Bloomsbury Cultural History - Marked Bodies and Social Meanings
A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Renaissance
A Cultural History of the Human Body in the Renaissance

Linda Kalof

Linda Kalof is Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University and author of Looking at Animals in Human History and editor of The Animals Reader: The Essential Classic and Contemporary Writings. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and William Bynum

William Bynum is Emeritus Professor of the History of Medicine at University College London, UK and author of many books, including Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century and History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2010



Early Modern



Related Content

The Marked Body as Otherness in Renaissance Italian Culture

DOI: 10.5040/9781350049741-ch-007
Page Range: 149–182

Traditional views of the Renaissance as a phenomenon that glorifies the normative body as white, male, young, civilized, and contained do not render the variety and richness of representations to which the various “subalterns” or “others,” have contributed to the formation of the identity of the Renaissance subject.[1] Prostitutes and courtesans, peasants, blacks and slaves, Native Americans, Muslims and Jews, old women, in short, all those perceived as being the outsiders, located on the margins, are the others that contributed to shaping, by opposition, the identity of the Renaissance elite. Social distinction of the hegemonic groups occurs by identifying the body of the subaltern classes as the nonnormative body. The representation of the other includes more or less evident marks of bodily difference: it can be made manifest as deviation from the norms of bodily conformity (nonwhite skin or disproportionate, old, ungraceful, even disgusting body), semi-nakedness, sartorial demarcation, exotic costume, or a colored badge to signal racial distinction.


The marked body exists by virtue of its opposition to the normative body, also known as the classical body. In Bakhtinian terms, the marked body displays aspects of the grotesque; it is a body that transgresses the rules of the classical. The classical body is closed, proportionate, and decorous, whereas the grotesque one is open, overflowing, disgusting, unruly, sexually excessive, and unconventional in various forms of disruption of the normative classical one.[2] It is associated with persons who are defined by their marginality, who belong to a liminal space, either on the social or geographical margins. The prostitute, and even the honest courtesan, the more refined Renaissance incarnation, occupies a marginal space in that she challenges the traditional roles available to women in early modern times. By being neither a virgin nor a wife, nor a widow, nor a nun, the prostitute (or the courtesan) had no place in a patriarchal society that viewed her as a dangerous figure whose licentiousness could corrupt and swerve men. The bodily representation of the prostitute in literary texts highlights such marginality, which leads to the depiction of a female body marked by elements of the grotesque, as defined by Bakhtin. In a letter from Verona to Luigi Guicciardini, dated December 9, 1509, Nicolò Machiavelli recounts his encounter and intercourse with a prostitute, whose head was first covered by a towel, and who later is revealed in all her physical ugliness. The body of the old prostitute is painstakingly described in its grotesqueness:

My God! The woman was so ugly that I almost dropped dead. The first thing I noticed was a tuft of hair, half white and half black, and although the top of her head was bald, which allowed you to observe a number of lice taking a stroll, nevertheless a few hairs mingled with the whiskers that grew around her face; … her eyebrows were full of nits; … her tear ducts were full of mucus and her eyelashes plucked; … her nostrils full of snot and one of them was cut off; … her upper lip was covered with a thin but rather long moustache; … as she opened her mouth there came from it such stinking breath that my eyes and my nose … found themselves offended by this pestilence.[3]

This type of bodily description of the old and revolting prostitute, along with violent invectives, is reserved not only for common prostitutes but also for renowned courtesans, whose ambivalent role in early modern Italy elicited praise for their beauty, refinement, and intellectual skills, as well as scorn and fierce attacks. By the mid-sixteenth century in Italy there was a flourishing of literary texts attacking prostitutes and courtesans focusing specifically on their corruption, which is represented in descriptions of bodily deformity, decay, and old age. The old prostitute is depicted in a grotesque, sexually excessive body in La Puttana Errante (The Wondering Whore, dated 1530), a poem in various cantos by Venetian Lorenzo Venier, describing the immoderate lust of an insatiable whore traveling throughout Italy to experience new and excessive sexual encounters.[4] The bodily description of an old prostitute encountered by the wandering whore while in Tuscany reveals again the repulsive physical features attributed to courtesans and prostitutes:

An old woman spoke after her,
Who had but four teeth in her mouth;
Her finger and toenails were long as a palm,
Her breath reeks more than eight convents,
She has a beard like a man, her eyes like those of a Jew,
Her breasts are drooping like bags,
Her hair is rare and yellowish white,
Like the tail of a carting horse.[5]

The merciless scorn and grotesque female body Lorenzo Venier describes in the Wandering Whore, reappears in the poems composed by his son Maffio-Venier (1550–1586) against one of the most illustrious and admired poets and courtesans of the Italian Renaissance, Veronica Franco (1546–1591). Franco became the target of verbal aggression by Maffio-Venier who, in his violent poetic attacks, couples moral contempt for rampant sexuality with extensive description of bodily deformity, disgust, and decay. In the tailed sonnet “Veronica, ver unica puttana” (“Veronica, Verily Unique Whore”), Maffio constructs an obscene, physically repulsive, and grotesque portrait of Franco, where the beautiful courtesan is debased to the level of a common whore, accused of being a syphilitic, depraved, disfigured old procuress, a true antithesis of the Petrarchan beauty promoted in contemporary classical literature:

Green forehead, yellow eyes,
Rusty nose, wrinkly jaws and cheeks,
Your ears are always laden with chilblain,
Your mouth is full of nonsense,
Your breath is foul, and your beautiful teeth
Are as white as your eyelashes and hair,
You are so skinny and wasted
So very scrawny, so parched,
One who is now reduced to skin and bone,
Who fell in ruin,
The one whom the children in the streets often,
Mistake for death in disguise.[6]

The main attribute accompanying the female grotesque body is old age, which renders even the most attractive woman physically repulsive. Some recurring elements in portraits of prostitutes are references to some standard marginalizing characteristics, such as masculine attributes (bearded like a man) or, like in the poem by Lorenzo Venier, resemblance to other marginal groups, such as witches and Jews. References to witches are very common, because many older women and prostitutes were accused of witchcraft, and witches were believed to be sexually excessive and to have sex with the devil.[7]


On the Italian peninsula, social groups on the geographical periphery, such as peasants (villani), people living in the country, or even facchini (porters), day laborers working in the city but coming from the countryside or from the mountain regions, are represented with physical marks of difference. Their marginality vis à vis the hegemonic centers of power and culture, such as the court and the city, makes them the others, from which the ruling classes strive to distinguish themselves. Peasants, mountain dwellers, and facchini are the subject of comic plays and poems, where they are ridiculed for their lack of manners, and their bodies are portrayed as grotesque and disproportionate. Peasants were called villani, a term that defines them negatively as those living in the villa, or countryside village, in peripheral areas, far from the sites of affirmation of civility and good manners, that is, the court and the city. In early modern Italy there was a general sentiment of scorn toward villani and even more so toward facchini because they were viewed by the higher classes as ridiculous, lacking in language and behavioral skills. Tommaso Garzoni (1549–1589), in his book La piazza universale di tutte le professioni del mondo (The Universal Square of all Professions in the World, 1585), a sort of encyclopedic treatment of various professions existing during his time, observes that the contadini or villani used to be respected and admired in the classical era, but at his time they have become more shrewd, they are very ignorant, and they live like animals. Facchini or day laborers are perhaps among the most reviled workers of the early modern period in Italy (Figure 7.1).

Angelo Beolco (1502–1542), nicknamed Ruzante, was both a dramatist and a performer active in Padua at the court of landowner and patron Alvise Cornaro. Beolco developed a personal brand of rustic comedy in Paduan country dialect, which was very successful, not only locally but also in the aristocratic circles of the Venice city-state. Beolco composed various plays, mostly in Paduan dialect, about the peasants living in the rural areas between Padua and Venice. His plays were staged for the entertainment of the Cornaro and the Venetian nobility. The comic, rustic plays by Beolco place special emphasis on the rough manners and physical excess of the villani, who were viewed by the Venetian patrician classes as other. Despite Beolco’s sympathetic depictions of the peasants’ poverty and harsh life, the villani are the source of comic stunts, often based on grotesque physicality. In the marriage play Betìa (performed in Venice in 1523) the young peasant girl Betìa is the object of the young suitor’s descriptive verbal praise:

Oh sweet and beautiful girl,
Oh eyes as radiant as the sun,
Oh rosy cheeks
More pink than a salty ham,
Oh sweet lips, oh fine teeth as white as turnips
Oh mouth of honey
Oh large tits, that would please
Every cowman for their size,
Oh nice and large feet for wine harvest,
Oh big legs well rounded, oh nice gambrel,
Round, large, white and neat,
That makes a mill pond look small!
Oh white and ruddy breasts
Like a turnip in the field,
Oh glorious and holy body,
Oh arms fit for shovel and hoe,
Oh hands fit to do
Laundry more than a thousand times.[8]
Figure 7.1 Facchino/Porter. Day Laborer. From Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo, Cesare Vecellio, Venice: Gio. Bernardo Sessa, 1598. Credit: Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta.

The standards of perfection sanctioned for the classical female body are here completely upturned. The description of the heavy, animalized body is of special interest because the terms of comparison for the peasant girl Betìa are country products and farm animals. Betìa’s body contradicts the canon of feminine beauty sanctioned in Petrarch’s poetry, subverts the principles of harmony and proportion advocated in tracts like Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura (On Painting, 1435) and books of courtly love, such as Pietro Bembo’s Asolani (1505).

