PhD Thesis: Cultural Codes and Hierarchies in the Mid-Cinquecento Villotta

The villotta is a song in Venetian or Paduan dialect, typically for four voices. This thesis examines the villotta as a construction of sexualised rusticity and proposes implications this has for the dedicatees or sponsors of three printed collections of villotte. The dedicatees, the initial target audience of these books, inhabit a social milieu far removed from the rustic world evoked by the titles and contents of the publications. This project uses these books to explore issues of hierarchy in musical culture, to scrutinise cinquecento sexual representation in song and to investigate the performance of identity in the elite, predominately homosocial circles from which they originate.

There are at least three tiers of indecencies in the villotta: overt sexual content; obscene allusions achieved through musico-textual devices; or the use of sexual metaphor that exceeds the death=orgasm trope. Employing Jean Toscan’s comprehensive study of equivocal poetry, I demonstrate that many villotte draw on a vast contemporaneous erotic lexicon referring to sexual practices then considered socially dangerous, such as sodomy. Equivocal poetry allows the simultaneous perception of multiple meanings, that is the surface meaning and one or more layers encoded in the language. The virtuosity of the author in manipulating these metaphors and the composer’s skill in revealing or concealing the erotic content are meanings in their own right.

I assess the categories used to describe sexual language and argue that the concealment and revelation of indecency is closely related to the art of sprezzatura necessary in court and academy alike. In polite company, musical eroticism—particularly when so closely associated with rusticity—becomes a test of gentility. By responding with the requisite degree of nonchalance, gentlemen and gentlewomen demonstrate their status and sophistication.

Doctoral dissertation. University of Southampton, 2004.

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