Sara E. Díaz (Fairfield University)

Risible Disability in Margherita Costa’s 1639 Love Letters

Margherita Costa’s 1639 Lettere amorose is a unique foray by a female author into the male-dominated world of comic letters. It alternates prose and poetry, male and female voices, conventional and exceptional bodies. Incongruous juxtapositions of desire, status, and embodiment provide the collection’s underlying structural and thematic cohesion as it progresses from the sentimental to the comically absurd. The meaty volume features a series of amorous exchanges between amanti and their belle donne, as well as dwarf, hunchbacked, syphilitic, and maimed men paired with mangy, squint-eyed, nose-less, and limping women. This paper will explore this understudied epistolary collection through the dual lenses of humor and disability theory. It argues that disability functions as a master trope in Costa’s Lettere, marking off the boundaries between normative and non-normative embodiment, and male and female agency. I will focus on a handful of exchanges from the Lettere that demonstrate Costa’s debt and departure from contemporary letter-books and comic poetry, and at the same time illustrate this singular female author’s critique of gendered subjectivity through comedy. 


Don Fader (University of Alabama)

How Giovanni Battista Lulli Became Jean-Baptiste Lully: The Composer’s Comic Self-Representation in his Early Ballets de cour

At the court of Louis XIV, courtiers demonstrated their status not only by conforming to bienséance but by mocking inappropriate comportment. This technique formed part of Lully’s strategy for rejecting his Italian roots in his early court ballets. Lully’s comic scenes mocked his Italian competitors by exaggerating Italian musical characteristics French listeners deemed objectionable: showy vocal fiorituri, overly “learned” counterpoint, and irregular dissonances. In the Ballet de la raillerie (1659), Lully not only had the characters “French Music” and “Italian Music” mock one another but, in the entrée “Les contrefaiseurs,” he lead dancers who imitated one another to canonic music, a pun that the livret uses to praise him as inimitable. In the Ballet de l’impatience (1661), Lully had cardinal Mazarin’s Italian singers perform their own ridicule by having them sing in antique madrigal style where resolutions of horrendous dissonances are interrupted by sneezing pauses. Lully’s mocking exaggeration of these inappropriate style features thus demonstrated his understanding of “good taste” to the court, contributing to his acceptance as a French composer.


Marco Faini (University of Toronto / Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)

Pietro Aretino, or the devout Pornographer

Pietro Aretino owes much of his reputation as a writer to his allegedly pornographic production. A black legend originated while Aretino was still alive concerning his atheism and his insatiable lust. These were the two sides of the same, infamous coin to which the Sonnets on the sixteen modes, the 1534 Ragionamento and the 1536 Dialogo bear unequivocal witness. That such a lewd writer could also pen, from 1534 to 1543, several religious works is a paradox that still baffles scholars. However, setting aside the Sonnets, composed between the end of 1524 and early 1525, Aretino’s pornographic campaign spans only over two years. Moreover, the Sonnets are – if pornography at all – pornography in the third degree, being descriptions of works by such masters as Marcantonio Raimondi and Giulio Romano, while the 1536 Dialogo bristles with religious references that usually go unnoticed by scholars. The question arises of whether we can legitimately consider Aretino a pornographer. My paper will tackle this issue exploring the multiple connections between sex, comic, and religion in Aretino’s œuvre.


Elsa Filosa (Vanderbilt University)

Novellette da ridere by chroniclers of the 1300s

My multidisciplinary and inter-textual analysis explores the comic elements in some Fourteen-Hundred chronicles, in search of reciprocal influences between genres fields and cross-pollination among genres. In particular, I study the works of Giovanni Villani, Matteo Villani, and the "novellette da ridere" by Marchionne di Coppo Stefani. Moreover, I investigate the multifaceted concept of “novella,” which has different meanings depending on the contexts and the authors. Generally, indeed, it means "news" in chronicles, or “comic tale” in Boccaccio and Sacchetti, but there are interesting exceptions.


