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The politics of effeminacy in Il cortegiano

by Gerry Milligan

Castiglione's Il cortegiano is a recurrent stomping ground for scholars working in gender studies of the Renaissance. While most of these critics have focused on the position of women, there has been a marked interest in the gendering of Castiglione's male figures as well. Such discussions have almost exclusively emphasized the courtiers' anxious and effeminized condition. Any study of masculinity in the Corte--giano must therefore address a now decades-old critical truism that the courtiers' conduct and the courtiers' account of it are "clearly perceived by us" to foster the "'effeminization' of the male feudal elite" (Richards 185).

To briefly summarize such criticism we can reach back to Joan Kelly's classic 1977 article "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" In her essay, Kelly suggested that the courtier's efforts to dominate the court lady marks Castiglione's attempt to "defend against effeminacy in the courtier" since the courtier's dependency and behavior toward the prince was analogous to the position of women (Kelly 150). The following year, Wayne Rebhorn's Courtly Performances offered a similar criticism by suggesting that the misogynistic criticisms of certain characters in the dialogues represent Castiglione's concern "about potential attacks on the courtly ideal for being too effeminate" (42). Rebhorn argues that the courtiers are emasculated on two counts. They are subjugated to princely power, and are furthermore under the rule of women (i.e., the Duchess and Emilia Pia). Since the publication of both of these works, all criticism that has addressed the issues of masculinity in the Cortegiano has grown out of a basic principal of an emasculated courtier (whether in relation to the prince or to the Duchess). For example, in her influential 1990 book Renaissance Feminism, Constance Jordan as well addressed the courtiers' powerless condition and related it to a gendered marriage dynamic where the courtier provides diversion for his superiors, an activity that "might be characterized as effeminate" (Jordan 77-78).

The arguments of Kelly, Rebhorn and Jordan are founded on a similar principle which presumes that the courtiers' position to power is an 'effeminized' one. In his book The Absence of Grace, Harry Berger discusses how these three critics perceive Castiglione in the gender debate. Berger's corrective to the argument is to critique the use of the word "misogyny." He suggests that the courtiers demonstrate a sort of "gynephobia," a term that he defines as a fear which may be divided into a gynephobia of gender and a gynephobia of sex. He states,

   the former is a fear of effeminization, fear of the woman within
   the man, and the latter is a fear of impotence, emasculation, or
   infantilization, fear of the woman outside the man ... the former
   is a fear of having one's status reduced to that of woman but not
   necessarily by woman; the latter is specifically a fear of having
   one's status reduced or usurped by women. (71-72)

It is the correlation between gynephobic anxiety and representation anxiety that Berger shows as motivation for the courtiers' attempts to construct gender norms and control their performance.

Berger's thoughtful reading opens a critical approach while leaving a problematic assumption unchallenged. What he does not address is the contingent notion of the term "effeminate." If I may begin my analysis as did Berger, I choose to question a commonly used word in the criticism of the Cortegiano, not "misogyny" but rather "effeminate." Language that indicates effeminacy such as "effeminar" or "feminile" does appear in the Cortegiano but is often left out of discussions of the "effeminate courtier." When critics do claim that the courtier is effeminate, it is at times motivated by an ahistorical interpretation wherein Renaissance courtly activities and dress may seem un-masculine by modern gender standards. (1) Additionally, scholarship often describes the courtiers as effeminate or fearing effeminacy because there are women in the court society, and specifically in Urbino, these women are invested with authority. Although I have a certain affinity for this second sort of criticism, which argues that the dialogues are underscored by a gender anxiety, the critical use of the term "effeminate" is ambiguous and may be guided from a cultural bias outside the text.

The distinction between the presence of women at the court and the effeminacy of the court is an important one. David Quint elegantly argues that the women at the Urbino court were integral to the "civilizing process," so described by Elias as the transformation of "soldier-aristocrat into polite courtier" (185). Quint explains how the position of women was likened to that of the prince by their similar power to bestow or withhold grazia, and the courtiers' attempts to achieve this grazia inevitably lead to a civilizing tempering of aggression and cultivation of manners (187-90). The symmetry between the prince and the court lady enables Quint to posit the theory that the anti-woman language and admonition of effeminate traits are a displacement of "the resentment that the male courtier feels, but cannot allow himself fully to express, toward the prince" (190).

Although men's service of women may account for some modes of behavior demonstrated by men in the court, Berger's model offers a broader explanation, which holds that both sexes influence the behavior at court through an anxiety-ridden "surveillance" that the culture of sprezzatura creates. (2) My affinity for Berger's argument is driven by an understanding that men, while ostensibly in the service of women, are often preoccupied with the opinion of other men. This implicates the courtiers in a position not only of surveillance but also in a homo-social triangular relationship so described by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick where women are the necessary yet disappearing link in male bonding. (3)

Ruth Mazo Karras argues precisely this dynamic in her study on late medieval masculinity. She shows how the construction of masculinity involves a sort of rivalry that claims to be in the service of women yet is invoked primarily to determine the measure of men. The often noted tournaments and jousts held before women were "ostensibly" to please these women, yet the "knights used the display of their appearance at least as much to appeal to the male gaze as the female" (Karras 48). Therefore, while the critical tradition of the Cortegiano seems to argue that the courtly service of women is an "effeminizing process," it is also one on which masculinity depends. As Louise Fradenburg states, the knightly tournament "brings men together but allows them to constitute themselves as 'men,' who fight for and who are watched by women. The 'lady' thus enters the tournament--as spectator, as prize--in part to signify the masculinity of the knight [...] The lady dramatizes the masculinity of the warrior by being what he is not and by watching his effort from another place" (212; ctd. in Karras 48-49). By taking the works of Fradenburg and Karras into consideration, we may therefore need to qualify the work of Quint and others who have seen the courtier's service of women in the Urbino court as a strictly effeminizing dynamic. If the service of women is to be yet another component of homosocial behavior, the category of "effeminate courtier" is shaded by a very masculine discourse of male rivalry.

Additionally, Quint's insightful explanation of the role of women in the "civilizing process" implies that the mere presence of women might be the cause of the effeminization of the courtier. (4) I would suggest that the presence of women might bring about a surprisingly opposite effect. A depiction of the court's gender dynamic may be nuanced by recalling Castiglione's understanding of a binary gender system in which one gender is defined by the presence of the other, "cosi quello non si dee chiamar maschio che non ha la femina, secondo la diffinizione dell'uno e dell'altro; ne femina quella che non ha maschio" (III, 14). For Castiglione (and a large number of gender theorists), masculinity is relational and defined by the presence of and difference from the feminine, and therefore the presence of women at the court is arguably a manner of bolstering the dissimilarities of the genders. One sex provides a foil for the other, a matter that is physically articulated in the beginning of the conversations when the courtiers sit in a circle of man, woman, man, woman, etc. (5) My claim is not in disagreement with those who see the society of women in the court as causing an anxiety of effeminacy, but rather, as I elaborate later, the women of the court might be the cause of a different sort of gender anxiety than has traditionally been considered.

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