- Women at the Windows: Commedia dell’arte and Theatrical Practice in Early Modern Italy
In a passage from Book 3 of the Discorsi, in the midst of a discussion of the violence that can overtake principalities, Niccolò Machiavelli calls attention to a singularly bizarre episode in Italian history. The incident occurred when conspirators who were formerly citizens of Forlì
killed Count Girolamo, their Lord, and took prisoner his wife and his children, who were little ones. It seemed to them, however, that their lives would scarce be safe unless they could get hold of the citadel, which its governor declined to hand over. So Madonna Caterina [Sforza], as the countess was called, promised the conspirators that, if they would let her go to the citadel, she would arrange for it to be handed over to them. Meanwhile, they were to keep her children as hostages. On this understanding, the conspirators let her go to the citadel, from the walls of which, when she got inside, she reproached them with killing her husband and threatened them with vengeance in every shape and form. And to convince them that she did not mind about her children she exposed her genital members, saying that she was still capable of bearing more. The conspirators, dumbfounded, realized their mistake too late, and paid the penalty for their lack of prudence by suffering perpetual banishment. 1
In a perceptive article on this passage, John Freccero links Caterina not only to Dante’s Medusa above the gate of Dis but to a more pervasive tradition from which Dante plundered, one that can be traced to “those images [on city walls] of divine maternity—welcoming outsiders, offering sanctuary.” 2 Caterina Sforza and Dante’s Medusa demonically invert the welcoming and loving Madonna as they lift their skirts [End Page 323] not to envelop needy pilgrims but to “dumbfound” their enemies with the sight of their “genital members” as the mythological Medusa had dumbfounded hers with the sight of her (sexually suggestive) snaky locks. Experienced in the ways of theatrical spectacle, as witnessed by his Mandragola with its brilliantly sinister revisions of classical comedy or his praise of Cesare Borgia for his bloody display in the Romagna, Machiavelli turns this exhibition into a coup de théâtre. Refusing to elaborate, for example, on what must have been Caterina’s bold denouncement of the conspirators, he leaves us with the stark image of a countess atop her own fortress, a liminal space between the citadel and the piazza, where she employs her womanhood to advantage in a fashion that recalls not so much the Madonna and the Medusa but the only somewhat less spectacular antics of the clever wives in Boccaccio’s Decameron.
One such wife is Monna Ghita, married to the Aretine merchant Tofano, who appears in a tale from Day Seven. She is a striking departure from the type of woman to whom Boccaccio putatively addresses his tales, those who are “too often cooped up within the narrow confines of their rooms.” 3 To get even with her excessively suspicious and jealous husband, Monna Ghita begins to cultivate the affections of a young man in town. “When little remained other than to translate words into action,” she encourages Tofano’s inclination to drink, with the result that he falls into nightly stupors and she is free to escape to consummate the affair. When Tofano finally realizes that he has been tricked, he locks his wife out of the house when she returns early one morning. She in turn threatens to throw herself into the well rather than to face dishonor. Hearing a great splash, the guilt-stricken Tofano rushes outside. But the noise was made only by an enormous rock that Monna Ghita had thrown into the well. While Tofano is anxiously peering into the water, she rushes inside, locks the door on him, and proceeds to denounce her husband from the upstairs window for all the town to hear. Awakened from their sleep, the neighbors round on Tofano and inform his wife’s relatives, who take away their daughter and her dowry and threaten Tofano with worse to come. Tofano finally gets his...