Imitating the Rustic and Revealing the Noble: Masculine Power and Music at the Court of Ferrara

In 1541 one Alvise Castellino (nicknamed “the Venetian Furrier”), a now otherwise unknown actor, singer, and composer, dedicated his Primo libro delle villote (Venice: Gardano) to Ercole II d’Este, the fourth duke of Ferrara. The twenty-nine strophic dialect songs depict lower-ranking men and women, situated outside the court, pursuing amorous relationships varying from a parody of courtly love to sexual liaisons. The opening song in praise of Ercole II directly addresses noble masculinities, and indeed male power is an important theme in the book: several songs involve challenges to male authority. Many of these provocations come from women, but there are also some examples of men challenging their social superiors. I have argued elsewhere that the collection’s unusual number of songs in the female literary voice may have had a particular resonance at the ducal court as Ercole struggled to control the voices of the duchess, Renée de France (daughter of Louis XII and sister-in-law and second cousin of François I) and her companion, Madame de Soubise. In light of these challenges and the social distance between the rank of the book’s dedicatee and the status of the song characters, Castellino’s song collection invites exploration of hierarchy and power, and consideration of its relationship to Ercole’s status and authority as ruler. These villotte, possibly first performed at banquets in the 1530s prior to publication, offered Ercole the opportunity to display his pro-Imperial leanings and his ability to handle criticism. He demonstrated his power by authorizing the use of sexual innuendo in polite company and in the presence of women. Finally, the duke’s patronage served to sanction and contain the threats to masculine authority in the songs. By taking a benevolent attitude toward criticism, he showed himself impervious to such threats and displayed the extent of his own masculine authority.

In Eroticism in Early Modern Music, ed. Bonnie J. Blackburn and Laurie Stras (Ashgate, 2015), 83–114.

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