Circular Definitions: Configuring Gender in Italian Renaissance Festival

By Shemek, Deanna | Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Circular Definitions: Configuring Gender in Italian Renaissance Festival


Shemek, Deanna, Renaissance Quarterly


The enigma is that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. That which looks at all things can also look at itself and recognize, in what it sees, the "other side" of its power of looking.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty(1)

In a memorable passage on the philosophy of art, phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty observes that the human subject's power to act and to perceive as a separate being arises from a body at once discrete unto itself, yet continuous with the world around it. "This initial paradox cannot but produce others," he continues. "Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself."(2)

The subject's paradoxical continuity with and difference from its surrounding world likewise became a recurring motif in the seminars of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan attempted at various times in his career to theorize the intricate social relations between vision, corporeal experience, subjectivity, and gender identity, deriving several of his formulations from his critical reading of Merleau-Ponty.(3) Subjectivity or the sense of self, Lacan argues, is constituted by the gaze. As Lacan defines it, however, this gaze is not the look each of us directs out into the world, but rather the presence of an exterior Other who looks back, corroborating our existence as subjects resembling, but distinct from, that Other.

Such a view of human selfhood is likely bound by historic conditions; but these conditions began to coalesce in the early modern thought of humanists, merchants, and teachers who devoted their writings not only to the powers of individual subjects to "make" themselves but also to the importance of performance in the constitution of one's social, political, and ethical persona. From Pico to Alberti, Machiavelli, Castiglione, and Ignatius Loyola - to name only some cardinal figures - we trace the rise of a modern subject not only aware of the disjuncture between interiority (soul, character) and external appearance, but also engaged in the modeling and social display of that interiority for instrumental purposes.(4) In Lacanian terms, we might go so far as to say that what the Renaissance integrated was the power of the gaze. Nowhere is the political manipulation of this power more apparent than in the visual culture of early modernity, where painting, theater, and public pageantry constructed both spectacle and audience in the service of princely state legitimacy and expressly masculine power.

Focusing on a public festival in Renaissance Ferrara, with particular interest in the communal dynamics of political ritual and gender construction, this essay explores a circularity of gaze peculiar to the experience of the festival's female participants. The specific celebration examined below, Ferrara's Palio di San Giorgio, offers a colorful illustration of Lacan's and Merleau-Ponty's conceptions of a subjectivity that comes from the outside, front the gazes of others, and it suggests some ways in which the force of the gaze constructs notions of the self and the community. In the case of the palio, a ritualized, judging male gaze reinforced not only hierarchical models of power for the family and the state but also traditional standards of feminine conduct. As any complex cultural phenomenon, particularly from the past, strains against the methods of a single academic field, I shall employ a variety of historical, anthropological, and theoretical approaches in modulating between imagined performance, written documents, and political context. As my point of departure, I take an object that would have especially appealed to both Merleau-Ponty and Lacan: a picture.

High on the crumbling frescoed walls of Ferrara's Palazzo Schifanoia, visitors today discover a curious scene from Renaissance city life. Above the door in the east wall of its Sala dei mesi (Salon of the Months) loom the arresting profiles of scantily clad women and men running within a cityscape, apparently chasing a group of mounted jockeys (fig. …

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