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The politics of effeminacy in Il cortegiano.

Castiglione's Il cortegiano is a recurrent stomping ground for scholars working in gender studies of the Renaissance. While most of these critics have focused on the position of women, there has been a marked interest in the gendering of Castiglione's male figures as well. Such discussions have almost exclusively emphasized the courtiers' anxious and effeminized condition. Any study of masculinity in the Corte--giano must therefore address a now decades-old critical truism that the courtiers' conduct and the courtiers' account of it are "clearly perceived by us" to foster the "'effeminization' of the male feudal elite" (Richards 185).

To briefly summarize such criticism we can reach back to Joan Kelly's classic 1977 article "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" In her essay, Kelly suggested that the courtier's efforts to dominate the court lady marks Castiglione's attempt to "defend against effeminacy in the courtier" since the courtier's dependency and behavior toward the prince was analogous to the position of women (Kelly 150). The following year, Wayne Rebhorn's Courtly Performances offered a similar criticism by suggesting that the misogynistic criticisms of certain characters in the dialogues represent Castiglione's concern "about potential attacks on the courtly ideal for being too effeminate" (42). Rebhorn argues that the courtiers are emasculated on two counts. They are subjugated to princely power, and are furthermore under the rule of women (i.e., the Duchess and Emilia Pia). Since the publication of both of these works, all criticism that has addressed the issues of masculinity in the Cortegiano has grown out of a basic principal of an emasculated courtier (whether in relation to the prince or to the Duchess). For example, in her influential 1990 book Renaissance Feminism, Constance Jordan as well addressed the courtiers' powerless condition and related it to a gendered marriage dynamic where the courtier provides diversion for his superiors, an activity that "might be characterized as effeminate" (Jordan 77-78).

The arguments of Kelly, Rebhorn and Jordan are founded on a similar principle which presumes that the courtiers' position to power is an 'effeminized' one. In his book The Absence of Grace, Harry Berger discusses how these three critics perceive Castiglione in the gender debate. Berger's corrective to the argument is to critique the use of the word "misogyny." He suggests that the courtiers demonstrate a sort of "gynephobia," a term that he defines as a fear which may be divided into a gynephobia of gender and a gynephobia of sex. He states,
 the former is a fear of effeminization, fear of the woman within
 the man, and the latter is a fear of impotence, emasculation, or
 infantilization, fear of the woman outside the man ... the former
 is a fear of having one's status reduced to that of woman but not
 necessarily by woman; the latter is specifically a fear of having
 one's status reduced or usurped by women. (71-72)

It is the correlation between gynephobic anxiety and representation anxiety that Berger shows as motivation for the courtiers' attempts to construct gender norms and control their performance.

Berger's thoughtful reading opens a critical approach while leaving a problematic assumption unchallenged. What he does not address is the contingent notion of the term "effeminate." If I may begin my analysis as did Berger, I choose to question a commonly used word in the criticism of the Cortegiano, not "misogyny" but rather "effeminate." Language that indicates effeminacy such as "effeminar" or "feminile" does appear in the Cortegiano but is often left out of discussions of the "effeminate courtier." When critics do claim that the courtier is effeminate, it is at times motivated by an ahistorical interpretation wherein Renaissance courtly activities and dress may seem un-masculine by modern gender standards. (1) Additionally, scholarship often describes the courtiers as effeminate or fearing effeminacy because there are women in the court society, and specifically in Urbino, these women are invested with authority. Although I have a certain affinity for this second sort of criticism, which argues that the dialogues are underscored by a gender anxiety, the critical use of the term "effeminate" is ambiguous and may be guided from a cultural bias outside the text.

The distinction between the presence of women at the court and the effeminacy of the court is an important one. David Quint elegantly argues that the women at the Urbino court were integral to the "civilizing process," so described by Elias as the transformation of "soldier-aristocrat into polite courtier" (185). Quint explains how the position of women was likened to that of the prince by their similar power to bestow or withhold grazia, and the courtiers' attempts to achieve this grazia inevitably lead to a civilizing tempering of aggression and cultivation of manners (187-90). The symmetry between the prince and the court lady enables Quint to posit the theory that the anti-woman language and admonition of effeminate traits are a displacement of "the resentment that the male courtier feels, but cannot allow himself fully to express, toward the prince" (190).

Although men's service of women may account for some modes of behavior demonstrated by men in the court, Berger's model offers a broader explanation, which holds that both sexes influence the behavior at court through an anxiety-ridden "surveillance" that the culture of sprezzatura creates. (2) My affinity for Berger's argument is driven by an understanding that men, while ostensibly in the service of women, are often preoccupied with the opinion of other men. This implicates the courtiers in a position not only of surveillance but also in a homo-social triangular relationship so described by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick where women are the necessary yet disappearing link in male bonding. (3)

Ruth Mazo Karras argues precisely this dynamic in her study on late medieval masculinity. She shows how the construction of masculinity involves a sort of rivalry that claims to be in the service of women yet is invoked primarily to determine the measure of men. The often noted tournaments and jousts held before women were "ostensibly" to please these women, yet the "knights used the display of their appearance at least as much to appeal to the male gaze as the female" (Karras 48). Therefore, while the critical tradition of the Cortegiano seems to argue that the courtly service of women is an "effeminizing process," it is also one on which masculinity depends. As Louise Fradenburg states, the knightly tournament "brings men together but allows them to constitute themselves as 'men,' who fight for and who are watched by women. The 'lady' thus enters the tournament--as spectator, as prize--in part to signify the masculinity of the knight [...] The lady dramatizes the masculinity of the warrior by being what he is not and by watching his effort from another place" (212; ctd. in Karras 48-49). By taking the works of Fradenburg and Karras into consideration, we may therefore need to qualify the work of Quint and others who have seen the courtier's service of women in the Urbino court as a strictly effeminizing dynamic. If the service of women is to be yet another component of homosocial behavior, the category of "effeminate courtier" is shaded by a very masculine discourse of male rivalry.

