`Occult' Power: The Politics of Witchcraft and Superstition in Renaissance Florence

By Gallucci, Mary M. | Italica, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

`Occult' Power: The Politics of Witchcraft and Superstition in Renaissance Florence


Gallucci, Mary M., Italica


D.H. Lawrence introduced his translation of the last novella of Antonfrancesco Grazzini's collection Le cene by stating that it would be "difficult to find a work more typical of the times" (ix). Grazzini, a "typical Florentine" has written "this famous story ... a magnificent account of what is perhaps the best Florentine beffa, or burla (practical joke) on record" (x). Such enthusiasm is accompanied by Lawrence's effusively prejudiced view of Italians themselves--they are noted for their earthy wholesomeness--"the people remains the people, and wine and spaghetti are their forms of poetry: good forms, too" (xii). Italians, he maintains, have a long history of playing practical jokes: "The beffa is real, the beffa is earnest, and what in heaven was its goal? We can only understand it, I think, if we remember the true, substantial, a terre a terre [sic] nature of the Italian. This self-centred physical nature can become crude, gross, even bestial and monstrous" (xvii-xviii). (1)

Lawrence's interpretation, however narrow and flawed, does highlight an indisputable element of Grazzini's tale of Dr. Manente: its cruelty and "monstrosity," traits that, I will argue, provide insight into the social structures of the mid-sixteenth century, particularly those that rely upon coersion and force. (2) In Florence, how did one family--the Medici--secure their power after over a century of struggle, and how did they come to construct a myth of their own legitimacy? I will investigate here how Grazzini, as a writer of comedy, exposed the abuse of that power; however, unlike D.H. Lawrence, who insists on locating autochthonous Italian nature in a beffa, I will look at the beffa's violence as an exposure of the princely tyranny that replaced the venerable form of government in Florence--the Republic. Such a reading is clarified when the tale is juxtaposed to the anti-Medicean treatise of Girolamo Savonarola, the Trattato circa il reggimento e governo della citta di Firenze (published 1498). Grazzini openly names the Medicean perpetrator of tyrannical acts because, as a comic author, he can disguise these actions as a beffa located in the past, with Lorenzo il Magnifico as trickster. Savonarola's strategy differs; he speaks elliptically of Medici-like rulers as tiranni. (3) Reading Grazzini's elaborate novella in conjunction with Savonarola's Trattato highlights the interesting means by which Grazzini uses a `story' to recall a specific history--that is, how the Medici family transformed Florence slowly and inexorably into a princely state.

Savonarola's historic intervention in Florentine politics remained a potent symbol for later republican supporters. In this paper, I will highlight the republican features pertinent to Grazzini's creation of this novella in order to illuminate his adherence to the legacy of Savonarolan political ideals. Whether Grazzini read the Trattato cannot be demonstrated with certainty, but I will discuss the presence of Savonarolan resonances in Grazzini's work. It is important to remember that, from 1494--when the friar himself gained widespread support and offered a major threat to the rule of the Medici family--until long after his execution in 1498, Savonarola bequeathed a powerful religious and political vision that was not dependent on his leadership for survival--a fact that fascinated the political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli. Savonarola's followers--called the Piagnoni first by their enemies and later, proudly, by themselves--remained politically active after his execution, through the Republic that lasted until 1513, when the first Medici pope, Leo X, used the considerable influence of this position to help his family and their allies to return to Florence, and again after the sack of Rome in 1527, which occurred during the pontificate of another Medici, Clement VII. The Piagnoni continued to be active even after the Medici, first Alessandro and then Cosimo I, openly turned Florence onto the path of absolutism by accepting the title of Duke. …

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