Act I, in which Ruzzante Tries to take Venice but Fails
Glimpses of Beolco’s Venetian exploits as the character Ruzzante appear in the diary entries of Marin Sanuto, a member of the Venetian upper classes whose personal records of daily life have greatly aided Venetian historians in creating a picture of all that went on there. In compiling Beolco’s play texts, Ludovico Zorzi has gathered several of these diary entries, which, like snapshots from a camera, conspire together to form the following montage. The character Ruzzante appeared in Sanuto’s diary for the first time on 16 February 1520, when he performed with the compagni Zardinieri (company of Farmers/Gardeners) before a crowd gathered in the home of Domenico Trevisan. Sanuto recalled that before dinner he saw “a comedy by Paduans in the style of the peasants, one [actor] had the last name Ruzante and one Menato and it was done well” (Ruzante 1590; Sanuto, vol. 28 264). In January 1521, Ruzzante and Menato appeared again at a “sumptuous feast sponsored by the [company of] Gardeners in Ca’ Pesaro” (Ruzante 1590; Sanuto, vol. 29 536-537). The same pair of Paduans appeared once more in Ca’ Contarini da Londra where they performed a “comedy in the rustic style with the compagni Zardinieri” (Sanuto, Diarii vol. 33 9). But on May 5, 1523, at “a solemn feast offered by the compagni Ortolani in the Ducal Palace for the wedding of doge Antonio Grimani’s nephew,” Sanuto recorded that Ruzzante performed a comedy “motto discoreta;” that is to say, an unacceptable comedy for such a high-profile crowd (Ruzante 1590-1591; Sanuto, vol. 34 124).
The moving image formed from these brief entries brings several specific characteristics of Beolco’s Venetian performances as Ruzzante to the fore. First, from his earliest appearance in Venice, Ruzzante was performing in front of wealthy and powerful members of the Republic’s elite governing class. The places for those performances were the homes (Ca' or casa/e) of very powerful people. Trevisan, Pisaro, and Contarini da Londra held ambassadorships to England and France, and rotated through the highest ranks of the Venetian government. The Palazzo Ducale was the seat of government wherein dwelt the doge, the highest- ranking officer of the Venetian Republic. Second, these performances were always “a la villana,” or done in the style of rural Padua. Ruzzante and Menato spoke their own dialect, which would have instantly marked them as outsiders to their Venetian audiences. This would not have been the case with all the members of the Zardineri (Farmers) or the Ortolani since, as with all the Compagnie della Calza, many men in those companies would have been sons of wealthy Venetian patricians. Interestingly, while the right to perform inside the homes ofnotable Venetian governors and ambassadors went to the sons of nobles who headed the various acting troupes, Ruzzante managed to finagle his way into the homes, perhaps because of his recognizable talent. Third, Beolco began his Venetian acting career as a Gardener (Ortolani) and a Farmer (Zardinieri), and the companies that bore those names had woven into the troupe’s identities a lewd aura that preceded them. This aura emanated from the banner that the troupe carried with them as they marched through Venice during Carnevale. Fourth, because the Paduan dialect and rustic themes, especially when paired with the licentious Gardeners and Farmers, frequently entailed the raunchiest of dialogue, there was always a chance that the comedies would receive a negative response, as was the case for the performance at the Ducal Palace on 5 May 1523. The reason for the affirmative accolades garnered by the other performances in Sanuto’s diary may have stemmed from the fact that those comedies appeared during Carnevale (when tolerances for obscenity were higher) while the performance at the Ducal Palace did not. Thus, it appears that Beolco performed as Ruzzante during the high season of Venetian festivity but also during the off-season, and that he did not bother to change the tone of his performances outside of Carnevale.