Jessica Goethals (University of Alabama)

Nonsense, Hooey, and Poppycock, or A Salty Defense of Buffoonery

The first comedy published by a woman in Italy was singer, poet, and dramatist Margherita Costa’s Li buffoni (1641). Intertwining elements drawn from erudite comedy, commedia dell’arte, and especially the Roman tradition of “ridiculous comedy,” this burlesque work stages seventeenth-century debates about comedic acting. Costa challenges efforts by commedia predecessors such as Pier Maria Cecchini and Nicolò Barbieri to ennoble their art by distancing the stage actor from his clownish cousin by re-bending the genre back to buffoonery, which she declares better suited to the theatrical tastes of the Seicento Medici court. Her script is composed almost exclusively of the parti ridicolose. This essay positions Costa’s comedy with respect to these genre debates and to the apologia for buffoonery published by Bernardino Ricci, her dedicatee and titular buffoon, traced through the metaphor of salty wit. It concludes with Costa’s revisitation of these questions in a subsequent manuscript, and with a modern adaptation of the play.


Erith Jaffe-Berg (University of California Riverside)

Multilingual Experimentation in Early Modern Italian Comedies

As with the incorporation of languages and dialects in commedia dell’arte, comic performances in early modern Italy involved a high degree of linguistic experimentation. Actors presented linguistic stereotypes of various regions as well as “foreigners” living on the Italian Peninsula. They incorporated nonsense language in their lampooning of the religious institutions and universities associated with learned languages. In this presentation, I will explore how language and multilingualism were used to define character in some performances and as a means for transgressing the social order in others. I will also question the degree to which comic linguistic experimentation could be socially subversive or affirming of the status quo.


Touba Ghadessi (Wheaton College)

Laughing at Others – Extraordinary Bodies and Human Difference

Humor was the most immediate way for courtiers and wider audiences to connect to human beings with bodies that fell outside of common anatomical norms. Sometimes exaggerated in visual portrayals or grotesquely mocked in performances, people with extraordinary bodies allowed Renaissance courts to reinforce strict behavioral standards on their normative subjects by providing them with an escape. Between wonder and horror, laughter became an essential point of entry to connect with monstrous bodies. Providing opposite equivalencies to ideal embodied Renaissance qualities, human monsters served, at first, as comical foils to perfected traits. Yet, once the initial laughter subsided, caricatures and other narratives gave way to an actual examination of difference. The dissonance found in juxtaposing embellished silk garment to the face of a girl with hypertrichosis, or the unease seen in a castrato’s body clad in an elaborate dress opened complex discussions on anatomical variations and juridical personhood. Inventories detailing court dwarves and their possessions, portraits and caricatures of castrati, and natural scientific observations of hirsutes are part of the evidence presented in this paper to demonstrate how comedic aspects of monstrous bodies framed serious intellectual inquiries into the heterogeneity of human expression.


Chriscinda Henry (McGill University)

Painting “Alla bulesca” and Venetian Dialect Comedy

This talk explores the depiction of sexual proposition and gendered power dynamics in a series of satiric paintings by the Venetian artist Bernardino Licinio, which he produced between around 1520 and 1540. In it I argue that the paintings take up the characters, themes, and narrative scenarios and structures found in contemporary Venetian novelle, popular songs and poetry, and in particular “alla bulesca” dialect comedies (named for the bulo, or bully, a swaggering urban thug, often a pimp). These comic texts focus on dynamics of inappropriate or misplaced desire, errant sexuality, rampant materialism, and violent retribution. Similarly, a number of Licinio’s cabinet paintings of this period feature mismatched couples, illicit lovers, love triangles, and seductive women with would-be paramours and servants in domestic interiors. However, while the paintings certainly play with popular literary and musical themes, they largely avoid the rozzo (rough) humor and graphic depiction of violence and sexuality common in the “true-to-life” texts, and instead adopt a veneer of pictorial decorum achieved through visual ambiguity and unresolved narrative tension.


