as wives and actually live as them; wives could be prostitutes supporting their families; courtesans could function as true court ladies, judging the best men; prostitutes could substitute for Petrarch’s Laura and Dante’s Beatrice and become the object of love poetry as well as writers of it; and, virtually unnoticed or ignored by scholars, the world of illicit sex could provide one of the few “safe” environments for love in the Rinascimento.

And although there were plenty of negatives to be found in the illicit world, especially in the form of exploitation of woman and the young, along with violence and fraud, it must not be forgotten that the emphasis on them reflects the vision of the winners. Few were ready to point out the ways in which the two worlds worked together or the aspects of the illicit world that played a significant role in sustaining the Rinascimento – not even Aretino. For when he came to write about the strategies for making Nanna’s daughter Pippa a truly virtù-ous prostitute in the last three days of his Sei Giornate, he mockingly stressed all the tricks and crimes of the trade and the world of illicit sex. But a closer look at that illicit world suggests that things were not so simple. Looking first at prostitution, in larger cities like Venice, Rome, Florence, Naples, and Milan, we find that there were multiple levels of the arte (craft), a virtual social hierarchy that paralleled that of the licit world. At the lowest levels, the alleys and back ways of cities were frequented by lower-class women who were forced by economic necessity to prostitute themselves from time to time. Given that in Rinascimento cities there was always a large underclass living on the margins of subsistence, this group was probably larger than generally assumed, especially in times of economic hardship. Some of these women were married and working to help support their families; others were young women pressed by hard times or seeking to raise a dowry in order to marry.

Already one can see how this type of formally illicit activity – by supporting families, raising dowries, or simply by helping the poor to survive – actually sustained the primary culture and its institutions. Archival documents occasionally refer to these women, often in terms of the crimes that victimized them, and it is suggestive that they were frequently described by their neighbors as “good women” and “good neighbors” – expressing a positive consensus reality about their status. Complaints against them tended to develop when they were too aggressive or too successful, especially with the husbands of their neighbors. But if their practice was quiet and largely unseen, it was largely ignored, and it appears that the personal sacrifice involved even engendered at times a certain respect, at least from other women. These “irregulars” were formally illegal because they were usually unregistered with the authorities, largely in order to avoid taxation and the “discipline” of the policing agencies that were responsible for controlling the trade in most cities.

Registered prostitutes who worked in brothels that were often publicly run, ideally as a sexual service for the young males of the city, were much more visible in the governmental records. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they were usually located at the very center of the city and closely associated with the main markets and commercial areas, and at times they were even celebrated as one of the attractions of the urban scene. Across the sixteenth century, however, they tended to be moved to less conspicuous locations and even outside the city walls, at least in part in response to more aggressive calls for reform and civic morality. In a few cities this trend reached its logical conclusion with their closing. Actually, however, already at the beginning of the sixteenth century the larger brothels were in decline, replaced by a more diverse workforce that met the demand for a more socially and economically variegated trade and a less visible one as well.

Many registered prostitutes were managed or controlled by a ruffiano or ruffiana (a male or female pimp, respectively). In theory these relationships were supposed to be supportive, but it seems clear from the criminal records that many were not. Across the century legislation that tried to limit their exploitation proliferated, suggesting that the problem was noted and ongoing. Authorities were especially concerned about young girls, often just into their teens, recruited from the countryside by ruffiani; with a promise of marriage or a dowry, then held in a virtual slavery, unable to escape. Yet at the same time both criminal documents and literature also refer to married couples or enduring partnerships where a ruffiano and a prostitute both claimed to be in a loving relationship and to merely be, in Aretino’s terms, “selling” the only wares that their shop had to sell.

Perhaps the most noted literary reflection of this was the popular sixteenth-century comedy by Ariosto, La Lena. In this play the character called only Lena (another term for a ruffiana), who has been prostituted by her husband with her consent in order to survive economically, is presented sympathetically as she contemplates becoming a ruffiana, a career choice necessitated by the fact that she is reaching the age when she feels she is no longer attractive enough to sell her favors. In the end she is saved from that fate and returns to her long-term paying “lover,” with her husband’s approval. But the fact that she is portrayed sympathetically by Ariosto and that one of the happy conclusions that makes the play a comedy is her continuing prostitution, suggests that things could be considerably more complex than mere exploitation in such relationships. Of course, one might suspect that Ariosto’s positive portrayal of Lena and her sexual life is merely a male wish fulfillment, but, tellingly, he also gives Lena a number of bitter speeches in which she points out the negatives of her life as a prostitute with nary a nod to male fantasies. And, significantly, her life and her complaints are sympathetically presented, which make it harder to dismiss her, especially in light of the positive depiction of her happy return to her paying “lover.” Lena in the end is a sympathetic character who by means of her formally illicit activities supports her husband who pimps her, sustains a paying relationship portrayed as loving, and in the main plot line brings together two young lovers in a happy marriage; thus in its own way the comedy ends with the happy marriage of the illicit and licit worlds at the heart of the Rinascimento.