Betìa’s body is disproportionate and eroticized in its abundance and sensuality—as the use of food items for parts of the female body indicates. This physical representation is pervasive in the genre of Italian rustic poetry and is also found in other regions of the Italian peninsula, for example in Tuscan poems like Nencia da Barberino (ca. 1470) by Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Francesco Berni’s play La Catrina (1517), all including unconventional peasant bodies and composed to entertain high-class circles and refined audiences. Hegemonic classes were amused by the representation of ill-mannered peasant others, in their ridiculous, grotesque, and highly sexualized female body. Social distinction of the elites takes place by identifying the body of the subaltern classes as nonnormative; excessive measure and distortion in the physical shape of peasants marks their nonconformity to the rules of the body (Figure 7.2).

Figure 7.2 Peasant/Contadina. Contadina trivisana. Female peasant from Treviso. From Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo, Cesare Vecellio, Venice: Gio. Bernardo Sessa, 1598. Credit: Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Grotesques

Grotesque realism and bodily distortion from the norm appears also in figurative arts. Leonardo da Vinci and the Milan circle of his imitators in the mid- to late sixteenth century, produced a significant corpus of grotesque drawings and paintings. The series of drawings by Leonardo depicting grotesque bodies, especially heads, shows his interest in expressiveness and his concern with realistic features.[9] Many drawings of distorted faces not only reveal mental states and emotions of various individuals but also show the link between character and external appearance. Even though Leonardo denied scientific foundation to physiognomics, he believed the soul determined the typical form of an individual’s physical features. Leonardo’s theory of expression, which is discussed in his Treatise on Painting (1480–1516), was developed in the late Quattrocento to react against the uniformity of facial types in contemporary painting and art. Just as beauty resulted from the harmony of the body parts, so was ugliness a consequence of their discord. Leonardo believed expressiveness could be enhanced with more realism in the depicted figure. Unlike Leon Battista Alberti, who in his De pictura advocated the pursuit of an ideal, the most beautiful and typical human figure, Leonardo thought the painter should seek more variety of human figures:

In the stories there must be men of different complexion, ages, incarnations, attitudes, fatness, slimness; big, skinny, small, fat, great, fierce, old, young, strong, and muscular, weak.[10]

Among the various purposes served by the grotesque, Martin Clayton finds that Leonardo used it to depict comic or evil. Although evil had a tradition of grotesque faces in European and Italian art, the comic grotesque was less common in Italian art, in contrast with the rich literary tradition of burlesque and rustic poetry, and canti carnascialeschi (carnival songs) that mocked the conventions of courtly love.[11] Leonardo gained exposure to such traditions of comic poetry in his early years in Tuscany, but his interest in the comic grotesque flourished when he moved to Milan at the court of the Sforza. Clayton believes the purpose of the comic grotesque drawings was to entertain the audience. It is no coincidence that Leonardo’s grotesque heads date to the time he spent in Milan (1482–1498) as court painter; comic and burlesque literature was appreciated at the court of Ludovico Sforza, whose main poet in residence was the Florentine Bernardo Bellincioni who, besides encomiastic poetry, composed many comic realistic verses that were certainly familiar to Leonardo.[12]

Leonardo’s grotesques are satirical pieces, mocking the vanity of the aged and depicting bodily deformity through various forms of otherness. The wrinkled woman in ostentatious headdress shows the otherness of the grotesque old female body, where the display of withered breasts and the quasi-masculine face construct female old age as sexualized excess and vanity (Figure 7.3).

Figure 7.3 Old Woman. Head and shoulders of a hideous old woman wearing an escoffin over a wimple. Color Stipple engraving by B. Pastorini, 1806, after Leonardo da Vinci. Wellcome V0007456.

One grotesque drawing, Old Man Leaning on a Stick (ca. 1510), presents bodily otherness in the figure of the Jew. Clayton believes the old man depicted here “conforms with the caricatured Jewish type … with a long hooked nose, fleshy lips, avaricious eyes and a claw-like hand clutching a stick.”[13]

Because Leonardo rejected physiognomics as a reference in the portrayal of different states of mind, his goal of depicting realistic human figures is achieved through the observation of different individuals. In Giovanbattista Giraldi Cintio’s Discorsi dei romanzi (Discourse on Novels, ca. 1550) there is an interesting cue as to da Vinci’s technique in realistic figuration:

When he [Leonardo] wanted to paint a figure, he would consider first its quality and nature, that is whether the person had to be noble, plebeian, joyful or serious, disturbed or cheerful, old or young, enraged or tranquil, good or evil; and then … he would go where he knew that such people would congregate in great numbers, and he would diligently observe their faces, their manners their clothing, their bodily movements, and when he found someone who was suitable to his plan, he would sketch them in the little book that he always kept at his belt.[14]

Giraldi also relates a famous episode, included also in Vasari’s Lives, where Leonardo expresses his difficulty in painting the head of Judas during the completion of the Last Supper (1498). For the face of the traitor, Leonardo had to find inspiration by going around the suburbs of Milan, in the quarters where lived all the “vile and ignoble persons and … evil and dreadful.”[15] In the periphery of the big city Leonardo would sketch and collect realistic examples of persons that could be used in the figuration of ill-proportioned or ugly persons (Figure 7.4).[16]

According to Clayton, both Vasari and Milanese artist Giovan Paolo Lomazzo (1538–1600) contributed to the image of Leonardo as a bizarre genius, who would follow odd-looking people in the streets and visit prisoners to observe their facial expressions. The grotesque heads and distorted figures (old, wrinkled, excessive, lascivious) had a particular attraction to the Milanese and northern circle of artists (Leonardo’s pupils Francesco Melzi, Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, and Aurelio Luini), who later employed these physiognomic types in many of their paintings.[17]

Leonardo’s grotesque drawings may have been inspired by the observation of subaltern groups living in the city of Milan, such as peasants, facchini, and gypsies. Thanks to its geographical location in the Po Valley, at the feet of the mountains, and to its economic importance during and before the Renaissance, Milan attracted many poor people from the high valleys and the mountains, who were employed as daily laborers. They lived in the suburban areas and were often ridiculed for their crude language and rough manners.

Figure 7.4 Cretin with goiter, Or Capitan Nasotra, drawing after Leonardo da Vinci from Le Difformes et le Malades dans l’Art Charcot, J-M and Richter P.M.L.P Paris, Lecrosmier et Babe, 1889. Wellcome L0014188.

Body and Manners

As Georges Vigarello notes, the sixteenth century marks a cultural change regulated by the behavior of nobility, which introduces the concept of civility as a set of rules for living.[18] Texts such as Castiglione’s Libro del Cortegiano (Book of the Courtier, 1528), Giovanni della Casa’s Galateo (1558), and Stefano Guazzo’s Civile Conversazione (The Civil Conversation, 1574) were considered the foundation of European culture, civility, manners, and bodily practices. Through these conduct books the higher classes defined themselves in opposition to the uncivilized other. Uncouth manners, propensity for lower bodily stratum, sexual excess, and lack of decorum were typical of the representation of lower social classes, the contadini, villani, or facchini people who lived in the contado or in the peripheral or mountainous regions. In a poem addressed to his friend Giovanni della Casa, comic poet Giovanni Mauro (1490–1536) pokes fun at people living in a mountain region of Latium. Mauro ridicules their boorish manners and their dirt, with particular emphasis on women: “As Nature made all of them of pure dirt / so they [mountain women] go around decorated with it from head to toe … / their thick hair is a forest of lice, the teeth are covered with ricotta cheese / and their breasts fall down to their knees.”[19] These people of the lower classes, living in peripheral mountain regions, are isolated from the centers of refinement and decorum; hence they do not follow the codes of conduct and cleanliness established by the elite.

Castiglione’s Cortegiano became a sort of “bible of a nobility that was introducing a detailed etiquette”[20] While setting the codes of proper behavior for the courtier, his treatise makes a much wider impact on the conduct of the higher social classes and, more generally, on anyone wishing to show civility. So any bodily practice discussed in the dialogue referring to the prince’s most trusted adviser, that is, the courtier, is then viewed as a set of rules for the elite, who are attempting to define and distinguish themselves from the other, the inferior classes. Castiglione advocates a gracious behavior, a sprezzatura or gracefulness, which is a form of conduct where perfection is achieved without an apparent effort; includes a physical deportment devoid of any artifice and a composure that entails care for the physical body, but it also frowns upon any form of affectation and bodily manipulation, such as makeup for women, or other artifice that is considered excessive. In turn, some parts of the body can create special charm by being concealed or less visible, such as the hands, which are more attractive when covered with gloves, or the feet, which should barely appear from under a gown. Moderation and measure are emphasized in every part of the dialogue. Castiglione also takes pains at distinguishing the elite courtier from the contadino (peasant): “your courtier should not … be disgusting and dissolute in his manner of life, and act like a peasant who stinks of the soil a mile off. For a man of this sort can never hope to become a good courtier and indeed can be given no occupation other than looking after the farm animals.”[21]

Giovanni della Casa’s Galateo (1558) devotes special space to the promotion of normative bodily behavior. His book about manners became one of the most popular texts advising on correct social skills and proper and polished conduct, which would help single out members of the powerful elite. On the premise that man should always be seeking to attain beauty and proportion, della Casa, besides good speaking skills, recommends control over some parts of the body that can produce disgust or dirt. Well-mannered men, when eating, should ensure that they do not “soil their hands nearly up to their elbows, and dirty their napkins worse than their toilet towels.”[22] Likewise, coughing, spitting, and sneezing are not considered appropriate when dining. Every form of secretion coming from inside the body must be carefully concealed when in public, and table manners are essential to be pleasing and to distinguish oneself from the lower classes. In the whole tract, common people and peasantry are mentioned as a measure of bad manners, low speech, and a type of behavior that needs to be avoided. Polite and graceful manners lead to measure and composure, a series of practices that excludes spitting, eating too fast, rubbing one’s teeth with fingers, rinsing one’s mouth with wine, or drinking to excess.[23] For della Casa, it is also important to apply a certain discipline to the body, not to reveal parts of the body normally concealed by clothing and to keep the body erect, without elbowing others when speaking. Clothing is also an important element that allows the citizen to distinguish himself according to status and age. So a gentleman should not go around the city “in plain overcoat, as if he thought he was in the country.”[24] Nor should one take off his clothing in public, especially lower garments. Twisting one’s mouth and eyes, puffing one’s cheeks, and making unpleasant acts with the face is also not recommended. Particular mention is made of not showing one’s tongue or stretching out and speaking like “a peasant waking up in a haystack.”[25] The Galateo, then, advocates an avoidance of excess that might lead to the exposure of the grotesque body, with its fluids, secretions, and orifices that need to be contained and concealed.


