Pastoral as Critique within Critique within Critique
Responding to the stark, radiant contrasts between the worlds that he superimposes, the deafening volume of brazen speech issuing from the mouth of Ruzzante, and the way in which Beolco appears to ape and simultaneously attempt to decapitate the pastoral tradition, I urge readers to side with those who marvel at Pastoral's theatrical heft. Consider, for example, the very first moments of play when, for the “Proemio alla Villana” (“Peasant Prologue”), Ruzzante stumbles onstage and says, “Cancaro a i stropiegi! Pota, o’ e ando gi osiegi che era chi sta doman? O pota di San ... L’e massa abonora” (A cancer on these saplings [i.e., the weeds he walked through]! Cunt, where are the birds that were here this morning? O Cunt of Saint ... It’s too early) (Ruzante Teatro, 7). Zorzi notes that these opening words howl with inappropriateness since attributing feminine body parts to a male saint would have counted as blasphemous language. Elizabeth Horodowich adds another perspective to these opening lines by telling us that, more than any other government organization at the time, Venice linked the purity of speech with the wellbeing of the state and therefore worked tirelessly to police foul language, in general, and blasphemy, in particular (Horodowich 211). Though the official branch empowered to control blasphemy (the Esecutori Contro la Bestemmia) would not exist until 1537, Venetian government officials at the time of Pastoral's debut saw a cause-effect relationship between the uttering of such speech and the onset of plague, famine, and economic loss. They would therefore have frowned upon such utterances. Due, however, to the depressed state of Venetian governmental authority after its defeat at
Agnadello in 1509 and the pro-Padua environment in which Pastoral took place, Ruzzante’s cursing may have had an inspiring effect on the residents of Padua (or the multiple Padua-worlds, as the case may be) on hand for the performance—the more blasphemous, the better. The outrageousness of the blasphemy increases throughout the play’s duration, thanks in part to the new combinations that Beolco tries out. If the sound of “cunt” had struck a nerve when it emerged as the fourth word ofthe play, it would have struck again, and perhaps more acutely, when placed next to the poetic language of the pastoral shepherd, Arpino. When the shepherd first meets Ruzzante, he addresses the villano in the grand style, “Ti salvi Iove, dolce fratel caro. Tiprego alquanto mi vogli aiutare(“God save you, dear sweet brother. Might I trouble you for some assistance?”). Ruzzante responds, “Pota, ch’a’ no digo, di San Loro! [...] A’ mazavo un osel: questu me l’ha levo” (“I don’t believe it, Cunt of Saint Loro [... ] the bird I killed has been raised from the dead”), referring to the task of bird hunting and his hope of a snack, two things that far outweigh the needs of a shepherd (Ruzante Teatro, 57).
Each of the numerous blasphemous references functions as a multivalent critique of the sacred, both in terms of the sacred realm praised by the Christian Church (more on which in Chapter 5) and lauded through pastoral literature. Here, in this particular work, the monotheistic Christian belief system takes a backseat to the polytheistic worlds of Ancient Rome and Greece. In fact, Beolco gives almost no explicit attention to the Christian world. He does, however, place the temple of Pan, the representative of the classical pantheon, onstage. When Ruzzante meets this supernatural force, though, it gives way to a more humble and perhaps more sustaining substance: bread. When Arpino calls upon Pan to help him resolve the situation with Milesio and Mopso (“O sacro Pan, pietd d’i servi toi!”) Ruzzante hears a different kind of “pan”: “Tu me vuo dar del pan? Mo su, anagun” (61). If Arpino is going to put food (bread) on the table, then Ruzzante can put bird hunting aside. Very little is sacred to Ruzzante. If anything deserves praise, food does, that substance with which high-minded pastoral characters need not concern themselves but that real people need in order to survive. Remember that in this theatrical world, Ruzzante is both character and actual person, a figure within the play and a figure who mediates between the world(s) of the play and the world(s) of the audience with his many asides.
Religion has no power in Beolco’s pastoral world. Love, likewise, leads ultimately to depression for the shepherds. Science too provides few certainties. Commentators rarely delve into the specifics of the doctor character, master Francesco, choosing to label him quickly as a representative of the quacks and mountebanks who roved the Friuli. Beolco’s script, however, does more than take potshots at quacks; it levels a nuanced critique of systematized knowledge and provides insight into the specific historical circumstances that surrounded Beolco. In his summary of the curricula offered at Padua during the sixteenth century, Jerome J. Bylebyl tells his readers that the Studio, as the university was known, existed to train lawyers and doctors and, as such, that it divided into a university of jurists and a university of artists (337). The term “artists” denoted primarily artists of medicine, students who learned natural philosophy, surgery, medical astrology, and the theory and practice of medicine. As the research of Zorzi and others has pointed out, the students of these classes likely made up the audience for the production of Pastoral, and clues throughout the text hint that Ruzzante played directly to this audience by offering them the character of Francesco.
