The Manly Masquerade: Masculinity, Paternity, and Castration in the Italian Renaissance

The Manly Masquerade: Masculinity, Paternity, and Castration in the Italian Renaissance

by Valeria Finucci

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Analyzes how the body was constructed and politicized in early modern Italy by exploring literary discourses of the period - plays, novellas, travel journals, poems, etc.See more details below


Analyzes how the body was constructed and politicized in early modern Italy by exploring literary discourses of the period - plays, novellas, travel journals, poems, etc.

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"Valeria Finucci’s book questions the traditional concepts associated with the Italian Renaissance (harmony, spiritual perfection and beauty, etc.) and addresses much less ‘luminous’ aspects of sixteenth-century Italian culture."—Armando Maggi, author of Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology

”Valeria Finucci is at it again, patrolling and illuminating the unstable boundaries of sex and gender in early modern Italian culture and literature. Relating canonical literary texts to the medical and legal culture of their times, she explores the fascination that spontaneous generation, cuckoldry, the maternal imagination, androgyny, and the deliberate manufacture of castrati held for early modern Italians—and still hold for us.”—Walter Stephens, author of Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief

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The Manly Masquerade-CL

By Valeria Finucci

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2003 Valeria Finucci
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780822330547

Chapter One

The Useless Genitor: Fantasies of Putrefaction and Nongenealogical Birth

Putredini dixi: "Pater meus es, mater mea vermibus" Oh dear worms, mother of my spirit who is reborn!

-R. MARCHELLI, Prediche quaresimali

Sempre natura, se fortuna trova Discorde a se, com'ogni altra semente Fuor di sua region, fa mala prova.

-DANTE, Paradiso

The Vagaries of Life

"What's he / That was not born of woman?" Macbeth asks in Shakespeare's tragedy, knowing that only such a man will bring about his undoing. Macbeth does not question whether a baby can gestate outside of a woman's womb or whether a human could be born other than as a result of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. As a fantasy, however, the possibility that one can be born without a mother, without a father or, for that matter, without either parent, that birth can be the result of self-insemination, parthenogenesis, or autogenesis ispresent in our cultural imaginary. The aim of this chapter is to see how questionable but entirely plausible ideas of reproduction were corroborated in the early modern period by medical, philosophical, and legal or pseudolegal pronouncements informed by Aristotelian and post-Aristotelian thinking on generation and degeneration, and how they were played out in Italian literature, especially in the novella tradition. For this purpose I provide examples of birth without a father or a mother, of bestial begetting, of women's self-gestation, and even of male pregnancy before I bring to the fore stories of spontaneous generation from pollution and putridity.

What is a child made of? Not much, Nicolo Serpetro offers, just three drops of semen and a bit of blood spread like milk and curdled like cheese. Obviously a number of things could go wrong in this deceptively simple, homey mixture: fantasies of miscegenation and boundary confusion, disquietudes about utter sameness or utter alienation, and misconceptions about distinctions among species proliferated. What if semen was not sufficiently warm to mature in a womb? What if woman's blood was too impure? Could things other than human babies be in a womb? Could a woman engender through an encounter with an animal or through spontaneous generation? Could a man become pregnant or a mother be substituted by a mechanical womb? Using literature as a way of producing knowledge, on a par with the writings of medicine, juridical law, theology, and philosophy, is a complicated endeavor, since while narratives of engendering can reflect overall acceptance of variously explained reproductive mechanisms (no matter the bafflement), they may just as well parody them. My task is to recreate a poetics of engendering that takes into account facts and fantasies and remains aware of the uneasiness with which each story is told and satirized at the same time.

To stress the point I will start with the Greek satirical writer Lucian. His description of the reproduction of people on the moon in Vera historia is no more than a fantasy of extraterrestrial origins. Lacking women, men marry each other on the moon, he writes; in fact any man until the age of twenty-five acts as a wife; after that, he gets the role of a husband. When a man gets pregnant, he carries the child in the calf of his leg and gives birth by cesarean section. No reader would consider this account of engendering realistic, although Lucian's reasons for why the younger man takes a feminine role in a homosexual relationship must have sounded plausible to a man of the third century A.D., just as bloodletting from the calf of one's leg was a common medical practice in those times. Pliny, whose work became fashionable in the Renaissance, offers a similar reproductive fantasy in his tale of the unorthodox origins of Servius Tullius, one of the Roman kings, conceived when a penis emerged from the ashes and impregnated the captive servant Ocresia, who was sitting close to the hearth. And a biographer of the empire explained the cruel and lecherous ways of Commodus as the result of his mother Faustina's douching herself just before conceiving him with the recently spilt blood of a gladiator. These stories were accepted only because the origins of mythical kings, warriors, and tyrants have always been fanciful; explanations of how such births were possible were conveniently put aside. Along the same lines, the thirteenth-century poet Matazone da Caligano proposed that uncouth men were the product of donkeys' wind ("malvoxio vento"); the Renaissance macaronic writer Teofilo Folengo made a similar coprophiliac association between poor men and human excrement ("Surge, villane, ... disse Giove allora / e'l villandaque' stronzi salto fuora"). Here we seem to be in the realm of parody, and yet Piero Camporesi argues that we should not discount the cultural background of these stories, since there was a strong, even documented, belief in medieval agrarian culture that souls could issue from unconventional sources.