During the early modern period, a conceptual tradition, available from classical times, established a link between outward appearance, that is, bodily features, and inner qualities of the individual: physiognomics. This quasi-scientific discipline that drew on pseudo-Aristotelian precepts attempted to deduce psychological and moral characteristics of an individual through features of the physical body, particularly the face. The principles illustrated in physiognomics were meant to provide a set of tools to interpret human faces and bodies. Most famous was Giambattista della Porta’s (1535–1615) De Humana Physiognomonia (On Physiognomics, 1586). Drawing on Aristotelian philosophy, della Porta believed it was possible to know “particular passions of the soul from the particular shape of the body.”[26] This theory of a correspondence between character and external body in one individual expresses the possibility to predict from external features all the inclinations of the human soul, a classification of humanity based on behaviors attributed to body types and mediated through the figure of the beast. It is the beast that allows for the explanation of individual features. In Book II, della Porta examines in detail all parts of the body, particularly the face, and establishes a relation to qualities of a certain animal, for example a medium-sized human face is set beside the face of a lion, which is associated with courage and virtue. A hooked nose corresponds to greed, and fleshy lips are associated with the stupidity of donkeys and monkeys. And later in chapter 4, monkeys and donkeys are listed among the lustful animals: “Lustful animals are the pig, the goat, the monkey, the donkey” (Figure 7.5).[27]

In della Porta’s physiognomical system, for example, the black color of the face and of the body in general, associated with people from Ethiopia and Egypt, has negative connotation linked with the dark color: “the black color is a sign of a dreadful and deceitful mind.”[28] Some features of the face that are traditionally attributed to black Africans, such as thick lips and large nose, signify stupidity. Della Porta collects a vast array of animalistic traits and uses them to describe human beings in ways that support the dominant social order. This method is applied to gender difference as well.[29] The list of male attributes includes big body, big face, thin arched eyebrows, square jaw, large robust neck, and it demonstrates among animals the model of maleness that corresponds to generous, intrepid, and just, in opposition with femaleness, servility, and savagery. Femininity is a negation of all the male traits: a woman has a small head, narrow face, small eyes, hairless jaws, and delicate neck; in behavior she is thieving, deceitful, delicate, and prone to anger as well as fraudulent, stupid, unstable, and imperfect. If the lion typifies masculinity, the leopard typifies femininity as an evil, deceitful, devalued form of man.

Figure 7.5 Man/Donkey. From Della fisionomia dell’huomo by Giovambattista della Porta Collection: Rare Books. Wellcome L0027462.


The representation of visible minorities is defined by the nonnormative body in the black skin color and in the dimension of the body (too big or too small with respect to the normative body). Racial difference is defined as bodily otherness in the nonwhite skin or marked by ethnic costumes or sartorial signs of differentiation.

The Renaissance is the time when the first sustained flux of black African slaves comes into Europe. They came from sub-Saharan and West Coast Africa and were sold as slaves. There appeared to have been confusion in the naming of black and other ethnic groups in the Renaissance. In the early modern period the term Mori or “Moor” was used to refer to people with dark skin, including Arabs, Berbers, and Muslims (Figure 7.6).

The Moor was defined with a set of interchangeable terms—Turk, Ottomite, Saracen, Egyptian—all constructed in opposition to Christian. The Moors of North Africa were identified with Islam, and the term “Moor” was used with specific reference to people of Turkey or Morocco but more often in general terms to define the Islamic other. The Christian myth that explained the origins of dark-skinned races, including Moorish Muslims of Africa, is derived from the Old Testament story of Cham, son of Noah, who was cursed for beholding the nakedness of his father. Cham was said to be the progenitor of the black races, whose skin color was a sign of an inherited curse. At a time when the concept of race had not yet been elaborated, black skin was a defining element that separated civility from barbarism, physical beauty from ugliness.

Blackness as Ugliness, Physical Prowess, and Lust

Black skin was viewed negatively by association with deformity, with the devil, and with slavery, in opposition to whiteness, which was viewed as the norm of beauty, purity, and moral uprightness. Humanist Antonio Brucioli (1495–1566) in his Commentary upon the Canticle of Canticles, when expounding on the famous verses of the dark bride “I am black but comely” (“Nigra sum, sed formosa”) talks about darkness as deformity, ugliness, and evil in contrast to the whiteness and fairness of all that is beautiful.[30]

Figure 7.6 Moro de Barbaria. Moor of Barbary. From Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo. Cesare Vecellio, Venice: Gio. Bernardo Sessa, 1598. Credit: Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta.

Although Europeans were not capable of distinguishing the different shades of dark skin, they perceived black Africans differently from any other ethnic or religious minorities in Europe such as Jews, Muslims, or gypsies, because the skin color of the former made them more visibly recognizable. Black people living in Europe were automatically assumed to be slaves, therefore legally of inferior status. Giambattista della Porta, in his De Humana Phisiognomonia, considered black-skinned people evil, deceitful, and more effeminate and explained the blackness of Ethiopians and Egyptians as caused by the skin drying up in the strong sun.

The arrival of black Africans in Europe coincided with the period of European self-definition and with the notion of civilization. Therefore certain behaviors began to be viewed as civilized whereas other, non-European behaviors were considered ignorant and uncivilized. This led to the stereotyping of black Africans as other because they were non-Christian and positioned outside the culture and civilization of Europe. The concept of black African in the European mind clashed with the notion of freedom, power, wealth and civilization. Black Africans were associated with laziness, drunkenness, and lust, and as slaves they were depicted as musicians, dancers, and sometimes as bodyguards or soldiers for their physical prowess (Figure 7.7). Africans were also described as more prone to sexual transgression. As Kate Lowe notes, some body markings, scars, tattoos, or accessories such as chains or nose rings became associated with black Africans.[31] Renaissance depictions of black Africans included gold ornaments for nostrils and ears. Often these ornaments were worn by African slaves as ostentatious displays of their masters’ status. Official chronicler of Venetian history, Marin Sanudo, in his Diarii (1466–1533) expressed his dislike for women who, like more (i.e., female Moors or black Africans), have pierced ears and wear earrings set in gold.[32] In many depictions of black slaves, golden ornaments, including rings, anklets, and collars, became markers of bondage. Black slaves in Europe were often forced to wear such golden chains as signs of slavery.

Already in reports of voyages to Africa, the description of black Africans contributed to stereotyping, particularly with respect to some aspects of the physical body, such as nudity and thick lips. Africans were considered savages because they did not know Christianity and because of their nudity or semi-undressed condition, which was widely reported by European travelers to Africa. Venetian Alvise Cadamosto (who was born ca. 1429 and traveled in Africa between 1454 and 1456 pursuing a commercial career sponsored by the Portuguese) wrote the first original, factual account of his two voyages to sub-Saharan Africa, an area he mistakenly called Lower Ethiopia. His accounts, published in the collection of Paesi novamente retrovati (Newly Discovered Countries, Vicenza, 1507), had a major influence on subsequent travel narratives. The description of many native tribes encountered on his trips included mention of seminudity and lax sexuality. For example, the non-Christian inhabitants of the Canary Islands have a warlike nature and live in a primitive state, because they constantly fight with each other; they live in caverns and “they always go naked, save some who wear goatskins, before and behind”[33] Beside nudity, Cadamosto notes some physical deformities in the Lobi people, inhabitants of a region he calls Mali, who did not speak and had an enlarged lower lip that hung down to their breasts, exposing their gums and teeth. These people traded gold for salt. Salt mixed with water was believed to counteract the flesh putrefaction caused by the extreme power of the African sun. Cadamosto’s interest in such deformity reveals that the otherness of black people in early modern times, even in a fairly balanced and accurate account such as Cadamosto’s, could be viewed as a monstrosity, a legacy of classical and medieval literature on Africa and other exotic, fabulous lands.

Figure 7.7 Black Slaves. A male and female slave playing instruments. A collection of voyages and travels some now first printed from original manuscripts. By Awnsham Churchill, John Churchill, John Locke and John Nieuhoff London 1744–46. Collection: Rare Books. Library reference no.: EPB 17811/D vol. 2. Wellcome L0037783.

