Ladies Errant: Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy

Ladies Errant: Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy

by Deanna Shemek


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822321675
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/17/1998
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.77(d)

About the Author

Deanna Shemek is Associate Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Ladies Errant

Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy

By Deanna Shemek

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9989-6


Circular Definitions: Configuring Gender in Italian Renaissance Festival

In a memorable passage on the philosophy of art, phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty observes that the human subject's power to act and to perceive as a separate being arises from a body at once discrete unto itself yet continuous with the world around it: "The enigma is that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the 'other side' of its power of looking.... This initial paradox cannot but produce others. Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself."

The subject's paradoxical continuity with and difference from its surrounding world likewise became a recurring motif in the seminars of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. At various times in his career Lacan attempted to theorize the intricate social relations between vision, corporeal experience, subjectivity, and gender identity, deriving several of his formulations from his critical reading of Merleau-Ponty. Subjectivity, or the sense of self, Lacan argues, is constituted by the gaze. As Lacan defines it, however, this gaze is not the look each of us directs out into the world, but rather the presence of an exterior Other who looks back, corroborating our existence as subjects resembling, but distinct from, that Other.

Such a view of human selfhood is likely bound by historic conditions; but these conditions began to coalesce in the early modern thought of humanists, merchants, and teachers who devoted their writings not only to the powers of individual subjects to "make" themselves but also to the importance of performance in the constitution of one's social, political, and ethical persona. From Pico to Alberti to Machiavelli to Castiglione to Ignatius Loyola — to name only a few cardinal figures — we trace the rise of a modern subject not only aware of its interiority (soul, character) but also engaged in the modeling and social display of that interiority for instrumental purposes. In Lacanian terms, we might go so far as to say that what the Renaissance integrated was the power of the gaze. Nowhere is the political manipulation of this power more apparent than in the visual culture of early modernity, in which painting, theater, and public pageantry constructed both spectacle and audience in the service of state legitimacy and expressly masculine power.

Focusing on a public festival in Renaissance Ferrara, with particular interest in the communal dynamics of political ritual and gender construction, this chapter explores a circularity of gaze peculiar to the experience of the festival's female participants. The festival examined here offers a colorful illustration of Lacan's and Merleau-Ponty's conceptions of a subjectivity that comes from the outside, from the gazes of others. In this case a ritualized, judging male gaze reinforced not only traditional standards of femaleconduct but also hierarchical models of power for the family and the state. As any complex cultural phenomenon, particularly from the past, strains against the methods of a single academic field and necessitates interdisciplinary investigation, I shall employ a variety of historical, anthropological, and theoretical approaches in modulating between imagined performance, written documents, and political context. As my point of departure I take an object that would have especially appealed to both Merleau-Ponty and Lacan: a painting.

High on the crumbling, frescoed walls of Ferrara's Palazzo Schifanoia, visitors today discover a curious scene from Renaissance city life. Above the door in the east wall of its Sala dei mesi loom the arresting profiles of scantily clad women and men running within a cityscape, apparently chasing a group of mounted jockeys (fig. 1). Above these figures, in the same scene, placid onlookers gaze from courtly spaces on two higher planes: just over the group involved in the chase, city officials preside from a raised platform; still further above, noble ladies nod blankly toward the spectacle from high palace balconies, the expressions on their faces half erased by time.

These painted figures record a favorite feast in the civic calendar of Duke Borso d'Este (d. 1471), who commissioned the entire Sala dei mesi, or Salon of the Months, as a monumental tribute to his own rule over Ferrara. The scene of the Palio di San Giorgio described above forms an inset detail in the panel Francesco del Cossa painted for the month of April between 1467 and 1469 (fig. 2). As a whole the composition depicts twelve months under Borso's good government in mythological, astrological, and political images, resulting in a remarkably intricate panorama of political power, myth, and community. I happily concede the full explication of this enormous ensemble to specialists in its medium. My own interest lies rather in the enigmatic historical practice to which the city scene described above refers: the annual races held on the feast day of Saint George, Ferrara's patron saint. I return later in this chapter to Cossa's rendering of them in the Schifanoia fresco.

Like other celebrations of its kind in early modern European cities, Ferrara's palio was a public relations extravaganza organized by the local government. Typically for such city-sponsored holidays, the program of amusements was orchestrated to impress the populace with the beneficence, wealth, and power of the ruling family. Thus, though clearly intended to entertain, these feasts were more like official pageantry than the carnival events celebrated by Mikhail Bakhtin as "offered not by some exterior source but by the people to themselves." The statutes pertaining to the palio that were introduced shortly after the inauguration of Estense rule tie its administration, if not necessarily its historical origin, to this regime.

In 1279, just twenty years after the Este came to governing power, city statutes specified the prizes for a horse race "in festo beati Georgi": to the first-place rider a piece of elegant cloth [palio], to the second a roast pig [porchetta], and to the third a cock [gallo]. Borso's reformed laws of 1456 indicate that by then the original horse race had expanded into a kind of festive theater: a race of barbari [Arabian horses] in the afternoon was to be followed by races of asses, men, and women in the early evening after vespers. The entire affair commenced with a morning Mass, itself the culmination of preparatory blessings of all participants (both human and equestrian) at sign-up on the eve of the races.

