Situating the Pastoral
From the first play to the last, the ambivalent gesture of acquiescing in the derogatory image of rural peasants while simultaneously disenchanting or challenging the audience who would happily consume such images pervades Beolco’s/Ruzzante’s work. Applauso distinguishes between a nega- tiva and a positiva tradition of the satira del villano for precisely this reason: some depictions of the countryside in fifteenth and sixteenth- century comedic theatre and pastoral literature serve the purpose of extolling the civility and education of the aristocracy, while others, Fo-like, try to punch that same aristocracy in the face (Applauso 607). Matazone walked the line between the two genres, and Ruzzante’s work, especially in the Pastoral, seems to take the same route. Beolco’s first play, after all, entertained a decidedly erudite audience, likely students at the recently reconvened University of Padua, which had re-opened its doors in 1517 following a span of years troubled by endless war (Zorzi 1286). On the side of the negativa, Beolco’s/Ruzzante’s awareness of his university- student audience admits to the possibility that Pastoral gives the privileged audiences what they want, namely an appropriately disparaging portrait of the Padua peasant, embodied in Ruzzante, who always speaks of food, does little work, jabbers incessantly, and excoriates all pretenders to the high-language of pastoral poetry and university jargon. On the side of the positiva, however, Ruzzante’s blatant political manifestos offered in his later works, especially the Prima and seconda oratione, coupled with the numerous attacks against the pseudo-Epicurean good life espoused by his noble patron Alvise Cornaro, point to a theatre constructed for the purpose of advocating on behalf of the lower classes. Even in Pastoral, Ruzzante’s crassness serves a specific purpose. Behind every appearance lurks a political consequence. In terms of the lifestyle of those residing in the countryside of Padua, Beolco/Ruzzante frequently spoils the presumed certainties of the better-off.
As Carroll and many other scholars have noted, the Pastoral deserves attention for multiple reasons, including: (1) its numerous references to the existing pastoral genre that prove Beolco’s status as (in Danielle Boillet’s words) a buon scolaro, a good student of contemporary literary and theatrical vocabularies and ideologies; (2) the play’s deviations from the existing norms of that same pastoral tradition and the social commentary arrived at via those deviations; and (3) the text’s complex imbrication of multiple strata of daily life, from the quarrel between speakers of various dialects vying for dominance in the Veneto to the roles both the upper and lower classes had to inhabit at this crucial turning point in Venetian history (Boillet; Carroll Angelo Beolco).
By 1521, the elite of Venice had only recently started to adapt to the 1516 Treaty of Noyon that resulted from the crushing defeat dealt to the Republic by the League of Cambrai. After a back-and-forth battle with the League and the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, Venice had succeeded in re-claiming Padua, but, nonetheless, had to look ahead to a future that would require a different political and economic strategy than the one that had secured the small island mastery of the spice routes into Europe. Beolco’s pro-Padua rhetoric, perhaps because of this geopolitical instability, enjoyed great success on the mainland Veneto territory, while his raunchiness also slipped by the censors in Venice proper, at least in the early part of his career (Carroll 7). At the same time as this political recalibration, the Veneto continued slogging through an equally important cultural war fought beneath the banner of the questione della lingua. What language best conveyed the brilliance of Italian literary artistry? Each powerhouse had its spokesperson: Machiavelli voted for the Tuscan of Florence; Baldesar Castiglione advocated for a composite dialect that represented the contemporary intermixing of cosmopolitan urban centers such as Venice; and Pietro Bembo urged a return to the language of Petrarch and Boccaccio (Radcliff-Umstead 41). The linguistic form and topical content of Pastoral bears traces of both the post-Cambrai Venetian political identity and the linguistic feud of Renaissance Italy.
The Company of the Immortals, one of the numerous so-called Stocking Troupes (Compagnie della Calza) that preceded the commedia dell’arte organizations, sponsored the Pastoral, and Alvise Cornaro likely housed the performance inside his palazzo. (Cornaro’s outdoor loggia on which Ruzzante would later appear would not come into existence until 1524.) The play presents the young Ruzzante as an Arcadian, which Fantazzi helpfully distinguishes from Ruzzante the Utopian. “The Arcadian, at least, does not pretend that he can make his world happen for others. His is a personal, narcissistic dream, an escape from the harsh realities of civilized life. The Utopian, on the other hand, especially in his modern guise, would force his schemes upon nature and man, and involve everyone in his new ordering of the world” (81). This setting in Arcadia, moreover, exists in at least two places at once. The setting unfolds within the world of the play, but it also exists as the backdrop of the audience’s world; that is, the Pastoral depicts and coincides with an encounter between pastoral wilderness, an urban university campus, and rural farm- scapes. Beolco’s first play shares a common trait with the rest of his works; namely, it takes place in multiple settings all at once by merit of the playwright’s ability to suture theatrical reality to the world offstage, the world into which both performers and audience would have to return when the show was over. The term “world” functions here in much the same way as it does in the work of Alain Badiou, where it denotes a “situation of being” and a “logic of being there” (cit. Shaw 618). The Padua inhabited by the audience of Pastoral has little in common with the Padua glimpsed poetically through the setting of Pastoral. Whereas the students inhabiting the former experience Padua through the situation of the university, with its semi-autonomy as a home to secular beliefs and (arguably) blasphemous philosophical stances earned from its reputation as Europe’s best school, the rural villano inhabiting the latter Padua finds himself hemmed in by a lack of food, a class hierarchy that puts doctors above farmers, and, as later plays will demonstrate, a strict obedience to Church rules and regulations. Each situation gives birth to a different logic, and the resulting logics do not usually synch up. This asynchronicity accounts for much of the humor in the play.