Gender and sexuality are always included as part of the narrative of alien culture and race. Leo Africanus (ca. 1494–1544), a Moor born in Granada and brought up in Barbary, wrote in Arabic and Italian Della descritione dell’Africa, 1526.[34] Kim Hall thinks Leo’s Della descritione dell’Africa gives a sense of Africa as a chaotic disordered land where hierarchies of gender disrupt the ideal order.[35] Leo gave the idea of unruly and diverse sexuality in Africa, especially the exorbitant erotic females. Leo comments on communities that do not exert enough control over their women, like the one on the Barbary Coast, and describes some women soothsayers of Fez who are dark and demonic as some type of witches who “have a damnable custome to commit unlawfull Venerie among themselves, which I cannot express in any modester termes. If faire women come unto them at any time, these abominable witches will burn in lust towards them.”[36] Hall notices that the black witches are contrasted with the fair women, who are lighter in color, are beautiful, and live in accordance with the values of the patriarchal family.

Black Africans, when channeled into the slave trade and introduced into the European context, were domesticated and valued for their physical strength and prowess. They were employed to work in armies and in activities that required a sturdy body. As documented in Vittore Carpaccio’s painting Miracle of the True Cross (1494) two black Africans in the Venetian setting were gondoliers. Black Africans were employed in this job because of their physical strength. Cadamosto, when meeting the local people of Senegal and Gambia, was impressed with the way local oarsmen rowed boats while standing, just like the Venetians. According to Marin Sanudo, the thousands of gondolas in Venice were rowed by black Muslims or other servants.

Figure 7.8 Man from the Canary Islands. From Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo, Cesare Vecellio, Venice: Gio. Bernardo Sessa, 1598. Credit: Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta.

Black and White Conceit

Blacks as young servants in elaborate costumes are frequently present in pictorial representations; they reflect the presence in Europe of slaves from Africa. Some Africans were bought by patrician families as exotic objects intended to showcase their prestige. In Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) we find black servants in paintings such as Feast in the House of Levi (1573), which includes no less then six Africans, and Wedding of Cana (1562/1563). Nobility enjoyed the presence of black servants to highlight their elite status. Young black servants (moretti, little Moors) and dwarfs were popular at many Italian Renaissance courts. Such figures functioned as exotic curiosities and were available for entertainment and to enhance the status of the elite.

As Anu Korhonen observes, the perception of black skin always “presupposed an implicit evaluation of beauty and the inherent cultural value of whiteness.”[37] African appearance, skin color, and facial features were used to oppose stereotypical images of beauty and ugliness. Black skin was perceived as a spectacle produced by the opposition with white.

In Renaissance art we see the appearance of a pattern of subordination that consists of the pairing of black and white: the iconographic type of the black African attendant to a white European protagonist. Paul Kaplan sees this model of color-coded subordination (which already existed in the Middle Ages) developing in Andrea Mantegna’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes (1492), which shows a black maidservant, believed to be the first black African servant to Judith in European art and culture (Figure 7.9).[38]

Afro-European attendants became popular components of patrician retinues as early as the Middle Ages. By the 1400s, the Aragon kings of Naples were among the most active employers of black servants. Sforza, Gonzaga, and Este, closely tied to the Aragon, contributed to the practice of the Italian Renaissance courts of keeping black slaves.[39] In the late 1400s, three fresco cycles at Ferrara and Mantua depicted Africans.[40] Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi (1462), which was a Gonzaga commission, shows that by 1460 black Africans were part of Mantuan cultural life. The drawing by Mantegna with the black servant is believed to include a black servant to please Isabella d’Este, whose interest and fascination with black child servants is well known.[41] Kaplan thinks the large number of black slaves in Europe in the late fifteenth century was a factor in Mantegna’s decision to depict the maidservant of the Judith drawing as a black African.[42] Furthermore, if the drawing was executed for Isabella d’Este, it would have been particularly welcome to include a black African, because Isabella would have recognized herself in Judith and one of her morette in the black servant.

As is evident from her correspondence, Isabella was in the habit of securing small black children for her court and for some of her friends. From various letters exchanged with her agent in Venice, Giorgio Brognolo, we know that in June 1491, Isabella was looking for “a moretta of no more than four years of age.”[43] Brognolo found her one but with difficulty because he was in competition with Isabella’s mother, an avid collector of black slaves, who was also in search of the same. Slaves were subject to scars and disfiguring disease that often made their physical appearance less than perfect. The letters reveal the interest in the physical appearance of the young moretti, with emphasis on blackness and on good shape of the body. Brognolo says he found one moretta who was “very black and well shaped.” After welcoming her in Mantua, Isabella comments on the fact that “in blackness and shape she [moretta] satisfies me more than I had hoped.”[44] Later Isabella was so pleased with this moretta that she wanted to find her a companion. When Brognolo’s wife mentioned that there may be a young moretto available at the house of a gentleman, again Isabella expresses the importance of the physical appearance: “if he is of the highest beauty, purchase him for me … but if he is not black and well-proportioned, do not agree to buy him.”[45] The emphasis is on the moretti being gracious, well-shaped, and very black, because black African slaves at the court of the Este and Gonzaga were acquired not for domestic labor but as human accessories to embellish the court and as symbols of prestige. Like buffoons, dark slaves were considered sources of amusement and objects of display.

Figure 7.9 Black Servant. Judith is putting the head of Holofernes in a bag helped by her servant, by Johann Nepomuk Strixner, published circa 1800 after Andrea Mantegna. Collection: Iconographic Collection 573378i. Wellcome V0049939.

Moretti were also objects of gift exchange among nobles: the Duke of Mantua asked his agent to purchase one to give to Lady Montpensier, and Andrea Doria gave two blacks to the Duke of Mantua as a sign of thankfulness. In 1522, Margherita Cantelmo, a dear friend of Isabella d’Este, offered her a “mora”: “who was captured not long ago in Barbary … she may be sixteen or seventeen and she is beautiful … well-shaped … with a beautiful face, except that her lower lip is thick.”[46] These types of comments on the physical appearance of the black servants reveal the importance of the perfect body and the critical evaluation of the thick African lips. At Renaissance courts black slaves were kept as half-pets and half-buffoons, as collector’s items.[47] Ladies of high rank were keen on having dark-colored pages and slave girls at their courts, because their blackness served to highlight by contrast their light beauty. The blackness of the slave other contributed, by contrast, to the definition of the identity of the white elite.

In visual representations as a vehicle of identity construction, black servants became more important, as demonstrated by their appearance in official portraits. In Titian’s Portrait of Laura Dianti (1524), the beautiful white woman is depicted beside a young black servant, whose presence in the canvas serves various purposes. It shows the exotic black servant as a rare commodity available only to the elite, highlights the conventional beauty of the white lady that becomes more evident when set beside the dark-skinned boy, and shows the deference and submission of the black slave to the white.[48] French chronicler Pierre de Bourdeille, Lord of Brantôme (1540–1614), who traveled around Europe and kept an extensive memoir of his life as a soldier and court member of Catherine de’Medici, observed in his memoirs that “an excellent painter who, having executed the portrait of a very beautiful and pleasant-looking lady, places next to her … a moorish slave or a hideous dwarf, so that their ugliness and blackness may give greater lustre and brilliance to her great beauty and fairness.”[49] Otherness as blackness serves to define by contrast the identity of the white elite.

The black and white conceit was present in art and literature. The beauty of the fair lady is opposed to the dark-skinned maid who is seen beside her. Torquato Tasso (1544–1595) includes in a vast collection of lyrical verses some poetry about dark women. In one canzone addressed to Leonora Thiene Sanvitale, countess of Scandiano, a member of the Este court in Ferrara, beside the conventional homage to the beauty of the fair lady, Tasso extols the dark Ancella (chambermaid) with the same formulas used in the biblical Song of Songs (Solomon’s Canticle of canticles):

You are dark but beautiful,
like a virgin violet; and I get so much
contentment from your graceful appearance
that I do not disdain the sovereignty of a maid.[50]

According to Basile, editor of Tasso’s Rime, this maid may have been a certain Olimpia at the service of a countess, but we do not know if she had dark skin. The contrast between the fair beauty and the darkness of her maid becomes more frequent in seventeenth-century poetry. In an anonymous sonnet, “Poem for a Moor Seen at the Window with Beautiful Woman,” the poet states: “Here the night around my beautiful sun / embellishes with its shadow its splendor.”[51] Baroque poet Paolo Zazzaroni also has a sonnet for a “Lady and her Maid” where the maid is a black servant.[52]

Native Indians

In the representation of Native Americans, otherness is defined by the darker, olive-toned, often hairy, semi-naked body. In the accounts of travel to the new world, there is a duality vis à vis the physical and moral representation of the indigenous people, who are depicted as both peaceful primitives and savage cannibals.[53] In Christopher Columbus’s famous 1493 letter to Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez, the Genoese admiral for the first time portrays for the European public the image of newly discovered people of the New World. They are described as shy, peaceful people with no religion, who show no hostility to the Christian faith and can be easily converted. Columbus (1451–1506) admits that he did not find any monstrous people here. Even though the natives all go naked, they are described “of pleasant appearance and not negro like in Guinea, they have flowing hair.”[54] As such they are associated with the golden age, and with original prelapsarian bodies of Adam and Eve, and therefore good candidates for Christianization. However, some of the indigenous people that Columbus mentions are fierce cannibals, feared by the other natives who are unable to protect themselves from their attacks. Although cannibals are not viewed as monsters, they are described as uglier and with hair as long as women.