Nineteen years later, the chronicler Ugo Caleffini described in his Diario an essentially unchanged palio. For 24 April 1475 Caleffini records: "Festa di S. Giorgio. La mattina si corse il palio di panno d'oro. Nel pomeriggio corsero gli asini con fanti a cavallo, ... gli uomini con premio di sette braccia di panno rosso e infine le donne con quello di sette braccia di panno verde." [In the morning the palio was run for the gold cloth. In the afternoon, the asses ran with the mounted jockeys, ... [then] the men for a prize of seven ells of red cloth, and finally the women for that of seven ells of green cloth.] Another important Ferrarese chronicle mentions that for Saint George's Day a quarter century later, "Furno per barbari corso il palio de brocato d'oro.... Et dopoi desinare corseno li homini, femine, et aseni, juxta solitum." [The race for the palio of gold brocade was run, and after dinner ran the men, women, and asses, as usual.] Such descriptions indicate the enduring solidity of the palio as an institution. They also reveal that Cossa's panel alludes not to a single race between all the figures pictured (as some have assumed), but rather conflates four contests occurring over a whole day of celebration.

Social anthropologists have argued that performances, exhibitions, and rituals primarily symbolize relations: relations among a community's members, and relations between rulers and their subjects. Public ritual particularly serves this function, for its cyclic repetition and grand scale at once evoke power relations within a community and reproduce those relations, binding them within an authorized, controlled frame of meaning. This frame is especially effective in rituals of hierarchy, which magnify invented authority by projecting it onto a cosmic stage where it attains the weight of nature and inevitability. Moreover, public ritual both embodies and enacts a regime of power through its enforced positioning of individual bodies in a superindividual spectacle.

Seen in this context of social construction, the first event in Ferrara's Palio di San Giorgio would seem to reaffirm the Este family's oligarchic rule over the city. The flamboyant race of prize military steeds displays the superior power, wealth, and elegance of the ducal family before a breathless populace, clearly exhibiting the dominance of an aristocratic, masculine state power. The race of the asses, which according to the statutes follows this martial display, might be read as a whimsical or even parodic repetition of the first contest. The majesty of the ducal steeds is nowhere more evident than in contrast with the sturdy but less graceful asses, who may serve here to figure the Court's disdain for any contenders for its powers.

The rhetorical force of the other contests, however, remains more obscure and complex. The men's and women's races within this festive frame raise intriguing questions about the relations being reinforced among groups within the populace. For while the first two contests display a general courtly power "at play," a power that basks in self-regard before its subjects, the latter two races have political and social connotations that remain ambiguous, at least to the modern viewer.

Who are the characters running in this display, and whom do they represent within the community? Identifying the palio players is in fact no simple task, because the chronicles and statutes refer to the contestants simply as women [donne or femine] and men [huomini]. Twentieth-century sources exhibit a similar decorum. Guido Angelo Facchini's 1939 history of the palio, for example (an otherwise valuable source), aims to reinstate the historic festivities in modern-day Ferrara: it thus depicts a thoroughly idealized event, expressly tailored to the grandiose patriotism of fascist Italy. But if Cossa's fifteenth-century fresco is even vaguely documentary, a number of questions arise. By all accounts of the social customs of early modern Italy, "respectable" women did not run through the streets, except perhaps in flight from danger.

Facchini himself offers some unintended assistance. Unable to resist a coy remark about some of the historic race's participants, he suggests an important detail in the rhetorical force of the early Palio di San Giorgio:

È da ritenere per certo che nelle prime edizioni la corsa delle donne avesse uno spiccato carattere ... boccaccesco poichè sappiamo che a tale competizione partecipavano, in vesti succinte, quelle donne che i Ferrarresi chiamavano «mingarde» e che appartenevano ad una classe piuttosto equivoca. (12–14)

[We can be certain that in its earliest versions the women's race had a distinctly ... "Boccaccesque" flavor, since we know that participating in that contest, in brief costumes, were those women whom the Ferraresi called "mingarde," and who belonged to a rather equivocal class.]

Traveling the road not taken by Facchini, I shall explore in the following pages the likelihood that the palio's runners (at least for a time) were anything but respectable to the Ferraresi, and that the contestants' social station was not an incidental detail but rather a significant theme in the Palio di San Giorgio. A principal rhetorical aim of the races, I will argue, was to reaffirm a social hierarchy in Ferrara that encompassed the moral, political, and sexual spheres.