Additionally, Quint's insightful explanation of the role of women in the "civilizing process" implies that the mere presence of women might be the cause of the effeminization of the courtier. (4) I would suggest that the presence of women might bring about a surprisingly opposite effect. A depiction of the court's gender dynamic may be nuanced by recalling Castiglione's understanding of a binary gender system in which one gender is defined by the presence of the other, "cosi quello non si dee chiamar maschio che non ha la femina, secondo la diffinizione dell'uno e dell'altro; ne femina quella che non ha maschio" (III, 14). For Castiglione (and a large number of gender theorists), masculinity is relational and defined by the presence of and difference from the feminine, and therefore the presence of women at the court is arguably a manner of bolstering the dissimilarities of the genders. One sex provides a foil for the other, a matter that is physically articulated in the beginning of the conversations when the courtiers sit in a circle of man, woman, man, woman, etc. (5) My claim is not in disagreement with those who see the society of women in the court as causing an anxiety of effeminacy, but rather, as I elaborate later, the women of the court might be the cause of a different sort of gender anxiety than has traditionally been considered.

In part, my essay is a response to Jennifer Richards' charge, which sought to "invite reflection upon, or modification of, our habits of reading early modern "elitist" texts, and to temper the current 'masculinization' of critical reading" (188). Instead of predesignating the courtiers as effeminate, I ask that we consider effeminacy to be a discourse that is co-opted and maneuvered through the pronouncements and actions of the dialogues. In an attempt to trace the construction and contestation of the discourse of effeminacy in the Cortegiano, this essay will first elaborate on the importance of the corporeal presence of the speakers to the gender debate and then focus on four episodes where effeminacy is explicitly discussed. By adhering to the textual moments where the courtiers themselves refer to masculine behavior, we find that effeminacy is undeniably a concern of the courtiers. Ultimately I am seeking to offer an alternative to the traditional conclusions that state that Castiglione is defending against effeminacy in the courtier or that "the conversations ... are devoted largely to arguments that serve to console Urbino's male courtiers for the degree to which they are subjected to the women of the court" (Jordan 78). Rather than taking the gender debate to be a reductive one of male anxiety over female rule, Castiglione is potentially arguing that women are an integral and powerful discursive force in the bolstering and policing of a pragmatic masculinity.

It is in Berger's work where we find a kernel of a different sort of gender investigation. He states,
 the courtier's dependent political status results in peculiar
 social demands that call for the redefinition of norms of
 masculinity. The explicit if informal pedagogy enabling a man to
 perform as a courtier must also enable a courtier to perform as a
 man. (68)

Though Berger himself drops this argument to pursue other issues, his work may function as a springboard to explore a new trajectory in Cortegiano gender studies. The dialogues are in fact highly involved in this "call for the redefinition of norms of masculinity," and they will call for a man who is at once a skilled diplomat, gentleman of the court, and even a military protector. The new norms of masculinity bind various discourses of masculinity--the sexual brute, the unlearned merchant, and the military man--to the discourse of the increasingly complex politics of the sixteenth-century Italian courts. To repeat Berger's words, the masculine curriculum laid out by the dialogues require the men of the court to "perform as a courtier" while this courtier performs "as a man."

In this process of redefining masculinity, the admonishments of effeminacy may seem to be little more than guidelines that censure certain comportment, dress and leisurely activities. However, these evocations of effeminacy will be shown to not be mere aesthetic correctives but rather are part of a rhetorical strategy where the discourse of effeminacy is manipulated into one of 'national security.' When Ottaviano reproves effeminacy in Book IV, I follow Richards' assertion that "we must be careful not to take Ottaviano's pronouncements at face value" (Richards 196). This is no tedious character who censures clothing or behavior so that he may see men dress and walk differently. Instead, the shrewd Ottaviano understands the efficacious nature of gender shaming and uses the discourse of effeminacy as rhetorical persuasion. He shows himself to be a courtier-orator who may be concerned less with women or male dress than with the political pragmatism his statements might incite. Musings on appropriate performances of dress or dance are thereby not a criticism of ornament as much as a technique mobilized to police and/or generate certain forms of masculinity. We will find that dance, dress and musicianship of the courtly man may not be seen to be entirely mutually exclusive with the man of arms. Rather, the courtiers will qualify such discourses as effeminate when it conveniently fits their rhetorical needs. The courtiers suggest several modes of masculine behavior, with Ottaviano focusing on a sort of functional and "civil manliness" within the context of the court during the politically volatile early sixteenth century. (6)

Defining Norms of Masculinity

Even before the court occupants gather for their discussions on the ideal courtier in chapter 6, Castiglione tells that the courtiers habitually hold conversations in the apartments of the duchess. (7) Many studies have noted the metaphoric distance of this setting from the mundane vicissitudes of sixteenth-century Italy, and Thomas Greene goes so far to call the apartments a "feminine enclosed space." (8) The apartments of the duchess are in fact, far from the epic and military masculinity of other rooms in the palace such as the studiolo, where images of humanistic learning, arms and legendary leaders were intentionally inscribed by the late Duke Federico. The gendering of architectural space in the text is significant in part due to the rooms (and discourses of manliness) the dialogues avoid, staying far a field from a type of masculinity that has been characterized as the virile Roman model (Richards 188). By avoiding the masculine programme designed by the late Federico, Castiglione somewhat neutralizes the burden of a traditional established masculinity. Thus this stage is not an effeminate or feminized space but rather one that allows for the redefining of gender norms as we will see with the ever-rivaling models of manliness.

In chapter 4, before the arrival of Pope Julius II's men in Urbino, the courtiers and court ladies are said to gather nightly in a "chain of love." The language suggests a fluid exchange of gender as the courtiers take virtues from Emilia Pia and the duchess. The duchess is then described as harboring more virtues than even the most severe men, "e tutte quelle virtu che ancor ne' severi omini sono rarissime" (I, 4). As the men take (pigliare) their characteristics from the women and imitate them, the duchess (and presumably Emilia Pia) demonstrate virtues of men. Thus, men and women are participating in a reflexive gender act that promotes if not androgyny, the flow of gender identities.

This language of gender imitation and chains of love that characterizes chapter 4 ends with the intrusion of the delegation of Pope Julius II. When the new group of courtiers joins the palace, the activities continue in their usual manner, but with slight changes, "si continuava nell'usato stile delle feste e piaceri ordinari, ma ognuno si sforzava d'acrescere qualche cosa" (I, 6). The addition of new courtiers, especially these companions of the Pope who are returning from a military victory in Bologna, marks an episode of transition, competition and possibly more traditional conceptions of masculinity. It is this moment that is the setting for the Cortegiano.

