Imitating the rustic and revealing the noble

Alvise Castellino called ‘the Venetian furrier’ dedicated his Primo libro delle villotte (Venice: Gardano, 1541) to Ercole II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. The dedication demonstrates Castellino’s preoccupation with hierarchy: he contrasts his own base status to the exalted rank of the Duke, and declares his pieces are not ‘run off in the way of Josquin’, but are an imitation of rustic flowers and fruits. These in turn are contrasted with foods of a royal banquet. Indeed, Castellino’s villotte might have been sung at courtly banquets: the songs share subject material with the comedies of Ruzante (Angelo Beolco), who is known to have delighted Ferrarese banquet guests in 1529. Castellino’s texts present a male view of heterosexual relationships in which all women—daughters, wives, widows and courtesans—are sexually available, although some only for the right price.

Male power—exerted or thwarted, appropriated or resisted—is a central theme of the book, from the opening text which simultaneously celebrates and criticises Ercole, through to the many songs that concern sexual relations. A country girl’s rape by a city man ‘In un bel pra fiorito’ apparently reinforces traditional power relations between the city and the countryside it dominates: however, the attack is not consequence-free (in this context, perhaps alluding to Ferrarese determination to resist the attempts of outside forces to meddle in their affairs). Female power is presented as a destabilising force in ‘La mi fa balare’. Drawing on the contemporaneous erotic lexicon and on humoral theory, this song can be understood as an expression of male anxiety over heterosexual intercourse: the first person speaker loses all his power to a sexually dominant woman.

Castellino’s association of his villotte with the base and rustic is consistent with Pietro Bembo’s division of Italian vernacular poetry into high, middle and low styles. The villotte, with their depictions of sexual activity improper to noblemen (according to the Ferrarese writer Giraldi Cinzio), are firmly in the lower end of the spectrum. ‘Low’ and ‘high’ are co-dependent—there cannot be one without the other. Indeed, these binarisms are co-constructed, as the discussion of masquerade in Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano demonstrates. A young man appearing as an elderly man might wear a costume that enhances his lithe physique. Castellino’s villotte might have functioned as a disguise by means of which nobility revealed their true identity.

Castellino’s consistent emphasis on low status and rusticity suggests this may have been a useful selling-point rather than a source of shame. That Castellino obtained a printing privilege further suggests the collection held some intrinsic value. If Ercole II enjoyed the songs at his court and sponsored the publication, he had a hand in this construction of the low and rustic. By sponsoring Castellino’s imitation of rustic flowers and fruits, Ercole constructed his own identity as masculine ruler. More importantly, the Duke’s patronage served to sanction and contain the threats to masculine authority in the songs. By demonstrating he was impervious to such threats, he displayed the extent of his own masculine power.

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