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  • The Petrarchan Lover in Cinquecento Comedy
  • Kristin Phillips-Court

[. . .] and Petrarch is being crucified by those who write glosses of his poems.

—Pietro Aretino, Cortigiana, 1534

Petrarch, Italy's cherished love poet, did not know Plato's Symposium or Phaedo. However, drawing inspiration from Book Ten of Augustine's Confessions, Petrarch's character Augustinus in the Secretum cites Plato on the care of souls:

For what does the celestial doctrine of Plato admonish except that the soul should be pushed away from the lusts of the body, and their images eradicated so that purely and rapidly it may arise toward a deeper vision of the secrets of divinity, to which contemplation of one's own mortality is rightly attached?1

The "lusts of the body," about which Augustinus speaks, were for Petrarch poetic glory and earthly love. These entangled desires, and their mediation through lyric poetry in Petrarch's Canzoniere, gave rise again to the idea of the philosopher-poet whose personal experience of [End Page 117] love would stand for universal experience and even historical change. Petrarch referred to himself alternately as poet, moral philosopher, historian, and rhetorician, and it is perhaps for this reason that early modern and modern thinkers alike identify Petrarch as the driving force behind Renaissance self-determination.

In Italian Renaissance literature, role-playing became part of the Petrarchan charge, as Petrarch himself had engaged in role identifications as a means of philosophical investigation. The Petrarchan lover in Italian comedy is a pale shadow of the lyric poet who was also a moral philosopher, a historian, and a rhetorician. As a negative ethical model, the aging lover-poet that appears in a number of Cinquecento comedies proves to be more than just the butt of the joke that his own role-playing generates. The derided Petrarchan lover, who becomes a fixture in the Italian cultural tradition, also signals a broader cultural critique of the problematic equation between philosophical and aesthetic ideals and social practice. This critique can be seen in the lover's ludic superficiality, which is anchored in his poetic language. The aging lover invites depreciatory judgment throughout sixteenth-century comedy for a number of reasons. For one, his presence in comedy signals an underlying ethical concern, as his actions counter the kind of moral and material autonomy that were said to support civic duty.2 Further, Cinquecento Italian comedy brings into focus the way in which the Petrarchan lover eschews any notion of universality or moral ascendancy that poetry might provide by remaining focused on baser ends.

Looking at examples of poetic speeches by lovers in Bibbiena's La Calandria (1513), Jacopo Nardi's I Due Felici Rivali (1513), Ruzzante's L'Anconitana (1533), Aretino's La cortigiana (1525 and 1534), Piccolomini's L'Alessandro (1544) and Bruno's Candelaio (1582), this essay considers how the Petrarchan lover's falsification of verse and misdirected passion playfully subvert the seeking of self that was central to Petrarch's Canzoniere, as well as the social application of Petrarchan and neo-Platonic ideals as promoted by sixteenth-century writers Pietro Bembo and Baldassare Castiglione. When Bibbiena's Calandro mixes his metaphors in Calandria ("Thief of my eyes"), or Aretino's Maco recites an epigram in praise of himself in Cortigiana ("O gorgeous boy, with your pipe you meditate upon the muse"), the [End Page 118] results are humorous indeed.3 The social implications that arise from the lover's posturing focalize comedy's function as a mirror of custom and repository of human virtue and vice. With the appearance of the verse-mangling lover, comedy joins other forms of satirical literature that debase high genres like epic poetry or lofty discourses offered by rhetoricians and philosophers. Did comic theater constitute a less probable instrument for philosophical investigation than tragedy or allegorical narrative in the Renaissance?4 What were the attitudes towards comedy of accomplished writers and poets, whether they were mild or rebellious by disposition? How did comic closure, and the elimination of complexity, work for or against comedy's ethical drives?5

One way to identify some of comedy's key intellectual ingredients is to affirm what Laura Giannetti and Guido Ruggiero have rightly claimed...


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