Attempting to help revive Mopso and Milesio while also entertaining Ruzzante’s request for him to help Ruzzante’s ailing father, Francesco asks his servant Bertuolo to bring him some specific medical books: “Bertuol, port chi el test d’Avigena, Aristotil... ” (Bertuolo, bring here the text by Avicenna, Aristotle ... ”) (Ruzante Teatro, 94-95). Pupils from the Studio would have known that the introductory texts during the first year of medical study included part of the Canon of Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina (aka Avicenna), the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, and the Ars Medica of Galen (Bylebyl 339). The figure of Francesco, then, starts to come into focus as, perhaps, a first-year medical student, and the jokes made at Francesco’s expense turn directly toward the students in the audience, allowing them to laugh at themselves and their theories. Or, Ruzzante might have been mocking a specific person, somebody like Francesco Frigimelica (1490-1558), professor of medical practice who endorsed the humanist medical curriculum at the university even prior to the arrival of Andreas Vesalius (358). The possibility even exists that Ruzzante’s heckling aimed at somebody closer to home. After all, his father, Gian Francesco, served as doctor of arts and medicine and long-time rector of the College of Art at the Studio (Zorzi 1298-1299). Then again, Ruzzante may have chosen the name of the hospital of St Francis that neighbored the university as a kind of coded synecdoche for all Paduan medics.
Regardless of the specific referent signified through the character of Francesco, if indeed one existed, Beolco dressed his medic character with a substantial amount of features recognizable in the university city of Padua. Framed within the historical specificity of the character, then, the jokes aimed at Francesco by Ruzzante lay bare more of their complexity. For example, Ruzzante decides that he might be able to make use of this doctor and asks him to diagnose his father’s illness. Francesco explains that he would first need a urine sample. The distortion of language caused by dialects makes Ruzzante think that Francesco is demanding payment and asking not for “forma” (the urine) but for “Lorina,” Ruzzante’s favorite cow. Persisting through the distortion, Francesco quotes Avicenna (poorly, using either very poor or fake Latin) explaining what the urine sample reveals: “orina est obstendens causam, dependens dal cor o dal figdt o dal polmo o dal bat... ” (Ruzante Teatro, 101), and Ruzzante responds “ ... che te caghi;” that is, Francesco is full of shit, a fact obvious to all who recognized his fake Latin.
How is this complex as opposed to simple, base humor? Framed through the curricular weaving of medicine, philosophy, and spirituality practiced at the Studio, Ruzzante’s cavalcade of curse words raises the expletives to a higher intellectual level. Of course, audiences of the play then and now can laugh at the move Beolco makes from urine to shit in one short line. Beyond that, though, how much did Ruzzante know and understand of the Studio’s course of study, especially given his father’s prominent position? As Horodowich discovered in her archival digging, the anatomist Berengario Carpi declared in his 1522 work Isagogae that the tongue, “like the penis [... ] has more and larger pulsating and quiet veins than any other member equal to its size” (cit. Horodowich 170). Indeed, in Renaissance medicine, the voice and the secretion of sperm share a connection “because they represent the only two modalities through which the spirit leaves the body in an observable way” (Couliano, cit. Horodwich 171). If Beolco knew the composition of his primary audience, and if the intelligence of the audience members allowed for an interpretation of Francesco as more than simply a roaming quack, then does the blasphemous language of Pastoral amount to something more than insult? Do the curses, almost all of which come from the mouth of Ruzzante, add up to an expression of spiritual essence, an exteriorization of the Paduan peasant’s inner self? As the concluding section below explains, answering yes to that question might be too cavalier, and yet Beolco’s text, even its basest jokes, clearly carry an awareness of the cultural environment around him and forward a subtle argument about the ridiculous state in which Padua finds itself. For all of its bounties, had Padua become most renowned for the ability of its students to read urine? If so, Beolco seems to have understood this as an unsavory achievement.