What is tricky about this social order described by Castiglione is that he has penned his tract with men and women as corporeally present interlocutors. The politics of gender thus are challenged by the realities of the speakers' sexuality and bodily discourses. When the men begin their rhetorical acrobatics in discussing the ideal courtier, the discussion quickly turns to the thorny and perilous subject of male beauty and the masculine body, placing their own bodies in the center of discussion. (9)

As the courtiers issue harsh criticism against any behavior they perceive as effeminate, the male body and its classical association with the feminine are an obvious focal point for their concern. Although Ludovico Canossa and Gaspar Pallavicino cannot agree upon whether the ideal courtier should be of noble birth or not, it is interesting that both men place great emphasis on the beauty of the courtier. Canossa wishes that the courtier be noble, wise, and have a beautiful face and body (bella forma di persona e di volto; I, 14). Gasparo instead states that even one born of non-noble parents may have the qualities of perfection including a beautiful face (bellezza di volto; I, 15).

The discussions continue for several chapters, when Bernardo Bibbiena introduces the first real challenge to the game. Although the question of nobility has been dropped as an unresolved issue, Bibbiena chooses to return to the concept of male beauty. He interrupts the direction of the conversation to reintroduce the topic and draw the conversation onto his own body, bemoaning his disproportionately thin legs:
 but as to the beauty of my person, I am rather doubtful, and
 especially as to these legs of mine which in truth do not seem to
 me as well disposed as I could wish; as to my chest and the rest,
 I am quite well enough satisfied. Now do determine a little more
 in detail what this beauty of body should be, so that I can
 extricate myself from doubt and put my mind at ease. (I, 19)

 ma della forma del corpo sto io alquanto dubbioso, e massimamente
 per queste mie gambe, che in vero non mi paiono cosi atte com'io
 vorrei; del busto e del resto contentomi pur assai bene.
 Dichiarate adunque un poco piu minutamente questa forma del corpo,
 quale abbia ella da essere, accio che io possa levarmi di questo
 dubbio e star con l'animo riposato. (I, 19)

Bibbiena is the primary comic figure of the Cortegiano, and his comments elicit laughter from the courtiers just as they do from the reader today. The moment of comedy is answered in surprisingly violent terms. Count Canossa responds initially by placating Bibbiena and telling him that in truth his face is handsome for it is virile, but instead of answering the posed question about whether Bibbiena's legs were as well built as his chest, the count begins a diatribe against the effeminate qualities of certain men, who should be treated like "harlots" and kicked out of the company of gentlemen (consorzio degli omini nobili). He states,
 [your face] has something manly about it, and yet is full of
 grace.... I would have our Courtier's face be such, not so soft
 and feminine as many attempt to have who not only curl their hair
 and pluck their eyebrows, but preen themselves in all those ways
 that the most wanton and dissolute women in the world adopt; and
 in walking, in posture, and in every act, appear so tender and
 languid that their limbs seems to be on the verge of falling
 apart; and utter their words so limply that it seems they are
 about to expire on the spot; and the more they find themselves
 in the company of men of rank, the more they make a show of such
 manners. These, since nature did not make them women as they
 clearly wish to appear and be, should be treated not as good
 women, but as public harlots, and driven not only from the courts
 of great lords but from the society of all noble men. (I, 19)

 Certo quella grazia del volto, senza mentire, dir si po esser in
 voi ... tien del virile, e pur e grazioso.... E di tal sorte
 voglio io che sia lo aspetto del nostro cortegiano, non cosi molle
 e feminile come si sforzano d'aver molti, che non solamente si
 crepano i capegli e spelano le ciglia, ma si strisciano con tutti
 que' modi che si facciano le pih lascive e disoneste femine del
 mondo; e pare che nello andare, nello stare ed in ogni altro
 lor atto siano tanto teneri e languidi, che le membra siano per
 staccarsi loro l'uno dall'altro; e pronunziano quelle parole cosi
 afflitte, che in quel punto par che lo spirito loro finisca; e
 quanto piu si trovano con omini di grado, tanto piu usano tai
 termini. Questi, poiche la natura, ha fatti femine, dovrebbono
 non come bone femine esser estimati, ma, come publiche meretrici,
 non solamente delle corti de' gran signori, ma del consorzio
 degli omini nobili esser cacciati. (I, 19)

The comical comment of Bibbiena caused what could be seen as an inappropriately strong reaction. The count's castigating words serve to communicate to the group that something has gone very awry in the gender discourse, and that this "consorzio degli omini nobili" is prepared to expel members of its ranks if they demonstrate "effeminate" (feminile) characteristics such as plucking their eyebrows, having a limp wrist and using flowery language.

As will happen throughout the text, the Count then redirects the conversation from the participants themselves to abstract ideals. This case of Bibbiena, however, is not allowed to rest. Two chapters later, the duchess declares that she will punish Bibbiena for infringements on the rules of the game as he asked advice instead of offering information. The episode can obviously be seen as an investigation into the ways that power is vicariously constructed through ludic strategies, but it seems to expose yet another dynamic of masculine norms. Ostensibly Bibbiena's error was to break the rhetorical rules of the game, but it is an infringement that virtually all of the courtiers will make throughout the text. What one wonders is how Bibbiena's question about his legs acted as a catalyst for such a lengthy criticism of effeminacy, and furthermore, how are these issues related to social stability structured by rules and infringements?

When Bibbiena asks that the others gaze upon his body and offer their opinions about his muscular chest and lackluster thighs, he infringes on more historic rules of masculine behavior. Most gender theory demonstrates that since Aristotle, the mind has been gendered as masculine and the body as feminine. Calvin Thomas's work on men's bodies addresses the specific feminizing problem of the representation and specularization of the male figure. He states,
 the traditional relationship between men and their bodies has never
 been a spoken one, rather it has been marked by a profound if not
 pronounced anxiety, one that refuses to speak, refuses to see. In
 the construction of normative masculinity, the question of the
 body--of its speakability, its visibility, its
 representability--historically has been displaced onto the other,
 onto the feminine. (Thomas 11-12)

If we believe what Thomas has to say about the displacement of the male body onto the feminine, then it seems that Bernardo Bibbiena has offended not only by breaking the rhetorical rules of the courtiers' game, but by breaking a primary rule of masculinity. His remarks make explicit the otherwise tacit game of men watching men, and he subtracts women from the safe triangular mechanism of homosocial behavior so described by Sedgwick. Thus, by feminizing his own body, or worse, implicating all of the men in the specularization and consequent effeminization of the male body, Bibbiena threatens the homosocial structure of the gathering and therefore threatens the stability of the community.