From these briefest of diary entries, one learns that Ruzzante had multiple identities as a theatrical character in sixteenth-century Venice. He was sometimes a gardener, sometimes a farmer, and always a Paduan peasant—at least in the eyes of Sanuto, whose status in Venetian society mirrored that of Ruzzante’s other high-profile audience members. Some of Sanuto’s diary entries offer a quite vivid image of Ruzzante and his cohorts during the season of Carnevale when theatrical performances abounded within the homes of senior officials, ambassadors, and other people of high status. For example, this passage from February 4, 1524 helps one to zoom in and look down to the interiors of the homes and palaces where his theatre took place and to understand more clearly what the scene entailed:
All were dressed in clothes of crimson velvet like that of the doge and of brightly colored silk, and hats on their heads some of which were satin and others were velvet; masks with noses. And each had two servants in front of them with a torch in each hand, dressed as rustics. There was one of them with a gold vest, and they all had great charisma [virtu]: first came the clowns, Zuan Polo and others; of note: Ruzante the Paduan; others dressed like villagers jumped and danced around quite well; and six dressed like rural children that sang horrendously, and each of them had some sort of rustic object in hand, like hoes, shovels, etc., stakes, spades, rakes etc., of note: horns, pipes, and off-key trumpets. These people made the rounds, through the Piazza, and then at night with lit torches they went through the grounds and at one in the night they came to the Palace of the Doge, into the court, to show off their virtues. Then they went into the Procuratia of Sir Marco da Molin, the Procurator, who had a party, then in diverse locations, at the end came a dinner and then great drunkenness. (Sanuto, vol. 35 393)5
Sanuto’s image portrays a raucous parade that begins outside in the urban landscape, weaves its way through Venice, and culminates in a formal presentation within the Palazzo Ducale. Just as vibrant as the images of the clothes worn by the company members were the sounds emitted from musical instruments and atonal cantors. Both the visual and aural resonances of the event captured in Sanuto’s diary offer a hint of the theatrical fare brought by the yearly festival season.6
This parade, however, no matter how raucous it might have been, had little power to agitate the status quo, caught as it was in the tightly woven net of Venetian governance. The Consiglio di Dieci (Council of Ten), Venice’s most influential governing body, strictly controlled the time of Carnevale that heralded such parades as that of Ruzzante and his fellow Gardeners. The performances that unfolded in Venice during the months leading up to Lent were officially sanctioned entertainments, some of which were meant for the public and others of which were intended for private audiences only. For the public, Carnevale promised violent spectacles such as cow and bear baiting, while, for the upper classes, it offered private theatrical performances that unfolded in the homes and palaces of the wealthy.
The parade itself, as a mode of conveyance and mode of performance, was not an unusual sight by any means. Edward Muir’s work on civic festivity has made it clear that the procession was a typical occurrence that, more often than not, had entirely to do with re-asserting the power of the extensive government hierarchy (Muir, Civic Ritual Chapters 6 and 7). Sanuto’s description of the parade above dates its occurrence as February 4. Two days prior to that, for the feast of Santa Maria Formosa, the doge and the 11 principal bodies of government would have paraded over the same ground covered by the Ortolani. That feast and parade in honor of Santa Maria Formosa happened yearly, dating from 1273 CE, and would have packed a spectacular punch as hundreds of immaculately dressed men walked single-file through the city streets. There were many parades like that one throughout the year. Ruzzante and his friends may have attracted attention to themselves, but they were not engaged in any sort of unusual activity. Overall, the temporal and spatial grid placed over the entirety of Venice’s territory on the day of the parade indexed by Sanuto was constructed and maintained by the legislators and the doge. Nowhere would that have been more distinct visually and aurally than in the Piazza San Marco where Ruzzante’s parade culminated before entering the Palazzo Ducale for the lavish dinner.