In La prima veste degli animali, the sixteenth-century writer Agnolo Firenzuola retells a story by Aesop in which a wife convinces her husband that the son she bore came fromher eating snow. The husband does not question her argument, but when the child disappears he ducks any responsibility in the matter by arguing that the boy must have melted in the sun. Firenzuola's is an ironic tale of adultery in which the joke links snow and semen. But the hint that eating can engender is not that innocent, since it was thought that ingested semen could cause a woman to become pregnant without intercourse. Even dreaming of snow could lead to an unorthodox engendering, as in the often cited case of the African queen who gave birth to a white child because her mind wandered while she was asleep. When the sixteenth-century novelist Matteo Bandello writes that children were told that newborns come out of their mother's armpits, readers know that he was explaining the mystery of birth in culture by metonymy, just as in fantasy children believe in anal birth. When Francois Rabelais has Gargantua born after an eleven-month pregnancy through an unconventional opening (his mother's left ear), because she no longer had available for delivery the normal birth canal after her sphincter was sown up following an appropriately Gargantuan meal, we know that the author is deriding Christianity. But when Jacopo Sannazaro describes the auricular impregnation of Mary, where the Virgin's blessed body swells immediately upon hearing God's verbo, he is deadly serious, and Christianity accepted long ago the dogma that Christ was conceived "of the Holy Spirit." Yet how can one believe in engendering via the ear or ashes any more than in birth via the anus, the leg, or the armpit?

In his essay on childbirth, "Dialogo del tempo del partorire delle donne," Sperone Speroni argues that some things happen rarely in generation but they are still within the norm. He cites the case of a virgin who engendered a child although she has never had sex, together with the often rehashed story, told by Averroes, that it is possible to become pregnant by bathing in water in which a man has just ejaculated. Speroni's dialogue is in many ways emblematic of the befuddlement surrounding birth in the early modern period. Can a six-month female fetus remain alive, Speroni asks? Yes, he answers. Is it possible that pregnancies last up to fourteen months? Of course, he writes, citing cases of babies born with teeth. Does menopause stop generation? He says no, citing women who gave birth at seventy-two, not to mention the biblical cases of Elizabeth and Sara. How early can a woman conceive? Five-year-old girls seem sufficiently mature to engender among certain people, Speroni says. How many children can be carried in a single pregnancy? Seven at most, he hypothesizes, but there have been cases in which women miscarried up to seventy fetuses at a time ("tale ve n'ebbe, che 'n una volta dieci, dodici, trenta, e settanta ne disperdette").

Speroni was hardly the only sexologist of the period. His contemporary Gianfrancesco Picodella Mirandola expounds on a woman named Dorotea who had nine children in a single pregnancy and eleven in a second; not much later Ambroise Pare illustrates how difficult it was for Dorotea to walk with her huge belly. Along the same lines, the anatomist Berengario da Carpi relates that a Genoese woman gave birth to sixteen fetuses, all formed like babies, each as large as the palm of one's hand. Not to be upstaged, Tommaso Garzoni describes, among others, the case of Margherita of Holland, who gave birth to three hundred and sixty children in just one pregnancy, although he finds it hard to believe.

To be sure, confusion about issues of engendering was fed by a wide array of sources at the popular level. The teeming night population of incubi, succubi, goblins, imps, werewolves, basilisks, vampires, fairies, witches, elves, nightriders, and demons was believed able to disrupt the engendering process at any time. The unregulated mixture of herbal remedies, plasters, infusions, fumigations, poultices, suppositories, and ointments, and the frequency of bloodletting, purges, leeches, clysters, frictions, sudatories, and vomitories that women were prescribed throughout their fertile years continuously interfered with the reproductive agenda by keeping the body in a state of flux. The disease of "oppilation" ("mal d'oppilazione"), for example, an ubiquitous and gender-neutral infirmity frequently named as causing an array of bodily related a afflictions but nonexistent today, required a liberal amount of purges and pills and could last for over half a year, as Sister Celeste Galilei reveals in a letter to her father Galileo, enough to deplete healthy bodies, let alone sick or even pregnant ones. Widespread poverty and illiteracy, the rituals of self-flagellation, the seemingly never ending famines, the common belief in the divinatory power of dreams, and the public display of rotten, quartered, flayed, headless, and castrated bodies, stirred the people's fascination for the macabre, the horrid, the supernatural, the devilish, and the uncanny that multiplied with a vengeance fears about gestation and parturition. When brains of unbaptized newborns or skulls of decapitated criminals are recommended for their aphrodisiac powers and children's fat is supposedly used by witches to oil their bodies on the way to devilish encounters, the boundaries between life and death, birth and rot appear to us moderns dangerously blurred. When a man's discarded semen was thought to generate "lemurs" or, by impregnating marine creatures, produce mermen, mermaids, merdogs, and merspiders; when an unspecified but equally threatening "sperm from the stars" bred monsters in the air, as Paracelsus claimed, neuroses and psychoses had a fertile ground on which to establish themselves.

