- Machiavelli in Love: Sex, Self, and Society in the Italian Renaissance
Guido Ruggiero is professor in and chair of the Department of History at the University of Miami and one of our most distinguished scholars in the history of Renaissance sexuality, particularly in Venice. His 1985 The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice plumbed crime reports to reflect upon the meanings and makeup of sex for fourteenth- and fifteenth-century citizens on the lagoon.1 It was followed in 1993 by Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage, and Power at the End of the Renaissance.2 We see in that title, again and not coincidentally, the etymon signaling a motif of Ruggiero’s scholarship: the ambition to uncover and articulate how passions in the Renaissance were, as he likes to put it (with perhaps a soupçon of kink), “bound”—how individuals thought about and self-regulated their sexual actions, how friends and social groups reflected those realities, and how public institutions monitored and delimited the same.
This careful, local work on sexual realities in one Italian city in a single historical period appeared around the time that larger revolutionary ideas aimed at upending the very notion of sexuality were issuing from across the Alps (Foucault died in 1984). Important urban sexual histories have followed—notable among them, Michael Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence.3 Unlike Rocke and many of the urban studies since, same-sex desire and (male) sodomy have never been Ruggiero’s exclusive focus. But I think it’s fair to say that male same-sex desire—particularly as it impacts broader Renaissance notions of manhood and social status—has been a continual point of reference. In this, Machiavelli in Love is no exception. Notably, in the vexed matter of sexual identity in history, Ruggiero has subtly resisted the sometimes automatic assertion that, well, nothing like it ever existed. For all the important qualifications and distinctions to be made between now and then, it’s clear from his work (and any number of works of Italian Renaissance literature, frankly) that some men, for instance, always had a reputation, at least, for preferring other men. And that this constituted something like an identity.
Ruggiero is very tuned in to the idea of identity in the Renaissance as a public performance of sorts that was regularly reworked for the various and overlapping social groups an individual inhabits (something he refers to as “consensus realities”). Alternative to his persona as supreme calculator, the aging Machiavelli in thrall to a beautiful young mistress lacked self-control and was self-deprecating, which is to say, he was decidedly un-Machiavellian. A historian by trade, Ruggiero has always been exceptionally open to literary readings, and this is more true of the current book than [End Page 571] any previous. His announced intention here is to have some fun mixing it up with many of the texts (literary, archival, documentary) he has studied and taught over the years: Boccaccio, Aretino, Machiavelli, court records and crime reports, commedia dell’arte, proceedings of the Venetian Holy Office, novellas, letters, erudite comedies. He embraces a certain promiscuity of source and method from the start in hopes of making some fresh inroads on what is sometimes already rather well tread terrain. The six main chapters of Machiavelli in Love are more like personal essays (Ruggiero invokes Montaigne) intended to inspire with suggestion more than clinch a concrete argument.
“Of Birds, Figs, and Sexual Identity in the Renaissance, or The Marescalco’s Boy Bride” is the typically allusive title of chapter 1. It includes a description in Tommaso Garzoni of the Renaissance game of “the bird pecking the fig” (presumably a pun on heterosexual intercourse); a quick look at sexual roles in marriage as portrayed in Aretino’s Dialogues; a plea for more nuanced readings of Foucault; a useful typology of sexual identity (female and male) in the Renaissance; and a dip into...