The Morality of Misogyny: The Case of Rustico Filippi, Vituperator of Women
Fabian Alfie (University of Arizona)
Quidditas: Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, Volume 25 (2004)
At the outset of his influential study on Rabelais, Mikhail Bakhtin makes an interesting observation. The scholar dedicates several pages to detail how the French author’s critical reception changed over time. Bakhtin illustrates how the attempt to comprehend an author can frequently be stymied by the cultural changes that occur across the centuries. As scholars analyze writers of earlier periods, the investigation of the cultural and textual background can become increasingly difficult.
Although Bakhtin’s study is specific to the works of Rabelais, many of his findings can be applied to the Italian comic writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Eschewing the critical embarrassment of previous generations, Bakhtin openly discusses Rabelais’s references to urination, defecation, sexuality, and over-consumption, asserting that such corporeal language, which he labels as “carnivalesque,” had developed within a particular cultural context in European society. The scholar also remarks that insults and degradation form a component part of “carnivalesque” literature because they symbolize the destruction of the body. For as long as the “carnivalesque” subculture remained vital, he asserts, the general readership intuitively understood Rabelais’s precise literary aims.
During the sixteenth century, Rabelais’s works were highly acclaimed, but as the centuries passed, and as the culture changed, they were viewed with increasing disdain. As Bakhtin’s study clearly shows, the understanding of a writer’s cultural context can radically alter the scholarly perception of her or his works, and as that context becomes lost over time, such texts may appear incomprehensible.
The critical history of the Florentine poet, Rustico Filippi (c. 1230-1240—c. 1295-1299) provides another excellent example of the loss of a cultural context and the subsequent critical confusion that can ensue. Of the fifty-nine extant sonnets in Filippi’s corpus, twenty-nine sonnets, just under half, adeptly communicate the traditional motifs of medieval love poetry. In his amorous verse, he demonstrates acute poetic skills writing in apparent imitation of the school of his contemporaries, the so- called Siculo-Tuscans. The nineteenth-century scholars who rediscovered Filippi, and who were also well versed in the Romantic poetics of the age, wrote admiringly of his love poetry. Vincenzo Federici, for instance, described his love poetry as the genuine expressions of love and heartache. The other half of Filippi’s poetic production, thirty sonnets, is written in the comic style. In the latter compositions, like Rabelais and others in subsequent centuries, the poet speaks of coarse sexual situations, composes unflattering caricatures of his fellow Florentine citizens, and slanders and castigates political enemies.