What becomes apparent is that these speakers are in fact preoccupied with the potential effeminacy of men. Gender, like ideal courtly behavior, will be codified in aesthetic terms with an urgency that always suggests an underlying political motivation. As the courtiers specifically identify "effeminate" acts, we must ask why have these behaviors been singled out as womanly? Why do the courtiers castigate their fellow men as "sissies" as not "doing gender right"? (10)


The three chapters (II, 26-28) dedicated to male dress are politically charged. They begin when the speaker tells of the vice of certain men who prefer to speak with well-dressed men rather than with their friends. To this topic Giuliano responds with a question, the updated version of which could be found on the cover of any number of men's magazines: "what does a man wear?" To be specific, he asks what a courtier should wear, and it is a distinction that implies how a man can demonstrate his class, political affiliation and gender simultaneously without one threatening the others. Giuliano's primary concern is the confusion that foreign influences on fashion had provoked beginning as early as the fourteenth-century. As a solution to the foreign sartorial confusion, Federico (the primary speaker of Book II) responds that men should dress as they please as long as they follow custom. Therefore they can freely dress in the fashion of Spaniards, French, Germans or Turks. But his response continues by adding that the presence of these foreign fashions is a material sign of Italian colonization.

Amedeo Quondam takes up this argument at length in his study on the Cortegiano. He states that the self-representation that is visually communicated through dress produced the "character of one's 'nation,'" "questo codice comunicativo dell'identita di ciascuno attraverso i segni del suo abito produce anche--per remoto, topico, assioma--il carattere della propria 'nazione'" (Quondam 385). Underneath this guise of fashion is a metaphor of political alliance (i.e., which prince should one choose in this 'confusion'), as well as a very material alliance that would demonstrate one's affiliation. (One might draw a parallel here with drinking French wine or driving German cars in the American political climate in the months leading up to the American invasion of Iraq.) That is, one could possibly be seen as an Imperial sympathizer from the hat one chooses to wear. Federico longs for a fashion that one might recognize as "Italian," and his musings on dress begin to draw interesting parallels between reading the language of clothing and a legible sign structure of political servitude:
 But I do not know by what fate it happens that Italy does not have,
 as she used to have, a manner of dress recognized to be Italian: for
 although the introduction of these new fashions makes the former
 ones seem very crude, still the older were perhaps a sign of
 freedom, even as the new ones have proved to be an augury of
 servitude, which I think is now most evidently fulfilled. (II, 26)

 Ma io non so per qual fato intervenga chela Italia non abbia come
 soleva avere, abito che sia conosciuto per italiano: che, benche lo
 aver posto in usanza questi novi faccia parer quelli primi
 goffissimi, pur quelli forse erano segno di liberta, come questi son
 stati augurio di servith; il qual ormai parmi assai chiaramente
 adempiuto. (II, 26)

As Quondam will argue, Castiglione draws the important connection between Italian dress and contemporary politics, stating that fashion is homologous to the subjugated Italian condition (386). This connection is strengthened through the lexical choice of the verb "subiugarci" to complain of the sartorial state of affairs as well as the French incursions into Italy, "gli Francesi col suo non sapere lettere avere subiugato Italia" (I, 43). The verb is notably found here in Federico's comments on fashion trends:
 L'aver noi mutato gli abiti italiani ne i stranieri parmi che
 significasse tutti quelli negli abiti de' quali i nostri erano
 trasformati, dever venire a subiugarci; il che e stato troppo piu
 che vero, che ormai non resta nazione che di noi non abbia fatto
 preda. (II, 26)

As is apparent, the discussion becomes dangerously close to a full debate on Italy's occupied condition, but in typical Castiglione style, the dialogues defer deliberating the situation. Instead, Federico changes his focus to male aesthetics, which Quondam suggests will indicate an attempt to build a better fashion (and cultural identity), an Italian one that defines itself as the "giusto mezzo" between foreign extremes (387).

Federico wishes that men would avoid excesses in dress, and he defines the arbitrary concepts of fashion with precision. Regardless of his earlier words where he said that men were free to dress as they choose, it does not seem that men have freedom in choosing clothes at all. The basic rules are simple, men should wear only dark colors unless it is a festival occasion, and he will then begin a long, biting discussion on the fashions of contemporary men. Federico criticizes those men who fix their hair, whiten their teeth and pay too close attention to their boots and beards:
 I wish our Courtier to be neat and dainty in his attire, and
 observe a certain modest elegance, yet not in a feminine or vain
 fashion. Nor would I have him more careful of one thing than of
 another, like many we see, that take such pains with their hair
 that they forget the rest; others attend to their teeth, others
 to their beard, others to their boots, others to their
 bonnets.... (II, 27) (11)

 Voglio che 'l nostro cortegiano in tutto l'abito sia pulito e
 delicato ed abbia una certa conformita di modesta attillatura, ma
 non pero di manera feminile o vana, ne piu in una cosa che
 nell'altra, come molti ne vedemo, che pongon tanto studio nella
 capigliara, che si scordano il resto; altri fan professione de
 denti, altri di barba, altri di borzachini (stivaletti), altri di
 cuffie.... (II, 27)

Here, a man risks being "feminile e vana," and he warns the courtiers to pay attention to what type of man they wish to be taken for, and then dress accordingly; "aggiungendovi ancor che debba fra se stesso deliberar cio che vol parere e di quella sorte che desidera esser estimato, della medesima vestirsi" (II, 27). Federico's advice is motivated by his belief that a person's spirit is reflected by his external appearance, a philosophy that he repeats twice. Specifically, he states, that walking, laughing and looking make manifest what is inside a man: "'I passeggiare, ridere, guardare e tai cose, siano operazioni; e pur tutto questo di fuori da notizia spesso diquel dentro" (II, 28). This moralization of aesthetics is instrumental in explaining the emphasis placed on appearance and behavior where self-fashioning might not express exactly who the courtier is but who the courtier wishes to appear, certainly an idea congruous with Berger's concept of the sprezzatura of suspicion. (12)

The anxiety that underscores Federico's advice on self-representation is one that results from a mechanism where the courtier is attentive to dressing the masculine role for which he wishes to be esteemed outwardly, but he is also acutely aware that it is precisely this codification of dress that will communicate his identity or "quel dentro." Moreover, this concern with dress is also related to the anxiety of the state of Italian political affairs, since dress has been integrally linked with invasion and occupation. Thus, when Federico begins stating his criteria for an ideal fashion, he is actually cloaking a pointed political commentary in the guise of an innocuous discussion on clothing. Federico's personal desires to see a properly dressed Italian gentleman will also (and arguably more importantly) be communicating his desires for an Italian man who is going to resist "subjugation" to foreign powers, a decidedly masculine posturing.