The texture of this temporal and spatial grid becomes palpable with the help of Eleanor Selfridge-Field’s description of the sight and sound produced by the Orologio (clock tower) in the Piazza (epicenter of Venetian festivity) and the meaning produced by its massive size and perpetual sounding-off:
The Orologio tower was architecturally organized in four tiers. Metaphorically, it was designed to be read from top to bottom. The uppermost tier represented the dominion of the Venetian Republic in the Christian view of the world. The two “Moors” or “Saracens” on top represented slaves captured in the Holy Land during a religious crusade. Since heathens were condemned to do manual labor, they were apt subjects to strike the hours. The tier below represented the temporal authority of the doge, who knelt before the Winged Lion (a symbol of the Evangelist Mark, who was the chief patron saint of the Republic). The doge was depicted with his symbol of power—a flag, a ball, a cross. In the realm of religious authority, which was depicted on the third tier, the Three Magi, led by a herald angel, passed before Our Lady who held the infant Jesus in her lap, while four angels guarded her from above. Celestial domination was signified on the bottom tier, which contained the clock-face itself. (Selfridge- Field 57)
As the parade of Ruzzante, Zuan Polo, and the others villani neared its final destination, there is little likelihood that it represented an eruption of disorder or the establishment of an upside down hierarchy of power, even amidst the festive period of Carnevale. The top position of the two slaves on the upper tier of the Orologio signified nothing other than domination of Christian Venice over all heathens, up there for all to see, as was the case with the parading Ortolani whose display of farming equipment served only to mark members in the group as belonging to the laboring, rural classes. Ruzzante, despite his charisma, was just another rustic. Not even the dissonance of the troupe’s singing and screaming would have been that powerful, since the bells all over Venice bathed the entire island in a sonic soup from morning to night:
The cacophony of civic bells, parish bells, and monastic bells has to have left few moments of the day completely silent. Bells not only rang out the time but also conveyed alerts about fires, earthquakes, and the deaths of important personages. On paramount feasts they rang for hours on end as a sort of override to the customary signals for work and recess. (64)
Pipes, whistles, and off-key trumpets, like those blown by the Ortolani, would have become one more layer of sound, a layer that many people may have ignored as, instead, they stayed attuned to the bells in their home parishes that notified them of the events of the day.
From this middle-range historical perspective, then, the Ortolani and other Calza troupes around the city appear as parts within the larger civic machinery of Venice, acting as entertainment for the richest members of the society. This scale, however, this mid-range view of the historical scene, is not the only perspective from which to view either the parade or Ruzzante’s performances. By zooming in further and looking down to more minute levels of detail, an act of micro-territorialization emerges from this seemingly well-policed scene. This perspective becomes available by panning from the Piazza San Marco, where the shadow of the Orologio overpowers the antics of the parading performers, into the room where Beolco, as Ruzzante, separated himself from the pack and performed his monologue known as Lettera giocosa.
The name does not do it justice and may have been affixed to the work after Beolco’s death, perhaps by Stefano di Alessi or even Alvise Cornaro, his patron, who collected and edited Ruzzante’s works into a compilation. Still, as Zorzi has pointed out, this “letter” contains more than it appears to at first glance. “More than a letter in the normal sense, it was a humorous diversion, composed on the model of a ‘sprolico,’ namely a theatrical monologue” (Ruzante, Teatro 1595).7 This monologue provides one of the clearest examples of Ruzzante-as-scenogardener, and it functions in the present analysis as the portal through which the act of taking place becomes visible. Taking place is the primary component of Ruzzante’s theatre practice, and from this particular scenario there erupts a proliferation of gardens within gardens: spaces concealed within other spaces, each of which is more private and privileged than the space that envelops it.
With the Lettera giocosa, Ruzzante attempted to insinuate himself into an extremely secure location, that of the bed belonging to a daughter of an important man in Venetian politics, Francesco Dona. The identity of the monologue’s addressee was ambiguous, but the Lettera giocosa concluded with what Zorzi called an “irreverent salute” to Dona who would himself become doge in 1545 (1248).8 While the addressee remained subtly unidentifiable, the content of the monologue was explicit. Draped in double-entendre, Ruzzante introduced himself as a Paduan who proudly spoke his native tongue because the Florentine language was for pretentious sorts. When he reached the business at hand, he singled out a young woman in the audience and referenced a recent conversation between her and himself: “And so as not to ramble on too much, I want to come immediately to the matter of your possession, that thing you said you wanted to give me the other day, when I was there with you, in your house, in your room ...” (1248).9 This “thing” was disguised rhetorically as a plot of land or a garden, but certainly referred implicitly to the woman’s virginity. To play up the double meaning, Ruzzante forwarded his credentials as a gardener:
I’m sure that you’ll be content, because I am well provided with tools for cleaning. I’m good at stabbing, and for digging ditches I have a good shovel, very firm in the handle, that, the more I use it, the more firm it gets and capable of driving into the flowerbed, with no pulling out or any hesitation. So I am sure that, if I use it for a harvest, it will make the most for you and pull a better harvest and a more pleasing one, from which you will no longer need other workers at hand. (1248-1249)10
In terms of the text, the allusions are not difficult to grasp. If the text was all that existed of this performance, then the complexity of Ruzzante’s spatial operation would remain invisible, but by infusing the words with the image of the Ortolani parading through the Piazza San Marco provided by Sanuto’s descriptions and a knowledge of the interior of the Palazzo Ducale a more nuanced understanding of the performance begins to surface.
