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  • Motherhood and Patriarchal Masculinities in Sixteenth-Century Italian Comedy
  • Sal DiMaria (bio)
Yael Manes . Motherhood and Patriarchal Masculinities in Sixteenth-Century Italian Comedy. Burlington, Vt: Ashgate, 2011. Pp. ix +148. $89.95.

The question of patriarchal ideology dominating medieval and Renaissance society has been a subject of intense scholarly interest in the last half century. Scholars have identified and discussed evidence of cultural male dominance, calling attention to the dismal place women occupied both within the realm of the family and in society. Literary critics have drawn on all sorts of available testimonia, including private letters, treatises, government ordinances, religious sermons, and, of course, literary texts. Their stated purpose has been not so much [End Page 249] to reiterate the prevalence of an entrenched patriarchal ideology as to underscore its dismissal of woman's relevance. Man viewed woman as a lower human species incapable of thinking for herself and hardly adept at making sound decisions. But, whereas evidence based on sermons, ordinances, or statistical data simply reflected or stressed the general perception of woman's inferior status, literary works often dramatized the issue, highlighting women's complaints about their deplorable condition. It was not unusual for a female character in prose narrative or on the dramatic stage to lament that nothing makes her more unhappy than being a woman, "l' esser donna." In some ways, literary texts often served as commentary on the prejudicial dominance of patriarchal ideology, thus bringing up the issue for thoughtful consideration and public debate. In this sense, many authors used their writings not only as a mirror of reality (or society), but also as "a hammer with which to shape it," as Brecht is quoted as saying.

The "hammer" metaphor is particularly relevant in Manes's Motherhood and Patriarchal Masculinities, for Renaissance writers contributed considerably to the growing debate on womanhood, known as the querelle des femmes. She evokes the debate by focusing on the ideology of gender identity informing the theater of the Italian Renaissance. Using the notion of motherhood as her analytical focus, she exposes the inadequacies of the patriarchal assumptions that relegated women to a lower standing. She proceeds to examine the three essential aspects of patriarchy, namely, power, authority, and virtù, noting that patriarchal figures (of the stage) often fail to live up to their presumed roles as patres familias with respect to both their children and their wives. In most instances, it is the mother who fills in for the father's inadequacies, thus revealing the dramatist's intent to call for a reassessment of masculine ideology. Manes limits her discussion to four plays, all based on plots dealing with specific aspects of the family. In Machiavelli's Mandragola, the focus of the first of the book's four chapters, Manes deals with the failures of the play's men, especially Nicia's lack of authority and virtù. Making up for the men's shortcomings are the play's women, Lucrezia and Sostrata. Lucrezia emasculates both Nicia and Callimaco in that by the end of the play she rules over the first and "possesses" the latter by having sex with him. Sostrata, in her role as a concerned and practical mother, comes through as a Machiavellian virtuosa, for not only does she foresee her daughter's predicament, namely, the risk of becoming a childless widow, she also helps to move the action to her desired end.

Another woman, Clizia's Sofronia, the subject of the second chapter, is also viewed as a mother and wife endowed with patriarchal qualities. As her husband falls head over heels for the young ward Clizia, Sofronia takes his place in the family hierarchy and moves to protect the family reputation from a major scandal. Her sense of motherhood (she considers the foundling her own daughter) drives [End Page 250] her to scheme against Nicomaco's plans to bed the young girl. She succeeds to foil the depraved plan that would have jeopardized the girl's future and soiled the family name. Her ability to foresee and prevent the scandal makes her a Machiavellian virtuosa who replaces her husband as the head of the household. From Manes's perspective, Sofronia's rise to...