Even the most positive travel narratives on the New World attach moral judgment to behaviors such as sexual promiscuity, sodomy, and cannibalism, considered uncivilized and marked by nakedness, physical ugliness, and monstrosity. Amerigo Vespucci’s Letter of the Newly Found Islands, sent in 1504 to Pier Soderini, reveals the European fantasy of cultural superiority. In one episode, Vespucci (1454–1512) describes savage women as cannibals who cut a young man to pieces and roasted him on a fire (Figure 7.10).[55] This incident of sexually charged violence and native savagery reveals the centrality of the native woman in the construction of otherness.

The indigenous female is often the object of special attention in European accounts of first encounters; she is the other who attracts the most interest in European travelers. Many depictions of American indigenous women in the literature of discovery and exploration are centered on erotic desire or dangerous sexuality, made visible through the dark and naked female body. Infamous is the account of Michele da Cuneo, a member of Columbus’s expedition, and an avid conquistador, who viewed Amerindians as savages and beasts, criticized their sexual promiscuity, and described in cold matter-of-factness his rape of a beautiful naked young woman he received as a present from Columbus.[56]

Pietro Martire (1457–1526), the first historiographer of Columbus’s voyage of discovery, describes in De Orbe Novo (The Eight Decades of Peter Martyr d’Anghera, 1511) the first encounter of Columbus and the Spaniards with the native people. Cachey notes that in this inaugural scene, Martire, rather than describing taking possession of the new land, shows the cultural encounter with the other, represented by the capture of a naked woman who becomes a figure of mediation between the hegemonic European culture and the subaltern Amerindian.[57] Although Martire presents the Amerindian woman in a positive light as cultural mediator, most depictions of American indigenous women in the literature of discovery and exploration are centered on erotic desire or dangerous sexuality, all made visible through the dark and naked body.[58]

Figure 7.10 Cannibalism, Native Americans. From: Newe Welt und amerikanische Historien. By: Bry, Theodo de. Published: Heirs of Merian Frankfort 1655. Collection: Rare Books. Wellcome L0005638.


Interest in geography and travel literature was the result of a process of self-fashioning, whereby the self is formed in relation to others and their external representation at a time when contact with the other was available. This availability was through the presence of various ethnic groups in Renaissance cities, through trade and diplomatic exchanges, and through the large accessibility of printed texts describing and accounting for different people at a very intense time of navigation and geographical exploration.

Renaissance Europe defined and measured itself in relation to the societies to its east, with their splendor and wealth. Jerry Brotton considers, for example, the significance of Gentile Bellini’s painting Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504–1507), where the saint preaches in front of a mixture of European and Oriental figures, the latter including Egyptians, Mamelukes, North African Moors, turbaned Turks, Persians, Ethiopians, and Tartars.[59] Rather than considering these people of the east barbaric and ignorant, for Brotton Bellini’s painting reveals that the eastern cultures possessed desirable aspects that Europe did not view in mere opposition to their own, but rather as an opportunity for the exchange of ideas. The city of Venice, for example, was architecturally inspired by admiration and emulation of eastern cultures. However, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 led to the creation of the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful empire Europe had seen since Roman times. Such strength was a direct threat to Europe, particularly to the Hapsburgs, the Catholic Church, and Venice. The Church adopted a defensive and aggressive military stance against Muslims, as well as Jews, and it also tried to affirm its authority against all heretics, including Protestants and Muslims. Renaissance Europeans, particularly Venetians, had an ambivalent stance toward the Turks. Venice’s territorial dominance in the Adriatic had been eroded by the Turks since the end of the fifteenth century. The opposing views of the Turks circulating in Renaissance Venice are evident in a woodcut by Nicolò Nelli Turkish Pride (1572), examined by Wilson,[60] depicting the face of a Turk in profile with a large turban: when the print is turned upside down the contour of the figure appears as the face of the devil. There was a dual nature in the Venetian image of the Grand Turk of danger and opportunity, threat and temptation. For the Venetians, the Turks represented what they admired and what they feared. For them and for other Europeans, the Ottomans were a defining other, foreigners whose presence sparked reflection on their identity.

Renaissance writers had a stereotypical conception of the Great Turk conjured up by images of great wealth and exotic splendor. The Mediterranean was the setting for many stories about Islamic power at sea and in the commercial ports controlled by the Ottomans. Turkish galleys were often reportedly attacking Christian merchants and presenting the Western stereotype that associates Islam with acts of violence, treachery, cruelty, and wrath. The alleged sexual excesses of Muslims or Turks were viewed as signs of evil.

Although people of the New World or Africa are depicted in their unclothed bodies (because they represent a primitive stage of becoming European and are compared with Adam and Eve), Turks and Islamic people were not viewed as easy to convert, and their representations show them in elaborate costumes. A negative perception of the Turks among Venetians derived from the different language and from stereotypes about avarice, effeminacy, and corruption. Two plays were published in Venice in 1597 and 1606 called La Turca. The second is a satire by Giambattista della Porta that was most likely composed in 1570. This comedy draws on contemporary stereotypes about Turks and their behavior. Turks were said to be greedy, licentious, violent, barbaric, and contradictorily lacking in masculine virtue. In Giambattista Marino’s poems on the occupation of Taranto by the Turks (1594), he calls the entire Turkish race “perfido cane” (perfidious dog), where the animal comparison evokes the physiognomics of della Porta.

Venetian interest in the appearance and customs of the Turks intensified during the mid-sixteenth century, and in Venetian printing presses a wide variety of material was published, ranging from portrait books, to biographies of military leaders, to lives of Turkish sultans and their achievements. Popular historian Francesco Sansovino (1521–1586) wrote no less than seven books on the Turks, where he described his admiration for the sultans and Süleyman in particular. Sansovino, however, attacked Süleyman’s son Selim for his voluptuousness, faithlessness, and dissoluteness. His most famous Dell’Historia Universale dell’Origine et Imperio de Turchi had seven editions between 1560 and 1654. The last quarter of the sixteenth-century was a period of ethnographic and historiographic approaches to the Islamic world through costume books that provided a visual record of the plurality of Ottoman society. As Ottoman military power in the sixteenth century threatened the Hapsburg Empire and some Italian ports, including Venice, more representations of Ottomans appeared, especially in print and costume books (nine editions published in Venice in the late 1500s). It was the costume and costume books, rather than the color of the skin, that defined the other and contributed to the formation of racial and gender stereotypes based on physical appearance.[61] Although the black person is clearly and unmistakably identifiable in his or her otherness based on the color of the skin, for other ethnic groups physical distinction may not be so obvious. Costume became an important element to classify people of different origins, especially Muslims or Turks (a term that extended to all members of the Ottoman Empire). When markers of race like black skin are not immediately visible on the body, costume can be a means to identify a foreigner. In Cesare Vecellio’s costume book, Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo (1598), Ottomans (occupying the entire eighth book) figured prominently in comparison, for example, with the Frankish section, which is comparably small. Vecellio presented a vast array of turbaned Turks in hierarchical order, ranging from the Sultan, to the general, to the clerics and the soldier (Figure 7.11).

Sartorial, transient demarcations of nonconformity or otherness, were also in place to signal the racial distinction of Italian Jews. From the late fifteenth century throughout Italy, Jews were forced to wear a visible sign of distinction, a yellow badge or, for Jewish women, a yellow veil similar to the one prescribed for prostitutes. Such practices can be explained by the desire to control the representation of others, to dominate them or to use them to reinforce the status and identity of the hegemonic groups.[62]

Saracens, Giants, and Dwarves

Islamic others were also presented in Renaissance epics as Saracens, infidels fighting the Christian knight during eighth-century crusades. Critics have noted the persistent misrepresentation of Islam, especially in epic romance.[63] This is clear in Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1478–1483), Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (1495), Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516), and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1581). Renaissance writers of epic poems, such as Ariosto and Tasso, told stories of the defense of Christianity in a bygone past (the era of Charlemagne), but they often ignored the Turks’ invasions of Europe that were happening at the time their great epics were composed. Although Christians saw Islam as an aggressively expanding competing form of monotheism, in Renaissance epic romance Islam is often misrepresented as paganism.[64] In chivalry romances, Muslim infidels were represented as rebellious characters, villains who came to a violent end, cursing and screaming as their souls went to hell. Saracen enemies appeared as other in physical disproportion, gigantic or dwarfish, diabolic, deformed figures. However, in comparison with medieval chivalry romances, fewer negative traits are present in the Muslim others of Renaissance epics, mainly because most Saracens who survived battles with Christians were redeemed by conversion, as in the case of the giant Morgante in Pulci’s Morgante.

Figure 7.11 Turbaned Turk. Sultan Murhat from Habiti antichi et moderni di tutto il mondo, Cesare Vecellio, Venice: Gio. Bernardo Sessa, 1598. Credit: Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta.

Ariosto’s chivalry romance, written for the Este nobles of Ferrara (already in decline by the early sixteenth century) included scenes of defeating Saracens, but more as fantasy than as real life. In Ariosto, and in Boiardo before him, there appeared the deformed dwarfish black, Ethiopian-looking Brunello, a small person full of malice and active in theft. He has much in common with Pulci’s Margutte because of the dark color of his skin. The thief negro of Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, with short locks of black hair, in Ariosto acquires more African physical features: he has a “curly head,” “his hair is black,” and he has “dusky skin” and a flat nose. According to Piero Camporesi, Brunello resembles: “the puer niger [black boy] with Ethiopian physical features … linked to the devil-possession of the oldest Christian tradition.”[65] Camporesi notes that in medieval culture the term “nigredo” was used not only for the devil but also for peasants and serfs, who were often represented as subhuman (hairy, with blood-shot eyes and dark skin), monstrous, in a somatic blend between devil and animal.