Pope Sixtus V's 1588 bull on abortion, Effraenatum (a decree that was annulled by his successor Gregory XIV),which criminalized interventions on the female body on the part of midwives, herbalists, witches, materculae, and charlatans, can thus be contextualized as a concerned, if overly paternalistic, response from above to irrational fears of panspermic birth. The measure made it more difficult for women to abort on the grounds of supposed or simply declared devilish interventions on their generative apparatus and punished those who terminated a pregnancy as well as those who assisted the deed or simply provided the abortifacients. Until this papal intervention-as the next chapters will show, this pope, a former inquisitor, intervened more than any other to regulate sexuality and gender during the five short years of his papacy-the abortion of an embryo was not proscribed, and therefore getting rid of a forty-day-old male fetus or of an eighty-day-old female fetus (in fact, of any fetus, since no sexual difference could in those days have been ascertained) was not punishable with excommunication. As Machiavelli's character the parasite Ligurio sees it in Mandragola, an embryo was, after all, only an unborn piece of meat ("un pezzo di carne non nata"). But doctors at that time had few opportunities to check the women whose gynecological problems they were describing, because morality required that a parturient be seen only by midwives or expert women in her neighborhood. The case of the German doctor Veit, burned at the stake because he cross-dressed to intervene at women's bedside, has remained famous, but it must not have been so unusual if the Roman physician Girolamo Mercurio, too, suggests that in extreme cases a doctor should be introduced in the darkened delivery chamber dressed as a woman, silently, and with a veil over his head ("fosse introdotto senza parlare, travestito in abito di donna con la testa bendata") for the purpose of saving one or perhaps two lives.

The documented paranoia caused by the spread of syphilis among all social classes from the end of the fifteenth century onward also strongly contributed to fears about improper engendering. Syphilis manifested itself with small chancres on the sexual organ that spread to the groin and was accompanied by a perceptible stench and pustules, scabs, and lesions. "A caries, born amidst squalor in the body's shameful parts," Girolamo Fracastoro states, "became uncontrollable and began to eat the areas on either side and even the sexual organs." Conjugal relations reached new levels of anxiety, since this "serpentine" disease was caused by a "poison" intrinsic to menstruation, according to Fracastoro, and thus not only caused birth defects, repeated miscarriages, and future sterility, but also reinforced the view that sex was a conclave of polluted seed, inflamed organs, and pus-like or urine-like release. Only the milk of a woman who had given birth to a daughter was able to cure this epidemic in men, Gabriele Falloppio writes, regaling us with an unusual construction of salvific womanness. Anatomists complained that they no longer had good cadavers to dissect because, unlike Galen who had lived in the youthful moment of God's creation and thus had perfect bodies around him, now degeneration was reflected in the decline of the human bones and flesh. Even the most perfect bodily concoction, the male semen, called "spuma" (foam),was just fermenting matter (Aristotle's aphrodes), and to have an orgasm was to harvest corruption ("corrompimento").

People took seriously such things as putrefaction and worms, believing that generation was too delicate a matter to work dependably, since the evidence was all around them: it was a time when human refuse piled up in the street, and contagion was thought to spread aerially rather than by touch. Marsilio Ficino, a strong believer in holistic medicine, recommends that people regulate humors to avoid putrefaction, through a sober life and a diet lacking soft fruits and herbs, but full of licorice. It was also important to wash one's face and hands with a solution of water and vinegar, to oil the body in cold days, and walk in the sun rather than in the shade. Blood needed to be expressed for the body to work properly and fight rottenness, following the "salus erat in sanguine" ("health was in the blood") dictum, and bloodletting was the most common recommendation for any health-related problem. Expelling excrement had to be part of a daily regimen, one that needed to be aided by baths, encouraged by massages, or supervised by colonic irrigation specialists so that the irresistible rush of the human physique toward decay could be kept in check. At court, the days in which purges and laxatives were administered to the prince and his family were carefully registered.


Excerpted from The Manly Masquerade-CL by Valeria Finucci Copyright © 2003 by Valeria Finucci. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Walter Stephens
Valeria Finucci is at it again, patrolling and illuminating the unstable boundaries of sex and gender in early modern Italian culture and literature. Relating canonical literary texts to the medical and legal culture of their times, she explores the fascination that spontaneous generation, cuckoldry, the maternal imagination, androgyny, and the deliberate manufacture of castrati held for early modern Italians-and still hold for us.
— author of Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief
Armando Maggi
Valeria Finucci's book questions the traditional concepts associated with the Italian Renaissance (harmony, spiritual perfection and beauty, etc.) and addresses much less 'luminous' aspects of sixteenth-century Italian culture.
— author of Satan's Rhetoric: A Study of Renaissance Demonology

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