Academic journal article Romance Notes

Ekphrasis and the Feminine in Sannazaro's Arcadia

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Ekphrasis and the Feminine in Sannazaro's Arcadia

Article excerpt

In Chapter III of Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia (1504), the shepherds celebrate the feast of pales, "veneranda dea di pastori." As the shepherds enter the temple, the narrator describes the murals on the walls, struck by a depiction of nymphs laughing at a little ram. While distracted by nature's tableau, a group of satyrs steals upon the nymphs and, realizing the peril they face, the nymphs take flight. The mural comes to life as the author describes the nymphs' rapid and panicked escape from the threat of physical violence as the satyrs give chase. This particular mural is one of a series of tableaux found on the walls in Pales' temple. The group of murals could be considered an example of collectionist ekphrases, a term described by Frederick A. de Armas as a set of descriptions of works of art that can be grouped together and thus constitute a museum or gallery within a text and whose purpose is to "foreground a major topic or question posited by the text" (23). The first of the tableaux painted above the doorway is a typical, humble pastoral scene of a verdant, lush meadow inhabited by dogs and shepherds with their flocks, some tending to the livestock, some playing the pipes. The next scene described is that of the nymphs to which the author draws the reader's attention by underlining the pleasure it affords the narrator upon viewing it. This tableau is followed by a depiction of Apollo guarding Admetus' herds and Mercury stealing one of the cows. This instance of ekphrasis stands out from what has preceded structurally in the novel--descriptions of shepherds, their loves, their singing competitions, the landscape of Arcadia itself; and poetic dialogues or monologues by the shepherds on similar themes. This departure from form leads the reader to consider the purpose for the inclusion of this set of ekphrases and the motive behind the description of a scene as rife with menacing undertones as that of the flight of the nymphs. I propose that the ekphrasis serves a dual purpose, extending beyond the decorative. The mural personifies what Renato Poggioli might term the "normal erotic impulses" (61) inherent within pastoral where woman is identified as an object to be conquered and possessed. Further, the tableau foreshadows a second instance of ekphrasis later in the text that goes to the core of the genesis of the pastoral mode as conceived by Sannazaro.

Pastoral happiness, for Poggioli, is defined in terms of fulfillment the "fulfillment of the passion of love, the consummation of the man's erotic wishes" (42), lending a strikingly sexual element to the pastoral conception of love and aligning the notion of happiness with that of "erotic hedonism" (49). The pastoral relationship is conceived as occurring between a young female--a nymph or a shepherdess--and a male of any age. While the beauty of the woman hinges upon her youth, her springtime essence, her partner's age is of little consequence because pastoral, in particular Renaissance Italian pastoral, is not only a mode of retreat from society--it is man's retreat from society. The pastoral experience is often viewed from the man's perspective rather than the woman's, and thus the whole world is interpreted through what Poggioli considers to be a patriarchal lens although phallocentric lens might be a more accurate term given the emphasis on the sexual.

Relying primarily on Tasso's Aminta (1573) as source, Poggioli argues that in pastoral it is the law of nature that reigns rather than the law of society. The law of nature champions free love (always from a phallocentric perspective that does not consider rejection on the part of the female to be acceptable) as opposed to the law of society that restricts the passion of love, dictating its proper expression which is in direct opposition to what Freud would label as natural erotic desires. Pastoral functions as a retreat from social convention where the male author and/or reader may take the liberty to act upon his erotic impulses and then persuade himself that such an action is permitted because it follows the "law of nature. …

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