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  • Discourse of Resistance: The Parody of Feminine Beauty in Berni, Doni and Firenzuola
  • Patrizia Bettella

During the Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophical doctrine contributed to the affirmation of the concepts of love and beauty. Love was perceived as the effect of beauty on the beholder, and physical beauty the outward manifestation of inner beauty, was rehabilitated and prized as the external visible sign of spiritual perfection and goodness. 1

For women, therefore, beauty was the necessary compound of moral virtue. Beautiful women achieved a special status as recipients of Platonic love and were extolled as objects of perfection. In particular, a woman’s physical appearance was expected to conform to stylized and conventional images, a cultural construct derived from literary and pictorial representations far removed from the actual appearance of real women of the time. 2 In literature, perfect feminine beauty is codified through the model proposed by courtly love poems in Petrarchan style, and by courtesy books and tracts.

Around the second half of the sixteenth century, we notice the emergence of a critical discourse which, through the practice of parody, urges a re-examination of the representational models of feminine beauty in literature. Francesco Berni, Anton Francesco Doni and Agnolo Firenzuola, among others, composed paradoxical praises which transgressed the model of representing women’s physical perfection as sanctioned by Petrarchan poetry and Neoplatonic treatises. 3 In this paper I shall first outline the features of perfect physical beauty as they appeared in Petrarca and in his Renaissance imitators, and then I shall focus on texts by Francesco Berni, Anton Francesco Doni and Agnolo Firenzuola, which parodied the models of feminine perfection canonized in the Petrarchan tradition. By using parody and self-parody these authors carried out a discourse of dissent, which [End Page 192] criticized the excessive stylization and conventionality of feminine beauty in literature and thereby showed awareness of the need to revise the canon of physical appearance as produced in literary texts.

As Amedeo Quondam notes, for lyrical poetry “the stereotyped image of the beautiful woman is consciously non-mimetic,” it does not imitate nature and is therefore not realistic. 4 In literature feminine beauty derives its canon from the descriptions of the beloved in lyrical poetry. The woman who provided the literary model of physical perfection and moral dignity in lyrical poetry was Francesco Petrarca’s Laura. The lady of the Rime sparse gained the status of universal paragon of beauty and elegance for centuries of lyrical poetry. Laura possessed the features that every woman of high rank and perfect grace should have. Remarkably, for a woman who stands as a model of physical beauty, Laura’s body was never described in a full and detailed portrait. As critics noted, her descriptio is fragmentary and selective; in the sonnets and other short metric formats, Laura’s portrait includes only certain parts of her face: golden hair, rosy cheeks, ruby lips, pearly teeth, shiny eyes. 5 Hands and/or breast complete the portrait, which Giovanni Pozzi considers the standard form of the “short canon.” 6

Poetry in the Petrarchan style thrived during the Renaissance, thanks to the practice of imitation. Further sanction came about when Pietro Bembo glorified Petrarca’s poetry and use of the vernacular as the canonical model of lyrical style in his Prose della volgar lingua (Venice, 1525). Bembo, as main artificer of the Petrarchan revival, authored himself a copious amount of rime petrarchiste. 7 Following Bembo’s stated predilection, Laura’s features of perfect beauty became the conventional model for the Petrarchisti, and the sonnet was the preferred metrical format.

In prose the most famous and authoritative work which details feminine beauty in full is Agnolo Firenzuola’s Dialogo delle bellezze delle donne. 8 Firenzuola, frequenter of the papal court of Leo X, was well-versed in the rules of Renaissance Neoplatonic doctrine. In his Delle bellezze, inspired by the style of the Platonic dialogue, a man and four women discuss the theme of feminine beauty. In this dialogo, that Jacob Burckhardt had already referred to as a “remarkable work on female beauty,” Firenzuola catalogues the various “beauties” of women through a full-length investigation in the form of a discussion on the attributes...

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