Academic journal article Italica

The Politics of Effeminacy in Il Cortegiano

Academic journal article Italica

The Politics of Effeminacy in Il Cortegiano

Article excerpt

Castiglione's Il cortegiano is a recurrent stomping ground for scholars working in gender studies of the Renaissance. While most of these critics have focused on the position of women, there has been a marked interest in the gendering of Castiglione's male figures as well. Such discussions have almost exclusively emphasized the courtiers' anxious and effeminized condition. Any study of masculinity in the Corte--giano must therefore address a now decades-old critical truism that the courtiers' conduct and the courtiers' account of it are "clearly perceived by us" to foster the "'effeminization' of the male feudal elite" (Richards 185).

To briefly summarize such criticism we can reach back to Joan Kelly's classic 1977 article "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" In her essay, Kelly suggested that the courtier's efforts to dominate the court lady marks Castiglione's attempt to "defend against effeminacy in the courtier" since the courtier's dependency and behavior toward the prince was analogous to the position of women (Kelly 150). The following year, Wayne Rebhorn's Courtly Performances offered a similar criticism by suggesting that the misogynistic criticisms of certain characters in the dialogues represent Castiglione's concern "about potential attacks on the courtly ideal for being too effeminate" (42). Rebhorn argues that the courtiers are emasculated on two counts. They are subjugated to princely power, and are furthermore under the rule of women (i.e., the Duchess and Emilia Pia). Since the publication of both of these works, all criticism that has addressed the issues of masculinity in the Cortegiano has grown out of a basic principal of an emasculated courtier (whether in relation to the prince or to the Duchess). For example, in her influential 1990 book Renaissance Feminism, Constance Jordan as well addressed the courtiers' powerless condition and related it to a gendered marriage dynamic where the courtier provides diversion for his superiors, an activity that "might be characterized as effeminate" (Jordan 77-78).

The arguments of Kelly, Rebhorn and Jordan are founded on a similar principle which presumes that the courtiers' position to power is an 'effeminized' one. In his book The Absence of Grace, Harry Berger discusses how these three critics perceive Castiglione in the gender debate. Berger's corrective to the argument is to critique the use of the word "misogyny." He suggests that the courtiers demonstrate a sort of "gynephobia," a term that he defines as a fear which may be divided into a gynephobia of gender and a gynephobia of sex. He states,

   the former is a fear of effeminization, fear of the woman within
   the man, and the latter is a fear of impotence, emasculation, or
   infantilization, fear of the woman outside the man ... the former
   is a fear of having one's status reduced to that of woman but not
   necessarily by woman; the latter is specifically a fear of having
   one's status reduced or usurped by women. (71-72)

It is the correlation between gynephobic anxiety and representation anxiety that Berger shows as motivation for the courtiers' attempts to construct gender norms and control their performance.

Berger's thoughtful reading opens a critical approach while leaving a problematic assumption unchallenged. What he does not address is the contingent notion of the term "effeminate." If I may begin my analysis as did Berger, I choose to question a commonly used word in the criticism of the Cortegiano, not "misogyny" but rather "effeminate." Language that indicates effeminacy such as "effeminar" or "feminile" does appear in the Cortegiano but is often left out of discussions of the "effeminate courtier." When critics do claim that the courtier is effeminate, it is at times motivated by an ahistorical interpretation wherein Renaissance courtly activities and dress may seem un-masculine by modern gender standards. (1) Additionally, scholarship often describes the courtiers as effeminate or fearing effeminacy because there are women in the court society, and specifically in Urbino, these women are invested with authority. …

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