Many prostitutes outside brothels frequented particular establishments or areas of the city. Baths, taverns, and inns were particularly important, as were the warrens of narrow streets and alleys of the old medieval centers, especially when they were near markets or commercial areas. In Venice, for example, the baths (stue) associated with prostitution were to be found in the narrow streets not far from the markets and commercial center of the Rialto Bridge, close to the old public brothel known as the Castelleto. In fact, if one wanders the back streets just off the main byway that links the Rialto with the large campo, San Polo, one can still see the buildings that housed the baths and the bridge known as the Ponte delle Tette (Bridge of the Breasts) where prostitutes were encouraged to display their breasts in order to encourage young men to select the “proper” sexual partners, women over boys. In Florence, again at the heart of the city, the small medieval streets just north of the Arno River, east of the Old Market (Mercato Vecchio) and southeast of the Duomo, featured a host of establishments that offered a wide range of sins, including gambling, drinking, and prostitution, along with violence and petty crime. In addition to the public brothel, baths, and inns, Florence also boasted a number of popular taverns, including the Bertucci, Chiassolino, Fico, Malvagia, Panico, and Porco – names that colorfully evoke the whole program of the illicit world.

It is easy to forget that prostitution in the larger cities was not limited to women. Although the phenomenon has been less studied, young males also offered their services, especially in cities such as Florence; there in that same area where female prostitution flourished one could also find young male prostitutes, although certain areas were apparently better known for them. For example, the Via dei Pellicciai, which went from the west side of the Old Market south past the Via Porta Rosa, was well known for the trade. There were also two taverns noted for offering male youths, the Buco, near the Ponte Vecchio on a small street that still bears this name, and the Sant’Andrea or Del Lino, which was located near the Church of Sant’Andrea, not far from the Old Market. Later in the sixteenth century the area around the Duomo gained such a reputation that young boys were legally forbidden to loiter there.

As noted in the last chapter, one of the most important innovations in prostitution was the invention of the courtesan at the end of the fifteenth century. Courtesans quickly became, at least in the imagination of the age, the glamorous apex of the profession, offering much more than sex and playing a significant role in the aristocratic life of the day. The relationship between Barbara Raffacani Salutati, a well-known singer, poet, and composer of songs in Florence, and her doting, aging lover, Machiavelli, offers a fine example of both their fascination and their unique role in both the licit and illicit worlds – once more the satyr that inhabited the Rinascimento garden. More noted as a singer than as a poet, Salutati was praised by Giorgio Vasari in the context of a brief discussion of a portrait of her painted in the 1520s by Domenico Puligo. Vasari reports, “[Puligo] painted a portrait of Barbara Fiorentina, famous at that time, a beautiful courtesan and much loved by many, not only for her beauty, but also for her fine manners, and particularly for being an excellent musician and a divine singer.” Although some scholars today question Vasari’s “courtesan” label, there is no doubt that Niccolò Machiavelli felt a deep passion for her that he labeled love. For although he was married, in his later years he moved on from earlier courtesan mistresses to have a highly visible affair with the much younger Barbara, a problematic relationship that, as suggested earlier, was perhaps humorously commemorated in his contemporary comedy La Clizia.

Barbara is often mentioned in Machiavelli’s letters. And his passionate attachment shines through in his account of their working together writing new songs for his already famous comedy, La mandragola, and their plans to travel together to present them. Barbara, in turn, apparently felt a strong attachment to Machiavelli, defending him in his last years in Florence with powerful friends and seventeen years after his death still nostalgically recalling the pleasures of their love. There is much that might be discussed here, but it is easy to overlook a crucial term that comes up often in the Rinascimento in conjunction with courtesans and prostitutes. What was Machiavelli, long married to Marietta di Luigi Corsini, often portrayed tenderly in his letters, doing celebrating hislovefor Barbara?

