Particularly in the sixteenth century, the Italian comic theater seemed to be closely linked to the varied geographical and historical landscape of Italy in that period. One must therefore remember that Pietro Aretino first conceived and wrote his The Courtesan in Rome and The Marescalco in Mantua, even if he subsequently revised and only then published the two comedies in the safety and relative tranquillity of his Venetian abode.
The Courtesan offers an impressive picture of the city of Pope Clement VII. In his display of the miseries and the wickedness of the papal court, Aretino introduces some fictitious characters and evokes more than sixty historical ones. The language includes dialect, slang, jargon, foreign idioms, and both ecclesiastic and macaronic Latin. The play consists of a series of sketches. Its broken structure and continuously interrupted and resumed plot try precisely to reproduce onstage the confusion, frustration, and dismay of living in a city such as Rome, which during that period was only superficially magnificent and in reality was crumbling.
The fragile plot of the comedy interweaves two stories, that of Messer Maco and that of Parabolano. The first is a Sienese simpleton who comes to Rome to become a courtier and aims at a cardinalship. A painter, Mastro Andrea, promises to teach him how to fulfill his desire but instead makes him the object of an interminable series of mockeries. In the end, the bold Maco, confident in his new position as the perfect courtier, pays a visit to a lady’s house and is chased out of it by Mastro Andrea himself, along with a friend of his, both disguised as Spanish bravos.
Parabolano is a rich Neapolitan gentleman who has fallen in love with the beautiful Roman lady Livia. One of his servants, a rascal and an exploiter, decides to make fun of his master with the help of a procuress. The latter pretends to be Livia’s nurse and easily convinces the vain Parabolano that the lady is also passionately in love and would very much like for him to visit her by night. When Parabolano goes to the arranged meeting, instead of his beloved Livia he finds the uncouth wife of a baker. At this point the two plots meet, and Parabolano, who is in the end a witty person, does not avenge the jest but even tries to appease the furious Maco.
The absence of structural unity and the extreme prodigality of language and stage tricks distinguish Aretino’s first comedy from the works of other contemporary playwrights, mainly from the economy of characters and words of Niccolò Machiavelli’s La mandragola (pr. c. 1519; The Mandrake, 1911). Nevertheless, what appears at first to be a weakness of The Courtesan, and of Aretino’s theatrical works in general, allows the writer greater liberty of invention and an opportunity to indulge a whimsical taste for types and situations. In The Courtesan, the exploitation and the subversion of theatrical patrimony is intentional and declared. In the long prologue to the original version, the author underlines the necessity for this comedy to be different with regard to the comic tradition because it represents everyday life in Rome. The reference to the crude facts of this life is accomplished by an impudent violation of the boundaries between the public and the actors: By quoting directly from the current news, the characters of the play constantly wink at the contemporary public, and this creates a sort of complicity, a singular joint liability, in the show.
The corrections made to the original text some nine years later in 1534 were conceived to give a different sense and direction to this “Roman” comedy and change it as much as possible into an “Italian” comedy. In the revised version, therefore, the original motives of Aretino’s polemic as well as some of the more direct allusions and the more realistic cues have been deleted.
The Marescalco, written for the Gonzaga court of Mantua in 1526-1527 and published in Venice in 1533, has a more unswerving plot, derived from Plautus’s Casina (English translation, 1774) and Machiavelli’s own derivation of it, La Clizia (pr. 1525, pb. 1532; Clizia, 1961). The duke of Mantua, knowing that his blacksmith (the character of whom was modeled after a well-known homosexual at the court) is violently opposed to marriage, makes him believe that he wants him to get married at any cost. In the first four acts of the play, the audience witnesses the dialogues of the Marescalco with several characters who all announce to him the irrevocable decision of the duke. The majority approve of the decision and discuss the relative merits of marriage, while the obstinate misogynist progressively gives himself up to despair. Only after the wedding ceremony has taken place, in the last act, does the Marescalco discover to his delight that his mysterious “wife” is in fact the duke’s young page in disguise.
The comedy is an excuse both to weave a plot based on the themes of misogyny and homosexuality and to offer congenial entertainment to the court during the carnival season, reproducing onstage the life of the same people for whom the work was destined to be performed. The Marescalco was sent from Venice to the duke of Mantua in January,...
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