Recensioni dal passato: La cazzaria di Antonio Vignali
The Anathomy Lessons
Sixteenth-century sexual transgressions.
Issue of 2003-12-08
In 1525, Antonio Vignali, a young Sienese nobleman, founded a lofty-minded humanist society that he called, with boyish irreverence, the Academy of the Stunned (Accademia degli Intronati). The commandments of its mottoââPray, Study, Rejoice, Harm No One, Believe No Oneââwere honored selectively. The Intronati were an Ã©lite cenacle of scholars who shared a devotion to vernacular literature; passionate republicanism tempered by contempt for the common man; flamboyant misogyny qualified by awe for womenâs supposedly insatiable sexual appetites; hatred of clerical hypocrisy; youthful Weltschmerz; and a fervor for sodomy that, at least in Vignaliâs case, bordered on the evangelical. The academy convened on Sundays, behind closed doors, to discuss philosophy, music, law, poetry, and language, and to critique its membersâ work. It appears that quite a bit of member exercise took place also, as is the case at all frat parties, however exalted. The Intronati made a specialty of scandalous theatrical productions (one of their several affinities with the fin-de-siÃ¨cle Decadents who orbited Oscar Wilde and the coteries that formed around dâAnnunzio, Artaud, and Cocteau). Nevertheless, or perhaps therefore, they acquired an illustrious reputation that they still enjoy. Their most famous collaborative effort was âGlâIngannatiâ (âThe Deceivedâ), a comedy with a cross-dressing heroine that influenced Shakespeareâs âTwelfth Night.â
Sometime between 1525 and 1527, Vignali wrote a radically obscene satire on politics and sex that he called âLa Cazzaria.â The sixteenth century was a golden age of the outrÃ©, particularly in France and Italy, and this slight opus, the length of a novella, took the form of a mock-Platonic, mock-scholastic dialogue narrated mostly by disembodied genitals. The manuscript was intended for private circulation among like-minded freethinkers, but someoneâfriend or foe, it isnât clearâpirated a copy and had it printed without the authorâs consent, crippling Vignali with a notoriety that he didnât outlive. He went into exile a few years later and published nothing else in his lifetime.
Centuries passed, and âLa Cazzariaâ was more or less forgotten, though a few copies were conserved in the dirty-book archives of various august institutions and in the collections of libertine bibliophiles. One was unearthed about ten years ago in a Spanish house that was being demolished. Two sixteenth-century editions found their way to the Enfer at the BibliothÃ¨que Nationale in Parisâa restricted room legendary among French schoolboys (and the object, in fantasy, of more midnight break-ins than the vault at Fort Knox). Another copy settled into the bowels of the Vatican, and a nineteenth-century French translation was bequeathed to the British Library. There, in the early nineteen-nineties, Vignaliâs work was discovered by a graduate student at ColumbiaâIan Frederick Moultonâwho was doing research on Renaissance erotica. Even at the end of the twentieth century, credentialled readers who had wangled entrÃ©e to the âPrivate Caseâ (a collection of pornography donated by the Victorian erotomane Henry Spencer Ashbee, the author of âMy Secret Lifeâ) were, Moulton notes, obliged to consult its contents at a special desk close to the librarians, presumably with both hands in view. Moulton has translated âLa Cazzariaâ into English for the first time, as âThe Book of the Prickâ (Routledge; $18.95). His exemplary introduction is nearly as long as the text itself and twice as worthwhile. It provides the historical perspective and intellectual sobriety missing from what Moulton tactfully describes as a âlearned, but childish,â fable that is, even by the most liberal modern standards, a complete gross-outâthough probably not to anyone who has tuned in to Howard Stern.
Cazzo is the vulgar Italian word for the male organ, hence the title, whose âclosest English rendering,â Moulton writes, âis probably âcockeryââbut that is too close to âcookery.â . . . âPrickeryâ might work, but it lacks the specificity of the Italian word. In English, âprickâ is a word with many meanings; in Italian, âcazzoâ can mean only one thing. In the text, I have translated âcazzoâ as âcock,â but âBook of the Cockâ sounds like it might have something to do with poultry, so for the working English title, I settled on âBook of the Prick.ââ Anglo-Saxon sexual slang, however, has a much harsher impact on the ear than its mellifluous Romance counterpart, and equivalent terms donât carry the same charge. The percussive monosyllables and/or double final consonants of cock, balls, shit, dick, buttocks, jerk-off, prick, cunt, and fuck have a blunt, expletive force that isnât rendered by (and betrays the puckish delicacy of) cazzo, potta, culo, fica, scopare, merda, coglioni, and cacca. The verbs incazzare and inculare, especially used reflexively, are certainly rude, but hardly so heavy-handed as âto take it up the ass.â Itâs the difference, perhaps, between Arielâs nimble tongue and Calibanâs thick one.