John Hunt (Utah Valley University)

Cardsharps and Play in Early Modern Italy

Scholars have often argued that the early modern era saw popular and elite culture progressively diverge from one another as nobles and gentlemen adopted the refined manners advocated by such authors as Castiglione and Della Casa. Nevertheless, gambling, a widespread activity among all classes, calls into question this model of a “civilizing process.” Court records from early modern Rome and Venice reveal that cardinals and barons regularly gambled with servants, neighbors, and wandering adventurers. Gambling, therefore, provided a social space where class boundaries could be temporarily minimized. Heterogenous play forged sociability, ties of patronage, and even friendships. This paper, however, will concentrate on the cheating that cardsharps and other giocatori di avantaggio used against elite opponents at the card table. I argue that cheating was a kind of burla that pitted the skill, honor, and wit of these tricksters against their social superiors. Cheating, therefore, should not only be cast in economic terms but should also be conceived as a ludic form of the “weapons of the weak.”


Eric Nicholson (Syracuse University Florence / New York University, Florence)

Strascino, Ruzante, and the Renaissance Invention of Pastoral Grotesque Comedy

Although the first major play by Angelo Beolco ‘il Ruzante’ bears the title La Pastoral (ca. 1520-1), and does feature Latinate shepherd characters, it neither strictly adheres to classical tropes and structures, nor prefigures the pastoral tragicomedy of the late Cinquecento.  Instead, as I will argue, the hybridities of La Pastoral, and Beolco’s later Dialogo facetissimo and Parlamento de Ruzante che iera vegnù da campo (both ca. 1529), favor innovation with a variety of genres and modes in a way that can be aptly termed “grotesque.”  A “naturale”-istic, even radical technique distinguishes the “grotesque pastoral” of these comic productions from their similarly experimental contemporary counterparts. written and performed by Niccolò Campani (lo “Strascino”) and other “Pre-Rozzi” of Siena.  “Documentary realist” as well as metatheatrical qualities mark the poverty, hunger, trauma, homelessness, and quest for survival dramatized through Beolco’s stage persona Ruzante, a 1520s-style Pavan contadino displaced in Arcadia, and then in the city of Venice.  His comical routine of a topical “reality check” on his sensation of dreaming epitomizes how this playwright/actor juggles with dramatic conventions, and by blurring the lines between war-time fact and idyllic fiction pushes his resilient, inventive peasant character’s status beyond the abject (cf. Kristeva) and the carnivalesque (cf. Bahktin).  I also will make brief transhistorical and transnational comparisons, to explain how—with significant variations—the experimental mode of “grottesco pastorale” shapes Luigi Pasqualigo’s  Gl’intricati, and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and The Winter’s Tale.  


Sarah Gwyneth Ross (Boston College)

Playing the Feminist: The Peculiar Case of Francesco Andreini (d.1624)

Scholars interested in the commedia dell’arte know (too?) well the story of the Andreini family, especially Isabella (d.1604) and her son Giovan Battista (d.1654). We pay less attention to Isabella’s husband, Francesco (d.1624), noting only a few facts about him: Francesco retired from acting after Isabella’s untimely death; as an author, he helped to keep Isabella’s fame burnished, publishing her Lettere in 1607, and bringing out his first solo-authored work, the Bravure del Capitan Spavento (1609), (or so he claimed) largely to serve her memory. In the Lettere, moreover, Francesco admits that he interwove some writing of his own; yet he left her with the byline. Repeating these elements of the Andreini story, I fear we have lost sight of how rampantly weird this man’s choices were. What other husband ever tethered his literary career to his wife’s? (Answer: no other husband.) Moving between Francesco’s published writings and the archival paper trail he left in Mantua, we will de-familiarize the image of Francesco-the-heroic-widower, appreciating how unusual his deference to Isabella’s genius was even within the larger arc of his own life. Our questions then become: for what audience(s) did Francesco Andreini play the Renaissance feminist? And what was the point of that show?