Pulling out, then, and turning back to the parade as it ambled toward the Palazzo Ducale, I want to add a feature of the Ortolani’s clothing that Sanuto neglected to mention in his diary entry. Each of the Calza troupes wore badges embroidered to the back of their cloaks and cloth hoods, or else on their sleeves, to distinguish themselves from one another. These badges bore simple images, sometimes designed by noted artists of the day, as in the case with the Ortolani whose insignia consisted of three pictorial components: a circle of pearls resembling a sun with its rays protruding from the circle’s circumference; a fence, enclosed by the sun, made from osiers; and, above the fence but still enclosed by the sun, a scroll in the process of unfurling. In Pompeo Molmenti’s early twentieth- century study of the life and works of Vittorio Carpaccio, the author located this same insignia on the sleeves of numerous characters in the Venetian painter’s oeuvre and identified it as belonging to the theatrical Ortolani troupe by comparing it to two other insignias (Molmenti and Ludwig 93-95). A brief comparison of all three insignia helps here to connect the symbol of the Ortolani with Ruzzante’s mission of infiltrating the most intimate spaces of the Venetian government, of, as it were, planting himself in a garden where he didn’t belong.
Molmenti placed the pearly symbol of the Ortolani next to two similar insignia: a depiction of St Catherine of Siena in the Garden and the Coat of Arms of the Counts of Orti of Verona. The first insignia, depicting St Catherine, offers an illuminated letter G, such as those drawn by cloistered monks of the Middle Ages, framing the saint with her arms held up, as if in ecstasy, being penetrated by rays of light emanating from a vision of Christ on the cross. These rays pierce her hands, ribs, and feet, and thus correspond to the wounds of the stigmata, which the saint endured as part of her ascetic and holy lifestyle. Of interest here is not the reference to stigmata but the location of the scene itself, for, in this scene, St Catherine’s visionary event transpires in a garden. The setting becomes clear once the eye notices the presence of a low fence made from twigs that encircle both Catherine and a bed of blooming flowers.
In the next insignia, that of the coat of arms belonging to the Counts of Orti, the fence appears once again, this time encircling one tall and sturdy tree. Orti, the Italian word for garden(s), links the Veronese Counts to their heritage as landed noblemen. When looking at all three images side by side (the Ortolani insignia of pearls, the depiction of Catherine of Siena in the garden, and coat of arms) the single shared image is that of the fence made from osiers (or twigs taken from willow trees), young twigs flexible enough to be molded into architectonic structures. The fence establishes the necessary boundary between the flourishing plant life of a man-made garden and the flora of ungroomed nature, and thus signifies metonymically the presence of a garden (Ortolani), the site-specific garden stage upon which mystical events played out (Catherine of Sienna), and a history of horticultural occupations (Counts of Orti). Molmenti’s juxtaposition of the three images by Carpaccio reveals an allegory of the garden as a sight for mystical, noble, and ignoble deeds alike.
But where precisely was the garden of the Ortolani and Ruzzante and what sorts of deeds occurred within it? First, that garden appeared on the backs and sleeves of the parading troupe. Second, and more importantly, the garden was the site to which the Ortolani paraded, their destination. The call of this garden enticed them to their performance venue. As Zorzi has suggested, “[t]he agricultural symbols of the Compagnie della Calza referred generally to the hortus conclusus of refined delights and ‘virtue,’ into which they intended to withdraw and with which they would distinguish themselves from the profane crowd” (Ruzante, Teatro 1591).11 This “hortus conclusus,” or enclosed garden, was the kernel of Ruzzante’s double entendre.