Within the dramatic setting of Pastoral, Beolco creates representatives for each of these worlds. The nymph Siringa and the shepherds Milesio, Mopso, Arpino, and Lacerto dwell within a pastoral realm subject to the logic of pastoral poetry. The medic, master Francesco, and his servant, Bertuolo, operate in the world of scholastic Padua, one sustained by the medical arts familiar to the audience of students. Ruzzante and Zilio bring the third world forward as typical peasants, a world of scarcity masked behind something like a resigned frivolity. Any neat separation between these worlds, however, collapses by merit of their sharing the stage space. The theatre itself (i.e., the room within Cornaro’s palazzo and wherever else the play may have popped up), constitutes a fourth world, the autonomy of which Beolco handicaps through Ruzzante’s direct address to the audience and his appearance in a prologue that binds the spectators to the shepherds, doctor, and villani. What Lionel Abel and subsequent commentators will call metatheatre cannot, without great anachronism, affix itself to this theatre. The presentational form of theatre offered in Pastoral shaped most theatrical offerings of the time, though (as metatheatrical language will eventually put it) the character of Ruzzante certainly has awareness of himself as a character in this play and the work as a whole seems to acknowledge the fluid line between audience and actors, especially at the end when Ruzzante offers an explicit invitation for everyone to join together in a dance.
Beolco’s play belongs to the archetypes that Angela Ndalianis and others eventually call upon in their studies of the neobaroque aesthetic phenomena of the twentieth century. Ndalianis notes specific qualities shared, for example, by Spanish and Latin American scholars of the neobaroque: “fragmented structure that recalls the form of a labyrinth; open rather than closed form; a complexity and layering evident, for example, in the merging of genres and literary forms [... ]; a world in which dream and reality are indistinguishable; a view of the illusory nature of the world—a world as theatre; a virtuosity revealed through stylistic flourish and allusion; and a self-reflexivity that requires active audience engagement” (15). Direct and indirect citations to existing pastoral plays reveal the serial nature of the Pastoral, its awareness of itself as a copy of a copy of a supposedly original form of pastoral poetry accepted by the literati of Renaissance Italy. Ruzzante’s opening prologue demonstrates the subservient position of plot and Beolco’s preference for a dissonance of worlds. It also blends dream and waking life straight away since the impetus for the prologue comes from a dream from which Ruzzante has supposedly just awoken. With that indistinguishable boundary between dream and waking realities comes a distrust of nature, and this distrust (marked by the term snaturale, a neologism of Beolco’s creation) will amount to a critique delivered directly to the audience. Together, all of these attributes begin to display the baroque quality of Beolco’s pastoral work.
Beolco actually includes two prologues to the play, one in the Paduan dialect and one in an excessively florid language reminiscent of Bembo’s preferred version ofTuscan. Similar to the tradition ofRoman comedy, each prologue gives a summary of the plot. Instead of a young and potent shepherd, a typical feature in the tradition of Sannazarian pastorals, Beolco introduces the aged and decrepit Milesio. Onstage, the shepherd encounters the nymph Siringa. Unlike her literary descendants, however, this Siringa speaks plainly with her biting, Tuscan tongue and makes quick work of the shepherd’s advances by describing him to his face as “pien d’ogni tristicia” (full of every sadness) and appraising him as “seigionto nel senile impacio” (having arrived in senile awkwardness) (Ruzzante Pastoral, 29). Siringa leaves the stage quickly, never to return, but not before offering a final stab: “Va' cerca, come i vechii pernigoni, como i toipari, e non mi darpiu noglia. Che posto fuste in obscure pregioni!” (Go off in search of someone more suited to you, like your old pernicious peers do, and don’t annoy me anymore. What a dark prison I’ve been placed in [by having to meet you]!) (31).
