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). Even though he is humbling himself so as to be accepted by the Medici, Machiavelli does not shy away from declaring that he amassed a wealth of knowledge about history and politics through his own involvement in Florentine governmental affairs. In Il Principe, he urged the Italian rulers to look at the examples of Spain and France and to realize that out of unity comes strength. Italy, for Machiavelli, appeared desol ate, like a battered woman made to be a slave to other nations. The deterioration of the political system of the Italian states appeared graphically to Machiavelli and compelled him to devise harsh theoretical measures that might have contradicted his earlier political thinking. Robert Geraldi reinforces this notion and declares that "after experiencing failures in disseminating his message of Italian liberation and unification to [high] powers," in Il Principe Machiavelli used role models from the past to make a stronger point to his contemporaries (Geraldi 17). Therefore, his tone in Il Principe appeared very urgent when he referred to the need to look at the verita effettuale (the real truth) of things, rather than to idealizations:
But since I intend to write something useful to an understanding reader, it seemed better to go after the real truth of the matter than to repeat what people have imagined. A great many men have imagined states and princedoms such as nobody ever saw or knew in the real world, and there's such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish his ruin, not his salvation (42).
One could argue that Machiavelli presents "the way we really live," as opposed to "the way we ought to live," via the characters that he presents in La Mandragola. In this sense, his play can be viewed as a cultural representation of not only the political demeanor of a world in chaos, but also of a society needing to conform. When dealing with subjectivity and Early Modem European thought, Stephen Greenblatt focused his theories on British subjects, such as Sir Thomas More. The same theories can be applied to Machiavelli's own precarious circumstances. (2) Indeed, it is relevant to ponder the historical and cultural circumstances that surrounded Machiavelli and his peers, in a time when individuals had to resort to putting on a mask in order to survive in a new and hostile world (akin to Sir Thomas More's subjugation to and, yet, defiance of his king). In Il Principe, this social mask is defined in a positive way and Machiavelli gives it the name of prudenza (prudence). One may wonder how the results of pro sperous political times in Italy would have affected the writings of Machiavelli. But, instead, and in view of the perils the territory was facing, the Florentine urged his readers, the prince and the courtiers, to adopt some measures of political and, very importantly, personal pragmatism.
Right from the start, La Mandragola presents critics and readers alike with a very insightful look into Machiavelli's motivations for writing the text. It is for this reason that many have speculated as to when the segretario set out to write the play. Roberto Ridolfi declares that Machiavelli wrote it in February 1518, for Lorenzo de' Medici the younger's nuptials, whereas Sergio Bertelli states that, instead, the dates for the writing of the play are 1504 or 1519. (3) Since Machiavelli demonstrates most of his political shrewdness in the play, if the text were indeed written in 1504, La Mandragola should be a prerequisite text for Il Preincipe. In this fashion, readers of Il Principe could compare the political sophistication of Machiavelli from the point of view of the play. Nevertheless, a much more plausible date situated after the writing of Il Principe (circa 1515 or 1518), would place La Mandragola within the period of Machiavelli's own soul-searching and his quest for a new political subjectivity. T his date would also allow us to grasp and share the sense of despair that permeates the play and which dominates the playwright. (4) For, beginning with La Mandragola's prologue, the author's pointed sense of defeat and frustration stands boldly in the foreground:
If this material is not worthy - on account of its being so light - of a man who wishes to seem wise and grave, excuse him with this: that he is trying with these vain thoughts to make his wretched time more pleasant, because he has nowhere else to turn his face; for lie has been cut off from showing with other undertakings other virtue, there being no reward for his labors (10).
Machiavelli might have been inspired by classical and contemporary authors in his prologue, but, there is no denying the definite personal note of despair in the narrator's voice, indeed, Machiavelli's voice emerges in such a way that it seems constrained not too to speak not too abruptly and therefore to explain to the reader how and why "he has been cut off from showing with other undertakings other virtue." Consequently, although the voice appears clear, …
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Publication information: Article title: The Delegate Womb: Lucrezia's Body as Political Tool in Machiavelli's la Mandragola. Contributors: Vilches, Patricia - Author. Journal title: American Journal of Italian Studies. Volume: 22. Issue: 60 Publication date: Fall 1999. Page number: 99+. © 2000 American Journal of Italian Studies. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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