Old Age

Renaissance culture is deeply rooted in the glorification of youth and the awareness of its transience; one need only think of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s famous verses “How beautiful is youth, though fleeting!”[66] Age and growing old are marked by the onset of all sorts of negative effects on the physical body. Erasmus defines old age as a time of dreadful illness and incurable disease in his elegy on old age (1506) and later reiterates the concept that “old age itself is an illness.”[67] Old age is mostly defined as a period of bodily decay marked by negative effects leading to abject representations of bodily disfigurement, associated with decay and disease. Representation of the aging body was not limited to the negative valence, though that might be the prevailing one.

Gabriele Zerbi, a physician who taught medicine in Padua, Bologna, and Rome, author of Gerontocomia (On the Care of the Aged, 1489) composed the first medical book dealing specifically with the problems and treatments for old age. Zerbi identified some physical “accidents” that accompany old age: wrinkles, gray hair, baldness, lack of humidity, dryness, loss of heat. However, his book was based on the premise that, although it is impossible to prevent decay and death, old age is not an incurable illness, but a condition that can be slowed down. With appropriate measures, such as the prevention of drying out and coldness in the body, and with suitable diet and moderate exercise, people can be on the path to longevity. Even more optimistic is the famous tract by Alvise Cornaro on Vita Sobria (The Temperate Life, 1558), a classic of hygiene and a text idealizing old age. Cornaro, landowner of the Venetian mainland and patron of Angelo Beolco, stated in his book the cumulative advantages of added years and believed it was possible to increase significantly the life span in a natural way, through a good diet, a balanced and orderly life, and avoidance of physical and emotional excess. Such positions, derived from classical sources, went beyond the stoic approach of Cicero’s De Senectute in that they stated that old age is the most beautiful period of life.

The more positive valence associated with old age fits more comfortably with the representation of male old age and is limited to the hegemonic classes (nobles and landowners like Cornaro). Furthermore, both Zerbi and Cornaro examined the condition of old age from a strictly male perspective. The positive representation of mature age for men is also in Castiglione’s Cortegiano, but the courtesan is still a reminder that such a person is young and fit enough to fight, ride a horse, dance, and fence. There is a great fluctuation on the chronological definition of old age. A difficulty persists in the demarcation of boundaries for when old age begins. Zerbi stated that old age in men begins between the age of 30 and 40 years and extends to 50 or 60, and for Antonio Cammelli (1436–1502), a poet who lived at the Sforza and Este courts, a widow aged forty-seven described in a sonnet, carries all the signs of the aged female body, such as rotten flesh and wrinkled face.

Of importance for the marked body is the representation of female old age where grotesque realism abounds, particularly with reference to women who transgress social and class boundaries, such as prostitutes, courtesans, witches, and even widows, as shown in Cammelli’s poem. The nature of feminine old age is different from that of masculine old age. Aging was believed to occur earlier in women than men because of their different physiology. If, as Zerbi stated following classical medicine, old age caused coldness and withering in the body, woman’s colder, moister humors caused her to age more quickly. In the Renaissance, markers of female life stages, like puberty, marriage, and having children happened earlier in women than men. So women were perceived to age faster than men; furthermore, it is the female body in its images of youth and perfection that best exemplifies the ideals of beauty and harmony of the Italian Renaissance. Therefore, the old woman as Campbell observed, is “‘Other’ in both studies of representation of women and in early modern culture.”[68] In comic realistic poetry, the image of the old woman is graphic and detailed, thanks to a rich tradition of rhetorical descriptive techniques. One can mention Politian’s ballad, where the poetic persona mocks the old disfigured woman who engages in his courtship:

An old woman longs for me,
she is withered and dry to the bone;
… her gums are worn out,
from chewing too many dried figs.[69]

The grotesque portrait of the old woman includes withered breasts, droopy belly, dripping nose, and bad smell, details found also in Machiavelli’s old prostitute and in poetry against courtesans. Female bodies marked by old age and physical decay were coupled with transgressive types, such as the prostitute, the courtesan, and the witch. Although the witchlike nature of Politian’s old woman is inferred by some of her bodily attributes and her excessive drinking and sexuality, in Florentine burlesque poet Burchiello (1404–1449), the old woman, with disfigured body, is openly accused of being a witch and sorcerer:

Old riotous, wicked, and evil woman,
enemy of every food, envious
enchantress witch and sorcerer.[70]

This old hag has dripping eyes and nose, foul breath, and facial hair, all features that contribute to the image of old woman as other and grotesque. Although comic poetry attaches moral judgment to the image of the old grotesque woman, in Giorgione’s portrait of La Vecchia (ca. 1505–1510; possibly his mother) the painter uses toothless mouth and wrinkled body to convey the idea of the transience of female beauty and the negative effect of old age on women, as indicated by the banderole inscribed with the words “col tempo” (“with time”) held in the old woman’s hand. Thus, Italian Renaissance culture gendered old age in its negative connotation as predominantly female and attached to it a negative bodily and moral valence. Whereas for men, maturity and old age, though within the confines of the physical body, is represented with some positive effects.


At a time of identity formation and affirmation of the hegemonic groups in the European and Italian Renaissance, the marked body is visible in the representation of others or subalterns. As Spivak notes, subalternity should not be limited to groups at the bottom of the social scale; the subaltern has become a synonym for any marginalized or disempowered minority group, particularly on the ground of gender and ethnicity.[71] With more or less visible signs of physical difference, the marked body can be found in the grotesqueness and disproportion of outcasts and subalterns like prostitutes, peasants, facchini, and people of the peripheral areas, far from city and court. The marked body is evident also as deviation from the norms of conformity intended as white, young, and male: naked African blacks, slaves, Native Americans, and the old, mostly represented through the female gender. Costume and sartorial signs can also act as markers of bodily distinction for ethnic groups whose skin color or body shape is not immediately recognizable as deviating from the standard. Turbaned Turks and yellow-badged Jews serve in defining and reinforcing, by opposition and differentiation, the identity of Renaissance elites.

[1] Traditional views of Renaissance are explained in the classic work by Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, trans. S.C.G. Middlemore (New York: Harper, 1958) and later endorsed by most critics.

[2] In Rabelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin (trans. H. Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) opposes the features of the grotesque body to those of the classical body. The classical body is closed, static, and contained, whereas the grotesque one is connected with “those parts of the body that are open to the outside … the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose” (26).

[3] In The Portable Machiavelli, ed. Peter Bondanella, Mark Musa (New York, Viking Penguin, 1979), 59–60. “Omè! Fu’ per cadere in terra morto, tanta era bructa quella femina. E’ se la vedeva prima un ciuffo di capelli fra bianchi et neri, cioé canuticci, et benché l’avessi el cocuzolo del capo calvo, per la cui calvitie ad lo scoperto si vedeva passeggiare qualche pidochio, nondimeno e pochi capelli et rari le aggiugnevono con le barbe loro infino su le ciglia; … in ogni puncta delle ciglia di verso li ochi haveva un mazeto di peli di lendini; … piene le lagrimatoie di cispa et e nipitelli dispillicciati; … et l’una delle nari tagliata, piene di mocci; … nel labbro di sopra haveva la barba lunghetta, ma rara; … et come prima aperse la bocca, n’uscí un fiato sí puzolente, che trovandosi offesi da questa peste due porte di due sdegnosissimi sensi” (Nicolò Machiavelli, Opere, ed. Franco Gaeta, vol. 3, Turin: Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, 1984, 321–22).

[4] Lorenzo Venier (1510–1550) was a notable of an illustrious Venetian family who held some administrative posts in the Venetian Republic and composed two obscene poems against prostitutes: La puttana errante and La Zaffetta (1531). Lorenzo was a close friend of Pietro Aretino who sent a copy of Puttana errante to Federico Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua, along with his own burlesque poem penned to accompany Venier’s poem. Although the name of the wondering whore is never mentioned in the poem, she is believed to be Venetian courtesan Elena Ballerina, who was the subject of invective in La Zaffetta as well.

[5] Unless otherwise stated all translations are my own. “Una vecchia parlò dopo costei,/Ch’in tutte le masselle ha quattro denti;/L’unghie ha d’un palmo de le mani e piei,/Pute ‘l suo fiato più ch’otto conventi,/La barb’ha d’uomo, e gli occhi de’giudei,/come valigie le poppe pendenti,/e i capei radi d’un biancaccio giallo/Qual di carrett’ha la cod’un cavallo” (Puttana errante Canto III, XXXI, 71).

[6] Fronte verde, occhi zalli,/Naso rovan, masselle crespe e guanze,/Recchie d’ogni hora carghe de buganze,/Bocca piena de zanze./Fia spuzzolente, denti bianchi, e bei,/A par delle cegie e dei cavei,/ … /Quella magra desfatta,/Anzi, secca, incandìa, arsa destrutta,/Quella, che nome in ossi sta redutta/Che cazze dalla brutta,/Quella, che spesso, i putti per la via/Tio in fallo per la morte stravestia.” For the complete version of the original poem in Venetian dialect and its English translation see Patrizia Bettella, “Antonfrancesco Grazzini and Maffio Venier. Poetry on Prostitutes” In Dialogue with the Other Voice, eds. Julie D. Campbell, Maria Galli Stampino (Toronto: Centre for Renaissance and Reformation Studies), forthcoming.

