Academic journal article Italica

Veronica Franco vs. Maffio Venier: Sex, Death, and Poetry in Cinquecento Venice

Academic journal article Italica

Veronica Franco vs. Maffio Venier: Sex, Death, and Poetry in Cinquecento Venice

Article excerpt

Introduction

In recent decades the body, its uses and its history, have become a focus of critical and historical investigation. (1) Still more recently the study of imaginary bodies that do not entirely correspond to the "real" body has come into prominence, marking the emergence of exo-corporeal theory. (2) In the context of early modern studies, we have seen the combination of the first approach or method--a material history of the body--with new histories and psychologies of not only the body, but of bodily fantasies. (3) This current fascination with corporeal experience and fantasy is in part a response to Foucault's works, to feminist and gender theory, and, last but not least, to the technology-induced anxieties of our historical moment. (4) The ongoing exploration of pre-modern fantasies of the body, its pleasure or pain, and its real or imagined vulnerabilities sheds light on the history of sexuality, as well as the transformation and evolution of our understanding of the mind-body continuum.

Sixteenth-century Venice provides fertile ground for such investigations. An international trade center, Venice was also the renowned-or infamous--European capital of the sex trade during the Renaissance. Partly as a result of its position as a global trade nexus, Venice was blighted by plagues, recurrent or continuous, and ranging from the bubonic to the syphilitic. Such scourges were a fact of life at that time, and not just for Venice, though certain reactions to these problems might be considered characteristic of and perhaps unique to that place and time. The literary and artistic talents of that city--some greater, some lesser--described, at times with astonishing candor, that peculiar mix of sexual desire and terror, of expansiveness and corporeal vulnerability.

This essay focuses on a paradigmatic expression of a fantastic and phantasmatic convergence of sex and death manifested in the real-life poetic combat between two individuals. This combat was performed by dueling authors, and was witnessed and judged by their drawing room audience, by the city itself, and ultimately by posterity. The ten-zone, or poetic battle, featured the courtesan poetess Veronica Franco, considered the most famous woman in Venice at that time, (5) and Maffio Venier, Venetian cleric, celebrated vernacular poet, and Franco's nemesis. This battle took place sometime before the publication of Franco's collection of poems, the Terze rime, in 1575--most likely in that same year. (6) The stakes in that battle of the pens were highly personal. For complicated reasons of his own--among which, we may surmise, jealousy and misogyny seem to have figured prominently--Venier sought to destroy Franco's reputation as a courtesan and as a poet/performer in the literary ridotto, or salon, sponsored by his uncle Domenico Venier. Domenico, an aristocrat, a patron of Veronica Franco, and a poet himself, led the informal academy that grew out of a close circle of patrician friends and included many prominent literati of the time. (7) Domenico wielded a great deal of cultural influence as an arbiter of literary taste, and his salon was one of the most important gathering places for intellectuals in mid-sixteenth century Venice (Feldman 487; Rosenthal, Honest Courtesan 89). It was before this prestigious group that Maffio Venier humiliated Franco in several poems, some of them excruciatingly savage and pornographic. (8)

Franco responded to his scathing attacks through certain poems and letters, and the very publication of her Terze rime constituted a rebuttal to Venier's verbal and psychological assault. Her responses to his poems, described in Capitoli XIII, XVI, and XXIII of the Rime, disclose her highly personal reactions of shock, pain, and fury at her attacker. They also contain an ad hominem attack against Venier's sexuality, more subtle but probably damaging. This literary conflict, though highly personal, was also quite public, and those who witnessed the battle between these two poets may also have had a stake in the outcome. …

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