It would be satisfying, if only for the worthy Moultonâs sake, to report that âLa Cazzariaâ is a masterpiece rescued from obscurity by a feat of heroic exegesis, but, even making allowances for the nuances inevitably lost in translation, a masterpiece is something shapelier and more solid than an extended riff, however much fun it is. Vignaliâs antic prose staggers in and out of coherence like a student video ad-libbed as it is shot, and it also reminded me of the scatological graffiti, most of it in Latin, that one finds in the catacombs of Roman churches, and which seems to have been etched into the stone expressly to deflate, for future generations, the mystique of antiquity.
The animator of âLa Cazzariaâ is a priapic scholar steeped in the classics who refers to himself by Vignaliâs own nom de plume, Arsiccio Intronato. Arsiccio means âburned,â as in scorched by lust, and when the dialogue begins he is intent on seducing a younger academician named Sodo Intronatoâthe pseudonym of Vignaliâs friend Marcantonio Piccolomini. Sodo is laughably ignorant of human anatomy and plumbing, and of nearly all sexual matters, including such basics as âwhy kissing feels goodâ; âwhy women have periodsâ; âwhy the crotch is hairyâ; and âwhy jerking off was invented,â not to mention such headier questions as âwhy monks invented confessionâ (to ascertain if there were any âsecrets in the art of fuckingâ they didnât know) and, on a slightly more elevated note, âwhy no one today has profound knowledgeâ (people are too busy âmaking money, dominating others, and similar things . . . because wealth has placed its feet on virtueâs neckâ). The conversation is introduced by a letter from a third member of the confraternity, Il Bizzarro, who claims to have borrowed this ânaughtyâ text while waiting impatiently in Arsiccioâs study for a âfilthy, succulent, and smuttyâ wench his host has promised to serve up. âAlthough our Arsiccio has always shown himself to be an enemy to women in all his affairs,â Il Bizzarro writes, âhe is nonetheless as eager for their secrets as a monkey is for crayfish.â
The conceit of a found manuscript was a convention of the Platonic dialogue. Castiglione, for example, employs it for the âBook of the Courtier,â and it briefly occurred to me that Moultonâs account of finding a sensational text with an arcane publishing history written by a sex-crazed proto-Foucault was the conceit of a postmodern novel. In this case, it promises rather more in the way of esoteric revelation than the text delivers, partly because Sodo is such a dimwit, and partly because Vignaliâs fable runs on raw nerve rather than imagination.
In a seventeenth-century history of the Intronati, Vignali was described as a âbrilliant spiritâ who âwas accounted almost a monster because of his deformed body.â (The writer doesnât specify the nature of the deformity.) He apparently fathered two legitimate sons, but extant documents make no mention of a wife. His work flaunts his preference for pliant youths of his own class. Homosexual camaraderie in general and man-boy love in particular flourished in Renaissance Tuscany, as it tends to in cultures that worship womenâs purity by keeping them locked up. Moulton makes an interesting analogy between the âhyper-intellectualâ machismo of Vignali and his circle and that of the (mostly) hyper-heterosexual Spanish artists of the nineteen-thirties, whose graphic forays into coprophilia and masturbation (Dali), priapism (Picasso), and perversity (BuÃ±uel) were also part of a revolt against orthodox Catholicism, and an impulse to take refuge in absurdity and surrealism from an increasingly repressive and chaotic political climate. Intronato can mean âdeafâ as well as âstunnedâ (though, with a little poetic license, one might also translate it as âstoned,â and the rambling tone of âLa Cazzariaâ leaves the impression that Vignali dashed it off in a state of intoxication). But the name, Moulton tells us, was an ironic reference to the spiritual battering that refined characters endure in periods of civic violence and instability. Sienaâs independence was being menaced externally by the competing forces of the Hapsburg Empire and the Valois of France, and from within by the murderous intrigues among the five hereditary factions (monti) that ruled the Republic.
