The Courtesan

by Pietro Aretino

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

Messer Maco, a wealthy Sienese fop and a fool, comes to Rome with the intention of becoming a cardinal. Upon his arrival he meets Maestro Andrea, who informs him that he will first have to become a courtier. Maco thereupon announces his desire to become a courtier, and Andrea obligingly promises to transform him into one.

Signor Parabolano, learning that Maco is in town, orders his groom, Rosso, to have all the lampreys he can find sent to Maco as a gift of welcome. When Parabolano leaves, Rosso makes fun of his master’s love affairs to the other servants. Valerio, Parabolano’s faithful chamberlain, overhears him and runs him off. Rosso swindles a fisherman out of his lampreys by posing as a servant of the pope. When discovered, he convinces the authorities that the fisherman is mad.

Maco receives his first lesson in being a courtier. He is instructed in being, among other things, a blasphemer, a gambler, an adulator, a slanderer, an ingrate, a whore-chaser, an ass, and a nymph.

Next, Rosso visits Alvigia, a procurer. Rosso, overhearing Parabolano talking in his sleep, learns that his master is in love with the matron Livia. If, he tells Alvigia, he can successfully pander to his master’s lust, he will secure his position and can also exact revenge on Valerio, Parabolano’s chamberlain. Alvigia agrees to help the groom.

Meanwhile, Maco falls in love with Camilla, a courtesan being kept by a Spanish lord. Andrea fears that this new interest will interrupt his fleecing of Maco, but Maco is now all the more determined to become a courtier. He is impatient about Camilla, however, and disguises himself as a groom to gain access to her house. To hinder him, Andrea and Maco’s own groom cries out that the sheriff is after him for illegal entry into Rome. Afraid to appear in his own clothes, Maco runs off, still in his disguise as a servant.

Rosso and Alvigia are having their problems, too. Although Parabolano agrees to allow Rosso to secure the services of the procurer for him, Livia proves unapproachable. The two then devise the following plan: Rosso is to tell Parabolano that Livia is willing to meet him, but that, being proper and shy, she will do so only in the profoundest dark; he must promise not to embarrass her with any light whatsoever. Once assured that Parabolano will not be able to see his mistress, Alvigia will substitute the baker’s young wife, Togna, for the virtuous Livia. Parabolano, his lust now almost consuming him, is willing to agree to any stipulations. He is willing, even, to believe the calumnies of his groom, and he puts his chamberlain, Valerio, in disgrace.

Maco, hiding in Parabolano’s house from the supposed sheriff, finally musters enough courage to emerge for the final courtier-making process. He is placed in a vat that, according to Andrea, is a courtier-mold. There he is thoroughly steamed. Once recovered, he heads for Camilla’s house as a full-fledged courtier. Andrea and Maco’s groom pretend to be Spaniards storming the house. Maco leaps from the window, terrified, and flees in his underwear.

His embarrassment is followed by that of Parabolano. Togna plans to go to her assignation in her husband’s clothes. Suspicious of her design, the old baker feigns drunken sleep while he watches her put on his garments and steal away. He then dresses in her clothes and follows her to the house of the procurer.

Parabolano discovers the ruse once he is alone with Togna. At first he is enraged, but Valerio, embittered and determined to leave Rome and the...

(This entire section contains 806 words.)

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fickleness of courtiers, arrives in time to calm him down. Admitting that, blinded by lust, he allowed himself to be led around like a fool, Parabolano restores Valerio to favor and begs his forgiveness. Valerio advises him to admit the whole escapade openly and to treat it as a joke so that, by owning up to his own folly, he will be safe from having his enemies use it against him.

As Parabolano is beginning to see the humor in the situation, the baker Arcolano appears, dressed in his wife’s clothes. He, too, is enraged, but Parabolano convinces him that he has no designs on his wife. The two, Togna and Arcolano, are forced to kiss and make up. Then, in keeping with the comic ending that Parabolano insists upon, everyone is forgiven—even the conniving Rosso, once he returns a diamond that Parabolano gave him to help seduce Livia. He is a Greek, Parabolano observes, and is only acting according to his nature. Finally Maco appears, seeking help from the “Spaniards.” When their true identity is revealed, Maco is shown what a fool he really is. He, in turn, is forced to forgive Andrea.