Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Bodily Figurae: Sex and Rhetoric in Early Libertine Venice, 1642-51

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Bodily Figurae: Sex and Rhetoric in Early Libertine Venice, 1642-51

Article excerpt

This essay will focus on two texts published about ten years apart: Ferrante Pallavicino's La retorica delle puttane (The Whores' Rhetoric; 1642)1 and Antonio Rocco's L'Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the Schoolboy), written circa 1630 and printed two decades later.2 Both writers were members of the Accademia degli Incogniti (Academy of the Unknown) in Venice and followed, to different extents, the most radical doctrinal principles of that particular breed of extremist Aristotelianism that had been taught for decades at the University of Padua. These works present two different performative scenes. In La retorica we have a rhetorical séance in which a young, destitute, almost indigent Venetian girl of noble birth (at least temporarily a "shameful poor") accepts into her home an old former whore who, following what we should term an Aretinian educational practice, introduces her to the art of whoredom. The scene in L'Alcibiade is constructed according to a hegemonized semi-dialectical scheme, with one dominant discussant and one dialogical aide. A professor of rhetoric, Filotimo, persuades a young boy, Alcibiade, of the ethicality and pleasure of indulging, as a recipient, in acts of sodomy. In both works, the pedagogic discourse fulfills its persuasive intent, and the rhetorical session turns into an enactment of the learned principles. This occurs in violent, opprobrious fashion in La retorica and in mutually enjoyed sexual activity in L'Alcibiade.

Both texts, though apparently (and substantially) very subversive, suggest the possibility of an antiphrastic, oblique, counterintuitive, even moralistic reading. The texts might be seen as instruments for dissuasion (as revealing fraudulent practices) rather than as instruments for persuasion. In both texts, the reader is leftwondering if this interpretation is the legitimate one. Is the dissuasive aspect merely a contrivance to allay censors? In Rocco's case, as we will see, this interpretation is confined to an extrinsic, probably overimposed paratextual apparatus, whereas Pallavicino contains it in the author's afterword. These works are also directed to two very different readerships: for Pallavicino, it was the vast public that was following his copious, hectic production. 3 For Rocco, his text was very likely first circulated in an exclusive academic circle or perhaps directed solely to a "private" reader, like the leader of the Incogniti, Giovan Francesco Loredan, who was instrumental in circulating the book decades after its composition.4

I mentioned earlier in this essay what might be called, unironically, an "educational practice," one that was at the core of a distinct Renaissance literary tradition: the school of whoredom. I would like now to turn my discussion to Pietro Aretino and to two subgenres that originated from his eclectic and vast opus. On the one hand, we see in his work the Ragionamento-Dialogo archetype. That includes instruction (especially in the last three of its Days) on puttanesimo (whoredom). This archetype provides the cornerstone of a tradition that, in ideologically and axiologically inverted terms (i.e., with a misogynist twist) flows all the way to Pallavicino and, partly, to Rocco. On the other hand, we have the Aretinian Sonetti lussuriosi. These are expository sonnets written as an ekphrastic exercise on Giulio Romano's drawings of I modi. Here what I would term a "porno-ekphrastic" mode is incepted (with "porno" used in both the etymological meaning of "prostitute" and the current one). This representational mode extends its influence on Pallavicino but not on Rocco. Toward the end of her course, Pallavicino's pedagogue recommends I modi as a useful mnemotechnic device, whereas Rocco further diverts the focus, in my opinion, from pictorial representability to the exclusive domain of lexis, of language. In Aretino, the principle of ut pictura poësis ("as is painting, so is poetry") becomes the tenet of an antagonistic attitude between visual artist and writer: Aretino tries to surpass Giulio, the author of the drawings, in terms of obscenity, superimposing sodomitic variants on the plainly secundum naturam engraved sex acts. …

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