Power, Pornography and Entertainment in a Cinquecento Academy

Although controlled by Venice from 1404, mid-cinquecento Vicenza was a city of independent spirit. As in other republican cities in the Veneto, the structure of the academy replaced the court as the space for fostering both culture and identity. The Accademia dei Costanti—a group of Vicentine noblemen whose families harboured anti-Venetian feeling—attempted to regain an element of autonomy by pursuing courtly ideals in their work as in their play. In addition to philosophical discussions and literary pursuits, the academicians made music and played games in an intimate setting reminiscent of the modern gentlemen’s club.


The Costanti’s political sympathies are reflected in a volume of villotte alla padoana that bears their impresa. The collection includes references to treason and exile; however, throughout the political allusions are overshadowed by playful sexual metaphors. The villotte’s bawdy dialect verse challenges our preconceptions of “academic” activites, suggesting private rather than public performance, for entertainment rather than edification. Publication problematizes these works, for sentiments acceptable in private may become significant and unacceptable when placed in public space.


As Paula Findlen has demonstrated, the audience for what we now term “pornography” and “art” was one and the same: the literate, monied élite. The Costanti may have commissioned madrigals from prominent composers, but they were also involved in the anonymous production of obscene songs. Giorgio Vasari’s comments on the erotica of Marcantonio Raimondi, differentiating between onesto and disonesto, provide a framework for a culturally sensitive approach to these songs—which bind politics and pornography for entertainment.

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