If we look again at his request that the courtier dress in clean and delicate clothes "pulito e delicato" but not in a feminine or vain manner "manera feminile o vana," we find advice that is at best ambiguous. It may be that Federico is not as concerned with the cosmetic appearance of the courtiers as has usually been believed. For though any man would be hard pressed to use these prescriptive words as a dressing guide, he would certainly be aware of the proximity of "delicato" (presumably what courtiers want) and "feminile" (the shameful quality to be avoided). This ambiguity of advice clearly raises a level of gender anxiety for the man who seeks to follow Federico's words, and it may be that Federico is not preoccupied with clothing choices but is rather utilizing the discourse of effeminacy to aid him in imposing his Italian political agenda. He will lay threats and accusations of being "feminile," using jokes about teeth, beards, boots and bangs, as a character shaming technique rather than an aesthetic one. In this contextual reading, the term "effeminate courtier" assumes a new, darker meaning, one that highlights the fear of the judgment of others and the inability to safeguard oneself from castigation.

A man may dress as he pleases, but he can never be assured that he will not be called effeminate as there is no comprehensive and easy distinction between appropriate dress and womanly dress. Moreover, this shaming mechanism functions as well to raise a political self-consciousness, where this proper dress implies proper politics and emboldens a resistance to foreign occupation. Federico has fashioned his ideal courtier in vestments that are self-consciously, if not anxiously, civil and laden with political resolve. Federico's anxious courtier who is most likely at a loss on how to dress, knows that not only his fashion but his political loyalties are being scrutinized, and he has been charged with demonstrating the better and Italian "giusto mezzo" between the extremes of foreigners. He is one of the models of masculinity that will be proposed throughout the dialogue, and he is a proposed version of Italian "civil manliness" so suggested by Richards.

Federico's technique of using effeminacy as a shaming technique is a topic to which I will return, but in this instance we can note that the sixteenth-century man was at odds in how to balance the necessity of being "well-dressed" and avoiding the shame of being called womanly. Furthermore, what is striking is that Castiglione devotes a large section to male costume and leaves female costume virtually out of the text. The situation is ironic primarily in light of the Renaissance obsession with women's clothing and sumptuary legislation that sought to control women's dress. (13) If one were to focus only on legal documents of the period, it would seem that men's dress was unproblematic. What we may be able to hypothesize from this text is that the behavior of men versus that of women is governed in different ways in regards to aesthetics. (14) A starting hypothesis might be stated as such--where women were legislated (e.g., sumptuary laws), men were more often than not shamed by their peers. Dress for both sexes is a focal point of gender, class and political identity, but for men specifically, it is a critical conun-drum, where dressing for one's class may endanger dressing one's gender and dressing one's gender implies a sort of 'national security.'


Much discussion in the Cortegiano is devoted to the arts of music, painting and dancing. The scholarship addressing the representation of these arts in the text describes them either as mere ornaments or physical expressions of the feudal power structure. (15) Gasparo and Canossa debate whether or not the courtier should be a musician. Gasparo states that music is for women and for those who have the appearance of men, but not for real men, "hanno similitudine d'omini, ma non a quelli che veramente sono" (I, 47) and his reasoning is that music renders their minds effeminate and afraid of death. In response to this accusation, Canossa begins his exceptionally long praise of music, which tells of music's utility, especially in military endeavors.

Yet again, the issue of the effeminate courtier has inspired a lengthy debate. We may ask what is fundamentally "feminine" about the musician? From Gasparo's interjection, it is evident that Castiglione's contemporaries attacked music as a non-masculine activity. Gasparo uses this accusation of "effeminare" and "real-men" as a technique to control the behavior of men, that is, to discourage their practice of music through gender-shaming.

The persuasive technique of gender shaming was used to shun "effeminate" dress in Book II and to punish Bibbiena's question about his muscular legs in Book I, but this occurrence of gender shaming differs from the aforementioned examples. Firstly, since Count Canossa responds to Gasparo's insult of the male musician in a lengthy praise of music, there is no one discourse that prevails. Thus, it is impossible to know whether Castiglione's speakers believe music to be effeminate or not. Secondly, Gasparo's accusation of effeminate musicians demonstrates a strange separation of the gender-sex divide. That is, Gasparo proposes that musicians may have the appearance of men but are not "real men". This model of sex/gender differs from the one proposed by Federico who stated that men should dress as the man that they wish to esteemed. Federico provided men with a certain agency to fashion their gender according to the appropriate mode, be it effeminate, delicate, brutish etc. Instead, Gasparo displays a much darker version of masculinity, in that some men, simply put, are not "real men." Thus those who have beards, wear black, essentially those who have male genitalia, may seem to be men but are not. Beneath this veneer of a male musician lurks a dangerous specter of a woman. And accordingly, Gasparo's model triggers the kind of fear described by Berger's gynephobia of gender, "fear of the woman within the man" (71). By excluding the possibility of claiming a gendered identity based on sex, Gasparo places men (especially male musicians) at a crisis point. His statement ostensibly puts gender on the line: either men will follow his advice or have virtually no recourse to a masculine identity. Though what makes Gasparo's model more anxious is that if the "effeminate" man follows Gasparo's advice and is not a musician, the man would only be masking the woman inside, in a sense invoking a double masquerade, one that is his bodily appearance (genitals, beard, etc.) and the second being contrived through manly behavior. The critical difference between these models of masculinity is that Federico suggests that a man's outside appearance is bound to an internal identity, where Gasparo separates performance from self-expression, a divide which again raises self-consciousness and anxiety.