Despite the fact that his own noble family belonged to the preÃ«minent Monte dei Nove, Vignali made them the villains of a parable that a less faithful translator might have been tempted to entitle âGenital Farm.â Drawing ironically upon accounts by Livy and Plutarch of a speech by the Roman senator Menenius Agrippa to a revolutionary mob (which Shakespeare, a little later, and without the irony, cribbed for a scene in Act I of âCoriolanusâ), he dramatizes the internecine struggles that were wasting his city as a tale of warring body parts, though not the head, belly, and limbs of the classical version. Arsiccio describes to Sodo how the Big Cocks and their prideful consorts, the Beautiful Cunts, once formed a dominant party that tyrannized a coalition of the lesser-endowed: the Little Cocks and their allies, the Ugly Cunts and Assholes, whose plot for a democratic revolution was betrayed by the cowardly and opportunistic Balls. In the course of the fable, the victors reassert their mastery and wreak their revenge with the kind of atrocious violations that recent history has reclaimed from the realm of Sadean fantasy. But then, Arsiccio continues, at the urging of a wise if bloodthirsty seeress known as the Great Cunt of Modena, the vanquished negotiate their differences in a fraternal fashion, and strike back at their oppressors, who are, in turn, slaughtered or dispersed. âI will say this about the Big Cocks,â Modena concludes. âIt is very possible they have taken refuge with some foreign power, from where, in a short time, seeing our discord, they may return to ruin and destroy each of us.â Her moral is a little vague, though it seems sound: the phallus represents power without a conscience; it cannot, therefore, be trusted; while it sometimes lies low, you canât keep it down.
Vignali lived at a moment not without a certain cautionary relevance to the present, in which the avidity of a privileged generation shaking itself free from fundamentalism coexists with profound anxiety at the prospect of losing that insouciance to a dictatorship of the right-thinking. Rabelais and Aretino are probably the best known of the many pungent writers working in the same mode. They, as Moulton puts it, ârevel in bodily functions, both sexual and digestive.â He also cites the poet Lorenzo Venier, the author of âLa Puttana erranteâ (âThe Wandering Whoreâ), and NiccolÃ² Franco, whose political diatribes in verse employed âshocking, sexualized invective to attack their enemies.â âLa Cazzaria,â he continues, ânever mentions Machiavelli directly, but it is not hard to sense his influenceâ in the conception of the state both as a much violated woman and a âfemale bodyâ of âabiding and unfathomable strength . . . which no man can completely control.â
Though Vignali is more extreme than the least inhibited of his contemporaries, and less artful and lucid than the greatest of them, he shares their rebellious impulse to subvert the sanctimony of pedants, the cruelty of the potent, the authority of patriarchs, and the prestige of virtue; to challenge the medieval dualism of mind and body; and to dose his readers with a bitter aphrodisiac grown in that fertile mire of carnal knowledge which, he believes, nourishes the blood of a secular body politic. âNo matter how ugly and vulgar a thing is,â Arsiccio argues, âit is more ugly and vulgarâ not to understand it. Almost three hundred years before Sade, Vignali conflates enlightenment with corruption, and, in one of the earliest and, it has to be said, most repellent test cases for free speech, he asserts a quintessential civil liberty, one that becomes more precious as it grows more fragile: the freedom to offend.
âQual de le cose create Ã¨ la piÃ¹ degna? Se tu vorrai rispondere saviamente, tu dirai: l’huomo; che sai che la sacra e la prophana scrittura vuol cosÃ¬. Hora sta forte: qual dunque Ã¨ la piÃ¹ degna parte della Philosophia? Di necessitÃ segue che sia quella parte che cerca le piÃ¹ degne cose, e cosÃ¬ quella Ã¨ posta intorno a la cognizione de l’huomo: conciosia dunque che questo huomo non possa essere senza il cazzo, come chiaro Ã¨, a forza bisogna mettere il cazzo per chiuder la potta e âl culo esser le prime cose che si denno imparare. Del mescolamento poi de la potta, del cazzo e del culo, ne segue la cognizione del fottere e del bugerare; e cosÃ¬ si viene allargando la scienzaâ.