Pastoral Askew and Aslant: Ruzzante’s Historico-Theatrical Consciousness

Ruzzante Takes the Stage

If we think of Venice as a massive epicenter of comedic theatre in the early sixteenth century, then we can also acknowledge that few playwrights’ humors have sent as many tremors from Venice into the present moment as that of the Padua-born Angelo Beolco, aka il Ruzzante. A discovery of 12 forgotten Plautine comedies in the early fifteenth century launched Venetian artists and scholars into a feverish study of ancient drama and may account for the sway that Venice held over the creation and publication of stage comedies (Radcliff-Umstead 34). Likewise, the tradition of commedia dell’arte improvisation spanning from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries made Venice famous for its theatrical offerings, particularly during the annual event of Carnevale. Able to expand on the inherited classical dramatic framework and to infuse polished, finished play texts with vitality, Beolco stands out from the comedians who came before and after him. Familiar with the treasure trove of Plautus and Terence, the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, the erudite humanistic creations of Sienna’s literary circle, and the pastoral literature epitomized by Jacopo Sannazaro and Pietro Bembo, Beolco made a name for himself by crafting complex pastiches of all the in-vogue dramatic fare while simultaneously representing (in both the political and aesthetic senses of that term) the rural peasantry of his native Padua.1 His savvy, often bold commentary on contemporary politics, irreverent humor, ability to texturize the familiar stock characters of classical drama, and commitment to the militancy of © The Author(s) 2017

W. Daddario, Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy,

Performance Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49523-1_3

humor explain how Beolco went on to influence commedia dell’arte performers from Andrea Calmo to Carlo Goldoni as well as the Nobel Laureate Dario Fo and his wife Franca Rame.2 For the purposes of this chapter, however, I want to look beyond Beolco’s identity as a playwright and begin to understand him as a quasi-clandestine philosopher of aesthetics engaged purposefully in critiquing the world in which he lived. Doing this will, in turn, illustrate Beolco’s baroque detournement of the pastoral.

Building on the work of the previous chapter, I illustrate Ruzzante’s awareness of the ways in which the Venice-Padua relationship of the early sixteenth century corresponded to the aesthetic and literary might of the pastoral genre; indeed, how the latter contributed to the infrastructure of class identity that would, in turn, contribute to the continuing domination of the rural peasantry by the oligarchic Venetian upper classes at a time when Venice’s land-holdings became more and more vital to the health of the Republic. Additionally, folded into the multiverse of Pastoral (a multilingual, self-aware theatrical space housing competing worldviews) I see a philosophical outlook that anticipates and modifies, avant la lettre, the Leibnizian cosmogony of compossibles that will eventually become a hallmark of baroque thinking. Beolco’s Pastoral, treated in this way, transforms into a baroque pastoral. In this form, acerbic humor and savvy literary references collaborate to expose not only a flimsy class identity posited on elevated language and privileged educational background but also a world-changing devaluation of nature. Whereas the pastoral works of Tasso and the gardens of Valsanzibio praised a natural world that benefited all those whose intellect could help to master its secrets, Beolco’s baroque pastoral recognized in this same nature a force that would destroy the peasants and all those who actually made their living from the land. This was the case because the “nature” Beolco saw in the pastoral was not nature at all but, rather, a man-made cultural mechanism intended to advance the livelihoods of the urban upper classes at the expense of the rural lower classes.

Of course, as with all historiographical operations, attempting to unfold the text, reanimate its historical situation, translate its vernacular, and espy this baroque pastoral requires acknowledging and moving through the turbulence that spans the present moment and 1521, the year of Pastoral’s debut. Scholars know that nine years passed between the death of Beolco in 1542 and the publication of the first editions of his collected works, and that, therefore, the fingerprints of his first editor Stefano di Alessi and patron Alvise Cornaro surely stain the manuscript of Pastoral that lives in the Venetian Marciana library today (Rhodes 1). Likewise, despite the assiduous efforts of Ruzzante scholars, from Ludovico Zorzi and Emilio Lovarini to Nancy Dersofi and Linda L. Carroll, the glue binding Ruzzante’s many jokes to the specific social events of his time has by now rubbed off, leaving an unbound compilation of humorous signifiers without decisive antecedents. Add to this mixture of riddling circumstances the particularities of the Paduan dialect and the effort of distinguishing signal from noise in the comedic language of Beolco’s first play becomes all the more difficult. The entrance into Pastoral, then, resembles the entrance into a ruin of a multicursal labyrinth where the center to which the paths lead may no longer exist and the paths themselves may abruptly stop or simply trail off. Like Poliphilus in Colonna’s magnum opus, we can expect a convoluted journey through a terrain that rolls back on itself even as it stretches out in front of us.

The most well-tended path into Pastoral leads through and displays what I call Beolco’s creative genealogy. His acting troupe, most often composed of five men and two women, all amateurs, frequently appeared at festivities for important Venetian patricians (Radcliff-Umstead 35, 38). The collective nature of Beolco’s theatrical offerings suggests that he relied upon and seems to have enjoyed creating his work with others. As an individual figure, though, the particular character of Ruzzante created by Beolco belongs to a lineage dating back at least to the thirteenth century and the figure of Matazone da Caligano, who stands in as the creator of the genre known as satira del villano. Nicolino Applauso’s research on Matazone (literally, the “motley fool”) reveals the lofty (or lowly, depending on one’s perspective) origin of villano characters: Matazone’s comedic country yokel and all who followed descend from the fart of a donkey (Applauso 607-608). As Charles E. Fantazzi and others have discovered, Ruzzante acknowledges his flatulent ancestors in plays such as the Anconitana where he says that his name derived from ruzzare, a word that means “to romp around” and alludes somewhat ambiguously to the sexual relations between peasants and their animals (Fantazzi 83). The word “villano” itself does not connote a villain; rather, it names the base, uneducated, and rude (rozzo) behavior grafted onto farmers and other rural folk by poets and playwrights of the medieval era. Thus, apparently aware of the image into which he stepped, Beolco created Ruzzante, a loud, troublesome peasant unburdened by the stigma of bestiality, to take up and challenge stereotypes of the satira del villano

that Matazone had created. Beolco, as Ruzzante, took the stage for the first time in Pastoral.

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