Finally, no matter how Canossa defends music, it seems that Gasparo's words preclude music from being manly, for a "natural" manliness presupposes not being a musician. The question is whether Gasparo is sincerely concerned with music playing or not. It seems that what his gender model might suggest is that men should mask any traits of effeminacy that might be natural to them, and that again this behavioral correction will be related to a political discourse. Just as I put forth that Federico's real concern was Italy's political condition and not the dress of the courtiers, what I will ultimately try to show is that these statements on dress, music and dance express much less a concern with a restructuring of so-called effeminate behavior than with a restructuring of the political situation of sixteenth-century Italy: that the courtiers are more concerned with men "fearing death" than they are with men playing the viola da gamba.


Dancing is discussed no fewer than seven times by the courtiers, and thus not surprisingly, the Cortegiano is a popular source document for theorists and historians of Renaissance dance. (16) Even more than music, dancing complicates issues of masculinity in that it involves the male body as spectacle. According to Stephen Kolsky, Castiglione argues that the courtier must learn and internalize the codes of dance, which control the irrational body, and in turn this dancing demonstrates the power of order. Mark Franko prefigures Kolsky's research by emphasizing the corporeal manifestation of discourses of power, stating that society imposes "a fantasmatic institutionalized identity upon the individual" where the body is specifically the stage of these discourses (Franko 55).

Dance is critical to my own research in that it may provide a key to investigating the problematic marriage of the male body and civility. As we know, from Aristotle to Kant and beyond the mind has been associated with the masculine while the body is relegated to the feminine. Dancing thus causes men to feel not only performance anxiety but possibly also a gender-performance anxiety.

It is therefore not surprising that we find the courtiers demonstrating a certain concern about their dancing performances. There are in fact several mentionings of bad dancing by our courtiers. These left-footed men are openly criticized and shamed by their peers and even women of the court for dancing increased the possibility of failure through bodily transgression. It was a performance that could contribute to or detract from a courtier's reputation at court. When the count describes how the art is dependent on the dissimulation of artifice, he uses the courtier Pierpaulo's exaggerated dancing as the counter example of sprezzatura. Bibbiena adds that another courtier, Roberto, allows his clothes to fall off as he moves along the dance floor, and he calls such exaggerated nonchalance "affettazione" (I, 26-27). Clearly men are watching and judging other men dance, even though Cesare Fregosa claims that the only reason men learn to dance is to please women (III, 52). (17) The situation plays out the sort of homosocial rivalry discussed above that Karras observes in the jousting tournaments of the late medieval knights. Though the public is ostensibly and explicitly given to be women, the men use the service of women to measure their own masculine success against other men.

The 'enjoyable' respite of dancing may jeopardize a man's identity and thus cause him to consider how his masculinity is to be maintained. The rules of dance distinguish classes, offering a chance for a man "to signify distinctions separating the perfect courtier from other courtiers and from other social classes" (Kolsky 11). They also allow men close proximity with women, and thus dancing enters into a whole system of the erotic codes of courtship, an issue that received much attention from dance theorists of Castiglione's time such as Guglielmo da Pesaro. But what studies on dance have ignored is that because dancing is a public performance where the spectacle is the body, it places the man in a position that modern theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz, Stephen Frosh, Calvin Thomas and others would call "effeminate" (Grosz 173, Frosh 90-104, Thomas 11-12).

In book IV, Ottaviano begins his famous speech on the purpose of the courtier by criticizing many of the acts of the courtier as shameful. He states that certain activities are not to be honored but blamed, that they are for women not men, that they have effeminized the minds and spirits of Italians, that even the name Italian itself is equated with opprobrium, and finally, as a result of all of the above, Italy is a pathetic site of occupied states (IV, 4). In a sweeping speech of terror that resembles the sermons of Savonarola or San Bernardino, Ottaviano effectively blames dancing, singing and festivities for turning Italian men into women and permitting the foreign occupation of Italy:
 I should say that many of those accomplishments that have been
 attributed to our Courtier (such as dancing, merrymaking, singing,
 and playing) were frivolities and vanities and, in a man of any
 rank, deserving of blame rather than of praise; for these elegances
 of dress, devices, mottoes, and other such things as pertain to
 women and love (although many will think the contrary), often serve
 to merely make spirits effeminate, to corrupt youth, and to lead to
 a dissolute life; whence it comes about that the Italian name is
 reduced to opprobrium, and there are but few who dare, I will not
 say to die, but even to risk any danger. (IV, 4)

 anzi direi che molte di quelle condicioni che se gli sono
 attribuite, come il danzar, festeggiar, cantar e giocare, fossero
 leggerezze e vanita, ed in un omo di grado piu tosto degne di
 biasimo che di laude; perche queste attillature, imprese, motti ed
 altre tai cose che appartengono ad intertenimenti di donne e
 d'amori, ancora che forse a molti altri paia il contrario, spesso
 non fanno altro che effeminar gli animi, corrumper la gioventh e
 ridurla a vita lascivissima; onde nascono poi questi effetti che
 'l nome italiano e ridutto in obbrobrio, ne si ritrovano se non
 pochi che osino non diro morire, ma pur entrare in uno pericolo.
 (IV, 4)

Not surprisingly, it is a speech, ignored by studies that advocate the political exigency of dancing in the Cortegiano.

Again repeating the claim of Richards, I suggest that Ottaviano is not necessarily to be taken at his word. Ottaviano may himself be playing a rhetorical game. Is Ottaviano really attacking the coded and civilized behavior of dancing, dress and speaking by the courtiers because he wishes to see men dance, dress and speak differently? Or is he simply trying to use a persuasive technique to achieve his more political aim?

In the fourth book it is clear that Ottaviano wishes to change the political situation of Italy. Critics such as Richards will go so far as to even indicate a transgressive republicanism hidden beneath his adulations of princes. (18) I would add that he chooses to attack seemingly unrelated behaviors (dress, dance, games) as a rhetorical vehicle to criticize issues such as political ineffectiveness and tyranny. The similarity between his diatribe and the evangelical sermons of the Quattrocento is notable. As did the priests of fire and brimstone, Ottaviano blames the pathetic condition of Italy on the feminization of society and leaders who allow themselves to be flattered. Like these priests who often blamed disasters such as plague on the sins of society, Ottaviano pulls out the standard canon of sermon discourses: flatteries, effeminate men, sumptuary laws, and unsuppressed desires.

