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The Story of O: Prostitutes and Other Good-for-Nothings in the Renaissance.

Michele Sharon Jaffe, The Story of O: Prostitutes and Other Good-for-Nothings in the Renaissance

(Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature, 45.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. ix + 18 pls. + 196 pp. $40 (cl), $20 (pbk). ISBN: 0-674-89951-1 (d), 0-674-89951-X (pbk).

This volume offers a postmodern meditation on Renaissance representations of nothing, positing the "zero-coin-counter-cipher-matrix-magician's circle-O" (24) as a key to Renaissance culture. The introduction looks at Titian's 1545 Danae -- the cover illustration and frontispiece -- which "functions as a parable of representation ... a commentary on all forms of exchange" (2). Thus, the shower of gold symbolizes the matrix or mold that produces coins, counterfeits, and courtly values; and Danae's hair is tinted gold by a dye that links the worlds of alchemists and prostitutes.

Chapter 1, " "Counting," ponders the implications of Hindu-Arabic numbers with their placeholder zero. Citing the 1478 Treviso Arithmetic, Giorlamo and Giovanntonio (sic) Tagliente's 1548 Libro d'abaco, Robert Recorde's 1542 Grounde of Artes, and Raphael Bombelli's 1572 Algebra, Jaffe speculates: "In the wake of zero, the quest for mathematical knowledge comes to revolve around the positing of impossible fictions that stand for value, count for it, are counterfeits. Even more, zero raises the possibility that all denotations are essentially fictional" (45).

Chapter 2, "Counting Becomes Accounting," detects cipher-substitutions in Renaissance finances, as when doge Andrea Gritti distributes coins -- instead of gamebirds -- to Venetian patricians, and Luca Pacioli introduces double-entry bookkeeping. Paper money is interpreted as introducing "new types of commodities based on nothing" (70). And printed indulgences offer a parallel, since Greek logos can refer both to accounting and the Word made flesh.

Chapter 3, "Code Inside the Codex," glances at Renaissance cryptography, including Alberti's De componendis cifris, Abram Colorni's 1593 Scotographia, or the Science of Writing Obscurely, various treatises by Giovanbattista Bellaso, and the 1526 Opus novum by Jacob Silvestri -- all of which anticipate modern notions of linguistics and semantics.

Chapter 4, "Petrarch," briefly analyzes three sonnets as encoded texts, and then comments on a sample of Petrarch's script: "The definitive, authorizing letter O is, here, through Petrarch, a zero. The source of self-definition in Petrarch, the source of his vernacular authority; is zero; this, then is the source of all vernacular authority" (141).

Chapter 5, "From Petrarch to Petrarchism," in turn blames the printing press for the death of the author: "For in a culture based on multiples and reproduced items, nothing can be said to be original or authentic" (146). Just as the argument falters, the figure of Danae reappears. A Petrarchan allusion to Danae relates his text to its matrix printing; and the calligrapher Palatino evokes Danae by drawing a bed (letto) as a pun on "intelletto" in a Petrarchan rebus.

The conclusion turns to Titian's Jacopo Strada, whose juxtaposition of coins and nudity recalls the Danae. Strada wears a ring whose circularity recaps the author's arguments: "Beneath every premise of this text is O, joining my arguments together as Strada's ring unites the meaning and value axes of the painting. This figure multiply represents [sic] not only the cipher zero, the shape of a coin, and the letter O, but also all hollow or empty sites that produce meaning. By looking at sights of generative emptiness or creative vacuity across disciplinary boundaries, I have revealed a profound nothingness at the center of Renaissance culture" (172).

Profound nothingness, indeed! Apart from some stabs at Petrarch and Shakespeare, this study has little to do with literature, and its haphazard approach to language is clear from the consistently mangled passages in Latin and Italian, and bibliographical monstrosities like "Francois Vieta's Artem analyticen isagog." For all her postmodern jargon and eclectic visual matter, Jaffe's flamboyant arguments proceed by free association and fanciful etymology, and so prove insubstantial. After linking Italian scudo and Latin obscurus and deriving "prostitute" from Latin prostetit, Jaffe adds a disclaimer: "These are not tricks of language, there [sic] are no mere figures of speech" (19). Yet the volume is pervaded by the typographical trick of printing every zero as a capital O. Even the English language is not immune to this infectious O-rotundity: "prescribes" becomes "proscribes" (8), and "notarial" is written "notorial" (125, 128). From its meretricious cover to its deconstructed conclusion, this study demonstra tes how an arbitrary cipher can mean anything you want it to, or nothing at all.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:MARSH, DAVID
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
Words:718
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