Massimo Scalabrini (Indiana University Bloomington)

Comedy and Civility in the Italian Renaissance

This paper is part of a book project on the literary culture of Renaissance Classicism, the dominant cultural model in early modern courtly and aristocratic society. Based on the humanist rediscovery of ancient culture and on the practices of conversation and imitation, this culture borrows from classical antiquity and recognizes as its own the rhetorical and ethical values of discretion, mediocritas/moderation, decorum/convenientia, where the last two terms name a constellation of meanings ranging from ‘appropriateness’ and ‘seemliness’ to ‘decency’ and ‘expediency’. My book investigates the rhetorical nature of these core values and it contends that, precisely because of their rhetorical matrix, these values function as powerful agents of conflict resolution and reconciliation thus defining an essential feature of Italian Renaissance comedy. This paper focuses on the canonical behavioral treatises of the Italian Renaissance (Pontano’s De sermone, Castiglione’s Libro del Cortegiano, Della Casa’s Galateo and Guazzo’s Civil conversazione) and argues that these values play a crucial role in regulating the habits and manners of people convening in social contexts, in reducing the potential for conflict and, ultimately, maintaining a peaceful coexistence.


Paola Ugolini (University at Buffalo)

No Laughing Matter: On the Uses and Meanings of Anti-Court Satire in Renaissance Italy

To a modern ear, that term satire conjures the notion of fun and laughter: a satire can be a sketch, or a vignette, aimed at reflecting on present society while amusing the audience. In the Renaissance, the intended effect of satire was much different. The genre, based on the recently revamped and quickly disseminated classical models of Horace, Juvenal, and Lucian, was much more aimed at producing self-reflection, indignation, and shame, rather than laughter. As a comic—base and unrefined—genre, satire allowed its authors to reflect on relevant matters in a plain and direct language. My paper will focus on one specific form of satiric writings (in both prose and verse) that was very common in the Renaissance: satire against courts and courtiers. I intend to highlight the reasons behind the popularity of the genre at the time, and investigate the multiplicity of meanings and purposes hidden within these writings; addressing questions of politics, gender, and selfhood.


Mary Vaccaro (University of Texas at Arlington)

Perfect deformity: The ritrattini carichi of the Carracci 

At the end of the sixteenth century, the Carracci family – Lodovico (1555–1619) and his younger cousins Agostino (1557–1602) and Annibale (1560–1609) – founded an influential teaching academy in their native city of Bologna and revived drawing after nature, antiquity, and Renaissance models as a corrective to the “mannerist” work of the previous decades. Their renewed commitment to studies from life also led them to make ritrattini carichi – “loaded little portraits”— that elaborate on the physiognomic and somatic peculiarities of people around them. A number of Seicento written sources explicitly identify the Carracci, and in particular Annibale, as the innovators of caricature, the term “caricatura” appearing in print for what may be the first time in connection with him. He is said to have considered the genre an important measure of the draftsman’s ability to surpass nature and attain perfect deformity (perfetta deformità). This paper will discuss the ritrattini carichi in terms of the broader discourse on creative imitation and explore the satirical as well didactic implications of the Carracci’s use of caricatures. Attention will be paid to how Annibale – by all accounts, ill-suited for life at court and openly disdainful of its pretensions – developed the subversive potential of his lampoons after he joined Cardinal Odoardo Farnese’s household in Rome.


Emily Wilbourne (Queens College, CUNY)

Black Comedy: The ephemeral entertainment of Giovanni Buonaccorsi

Giovanni Buonaccorsi, an enslaved black African chamber singer, was active at the Medici court from 1651 until his death in 1674. Only one poem by Buonaccorsi survives: the Sogno di Giovannino Moro, which is preserved in a single undated manuscript copy held in the Medici archives. The poem is structured for song; it offers an emblematic example of the ephemeral comic performances offered by the court buffoons, a kind of performance that we know happened regularly, though only rarely do we know what or how such performances unfolded. Buonaccorsi’s poem mocks several of the other buffoons and dwarves, the “Buffoni, e Nani,” addressing four in turn with cutting verses that can, in almost all cases, be identified as historical individuals. The snapshot of court life represented in the poem demonstrates a sense of community—both antagonistic and capacious—among a group that Buonaccorsi describes as the “Turchi, e Nani / mal’Cristiani,” and illustrates one individuals use of comic force to carve out his own place in the uneven playing field of the Medici court.