[7] For more on witches, see my book, The Ugly Woman: Transgressive Aesthetic Models in Italian Poetry from the Middle Ages to the Baroque (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2005), chapter 3.

[8] O dolce e bela serore, / o uoci de sole inrazè,/o massele inverzelè/pì che no fo mè basta o persuto salò, / o lavri rosè, o biè dinti da ravolò,/o boca inmelata, / … / o tete, a’ fassè pur contento / per grandeza ogni vacaro, / o piè biè grande da vetolaro, / o gambe grosse ben norì, o bel lacheto, / tondo, grosso, bianco e neto, / che ogni botazo è picolo a piè de ti! /. … / o pieto bianco e scolorìo, / com fo mè ravo in campo, / o corpo giusioso e santo, / o braze ben da sapa o da baìle / o man da lavorar / ben mile bughè int’un dì.” The Betìa is included in the collected edition of Beolco, A. (Ruzante), Teatro, ed. Alvise Zorzi (Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 1967). The quote is from Act III, 312.

[9] Among Leonardo’s grotesque, mostly sketches in red pencil and many housed in the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, we find for example A Bald Fat Man with a Broken Nose in Right Profile (ca. 1485–1490), A Grotesque Old Man Leaning on a Stick and a Man’s Back (ca. 1510–1515). The grotesque was later cultivated by Leonardo’s pupils, such as Francesco Melzi, who was believed to have copied his Grotesque Old Woman from Leonardo (Leonardo 1491–1493, Melzi 1510). The Academy of Val di Blenio, founded in 1560 by Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, became the place of dissemination of both theoretical and pictorial figurations of grotesque realism. Such realism reflected an interest for the comic/grotesque shared by Leonardo and Lomazzo, a theme that was well represented in Italian literature in rustic poetry in many regions such as Tuscany and Veneto.

[10] Nelle istorie debbe essere homini di varie complessioni, ettà, incarnationi, attitudini, grassezze, magrezze; grossi, sottili, grandi, piccoli, grassi, magni, fieri, civili, vechi, giovani, forti et muscolosi, debboli …” (Quoted in Michael W. Kwakkelstein, “Leonardo da Vinci’s Grotesque Heads and the Breaking of the Physiognomic Mould,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 54 (1991): 131.

[11] Martin Clayton, Leonardo da Vinci: The Divine and the Grotesque (London: Royal Collection Enterprise, 2002). For a depiction of grotesques monstrous and evil in art see Umberto Eco, On Ugliness (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), chapters 3 and 4.

[12] Bernardo Bellincioni (1452–1492) was a Florentine poet who spent time at the Medici court in Florence and later in Milan, where he was court poet of Lodovico Sforza, the patron of Leonardo da Vinci. Bellincioni composed some sonnets that allow us to get a glimpse of Leonardo’s art. In one sonnet (from Rime, 1493) he praised Leonardo’s Portrait of a Lady with Ermine. Leonardo also designed stage machinery for the production of Bellincioni’s Il Paradiso (1490), a play to entertain guests at the wedding of Gian Galeazzo Sforza and Isabel of Aragon. Besides more traditional poetry, Bellincioni also composed comic realistic poetry, which may have inspired Leonardo for his grotesques.

[13] Martin Clayton, Leonardo da Vinci: The Divine and the Grotesque, 82. Another type of other that appears in Leonardo’s grotesque drawings is the gypsy in A Man Tricked by Gypsies (1493). Here one gypsy reads the palm of the man in the center while her accomplice steals his purse. Gypsies were a familiar subject in paintings but only at least a century later. They arrived in Western Europe from the Balkans in the early fifteenth century and soon acquired the reputation as fortune-tellers and thieves. Clayton also gives evidence to the fact that, in the late fifteenth century, gypsies were banned from the city of Milan because of their thefts and crime (see Clayton, 96).

[14] Qualora voleva dipingere qualche figura, considerava prima la sua qualità et la sua natura, cioé se deveva ella essere nobile o plebea, gioiosa o severa, turbata o lieta, vecchia o giovane, irata o di animo tranquillo, buona o malvagia; et poi, conosciuto l’esser suo, se n’andava ove egli sapea che si ragunassero persone di tal qualità et osservava diligentemente e i lor visi, le lor maniere, gli abiti et i movimenti del corpo, e trovata cosa che gli paresse atta a quel che far voleva, la riponeva collo stile al suo libriccinio che sempre egli teneva a cintola” (C. G. Giraldi, Discorso dei romanzi, ed. L. Benedetti, G. Monorchio, and E. Musacchio (Bologna: Italy, Millenium, 1999), 231.

[16] This Head of a Cretin with Goiter, also known as Ser Caputagn Nasotra or Grotesque head (“Captain Big Nose,” second half of sixteenth century), inspired by or perhaps copied from one of Leonardo’s grotesques, was attributed to one member of the Academy of Val di Blenio. For more on this drawing, housed at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and on the academy see Rabisch, Il grottesco nell’arte del Cinquecento. L’accademia della Val di Blenio, Lomazzo e l’ambiente milanese. Milan, Italy: Skira, 1998, 121–83.

[17] This style of depiction of the disproportionate, disfigured, and ugly individual, called “comico figurativo” was adopted by many of Leonardo’s followers in Lombardy, particularly by the Academy of Val di Blenio, which became the place of dissemination of theoretical and pictorial figurations of grotesque realism.

[18] Georges Vigarello,“The Upward Training of the Body from the Age of Chivalry to Courtly Civility.” In Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part Two, 149–99 (New York: Zone, 1989), 151.

[19] “Ma come la Natura tutte quante/di pura terra fe’, così vanno / di quella ornate dal capo alle piante; … ‘e i capei folti, bosco da pidocchi, / e gli denti smaltati di ricotta, / e le pope, che van fin a’ ginocchi” (Bettella, The Ugly Woman, 112).

[20] Vigarello, 1989, 151.

[21] Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. George Bull (London: Penguin, 1976), 147.

[22] Giovanni della Casa, Galateo, trans. Konrad Eisenbichler and Kenneth R. Bartlett (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1986), 9.

[23] della Casa, Galateo, chapter 29.

[26] P. Magli, “The Face and the Soul,” in Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part Two, 87–127 (New York: Zone, 1989), 87.

[27] luxuriosa animalia sunt, hircus, porcus, … asinum, simia”; see Giambattista della Porta, De Humana Phisiognomonia Ioannis Baptistae Portae Neapolitani (Urselli, Italy: Cornelio Sutori, 1601), 496.

[28] Niger color meticulosae dolosaeque mentis indicium” (della Porta, 197).

[29] J. Schiesari, “The Face of Domestication, Physiognomy, Gender Politics, and Humanism’s Others,” in Women, ‘Race’ and Writing in the Early Modern Period, ed. M. Hendricks and P. Parker, 55–70 (London: Routledge, 1994), 60.

[30] Brucioli, A. A Commentary upon the Canticle of Canticles (London: R. Field for Tho. Man, 1598). Brucioli contrasts the blackness and fairness in relation to the Church “made blacke and duskish, that is to say deformed & unhandsome … but it is not without beautiful and welfavoure by reason of her vertues” (p. B3), and later associates blackness with oppression and sins and talks about St. Paul’s blackness as deformity. All the negative aspects of blackness, however, in a Christian view, are overcome by the fairness of heavenly things.

[31] Kate Lowe, “The Stereotyping of Black Africans in Renaissance Europe,” in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, ed. T. F. Earle and K.J.P. Lowe, 17–47 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[32] This fact is reported in the article by Kate Lowe.

[33] Alvise Cadamosto, The Voyages of Cadamosto and Other Documents on Western Africa Second Half of the Fifteenth Century (London: Hakluyt Society, 1937), 13.

[34] Leo Africanus lived in Morocco and accompanied his uncle on diplomatic missions in Maghreb and Timbuktu. He was captured by pirates in the Mediterranean and sold as a slave. In 1520 he was freed and baptized by Pope Leo X. The Pope asked him to write an account of his knowledge of the African continent. His Cosmographia dell’Africa of 1526 was later published with the title Descrittione dell’Africa in Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s collection Delle Naviagationi e viaggi published in Venice in 1555. The book was greatly successful and published numerous times. It was a precious source of information about Africa and was translated into English by John Pory as A Geographical Historie of Africa in 1600.

[35] K. F. Hall, Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).

[36] Hall, 36.

[37] Anu Korhonen, “Washing the Ethiopian White: Conceptualising Black Skin in Renaissance England,” in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, ed. T. F. Earle and K.J.P. Lowe, 94–112 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 98.

[38] Paul H. D. Kaplan, “Isabella d’Este and Black African Women,” in Black Africans in Renaissance Europe, ed. T. F. Earle and K.J.P. Lowe, 125–54 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[39] When Isabella of Aragon married Giangaleazzo Sforza in 1488, among her servants were some dark slaves. We know from a letter to Isabella d’Este from Tedora Angelini, damigella of the Gonzaga, that Anna Sforza at the court of Ferrara also had a black slave in her retinue. Slaves of all ethnic origin, including Ethiopians, and Numidians (the Berber kingdom of Algeria and Tunisia), were kept at the court of Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici.