Admittedly, Ottaviano is no Savonarola, and his attempts to hinge masculine behavior to a moral code are not motivated by religious conviction. He wishes to bring peace to Italy through a political shift where a new type of government is imaginable. Regardless of Ottaviano's initial condemnations, the activities of the court such as dancing and games do not really seem to be that relevant to this political change. Interestingly, Ottaviano will circuitously come to defend dancing later in the book during his discussions of courtiers of antiquity such as Plato and Aristotle. This is a claim to which Gasparo interjects by stating that he doubted that the great men of ancient Greece deigned to perform music or dance. Ottaviano instead says that we should believe that Aristotle and Plato did indeed practice music and dance since their knowledge of such subjects was fundamental to the structure of their philosophies.

We are confronted with Ottaviano's perplexing contradiction. The man who finds dance and music to have led Italy into opprobrium is the very same man who then defends these acts in Plato, Aristotle and the modern courtier. I propose that just such a contradiction is possibly our best proof that gender shaming is merely a weapon of rhetorical persuasion. That is, it seems that his earlier words of condemnation are not sincere, and are merely a technique to chide men into action. If the purpose of the courtier is to persuade the prince and those around him to create a more perfect state, then might we not say that Ottaviano is performing precisely this role. His speech in the fourth book is in fact seeking to shame his fellow "Italians" into a new political posturing that is metaphorically termed as a new masculine posturing. His call for masculinity is thus an attempt to persuade his fellow courtiers to take an active position with those in power, to go to their princes and call for peace or war. Interestingly, his technique is a tried and true standby of fifteenth-century priests and twenty-first-century playground bullies--call the boys a sissy and they will do what you ask. Dancing (and dress, music and other arts) seemed to be an obvious weakness for Ottaviano to attack, regardless of his sincere opinions on the topic. Thus he attacks "effeminate" gestures knowing that this method will cause a reaction, and possibly create a revived spirit for a new Italy among the courtiers.

Women and the Shaming Mechanism

Being unmanly is limited to name calling by Canossa, Gasparo, and Ottaviano. However, the bullying of one boy courtier pointing fingers at another, calling him girly, impugning his dress, his musicianship or his dancing is child's play compared to the women who correct men's unmasculine behavior in the narrated stories of Book III. Citing classical history, Giuliano tells of Spartan women who disowned or killed their own sons if they retreated. He tells about the Saguntine women who took up arms against Hannibal when their husbands failed them in defending their city, and he recounts stories of German women who killed themselves and their children when their husbands were defeated. (19) Giuliano has rehearsed the humanist practice of introducing classical exempla as a guide for contemporary behavior in a particularly gendered debate. Where Quint has demonstrated women's fundamental role in the civilizing process, it may be that Giuliano bemoans the loss of an even greater power that women once exercised, or that he at least recognizes the usefulness of bringing this kind of power to our consciousness. He reminds the court how women (or stories about them) may shame men not only to cultivate better manners but how they may as well cultivate a more effective 'masculine' military behavior. (20)

The relation between the manliness of the court and the manliness in the narrated stories is important. The behaviors of dress, music, speech, and other courtly activities do not seem to have any real bearing on the health of the society. That is to say, one wonders what difference it would make to society if men continued to pluck their eyebrows and fix their hair. Instead, the women in the stories of Book III who are cited for their coercion of sons and husbands into manly behavior are almost exclusively found in states that are fighting off invading forces. Thus in these cases, manliness is clearly definable as protecting a society. Not by chance, a feminine behavior by men in the Cortegiano always seems to result in foreign occupation. The cowardly sons and husbands described by Giuliano risked allowing the occupation of their homes, and Ottaviano states that it has been due to the effeminate ways of courtiers that Italy has been reduced to a land run by invaders. However, it seems impossible to reconcile these two visions of unmanly men. Whereas one can imagine how retreat might endanger national security, it seems that a man's disheveled eyebrows should not influence his ability to fight off foreigners.

The text of the Cortegiano suggests that men are concerned above all with the outward signs of other men's gender: how they act, how they play, how they speak and how they dress. These seemingly cosmetic aspects of identity formation are then implicated in a political metaphor, where bolstering masculine behavior represents stabilizing the political state. Women, specifically women from narrated stories, are also implicated in this politicizing of masculine gender. They are described as frequently shaming men through more direct means. They do not criticize the "effeminate" behavior of men such as dress, music and dance, but rather, they condemn military cowardliness and retreat. These women urge men to take on arms and defend the nation either by threatening to kill them if they retreat or by emasculating them by reminding them of man's role as protector of women. If the dialogues are intended to provide ideals and thus motivate men to govern their behavior, actions and speech, then they are potentially as well a call to women to come forth and force their husbands and sons into battle, to fight united for a new stable order. What may be the most interesting reversal of traditional criticism is that the 'emasculating' power of women over men, especially in the narrated stories, is then seen as a means to embolden 'masculine' militaristic activity, where the subjugation of men to women is in effect the cause of manliness.

Finally, we see that effeminacy in dress (understood as "vana") and effeminacy on the battlefield (here not fearing death or even "entrare in pericolo") are distinguishable discourses in the Cortegiano. However, we have seen how the speakers will associate and bind these two types of effeminate behavior as part of their own policing mechanism that ultimately seeks to control others according to their own desires. By emphasizing the political function of rhetorical persuasion around the topic of effeminacy, my goal is not only to nuance the critical tradition of the "effeminate courtier," but also to bring Castiglione scholarship closer to what I see as his deliberate political pragmatism.

The gender anxiety so suggested in the works of Kelly, Rebhorn, Jordan, et al. is as I see it, quite present in the dialogues. But rather than fixing the cause of anxiety on the subservience of men to the women of the court, I have preferred to discuss how these courtiers and court ladies have embroiled themselves in a mechanism of shame and fear that incites anxiety in some ways unrelated to this so-called subservience. The question is not whether the power and presence of women at the court effeminizes the courtier, but rather, how is gender (in all of its iterations) co-opted in order to mobilize masculinity around a political aim. It could be that for Castiglione, women's rule is not effeminizing per se, but rather, a necessary and generative tool in the construction of early modern masculinity.

