The Delegate Womb: Lucrezia's Body as Political Tool in Machiavelli's la Mandragola

By Vilches, Patricia | American Journal of Italian Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Delegate Womb: Lucrezia's Body as Political Tool in Machiavelli's la Mandragola


Vilches, Patricia, American Journal of Italian Studies


In Act Three of Niccolo Machiavelli's play La Mandragola, Fra Timoteo and Sostrata, (Lucrezia's mother), are trying to convince Lucrezia, an honorable Florentine, to lie in bed with someone other than her husband:

Fm Timoteo: ... The end has to be looked to in all things; your end is to fill a seat in paradise, to make your husband happy. The Bible says that the daughters of Lot, believing themselves alone in the world, lay with their father, and because their intention was good, they didn't sin.

Lucrezia: What are you persuading me to do?

Sostrata: Let yourself be persuaded, my daughter. Don't you see that a woman who has no children has no home? Her husband dies, she's left like a beast, abandoned by everyone (3.11 p. 36).

Lucrezia, the beautiful young wife of Messer Nicia, an aging impotent Florentine, must produce an heir so that both Messer Nicia and herself might find a niche in the rigid social stratum of Florence. Unintentionally mimicking her earlier classic counterpart, Lucrezia finds herself as both the Church and the Florentine society's object of desire. Because the Church desires the money of Messer Nicia, and society demands an heir, these two institutions combine to violate both Lucrezia's body and soul. As a result, Lucrezia finds herself alone, desolate, with her body exposed as a tool of political, religious, and social scheming on the part of her family and her enamored pursuer Callimaco. At the end of the play, Lucrezia resigns herself to accept her husband's and mother's obsession for an heir and eagerly embraces the pleasant agreement she makes with her suitor Callimaco, thus becoming a true "donna di virtu" (Bertelli 450). Such accommodating behavior fits well within the framework of Machiavelli's own tur bulent life, politics and philosophy, where the ability to adapt to present circumstances played a central role.

From a perspective of Cultural Poetics, this study comprises a socio-political study of Machiavelli's Mandragola, with a specific focus on gender. From the historical insights gained from this perspective, Lucrezia appears as a cultural representation of Florentine Renaissance society, and, since one of the play's main target is the use of her body by others, she also appears as an object of desire for the rest of the play's characters. Situating Lucrezia's gender, age, and moral values within the economy of La Mandragola, can allow us therefore to unite the fine points of wifely duties and motherhood as they are exploited by the play's characters and thus acquire the tools to reflect upon the heavy weight that rested on mothers-to-e in sixteenth-century Florence. Thus, from a microcosmic perspective, this analysis focuses on Lucrezia's body as a political tool that leads to social acceptance, and it situates our understanding of the representational qualities of the womb and the body in sixteenth-century We stern Culture. (1) From a macrocosmic perspective, La Mandragola can be said to relate to Machiavelli's own political pessimism about any remaining virtuous inclinations among his peers. In this way La Mandragola's discourse is intertwined with other great texts of the Renaissance, including Il Principe (completed in 1513), where Machiavelli expounds his acute and innovative political theories to his contemporaries (using Roman antiquity). From a postmodern perspective, then, we can reconstruct the shattered selves of the characters from Machiavelli's Mandragola and view them both as tools of his political thought and as social and aesthetic representations of his time.

The works of Machiavelli, in particular that of Il Principe, are a statement on the political deterioration of the Italian territory. In response to this crisis, the segretario continually studied Roman history in order to theorize a modern political thought that relied on empirical experience to produce a so-called "new" political theory. In his letter of dedication to Lorenzo de' Medici Machiavelli asserts that he is eager to offer his text to his signoria because "I have not found among my belongings anything I prize so much or value so highly as my knowledge of the actions of great men" (3).

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