[40] Pisanello’s illustration of the Arthurian epic (1447–1448) in Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale depicts a youthful black figure. At the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara Francesco del Cossa’s painting shows Duke Borso d’Este approached by an older black man in position of subordination with bent knees. Andrea Mantegna’s frescoes for the Camera Picta (1474) has a dark face looking down; it is not clear if this is a male or female figure, but it’s mainly believed to be female. Mantegna depicted black Africans numerous times before and during his stay at Isabella’s d’Este court. Famous is the Adoration of the Magi, which includes a group of African retainers and the black Magus.

[41] Alessandro Luzio and Rodolfo Renier, “Buffoni, Nani e Schiavi dei Gonzaga,” Nuova Antologia 36 (1891): 112–46. Luzio and Renier document Isabella’s passion for moretti who were kept at her court, not to carry out domestic work but rather as a form of amusement and a status symbol.

[42] Kaplan, “Isabella d’Este and Black African Women.”

[43] Una moretta che non habia più di quatro anni” (Quoted in Luzio and Renier, “Buffoni,” 140).

[44] De negreza et de fateze ne satisfà più che non havessimo saputo desiderare” (Letter of July 1491, in Luzio and Renier, “Buffoni,” 141).

[45] Se così è che ‘l [moretto] sia de summa beleza, apostatelo per nui, … ma non essendo ben negro et bene proporzionato, non ne fati mercato né conventione alcuna” (Quoted in Luzio and Renier, “Buffoni,” 141).

[46] Una mora che pochissimo tempo è che fu presa in Barbaria … poi havere da 16 a 17 anni ed è bellissima persona … ben fatta quanto è possibile … bello volto, salvo che ha el labro de sotto della bocca grosso” (Quoted in Luzio and Renier, “Buffoni,” 145).

[47] Dark slaves were favorites of noble Renaissance ladies and courtesans. Particular interest in dark slaves is shown in the desire to portray them in official paintings. For more on the connection between slaves and buffoons at the Court of Isabella d’Este see Luzio and Renier, “Buffoni.”

[48] Elise Goodman, “Woman’s Supremacy over Nature: Van Dyck’s Portrait of Elena Grimaldi,” Artibus et historiae 30 (1994): 129–43. Goodman examines this theme in Anthony Van Dyck’s Portrait of Marchesa Elena Grimaldi (1623) where the lady is accompanied by a young black retinue, holding a parasol for her and placed behind her to enhance her status. He serves as a dark foil for her whiteness. Goodman examines other portraits of Van Dyck and of other contemporaries, where the aristocratic dama is depicted with a young Moor servant (Rubens, Titian, Pierre Mignard). Because Van Dyck was working for the Genoese family of Grimaldi, it is possible that the painter had seen this black boy in the Genoese African community, as Genoese were active in slave trade and had black household servants.

[49] Quoted in Goodman, “Woman’s Supremacy over Nature,” 141.

[50] Bruna sei tu, ma bella / qual vergine viola;/e del tuo vago sembiante io sì m’appago / che non disdegno signoria d’ancella,” Torquato Tasso, Rime (Rome: Salerno, 1994), 328.

[51] Ecco la notte al mio bel sole intorno, / ch’abbellisce con l’ombre i suoi splendori”; quoted in Marino e i marinisti, ed. Giuseppe Guido Ferrero (Milan: Ricciardi, 1954), 684.

[52] For more on unconventional beauty and the dark lady in Italian baroque poetry see chapter 4 of Patrizia Bettella, The Ugly Woman. Blackness is also depicted as irrationality and violence. The black African par excellence in Renaissance literature is the Moor of Venice, who appears in Shakespeare’s Othello. The story of the Moor of Venice derives from a novella in Giambattista Giraldi Cintio’s collection Hecatommiti (III, 7 published in 1565). This collection was very popular and frequently reprinted in Italy and later in French and Spanish translation. The Moor of Venice provides an example of the taboo represented by the possibility of miscegenation: because an honorable black man is married to a white lady, their union could produce a progeny of mixed blood, possibly black in color. This event would be inconceivable for Renaissance mentality.

[53] The idealized image of the good savages with beautiful and graceful bodies is found in many travel narratives about the New World: for example, Antonio Pigafetta, one of the members of Magellan’s expedition of circumnavigation, in Notizie del nuovo mondo (News from the new world) reported that the indigenous people of Brazil lived in a state of nature and were easy to convert. Amerigo Vespucci (Letter of the Newly found Islands, sent in 1504 to Pier Soderini) also notes the state of nature and lack of religion in the native people of Brazil, whose land is compared to earthly paradise. Also Giovanni da Verrazzano describes North American natives with the highest praise for their physical beauty. See R. Romeo, Le scoperte americane nella coscienza italiana del Cinquecento (Milan, Italy: Ricciardi, 1971), 13–15.

[54] This passage is from L. Firpo, Prime relazioni di navigatori italiani sulla scoperta dell’America. Colombo, Vespucci, Verrazzano (Turin, Italy: Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, 1966), 40.

[55] Michael Householder uncovers a wider range of portrayals of indigenous American women that goes beyond the Eve-like innocence and monstrous Amazonian sexual appetite. In Pietro Martire and Richard Eden, Householder finds indigenous women’s courageous resistance to Spanish cruelty. See Michael Householder, “Eden’s Translations: Women and Temptation in Early America,” Huntington Library Quarterly 70, no. 1 (2007): 11–36.

[56] This account, found in Michele da Cuneo’s account of Columbus’s second voyage in 1495 (see Firpo, Prime relazioni, 52), speaks volumes about the brutal treatment inflicted by European conquistadors on native Americans, particularly women.

[57] T. J. Cachey, Jr. “Between Humanism and New Historicism Rewriting the New World Encounter,” Annali d’italianistica 10 (1992): 33–35.

[58] As Cachey “Between Humanism,” notes, Martire, influenced by his humanistic background, ennobles and sentimentalizes the female gender in his narrative. On the contrary, as noted earlier, Vespucci describes savage women as cannibals.

[59] Jerry Brotton, The Renaissance Bazaar: From the Silk Road to Michelangelo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 37.

[60] Bronwen Wilson, The World in Venice: Print, the City, and Early Modern Identity (Toronto, Canada: Toronto University Press, 2005), 254.

[61] Wilson, The World in Venice, examines the impact of printed images in Renaissance Venice (and in European society in general) for the formation of modern subjectivity. She claims that costume is used more than race to classify people and that costume books contributed to profound change in identity formation in a way that initiates the development of racial and ethnic stereotypes based on physical appearance. Wilson’s claim is well suited to the representation of the Turk circulating in Venice and other parts of Europe, but it does not hold true for the portrayal of Africans and Native Americans, where the naked body and the dark color of the skin is the defining element of otherness.

[62] For more on Jews in Renaissance Italy see Barbara Wisch, “Vested Interest: Redressing Jews on Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling,” Artibus et Historiae 24 (2003): 143–72 and Robert Bonfil, Gli Ebrei in Italia all’epoca del Rinascimento (Florence, Italy: Sansoni, 1991).

[63] See for example Gloria Allaire, “Noble Saracens or Muslim Enemy? The Changing Image of the Saracen in Late Medieval Italian Literature,” in Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. D. R. Blanks and M. Frassetto, 173–84 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

[64] D. J. Vitkus, “Early Modern Orientalism: Representation of Islam in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe,” in Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. D. R. Blanks and M. Frassetto, 207–30 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999). As Vitkus notes, there is a demonization and distortion of Islam in romances and chivalric legends of conflict between Christian and Saracens. Tasso’s Liberata, also set in the distant past of the first crusade, conveys European unity and Christian superiority over the infidels at a time when the Catholic Church was under threat by Protestantism and by the close proximity of the Ottoman Empire. The poem depicts rebellious characters who challenge religious orthodoxy, such as the Ethiopian warrior-woman Clorinda, daughter of the king of Ethiopia. Despite being born from black parents Clorinda does not have black skin because, when she was conceived, her mother was under the influence of a painting of Saint George freeing a white princess from the dragon. Although Clorinda’s parents were Christian, because of the color of her skin, she was raised by an Egyptian servant; she was never baptized and grew up in Egypt. Clorinda, who fought with the infidels, converts to Christianity just before dying in battle.

[65] Piero Camporesi, The Land of Hunger (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1996), 36.

[66] Quant’è bella giovinezza / Che si fugge tuttavia!”

[67] Ipsa senectus morbus est” This quote from Adagia, 1507, chil. II, cent. VI. Prov. XXXVII is in Daniel Schäfer, “Medical Representations of Old Age in the Renaissance: The Influence of Non-Medical Texts,” in Growing Old in Early Modern Europe: Cultural Representations, ed. Erin Campbell, 12–19 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006), 13.

[68] Erin Campbell, “ ‘Unenduring’ Beauty: Gender and Old Age in Early Modern Art and Aesthetics,” in Growing Old in Early Modern Europe: Cultural Representations, ed. Erin Campbell, 153–67 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006), 159.

[69] Una vecchia mi vagheggia/vizza e secca insino all’osso/ … / ell’ha logra la gingiva,/ tanto biascia fichi secchi” (see Bettella, The Ugly Woman, 76).

[70] Vecchia ritrosa, perfida e maligna/inimica d’ogni ben, invidiosa,/e strega incantatrice e maliosa” (see Bettella, The Ugly Woman, 68).

[71] Cited in R.J.C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001), 354.