The answer to that question requires a deeper exploration of the nature of prostitution in the Rinascimento from the perspective of love. For, unlikely as it might seem, prostitution was deeply intertwined with love. Once again this is not to deny the commercial or exploitative nature of the trade, but merely to suggest that sixteenth-century prostitution should not be too quickly identified with the modern. It existed, was conceptualized, and was understood from the perspective of the culture of illicit sex and the broader shared primary culture of the day. And giovani were in many ways the focus of that culture. The modern translation of giovani as “adolescent” is misleading because, as noted earlier, the age range denoted by the term was wider than it is today and also quite socially sensitive. Upper-class males entered this period as they began to mature sexually in their early teens, but continued to be giovani until they married in their late twenties or early thirties. Below the upper classes, as one moved down the social scale this period of male life became progressively shorter, with artisans often marrying in their early twenties when they had mastered their crafts and acquired the economic wherewithal to marry. Finally, at the bottom of society, marriage and independent status might never arrive, and many men remained “boys.” Thus one could be a youth at the upper-class levels for fifteen to twenty years, and at lower-class levels for as little as eight to ten or permanently.

For all social levels, however, there was a definite perceived masculine development for giovani. In their early teens they were viewed as passive sexually and socially, feminine in appearance, and capable of displaying great beauty, as many works of art, such as Donatello’s David, reveal. As a male moved into his later teens, however, and began to develop facial hair and the more muscular body associated with adulthood, it was assumed that he would also leave passivity behind and adopt a more dominating role socially and sexually. For the lower classes this transition ideally was quickly followed by marriage. For upper-class males, however, things were not so straightforward. Unable to wield the wealth to be independent economically or socially, and unable to marry, they found that displaying their new, more aggressive social and sexual status was more difficult. One response was the violence associated with youth in most societies, frequently decried in the Rinascimento.

Two central aspects of the illicit world of the day were closely connected to this way of understanding the development of giovani. First, the perception of young males as feminine and passive was a crucial component of the culture of sodomy. There, as we have seen, male/male sexual relationships were conceptualized as involving youths in their early teens in a passive feminine role, with older youths taking an active role. When these parameters were observed, especially in cities like Florence and Rome, the populace and authorities tended to look the other way, and more irreverent commentators like Aretino could even celebrate such relationships in comedies like Il Marescalco. From this perspective the ideal of sodomy, although formally illicit, once again actually played a positive role in the dominant culture of marriage and family. For when young men were making the transition from passive to active roles, society frowned on any form of sex with respectable women that they might attempt outside of marriage – premarital sex, adultery, and rape were all crimes made more serious because they victimized the family, once again the building block of social discipline and society. Sexual relations with lower-class women and servants were less frowned upon for upper-class youths, but even they created a series of problems better avoided. Significantly, however, an older youth who expressed his new active sexuality with a younger male did not endanger either family or marriage. Such relationships produced no children or unwanted heirs and, because young partners grew up and became, in theory at least, active in turn, they would end naturally after a few years and not interfere with eventual marriage or family responsibilities. From the perspective of modern queer theory, there was virtually nothing queer about them, for although they were perceived as sinful, they were seen, much like premarital sex or adultery, as “natural” sins of the flesh and fit into a generally accepted vision of sexual and social development for males.

In this dynamic the prostitute offered a major alternative that many saw as preferable. Relatively inexpensive and widely available, prostitution offered the possibility for giovani to demonstrate an active sexuality – an opportunity to learn, practice, and demonstrate what the society saw as the ideal adult male sexuality. Thus males as they reached their late teens could take an active role in sex without endangering the virginity of daughters on the marriage market, the chastity of wives, the peace of widows, or the vows of nuns. And what made this even more positive, at least in theory, was that the prostitute as a master in the art or craft of sex could guide the young male and help with the difficult and dangerous transition from passive and feminine to active and masculine. As paradoxical as it might seem, from this perspective perhaps the most important transition in a Rinascimento male’s life, from boy/youth to man/adult, was ideally in the hands of one of the most reviled, troubling, and celebrated figures of the day, the prostitute.