Historically, as I mentioned at the start of this chapter, the hidden garden existed both as an actual site and a holy metaphor. It referred to the enclosed gardens within monasteries from which monks would harvest their fruits and vegetables for their brethren, but it also referred to the Virgin Mary and the mystical birth that brought Jesus into the world. A third, this time secular, valence of this trope unfolds from the miraculous ability of all women to give birth, and finds a textual precedent in Song of
Solomon, verse 12: “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse: a spring shut up, a fountain sealed” (Aben and de Wit 42). For Ruzzante and the rest of the Ortolani, however, this sanctity was ripe for satirical re-invention. The religious hortus conclusus worthy of veneration became, in the hands of Ruzzante, the virginity of all young women, such as she whom Ruzzante addressed in his Lettera giocosa. The fertility of that garden, transformed into the image of the “flowerbed” that Ruzzante’s “shovel” could ably penetrate.12 Even before any words rang out in the Lettera giocosa, the full weight of Ruzzante’s irreverence emanated from the insignia of the garden embroidered onto his clothing and that of his company members.
Importantly, however, Ruzzante’s garden entailed more than lascivious and sophomoric jokes about virginity. In addition to the visual moniker of the insignia and its not-so-subtle reference to the fertility of virgin women, there was yet another garden packed within the Ruzzante’s performance as a member of the Ortolani. The key characteristic of that garden was its privacy, which it could promise by merit of its seclusion from the populace behind numerous walled enclosures. These secluded gardens belonged to the wealthiest of people and establishments. The closer to the garden one could get, the higher status one had. Ruzzante identified that secluded place of great privacy as not only the virginity of Dona’s daughter, but also the room in which he delivered the Lettera giocosa. To understand this more fully, I want to zoom out once again and readjust the historical frame.
When Angelo Beolco entered Venice and began his career as Ruzzante with the Compagnie della Calza, at which point he was between the ages of 24 and 26, the city would have represented at least two things to him. First, it was a place in which he could make money, which he needed since he was an illegitimate child with a meager allowance from his family. Second, Venice was enemy territory. Padua, Beolco’s birthplace, had by 1524 undergone numerous violent acts of colonization. In that year, Padua was a Venetian territory, but only 15 years previously it had been won by the League of Cambrai after the coalition of forces (France, the Holy Roman Empire, Mantua, Ferrara, the Papacy, and Spain) handed Venice its most crushing defeat ever in the Battle of Agnadello, in 1509.13 After the wars of Cambrai, Padua belonged to Emperor Maximilian I. That situation suited many in Padua just fine, including the Beolco family who, upon Venice’s reconquest of Padua six weeks later, sacrificed Giovanni Jacopo and Melchiorre Beolco to the Emperor’s cause (Carroll 5). The young men were arrested, held captive, and would have been present in the jails adjoining the Palazzo Ducale until their deaths. To some extent, then, Angelo Beolco’s entry into Venice was a risky venture. Even after several years of employment with the Ortolani, each house Beolco entered under the auspices of Ruzzante the performer would have introduced him to more and more wealthy patricians and a number of private homes, the interiors of which few members of the Paduan middle and lower classes would ever have seen, much less family members of spies identified as traitors against Venetian sovereignty.
Zooming in again to the performance of the Lettera giocosa with these insights framing the scene, a vision ofRuzzante’s tactical spatial operations begins to form. These operations all happened under the guise of Ruzzante-as-gardener, and the proliferation of gardens outlined above creates a topographical map of the scene. First garden: the embroidered insignia on the clothes of the Ortolani that would have distinguished them from the other stocking troupes parading around Venice at the time. Second garden: the hortus conclusus of the virgin Venetian women, one of whom Ruzzante addressed specifically in his performance. Third garden: the secluded interior, or giardino segreto, represented by the inner sanctum of the Palazzo Ducale.
I recognize the performance space created through Ruzzante’s monologue as the fourth garden. Ruzzante’s act of taking place; that is, his theatre practice consisted in a transplanting of Paduan identity into a strictly Venetian space. One dimension of the transplant appeared in the vulgar joke made by Ruzzante in which he vowed to tend to the Venetian virgin’s garden. In a sense, were Ruzzante capable of sowing his oats into the noble family lineage of any of the Venetians present, the performer would succeed in rooting himself in the Palazzo Ducale permanently, since he would acquire the right to access the palace on a normal basis as a member of the invited audience instead of as an occasional visitor working as a carnivalesque entertainer. But this transplanting, rooting, and taking place required more than rude quips. The transplant relied upon a sonorous territorialization that unfolded through the sonic transmission of Ruzzante’s Paduan dialect into the ears of his Venetian audience. Elizabeth Horodowich’s research supports this claim when she posits “a symbolic, speculative relationship between the tongue and the penis,” alive in the minds of sixteenth-century Venetian audiences that underwrites the Republican belief that, “political legitimacy was based upon familial legitimacy and a disciplined sexuality was intrinsic to the maintenance of the family, community, and republican order” (Horodowich 100). Ruzzante’s comedic performance troubled any such legitimacy with his claims of sexual relations between himself and Dona’s daughter.
