- Reviewed by
Courtney Quaintance's book focuses on the social and literary collaboration though which male writers of the patriciate and the middling sort in sixteenth-century Venice benefited from their membership in the network of relationships around the patrician Domenico Venier. She begins by exploring how writers in this circuit, or aspiring to it, built, reinforced, and publicized their bonds with one another by attacking what they depicted as venal female sexuality (the whore) in genres including letters, plays, fiction, and dialogues published or circulated in manuscript. Her primary example is a dialogue in a manuscript anthology of the 1540s, now in the British Library, in which Venier and Benetto Corner exchanged poems in Venetian dialect about Elena Aretusi, who had been the lover of them both. Quaintance argues that this manuscript reveals the two writers' complicity in turning their rivalry into collaboration by exchanging poems of shared anger at Aretusi: by directing their jealousy at her, they reversed the erotic power she had held over them.
Quaintance moves beyond the feverish intimacy of this exchange to analyze more broadly how homosocial bonding in the Venier coterie advanced the social ambitions of its male participants, a dynamic she sees operating in other Venetian texts written in an explicit spirit of gang rape. An example is Lorenzo Venier's "La Zaffetta," a tale of the collective ritual and display of power in the rape of a Venetian courtesan by a crowd of her rejected clients. Quaintance's argument is that such fantasies and textual performances were not one of a kind: the circulation in dialect and manuscript of such attacks on women's lust and avarice reinforced male camaraderie up and down the social scale. Her familiarity with [End Page 152] research on literary salons and other semi-public coteries such as civic academies adds historical depth to her argument. Aretino, as might be expected, is everywhere in the book, but so are lesser-known writers such as the Sicilian priest Girolamo Ferlito, who mocked Gaspara Stampa as a whore. Many of the texts Quaintance analyzes are shocking, but she presents them without prudery, on one hand, or sniggering on the other.
The book ranges widely, using the political, social, and cultural history of Venice and models of literary collaboration among men of different ranks to investigate the psycho-sexual texture of pornography as it was channeled through the male-male structure of coterie culture. The chapters on the Venier salon draw together much recent research on the interplay between manuscript and print anthologies, using previous and new biographies to clarify the diverse categories of rank and wealth among the members of the group. Among many studies of academies and salons in early modern cities in Italy and beyond, what's new in this book is the demonstration that such writing in Venice, from texts written in elite academies to graffiti on walls, was ferociously misogynist.
The book is balanced and subtle, however, sparing its readers repeated denunciations of the sexual aggression in the work of admired Venetians. Rather, Quaintance's discussion of Venetian texts in different registers and her specific, thoughtful close readings provide strong evidence for her argument that the elegant or comic surfaces of such texts overlaid murderous contempt for women; they were more than witty games. The high social status of many men in the circuits in which such writing was produced gave social clout to such attitudes, exemplified in their mockery and exclusion of poets such as Veronica Franco, Gaspara Stampa, and even the noblewoman Veronica Gambara. Quaintance's writing is consistently lucid and approachable, including her impressive synthesis of writers on masculinity from Freud and Foucault through Eve Sedgwick and David LaGuardia. Her modern, pared-down and precise translations – for example, the "bulo" as "super-thug" – do full justice to little-known and often hair-raising texts. The book thus makes a valuable contribution not only to scholarship on the Italian Renaissance, but to the trans-European Renaissance more broadly, and, in its analysis of homosocial bonding, to the...