This essay has focused on the fear of being called effeminate, but this technique of rhetorical persuasion is mobilized around many gender fears that could be discussed in a similar fashion which might all come under Berger's category of the sprezzatura of suspicion. Both the women and men of the court maintain a constant surveillance over masculinity, and they invoke a shaming mechanism using men's gender anxieties in order to persuade the courtiers to act according to their own designs. The text ultimately politicizes masculinity and demonstrates the utility of this gender construction in a larger project of political reform.


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Berger, Harry. The Absence of Grace: Sprezzatura and Suspicion in Two Renaissance Courtesy Books. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000.

Castiglione, Baldesar. Il libro del cortegiano con una scelta delle Opere minori. Ed. Bruno Maier. 2nd ed. Turin: UTET, 1964.

--. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Charles Singleton. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959.

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--. Renaissance Dance Theory, c. 1420-1589: An Intertextual Model. Birmingham: Summa, 1984.

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Garin, Eugenio. Italian Humanism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1965.

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College of Staten Island/City University of New York


* My thanks to Jane Tylus and Marc Schachter, whose thoughtful comments greatly improved this essay.

(1) Karras points out the historical contingency of effeminacy in her work From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe. She notes that though modern gender discourse might find the manners and dress of late medieval knights to be effeminate, they were not perceived as such by their contemporaries. She cites a work on knighthood that warns against a type of hyper-masculinity that in effect is unmanly since such foolhardiness in battle endangers others' lives (40). Karras also discusses the historically contingent discourse of (un)masculine sodomy. She cites an English literary text that associates the "masculine" aggressive behavior with sodomy and manners with appropriate male behavior (44).

(2) On surveillance and sprezzatura, see especially Berger (12-13).

(3) See Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.

(4) Quint's argument is predicated on the understanding that the act of serving the women has made the courtiers effeminate, but it seems he views their mere presence as an effeminizing force as well. See especially the phrase, "What both Ottaviano and Bembo would teach, however, is a lesson that the presence of women at court has already taught the courtier, the lesson of civilization itself: the restraint of aggression and the cultivation of good manners--that beautiful behavior which Bembo seeks to inculcate" (187).

(5) Although there was a belief that the presence of women might feminize young boys in their developmental years, a matter that Alberti notes in his Della famiglia, there is also an undeniable understanding of the two genders as being defined precisely by their differences. Here, one only needs think of the tradition of literature that ranges from Aristotle, the church fathers and the numerous tracts in the Renaissance that preclude women from rhetoric or public activity because women di natura are different from men. Furthermore, much theory has been dedicated to the manner in which men may make women an Other and the resulting mechanism of gender identity that results. Ragland-Sullivan discusses how Freud and Lacan problematize the masculine dependency on the feminine (62). See also Frosh who states that there is a need for femininity for the recognition of masculinity (81).

(6) I add the qualifier "functional" to Richards' term "civil manliness" (194) in order to underscore Ottaviano's clear concern with the military safety of the state in light of the foreign incursions into Italy.

(7) For ease of reference, citations of the Cortegiano will use the convention of chapter headings as found in most twentieth-century printed editions.

(8) Greene 12. For other studies that discuss the Urbino court as an enclosure or pastoral space see Rebhom 103-11, Berger 139-55, and Colic. For more general studies on how Neoplatonism offered an idle alternative to the active political realm, see Skinner and Garin.

(9) Scholarship in various fields that discuss the male body surprisingly concur: men's bodies are either kept away from scrutiny or simply eclipsed by the emphasis placed on reason and the mind. Texts often cited are Lacan (Meaning of the Phallus), Aristotle (On the Generation of Animals), or Kant's studies on rationality. Additionally, Italian literature preceding Castiglione such as Boccaccio's Decameron (especially Day X) or Alberti's I libri dell famiglia are testaments to the positing of the male body in direct opposition to Reason.

(10) Here I borrow Butler's now familiar term.

(11) It is noteworthy that Singleton translates "delicato" with "dainty." Although the translation of the word is arguably valid, it nonetheless substantiates Richards' claim that current generations have wished to see the courtiers as effeminized through modern "masculinized" readings.

(12) Berger states that the courtiers are caught in the "art of behaving as if always under surveillance, an art that aims to ward off danger by appearing dangerous and thus to elicit cautious respect no less than admiration, it motivates increased surveillance and anxiety on the part of the performer as well as the observer" (12).

(13) A minute fraction of sumptuary laws regulated men's clothing. Sumptuary laws are briefly mentioned in the Cortegiano (IV, 41).

(14) My comment here does not suggest that shaming is more common in social control of men than women, but that in this text there is a specific emphasis on male gender shaming concerning cosmetic and aesthetic issues. There is obviously a vast literary tradition that exemplifies the use of shame as social control of women, specifically regarding chastity.

(15) Barberi-Squarotti suggests that music is a necessary attribute for the disempowered courtier "intellectual," but he as well relegates music to the realm of sugar-coating entertainment intended to attract the attention of the prince. On the other hand, Kolsky, finds the courtly practices of music and dance to be performances of Platonic unities and expressions of power.

(16) See, for example, Nevile, Kolsky, and Franko, Renaissance Dance Theory.

(17) This may challenge Quint's idea that men were performing primarily for women by suggesting that they were equally anxious about their male peer audience.

(18) Richards 193. She notes the way that Ottaviano modifies his support for the monarchy by imagining the state functioning with three parts: kingdom, nobles, and the people.

(19) On the Renaissance appropriation of classical sources of women shaming men into battle, see Hairston 705-07.

(20) My insistence on qualifying that these women who shame men are from narrated stories is to indicate that there is a possible ambiguous motivation that lies behind these classical citations. Giuliano may be calling for his contemporary women to mock men into battle, but he may as well be merely demonstrating how narratives about women (implicitly not real women) may be useful in this mechanism of gender shaming. That is to say, powerful and threatening women are commended in a narrative and safe context while the opportunities for women in fact are unchanged.
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Title Annotation:Gender Studies
Author:Milligan, Gerry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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