Shifting from visions of Ruzzante’s performance to the sonority of Ruzzante’s tongue, I tune now into a faint historical echo of Ruzzante’s quasi-militant Paduan dialect. Even in the briefest reference from Sanuto’s diary (“of note: Ruzzante the Paduan”) it is possible to ascertain the most powerful tool in Ruzzante’s arsenal: his voice. Listen, for example, to the introduction Ruzzante offered in his brief performance of the Lettera giocosa:
Because I have never liked the way the show-offs in this world talk, I don’t want to be like those assholes, those people who show how smart they are and that they’ve been to school, like when writing a letter to someone or whatever, they talk like they do in Florence, or else in Spanish, like the Napolese, or Hungarian like the soldiers, like they do in the army. (Ruzante, Teatro 1246)14
In this prologue, Ruzzante set himself apart from his audience and carved out a separate space from which to address them. Diplomatically, perhaps, he did not single out the Venetian dialect, but the barb would still have been sharp. At that time, Venetians in the government were instructed to speak to each other in the Venetian dialect, but they kept most of their official records in Latin or Florentine Italian, a fact that reminded Venetian governors of their many binds to the Papacy and the linguistic tradition of Florentine scholarship and undermined all claims to the purity of the Venetian dialect.15 Additionally, the references to the Spanish-speaking people of Naples and the Hungarian soldiers would have drawn attention to the threat of the Spanish forces in the South of Italy and the presence of invading forces in the Veneto since 1509. All of the foreign powers referenced obliquely in these opening lines aligned themselves with the League of Cambrai and thus linked by association with Venice’s eroding political autonomy. All in all, then, the note sounded by this opening blast would have been off-key to the ears of the audience.
In the performance, Ruzzante followed his insult of all non-Paduan languages with his own attempt at the Florentine dialect, which he garbled badly before breaking into another defense of the Paduan tongue: “I wanted, and it always pleases me, to talk in Paduan, like one does in the
Pavan, of course, because it is the most alive and frank talk that Italy knows of, this” (1246).16 That Paduan was a frank language, nobody in the room could deny. Ruzzante followed this promise of direct, honest, and frank speech with his promise to tend to the “garden” of the anonymous woman in the audience. By the time he enacted the irreverent salute to Francesco Dona mentioned by Zorzi, Ruzzante’s final words may have even sounded a little threatening: “Well, I thank you all, and I bow to all of you and to Mister Francesco Dona, you hear me” (1248).17
At this point, while discussing the form, content, and sonority of Ruzzante’s aggressive speech, it makes sense to consider once again the obscenities wrapped within Ruzzante’s Paduan dialect. As Horodowich has stated, no other early modern state took as many precautions to regulate public speech as did Venice, which, with the creation of the Esecutori Contro la Bestemmia in 1537, dedicated an entire branch of government to the problem of blasphemy and obscenity (Horodowich 3, 5). Simply put, “Blasphemy was a crime that disrupted civic tranquility” (76). Her work in Language and Statecraft in Early Modern Venice unearths the pains to which the Republic went to distinguish “between blasphemy committed intelligently and consciously as opposed to words spoken irrationally” and shows how “the seriousness of the offense depended on the quality and intelligence of the person involved” (6869). That is, if Ruzzante knew what he was doing, his barbed and barbarous words would have acquired more illicitness. Furthermore, to protect the Venetian identity during a massive influx of immigrants coinciding with the Republic’s defeat at Agnadello, the Esecutori defined blasphemy as “aggressive language up the social scale, including God and his more immediate representatives, the Venetian nobility” (85). That is, one could blaspheme without cursing God. What is more, this definition of blasphemy suggests that non-Venetian speakers may have been regarded as blasphemous simply by addressing their “superiors” in their own particular languages or dialects.