Chronicles from other cities indicate that throughout Italy and other European territories, from the late thirteenth century to the mid-fifteenth, members of that "equivocal" female class — the local prostitutes — regularly performed in several types of public races. The prostitute's role in civic palios, as Richard Trexler's work has shown, followed on an earlier practice by the women who accompanied medieval Italian armies in their assaults on rival cities. Attacking armies customarily staged elaborate theatrical exhibitions outside the gates of towns under siege. In these charades, the city walls marked a point of inversion. While the threatened citizens cowered inside their city, the attackers took liberties outside its borders. Customarily, they cut down the largest tree beyond the city walls and began minting victory coins near its stump. Such symbolic castration gestures aimed to humiliate and demoralize the besieged inhabitants: they taunted the desperate populace with the specter of a future day when, their great city toppled, coins would circulate to commemorate its capture.

At the same time, the mounted soldiers, looters, and prostitutes of the aggressor army took turns competing in races outside the embattled city's gates. This sport may have been a mocking mime play of the beleaguered opponents, now "on the run," who were thus forced to witness repeatedly a symbolic enactment of their own defeat. Akin to Freud's fort/da game played out on a grand scale, these games served to accustom the besieged populace to the idea of losing. In addition, the spectators must have been acutely aware of the contrast between their own entrapment and immobility and their attackers' freedom to move and act.

On returning to its own city, the victorious army sometimes put the enemy's palio, or banner, in a prostitute's hands. She would carry the cloth upside down, signifying the sexual as well as military subjugation of the defeated enemy. The prostitutes' role in these ceremonies was, of course, an ambivalent one: they represented the very lowest rung in the social hierarchy, but their lack of respectability lent them a relative honor in this moment. Their abject position, in other words, made them the ideal means by which to humiliate the vanquished in a carnivalesque inversion. "Even the prostitutes of the victorious army," the ceremony clearly implies, "are superior to the warriors of the defeated one. The least of our citizens can run freely about the weak enemy's territory and mock its most cherished symbols."

Through most of the fourteenth century, Italian cities explicitly connected the civic races they held onfeast days to such military insult displays. A look at the Villani chronicles, for example, reveals that early races on the feast day of Florence's patron saint, San Giovanni, often took place not at home, inside Florence, as they do today, but outside the walls of her rival cities Pisa, Lucca, and Arezzo. In October 1330, the Florentines ran races outside Lucca, "per vendetta di quelli che fece correre Castruccio a Firenze" [in revenge for those Castruccio had instigated at Florence]. As Villani describes this performance, the first race was run by horses for a prize of twenty-five gold florins, "e l'altro fu di panno sanguigno, che'l corsono i fanti a piè; e l'altro di baracane bambagino, che'l corsono le meretrici dell'oste" [and another (race) was for crimson cloth, which was run by the foot soldiers; and another was for sheepskin cloth, and was run by the whores of the army]. Later, in 1363, the Florentines ran their San Giovanni races outside Pisa in retaliation for feast day races held by the Pisans outside Florence in 1362.

The form of these displays remained ritually consistent and hence recognizable by all witnesses. Giovanni Morelli recounts in his Ricordi for 1363 how Galeotto Malatesti, on the day of the Palio di San Vittorio, having performed all other possible insults in the traditional repertory, including the felling of the tree and the proleptic minting of coins outside Pisa, finally resorted to the "palio de' barattieri e pelle meretrici" [the race of the gamblers and the whores] as the ultimate derision against the enemy city. For all its regularity, however, the pattern of offenses in these performances is intricate indeed: the overlays of insult and honor even include races performed by oppressing armies on the feast days of the victim cities. Like the minting of coins, these spectacles anticipate and symbolically enact the full incorporation of the threatened city's identity.

Such accounts hint at a gap between official Ferrarese records of the palio as a civic celebration and the event's far less benevolent overtones as a traditional rehearsal of military power. In their textualization of an idealized image of Estense rule, the chronicles written under ducal supervision reinforced a "controlled frame of meaning" dictated by public statutes and government edicts. The Estedukes, we surmise, intuited what Machiavelli would later so frankly point out to his Prince: the political rewards of public ceremony depend on its successful manipulation. In the case of the Estense government, this manipulation included the decorous elision, from all official accounts, of the context of war and subjugation that formed the historical backdrop for the games on Saint George's Day. Integral to both this military past and the evolving demands of urban rule were the negative exemplars of community morality, who found themselves performing in exhibitional games on many public feast days.


Excerpted from Ladies Errant by Deanna Shemek. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Circular Definitions: Configuring Gender in Italian Renaissance Festival,
2 That Elusive Object of Desire: Angelica in the Orlando Furioso,
3 Gender, Duality, and the Sacrifices of History: Bradamante in the Orlando Furioso,
4 Getting a Word in Edgewise: Laura Terracina's Discorsi on the Orlando Furioso,
5 From Insult to Injury: Bandello's Tales of Isabella de Luna,
Appendix 1: Bandello to His Magnificent Nephew Messer Gian Michele Bandello,
Appendix 2: Bandello to the Magnificent Lord Count Bernard of Saint Boniface, Field Master of the French Army in Piedmont: Greetings,

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