Milesio does not take this well. While decrying the cruelness of Love, a second shepherd, Mopso, enters and attempts to pacify his friend by running off to find Siringa. Left alone, Milesio takes the only option befitting his unfortunate state: he kills himself. Re-entering the scene, Mopso finds the horrible sight of what he believes to be his friend’s forlorn corpse and collapses as a result of it. In a few short pages, Beolco has ridiculed the typical pastoral co-dependence between love and death (exemplified in Tasso’s L'Aminta) by suggesting that sometimes love has no remedy. Not even the gesture of self-sacrifice can save an old, impotent shepherd from saucy nymphs and unrequited love. The growing pile of shepherds’ bodies on the stage attracts another when Arpino enters and, after mentioning a dark omen he has experienced in a recent dream, joins the fray. More capable of controlling his emotions, Arpino laments only his inability to bury the two shepherds on account of having nobody to help out. In the blink of an eye, a fourth shepherd, Lacerto, enters and provides the elbow grease needed to dispose properly of the bodies.
After some deliberation, Arpino and Lacerto decide to bury the bodies “ tra fronde e fiori” (between fronds and flowers) outside of the temple of Pan, which Beolco has placed on one side of the visible playing area, presumably as a visual reference to the familiar pastorals of the time. Through the dithering that results from emotive pastoral monloguing, Lacerto starts to worry that he has spent too much time away from his flock and so he runs off before the two men can complete the burial. Arpino finds himself in his previous position and, thus, Beolco showcases the inertia caused by pastoral dramatic language. Everything seems to grind to a halt beneath long laments to the pagan powers of the universe. Soon, however, the play receives a jolt when Ruzzante stumbles onto the scene and thus into the proto-melodrama of love suicides. The clash between the worlds of the pastoral and Ruzzante’s Padua leads straight to farce since neither Arpino nor Ruzzante can understand one another. Eventually persuaded to help bury the bodies by what he believes to be an offer of free bread, Ruzzante starts to help Arpino despite his concern that these shepherds have died from the plague and may be contagious. When he eventually rolls up his sleeves he quickly discovers that the shepherds are not actually dead, they have merely fainted.
Since the problem at hand now seems to have a ready-made solution, Ruzzante and Arpino attempt to enlist the help of a doctor. Master Francesco arrives onstage after more frantic antics and miscommunication, thereby introducing another layer of misunderstanding. The doctor’s questions, methods, and remedies strike Ruzzante as bizarre, and Beolco dedicates nearly the entire last half of the play to the skirmishes between these two characters, spliced together with conversations about excessive eating delivered by Ruzzante and his compatriot Zilio. Finally, Milesio and Mopso (the first two shepherds) appear to show signs of recovery. No one single cause explains their revival: Pan may have interceded thanks to Arpino’s orations, though master Francesco’s science may equally have presented a diagnosis and cure. So as not to anger the supernatural forces that may or may not be at work, the characters all offer a sacrificial lamb to Pan, thereby bringing the play back around to the pseudo-pastoral key in which its opening notes resounded.
Almost every scholarly treatment of this play since the late nineteenth century has pointed to the mixing of worlds presented by its three sets of characters, and to the amazingly diverse series of references to pastoral literature that Beolco packaged together for his audience’s entertainment. Nancy Dersofi, for example, dedicates a significant portion of her book Arcadia and the Stage to understanding the world palimpsest (35-50). Antonio Daniele locates specific references in style and content to Boiardo, de Jennaro, Alberti, and, of course, Sannazaro, whose Poliziano occupied the upper echelon of pastoral poetry (Daniele 64-65). Ludovico Zorzi adds to this list, observing that the second prologue, the one offered in the Tuscan dialect, is delivered in the “poliphilesco” style, “con allusione all'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili e ai suoi complessi stilemi;” that is, the overly complex style of Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii (Ruzante Teatro, 1285). This dizzying mix of references together with the non-stop barrage ofRuzzantian swearing and comic asides lead some to call Pastoral a “frottola,” or a nonsense rhyme, that would have delighted the erudite audience of University students (e.g. Daniele 65). Boillet accentuates the likely demographics of the audience at the debut of the Pastoral and treats the play as a type of send-up that simultaneously showcases Beolco’s intellect, albeit an intellect gained without the benefit of official university education (Boillet 222). For her, Beolco’s first play comprises a “slumped pastoral, then a seated or bent pastoral, one stretched and finally pulled down, and ultimately a beaten and knocked down pastoral” (“poi una bucolica seduta o piegata, infine una bucolica abbattuta e stesa”) (209). Others still, while acknowledging the contributions to theatre that follow this first play, see nothing out of the ordinary in Pastoral and wonder if pro-Ruzzante historians have too vehemently accentuated any so-called originally that lies in the work (Pieri 102-103). In sum, the reception of Pastoral oscillates around two main points: its strengths derived from Beolco's awareness of the literary tradition he sought to lampoon, on the one hand, and Beolco's ability to superimpose multiple realities on top of one another to create a palimpsest that reflects the complexity of the time, on the other hand.