Mixing the aural dimension of obscenity and the visual realm of the city outside the Palazzo Ducale, Horodowich also describes the countless number of posters plastered on Venetian walls notifying visitors and locals alike that the Republic would not tolerate obscenities, whether directed toward God or toward the government. “We can picture how the entire urban fabric of Venice slowly became densely inscribed with visual reminders about spoken decorum,” she says, “as one by one, public sites prohibited blasphemy as a potentially dangerous verbal manifestation of popular life. In this way, social discipline was not only legislated against but visualized in a systematic fashion” (66-67). In 1595, decades after Ruzzante’s death, the actor Giuseppe Beltrame was actually kicked out of Venice for failing to heed these warnings (106). Perhaps, then, when pondering precisely how difficult Ruzzante’s jokes would have been for Venetians to stomach and exactly how much danger Ruzzante embraced with his frank talk, I can convincingly identify Ruzzante as an early explorer of the limits separating propriety and illegality. Building on Horodowich, I claim that not only would audiences have recognized the comedian as nonVenetian and therefore inferior as soon as he opened his mouth, but they would have also been keenly aware of the moral line Ruzzante trampled all over with his monologue of double entendres and curse words. As such, the risk Ruzzante took through his frank speech must have been quite high. Fortunately for Ruzzante, performing as he was before the establishment of the Esecutori, there was not yet a codified law for him to break. Still, it is possible to imagine how the very sound of Ruzzante’s voice constituted an attack against Venetian identity, how the content of his speech fantasized a scene of unwanted miscegenation, and how his obscenities underscored that fantasy with a timbre of threatening immorality and illegality.
In summation, and returning to the ambivalent performance of gardening, I claim that Letteragiocosa preserves an early attempt by Ruzzante to root himself in a place where nobody wanted him. His position as a gardener among the Ortolani gained him access to the private chambers of the Palazzo Ducale where, by way of verbal suggestion, he was able to insinuate himself into the sheets of one of the women who were present, perhaps Francesco Dona’s daughter. Outside the palace in the Piazza San Marco, the historical dominance of the Republic overshadowed the square in the form of architectonic symbolism and the atonality of the city’s bells diffused the cackles of Ruzzante’s troupe that Sanuto captured in his diary. Inside the palace, however, the physical presence and sonority of Ruzzante’s Paduan dialect fought aggressively against Venetian claims to superiority as it affronted the crowd of Venetian upper-class men and women who had gathered ostensibly for light, comedic entertainment. Within the private room inside the Ducal Palace, which sat within the grand Piazza San Marco that was itself surrounded by the main island of Venice, Ruzzante attempted to take back some territory in the name of Padua.
In that particular performance within Palazzo Ducale, however, Ruzzante’s attempt to transplant himself into the various gardens of Venetian society did not take root. In fact, Ruzzante’s entire Venetian career transpired as a series of unsuccessful plantings. From Horodowich’s point of view, “By 1526, Ruzante’s Venetian performances came to an end, suggesting that many Venetians had no tolerance for the unruly language and behavior associated with [his] comedies” (208).18 Sanuto, always present at big events, gives some additional clues about Ruzzante’s departure. During the season of Carnevale of 1526, he documented a performance at Ca’ Trevisan on the isle of Giudecca where unfolded an entire night of performance planned for visiting ambassadors. Ruzzante and his friend Menato shared the stage that evening. According to Sanuto, and as retold by Edward Muir, the commotion caused by so many foreign dignitaries gathered in one place led to a hectic dinner service, and, at one point, someone let loose a plucked chicken with its crest cut off onto the dinner table. The bird blatantly alluded to the French King, Francis I, whose crest bore the symbol of the Cock and who, earlier in that same year, had been defeated and captured in Pavia. Outraged by the insinuation of a weak French monarchy, the French ambassadors erupted and the dinner dissolved into unmanageable chaos. Muir concludes his read of the event with the following postscript: “Although Ruzante’s involvement was uncertain [... ] Ruzante never performed in Venice again and he retired to the circle of Alvise Cornaro in Padua” (Muir, “Manifestazioni” 65).19