The unflattering depiction of Francesco, and possibly the entire medical profession, is one of several critiques leveled by Pastoral in quick succession. Beolco also skewers the pastoral literary genre so beloved by the humanists of his day. He picks apart not only the style of language but also the reliance on an outdated and misunderstood pantheon of gods. Christianity fairs no better in the comedy, though, evidenced by the constant stream of blasphemy. Both pastoral and Christian love play no active role in the text, a fact that Beolco makes clear in the character of Siringa, who mocks Milesio nearly to death and departs early on. Humanist science fares no better, as the exchanges with Francesco illustrate. Beolco even mocks the Paduan yokels whom he goes on to defend in many of his future works. The constant miscommunication between Ruzzante and all the other characters shows that Paduan country-dwellers will likely not switch from farming to university education any time soon. In the Proemio alia Villana, the prologue offered in the Paduan dialect, Ruzzante constantly forgets what he is talking about, thus hinting at the inability of the peasants to remember their own trains of thought. Ultimately, however, Pastoral is not an example of the negativa style of writing that Applauso mentions. It is not anti-villanesco writing, despite the surface appearance of the rude Ruzzante. Rather, the play’s treatment of the peasantry, and indeed all of its critical energy combined, emerges from Beolco’s astute awareness of his historical situation. If the play exists as a critique wrapped in a palatable package, then perhaps its primary critique takes aim at the deteriorating status of the once great Paduan countryside.
Zorzi’s notes to his translation of the play’s manuscript help flesh out this idea. Commenting on the “Proemio in Prosa in Lingua Toscana” that mimics the dizzying sentence structure of Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Polyphili, he suggests that, between the lines (“leggendo piu attentamente tra le righe”), Beolco is referencing the “quasi clandestine” literary culture that grew up in Padua while the Venetian republic was defending itself during the Cambrai Wars. Zorzi argues that this literary culture was, “benche nutrita dell’humus di quel medesimo giardino, che gli agricoltori nei «calamitosi tempi» decorsi non hanno potuto coltivare,” that the literary output ofPaduan-born writers acted as compost in the spiritual garden of the Paduan people who could no longer grow any food in their actual gardens because those gardens had been trampled by Venetian and Holy Roman forces (Ruzante Teatro, 1286). The lack of food brought about by the devastation of the Paduan land constitutes a primary focus of Beolco’s later works. Though slightly harder to discern in Pastoral, the day-to-day conditions of famine still show themselves. Ironically, and probably intentionally, Beolco dressed Ruzzante in a fat suit for this production, something that he would not repeat in future plays. Though the character’s paunch and borderline obsessive-compulsive need to discuss food make Ruzzante out to be a glutton, these characteristics might point to an underlying neurotic cause of gluttony. Ruzzante enters, and before too long he utters a line that he will go on to repeat several times, “muor da fame,” “I’m dying of hunger” (61). A few lines later, when he hesitates before helping Arpino with the bodies of his fellow shepherds, he says, “Ho el mal de la loa” (65), an expression that Zorzi reads as a reference to an anxiety-provoked bulimia common to starving peasants at the time (1293). In other words, despite his appearance, Ruzzante might actually be dying of hunger. If not dying, then his anxiety about finding food each day has led to his gluttonous behavior.
In short, Beolco’s play reveals his own awareness that life for most Paduans in 1521 was not at all good and that, by extension, his life as a performer would not be all laughs. Going forward, I present Beolco as an author of critical commentary, a follower in the footsteps of the forgotten Cynic tradition of аяоибоуоеА.ош (spoudogeloia, pronounced “spoo-tho- yay-ya”). From the Greek words “serious” and “laughable,” this tradition has migrated into our contemporary vernacular as “satire,” specifically a brand of withering humor created by the Cynic philosopher and playwright Menippus (third century BCE) intended as a weapon to reveal hidden truths. The mimicking of Ancient Greek characters and beliefs in the pastoral tradition makes аяоибоуоеХога an appropriate word to describe the Pastoral, as does the militancy smuggled into the expression by the Cynics. For Beolco, Ruzzante became the aesthetic persona to express the seriously funny condition of his world, complete with an eroding infrastructure and deteriorating living conditions in the Paduan countryside. This is a state of affairs that demands laughter because, as Simon Critchley suggests, “laughter lets us see the folly of the world in order to imagine a better world in its place” while it simultaneously warns the powers-that-be that, “ Una risata vi seppellird” (It will be a laugh that buries you) (Critchley 17; 11). In Chapters 5 and 7, I deal more explicitly with the phenomenon of Beolco’s merger with his aesthetic persona, the moment when he becomes Ruzzante. At the moment, however, suffice it to say that the comedy of Pastoral brings laughter to bear on serious matters plaguing the world(s) of Padua.