But there is more – for love also played a significant role in these relationships, both ideally and in fact. Machiavelli made no bones about loving Barbara Salutati; he actually celebrated that relationship in his correspondence and perhaps even in his literary works. In fact, the literature of the period is rife with references to the “lovers” of prostitutes at every level, from the bottom of the profession to the highest courtesan. And not just the literature – when the authorities of Venice asked the mother of the prostitute Andriana Savorgnan, who had recently married the noble Marco Dandolo, about her daughter’s earlier noble customers, she labeled them “lovers,” not clients, and pointed out that many were long-term lovers at that. Others, including those nobles, testified that their relationships with Andriana were much more than passing affairs and involved passionate love. A note of caution is warranted, however, as the accusation lodged against Andriana was that she had used love magic to win the hand of Marco, and thus the love of others helped to establish the claim that she was using love magic to win and hold her lover/clients. In fact, the case against her trotted out a wide range of love magic that many believed prostitutes used to win and hold their lover/clients – magic often referred to in other cases, in other cities, and in the literature of the day. Yet whether or not Andriana used love magic or was actually loved by Marco, the fact that such magic was believed to be widely used by prostitutes, even by the authorities, reveals that there was a widely shared vision that love played a significant role in their arts and relationships. The question remains, why? And the answer takes us back to Aretino and to Nanna’s account of her marriage to an old man who was alive only because he was still eating – until Nanna terminated things with her little knife.

Without claiming, as Nanna’s friend Antonia did, that “the wife was the assassin of matrimony,” it is clear that the custom of arranged marriages made them hardly the ideal place for expressions of love. Virtually all forms of literature lament the lack of love in marriage as well as the great age differential that often found young women in their early teens married to much older men. Comedies laughed at the incongruities of such marriages and regularly offered their female characters other options for love. Adulterous love went hand in hand with the vigorous novella tradition of the day; poetry celebrated the love of other men’s wives and almost never of one’s own; epics celebrated the often epic search for love outside of marriage; and tragedy regularly suffered the negative ramifications of all of the above. Imaginative literature, in turn, was mirrored and confirmed in court cases involving marital disputes and adultery that regularly turned on the lack of love, although recent studies indicate that as the sixteenth century progressed there seems to have been a growing sense that love in marriage could at least be an ideal.

Marriage remained, however, an unlikely place to find the strong passions that the Rinascimento associated with love. In fact, in the eyes of most those passions were too strong, disorienting, and short-lived to make a solid base for such an important institution. In this context, prostitutes once again offered an ideal solution. One could fall in love with a prostitute at any social level, especially after the emergence of the courtesan, and thus that love could ideally be a passion as refined and aristocratic or as humble as desired. That the possibility of such relationships also turned on having the economic means to afford them merely strengthened their social measuring quality: at the upper levels of prostitution, only the wealthy could move in the rarefied circles of the courtesan; at more humble levels, the more humble could find more affordable passions. Moreover, because it was a paying relationship, in the context of a mercantile society it was in theory a free exchange for both parties – although clearly skewed toward men with the ability to pay. And when the strong passion passed, the buyer could stop paying and go his way, or his partner could theoretically – often very theoretically – refuse the relationship. Passion complicated this picture, however, as rejected male lovers were not always happy to keep their money and find another partner. And, obviously, for poor prostitutes refusal of a client was less of an option, although in criminal cases we encounter quite modest prostitutes rejecting potential client/lovers, often with violent results that caused their refusal to become part of the historical record.

This vision of prostitution and love once again fit particularly well with the long period of youth for males that typified the period. But as the sixteenth century progressed, even as courtesans were lionized and prostitution lauded as a positive necessity for society, there also grew apace a negative vision of the arte, in part in conjunction with a hardening of social boundaries and an attempt to define insiders and outsiders more narrowly. Added to traditional attacks on prostitution’s exploitative nature for both women and men, its immorality, and increasing laments about the diseases it promulgated – most notably syphilis – were attacks on the way it undermined the family and in turn the very base of the civic morality of the Rinascimento. Youth and love were all very well, but when older married males fell in love with prostitutes, wasting their wealth and losing their honor and virtù in their pursuit of passions that served neither family nor society, many were not so willing to smile bemusedly at the passions of the illicit world. Even Machiavelli, the mature patriarch who enthused in his letters about his affairs with courtesans, could paint extramarital sexual relationships as a threat to virtù and social order in his comedy Clizia.

