On the Importance of Being an Individual in Renaissance Italy: Men, Their Professions, and Their Beards

By Douglas Biow | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Manly Matters: Reflections on Giordano Bruno’s
Candelaio, and the Theatrical and Social Function
of Beards in Sixteenth-Century Italy

I END THIS SERIES OF REFLECTIONS WITH A WORK OF IMAGINATIVE LITERAture, Giordano Bruno’s comedy the Candelaio, a rather curious and cumbersome play that has sometimes been read in light of his philosophical positions advanced in his more famous writings, such as his De umbris idearum (Concerning the Shadow of Ideas, 1582), Ars reminiscendi (The Art of Memory, 1583), and De gl’ heroici furori (Concerning Heroic Furors, 1585). But the play, I think it is fair to say, does not seem to be philosophically serious in nature, the way, say, some of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist plays are, and a case for a close connection between Bruno’s philosophy and his one major work of fiction has never, to my mind, been convincingly made.1 For Bruno’s play is not about dramatizing a philosophical position, even if elements of his philosophy can be uncovered in the Candelaio in retrospect. Instead, like much Italian Renaissance comedy of the sixteenth century, Bruno’s Candelaio is about the conspicuous staging of the self through role-playing. More specifically, it is at least in part about the conspicuous staging of a performative male self through the putting on and taking off of a particular part of the male body: a beard. Indeed, in his Candelaio, Bruno—who incidentally bucked the trend and appears cleanshaven with only a moustache, itself then something of an anomaly in Italy (fig. 56)2—focused on the beard to an unprecedented degree in Renaissance Italy and in a manner not explored by any writer before him, including the classical authors Plautus and Terence, whose comedies so often served as models for Italian playwrights of the sixteenth century. Beards, in fact, not only appear often in the play. One beard in particular becomes the focus of much discussion at the very climax of the play, in the fifth and final act. As a result, beards, both real and fake, acquire a special status in the Candelaio as symbolically charged objects that reveal not only much about the individual characters and their

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