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The Ugly Woman

The Ugly Woman: Transgressive Aesthetic Models in Italian Poetry from the Middle Ages to the Baroque

Patrizia Bettella
  • Book Info
    The Ugly Woman
    Book Description:

    The ugly woman is a surprisingly common figure in Italian poetry, one that has been frequently appropriated by male poetic imagination to depict moral, aesthetic, social, and racial boundaries. Mostly used between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries - from the invectives of Rustico Filippi, Franco Sacchetti, and Burchiello, to the paradoxical praises of Francesco Berni, Niccolò Campani and Pietro Aretino, and further to the conceited encomia of Giambattista Marino and Marinisti - the portrayal of female unattractiveness was, argues Patrizia Bettella inThe Ugly Woman, one way of figuring woman as 'other.'

    Bettella shows how medieval female ugliness included transgressive types ranging from the lustful old hag, to the slanderer, the wild woman, the heretic/witch, and the prostitute, whereas Early Modern unattractiveness targeted peasants, mountain dwellers, and black slaves: marginal women whose bodies and manners subvert aesthetic precepts of culturally normative beauty and propriety. Taking a philological and feminist approach, and drawing on the Bakhtinian concept of the grotesque body and on the poetics of transgression,The Ugly Womanis a unique look at the essential counterdiscourse of the celebrated Italian poetic canon and a valuable contribution to the study of women in literature.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8248-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-9)

    Italian literature of the pre-modern era, which contributed considerably to the formation of the Western canon, provided models of feminine beauty still influential in both modern literature and culture as a whole. Today’s paradigms of female beauty include attributes such as youth, blond hair, delicate features, and well-proportioned bodies, all characteristics that were already glorified in medieval and Renaissance Italian literature.¹

    In her introduction toIdeals of Feminine Beauty(vii–xv), Karen A. Callaghan has pointed out that beauty norms play an integral role in the construction of gender identity in a patriarchal system. Rules of beauty ‘serve as a...

  5. chapter 1 Female Ugliness in the Middle Ages: The Old Hag
    (pp. 10-40)

    The presentation of female ugliness as physical and moral deviancy in early Italian poetry is partly attributable to a sentiment of woman-hating that pervades medieval culture as a whole.¹ The cultural discourse of misogyny legitimized the social, economic, and political subjugation of women. Classical and medieval-Christian antifeminist tradition contributed to a misogynist stance. Works such as Ovid’sOn Women’s Cosmetics(15–5 BC), Juvenal’sSixth Satire(early second century), and the antifeminist works of the church fathers were familiar to all medieval writers.² Misogynist writings identified women as lustful, arrogant, deceitful, physically disgusting, loquacious, petulant, vain, and, in general, inferior...

  6. chapter 2 Transgression in the Trecento and Quattrocento: Guardian, Witch, Prostitute
    (pp. 41-80)

    The recurring characteristic of the ugly woman in medieval comic poetry is her advanced age. This element continues to be dominant during the fourteenth century, but the focus moves to a special category of old woman: the guardian. The guardian is a recurrent character in medieval romance. In theRoman de la Rose(circa 1275), and its Italian rewriting in Dante’sIl fiore(circa 1285–90), she typifies the duenna, the shrewd old woman who, rather than chaperoning and protecting the young woman’s chastity, indoctrinates her in all the tricks to gain the lover’s favour.¹ The Vielle of theRoman...

  7. chapter 3 The Portrait of the Ugly Woman in the Renaissance: The Peasant, the Anti-Laura
    (pp. 81-127)

    During the sixteenth century depictions of female ugliness develop along two distinctive lines. Under the influence of quattrocento poetry, the invective continues against the old woman, particularly as a lascivious prostitute or procuress, typified in Niccolò Franco and Ariosto’s ‘Lena.’ At the same time a new trend emerges in the representation of female ugliness: the mock or paradoxical encomium. In Renaissance poetry the ugly woman is no longer discriminated against for her moral laxity and age difference, but for her social class. With the onset of Renaissance secularism, the male poetic imagination is less obsessed with indecency, immorality, or the...

  8. chapter 4 New Perspectives in Baroque Poetry: Unconventional Beauty
    (pp. 128-164)

    Baroque poetry in Italy was completely absorbed in its task of renewal and detachment from Renaissance Petrarchism. Yet as Asor Rosa noted, baroque taste was not born in an act of conscious and sharp break from tradition.

    Il sentimento e la ricerca del nuovo, che pure costituiscono elementi primari del gusto barocco, debbono essere intesi e valutati in un quadro complesso di relazioni, in cui il fattore della continuità e della tradizione non pesa meno delle istanze di rinnovamento. (La lirica del seicento,3)

    (The desire and search for novelty, which are indeed primary elements of baroque taste, must be evaluated...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 165-170)

    As philosopher and feminist Rosi Braidotti observes ‘“I, woman” am affected directly and in my everyday life by what has been made of the subject of “Woman”; I have paid in my very body for all the metaphors and images that our culture has deemed fit to produce of “Woman.”’ (187). Some of the images and metaphors used in medieval and early modern Italian poetry to describe the ugly woman still haunt us today, in our effort to make sense of clichés about female evil, deviancy, marginality, and non-conformity constructed as physical repulsion and filthy materiality. We as women must...

  10. Appendix
    (pp. 171-186)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 187-232)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-250)
  13. Index
    (pp. 251-259)