Many, like Machiavelli, were capable of arguing that sex for mature males outside of marriage was no longer acceptable and at the same time continue to frequent the illicit world of sex, even as mature married men. That notwithstanding, the stress on this ideal and its wider acceptance also accelerated the growing gap between the worlds of the licit and the illicit across the sixteenth century. And the gap was further expanded by the many religious reformers and a number of political and social commentators who were ready to see the defeats of the city-states of Italy at the hands of foreign invaders as a result, at least in part, of the negative effects of the illicit world – a world with dangerous passions that undermined the virtù of society and made men, and Italy itself, effeminate and easy victims of more martial and masculine foreigners.

Disease, morality, and reform went hand in hand in attempts to discipline prostitution more aggressively, both in its practice and in its impact on licit society, as the sixteenth century progressed. Particularly visible were a number of governmental initiatives to reclaim prostitutes and protect young women from being led astray and into the profession. Venice provides a good example of the broad initiatives that typified this reform movement, even if in many ways it was less an initiator and more an eclectic follower. Already early in the century the city opened a hospital to care for those suffering from syphilis, known as the Incurabili, where numerous prostitutes were interned. Although they were treated for the disease, the institution was mainly concerned with quarantining those infected and preventing the spread of the disease – in other words, separating the disease and the diseased from the rest of society. Soon it became more a place of internment for infected prostitutes, especially older ones, and satirical literature referred to it as the “courtesan’s purgatory.”

The Convertite, founded about 1530, as the name suggests offered the opportunity for prostitutes to rejoin licit society in return for repentance and personal reform. The original idea was that a prostitute who “voluntarily” entered the institution would be readied to reenter society as a wife or a nun. Living an austere, disciplined life, she would learn the skills required of a housewife or the discipline of a cottage industry (that helped to support the institution) along with the moral probity that came with a heavy dose of Christian training and, again, discipline. With time, however, the religious discipline of the institution came to dominate, and in 1551 the Convertite officially became a convent, where prostitutes were turned into nuns. One could hardly imagine a more impressive transformation from outsider to insider in Christian society. But perhaps it would not be wise to imagine too much, as at least in Venice the records suggest that the reality was less impressive than the ideal. In fact, after only a decade a major scandal broke out at the Convertite when it was discovered that several of the nuns were selling their favors from inside the walls of the convent, with their father confessor serving as their ruffiano. Even this was grist for the mill of reform morality as the priest, Pietro Leon da Valcamonica, made a public confession and preached a sermon against his sins and prostitution that impressed many. Nicely, the mother of Andriana Savorgnan, the courtesan discussed earlier, told her interrogators that one of her first memories when she moved to Venice was his powerful sermon, delivered before he was publicly executed.

In a more aggressive move to limit prostitution, a new home called the Zitelle (the House of Old Maids) was founded in Venice in 1560 with the goal of keeping poor young women from being lured into the arte. The Venetian government had long attempted to limit the recruitment of young women into the trade by law, but with little success; thus once again it moved to place them safely outside of society at the Zitelle. That goal was made clear by the requirements for entrance: candidates had to be at least nine years old, healthy and beautiful, and threatened with being forced into prostitution. The other side of the equation – unhappily married women who might enter the profession – was tackled by yet another institution, the Casa del Soccorso (the House of Support or Rescue), founded in the late 1570s. Its goal was to allow wives trapped in threatening family situations to escape without having to live on their own. To a great extent adult women living on their own were already outsiders in a society whose ideal was that everyadult woman be placed in a family, and one of the major dangers of such a life was that a woman might be forced to support herself as a prostitute. Thus the Soccorso offered an opportunity for women with marital problems to escape the family and yet live a safely disciplined life within its walls. The potentially subversive nature of this institution, however, was recognized, and every effort was made to stress that it served not as a permanent escape but as a home that attempted to reconcile wives with their husbands and families or, failing that, prepared them to accept a new discipline as a nun.

This whole range of disciplines would have a long history and would be implemented with local variations across the cities of sixteenth-century Italy. In fact, it was copied widely beyond Italy and was reflected in institutions that interned women up through the last century. In some ways even the ideal of the modern penitentiary, with its theoretical emphasis on a mixture of penance and discipline, owes much to these sixteenth-century innovations in Italy. Be that as it may, however, it is important to recognize that these institutions were really unequipped to deal with the scale of the problems involved in eliminating or isolating prostitution and its impact on society. They were able to isolate and perhaps even to reform a few, at best dozens, while thousands plied the profession or moved in and out of its ranks, moved by poverty and their own marginality. More significantly, these institutions disciplined only one side of the problem, women. With a stubborn patriarchal myopia, they overlooked the fact that male clients created the demand and that the market would not disappear simply because a few women were locked up or even reformed.

But while scale limited the practical effects of these attempts to move prostitutes and dangerous women outside of society, each institution and its expressed rationale was a public reassertion of a heightened civic morality that ideally would save sixteenth-century Italy from the worst of the satyr in its garden. And prostitution and its diseases and irregularities as a source of the problem would progressively come to be portrayed in a more negative light. No longer was it just a minor and necessary evil. Rather, it was a trap for women that was difficult to escape, as institutions like the Convertite announced; it fed off the economic problems of the poor, the young, and the defenseless, as the Zitelle publicized; and, worst of all, it destroyed marriages and lured wives into a life of sin living on their own, as the Soccorso revealed. Moreover, it threatened to infect society with both a devastating physical disease and a (perhaps worse) moral one, as the Incurabili warned. In sum, these institutions broadcast in the cityscape the ideal that prostitution and its accompanying immorality should be excluded from society and the licit world once and for all.

In the end Machiavelli’s re-dreaming of a return to Roman republican virtù and his perhaps less well recognized agenda of a return to the virtù of the early Rinascimento, both envisioned as a corrective to the effeminate ways of the early sixteenth century and as a means to recapture civic morality, were never realized. Returns, whether to the ancient past or to earlier, better times, make good ideology and better dreams, but they are rarely realized. And although many may cringe at the idea, Machiavelli’s political vision was essentially a utopian one powered as much by a deep faith in virtù and government as by his practical experiences. Unfortunately for that faith, neither government nor the rebirth of virtù was capable of delivering the deep reforms he envisioned, and his utopia remained a dream. Castiglione’s vision of the solution to the crisis of the early sixteenth century was, if anything, even more a dream, as it imagined returning to a courtly world of perfect courtiers and princes willing to be led to the path of virtù: an eroto-political program set in an ideal courtly world that had never existed and was equally unlikely to exist in any future.

Aretino eschewed love in his often troubling dreams of the illicit world, with the result that they may seem more like nightmares. But that would be unfair to Aretino, because his vision was also a rueful, laughing critique powered by his linguistic fireworks. To gain and hold his reader, nothing could be or was sacred, and the more clever and irreverent his mockery, the more powerful his critique. Thus in the end he argued the hollowness of the vision that was the very foundation of his society, which saw civic life as based on civic morality and the familial organization of society. And from that point it was but a short step to claiming that true virtù was only to be found in the sins of a prostitute and the illicit world – the world of the satyr in the garden that had always been there, lurking behind the civic morality and discipline of the Rinascimento. If there was an implied utopia here, it was one based on egoistic passions and pleasures, perhaps on the order of that envisioned later by certain Libertines.

It seems more likely, however, that it was simply an irreverent replay of the inherent contradictions of the licit world and a mocking highlighting of the open secret that that world relied on and was deeply intertwined with its illicit world. In a strange way, however, it was Aretino’s dream that at least had some future. As the sixteenth century progressed, Italy came to be noted in the European imagination as the place to find the illicit pleasures and excitements that were only dreamed of elsewhere – the satyr in the garden came to dominate the dream. Cities like Rome and Venice would become meccas of proto-tourism, with a thriving world of illicit sex and cultures perceived as wide open to free thought and free love (albeit, ironically, often quite costly in every sense). No matter that the reality was neither as lurid nor as free as perceived from abroad. But the other side of the coin was that these cities were also perceived as singularly corrupt and a threat to the moral order of the rest of Europe. Italy’s Rinascimento garden with its flourishing culture came to be seen as coming at a dangerous cost – with a lurking satyr of illicit immorality personified by mythic figures of evil like the Machiavel and the Aretine.

But for the moment neither a return to earlier virtù, nor a rediscovery of true love, nor an escape to the many pleasures and dangers of the illicit world of the day would save Italy or disarm the new that was pressing on the Rinascimento from all quarters. Rebirth was still the dream, but it was a dream that was becoming ever less likely. Still, there was one more “re” word with a long history that seemed to many to offer promise for a future that would return the Rinascimento to its deserved preeminence – reform. And, nicely, it too evoked visions of love and virtù, but in a Christian and moral society reborn. Perhaps, as was the case with old Nicomaco, reform could save the Rinascimento and return it to the ways of civic morality and virtù.


9.1. Veronese, Mars and Venus United by Love, 1570s, Metropolitan Museum of Art. ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, New York.

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