In 1525, Antonio Vignali, a young Sienese nobleman, founded a lofty-minded humanist society that he called, with boyish irreverence, the Academy of the Stunned (Accademia degli Intronati). The commandments of its motto—“Pray, Study, Rejoice, Harm No One, Believe No One”—were honored selectively. The Intronati were an élite cenacle of scholars who shared a devotion to vernacular literature; passionate republicanism tempered by contempt for the common man; flamboyant misogyny qualified by awe for women’s supposedly insatiable sexual appetites; hatred of clerical hypocrisy; youthful Weltschmerz; and a fervor for sodomy that, at least in Vignali’s case, bordered on the evangelical. The academy convened on Sundays, behind closed doors, to discuss philosophy, music, law, poetry, and language, and to critique its members’ work. It appears that quite a bit of member exercise took place also, as is the case at all frat parties, however exalted. The Intronati made a specialty of scandalous theatrical productions (one of their several affinities with the fin-de-siècle Decadents who orbited Oscar Wilde and the coteries that formed around d’Annunzio, Artaud, and Cocteau). Nevertheless, or perhaps therefore, they acquired an illustrious reputation that they still enjoy. Their most famous collaborative effort was “Gl’Ingannati” (“The Deceived”), a comedy with a cross-dressing heroine that influenced Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
Sometime between 1525 and 1527, Vignali wrote a radically obscene satire on politics and sex that he called “La Cazzaria.” The sixteenth century was a golden age of the outré, particularly in France and Italy, and this slight opus, the length of a novella, took the form of a mock-Platonic, mock-scholastic dialogue narrated mostly by disembodied genitals. The manuscript was intended for private circulation among like-minded freethinkers, but someone—friend or foe, it isn’t clear—pirated a copy and had it printed without the author’s consent, crippling Vignali with a notoriety that he didn’t outlive. He went into exile a few years later and published nothing else in his lifetime.
Centuries passed, and “La Cazzaria” was more or less forgotten, though a few copies were conserved in the dirty-book archives of various august institutions and in the collections of libertine bibliophiles. One was unearthed about ten years ago in a Spanish house that was being demolished. Two sixteenth-century editions found their way to the Enfer at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris—a restricted room legendary among French schoolboys (and the object, in fantasy, of more midnight break-ins than the vault at Fort Knox). Another copy settled into the bowels of the Vatican, and a nineteenth-century French translation was bequeathed to the British Library. There, in the early nineteen-nineties, Vignali’s work was discovered by a graduate student at Columbia—Ian Frederick Moulton—who was doing research on Renaissance erotica. Even at the end of the twentieth century, credentialled readers who had wangled entrée to the “Private Case” (a collection of pornography donated by the Victorian erotomane Henry Spencer Ashbee, the author of “My Secret Life”) were, Moulton notes, obliged to consult its contents at a special desk close to the librarians, presumably with both hands in view. Moulton has translated “La Cazzaria” into English for the first time, as “The Book of the Prick” (Routledge; $18.95). His exemplary introduction is nearly as long as the text itself and twice as worthwhile. It provides the historical perspective and intellectual sobriety missing from what Moulton tactfully describes as a “learned, but childish,” fable that is, even by the most liberal modern standards, a complete gross-out—though probably not to anyone who has tuned in to Howard Stern.
Cazzo is the vulgar Italian word for the male organ, hence the title, whose “closest English rendering,” Moulton writes, “is probably ‘cockery’—but that is too close to ‘cookery.’ . . . ‘Prickery’ might work, but it lacks the specificity of the Italian word. In English, ‘prick’ is a word with many meanings; in Italian, ‘cazzo’ can mean only one thing. In the text, I have translated ‘cazzo’ as ‘cock,’ but ‘Book of the Cock’ sounds like it might have something to do with poultry, so for the working English title, I settled on ‘Book of the Prick.’ ” Anglo-Saxon sexual slang, however, has a much harsher impact on the ear than its mellifluous Romance counterpart, and equivalent terms don’t carry the same charge. The percussive monosyllables and/or double final consonants of cock, balls, shit, dick, buttocks, jerk-off, prick, cunt, and fuck have a blunt, expletive force that isn’t rendered by (and betrays the puckish delicacy of) cazzo, potta, culo, fica, scopare, merda, coglioni, and cacca. The verbs incazzare and inculare, especially used reflexively, are certainly rude, but hardly so heavy-handed as “to take it up the ass.” It’s the difference, perhaps, between Ariel’s nimble tongue and Caliban’s thick one.
It would be satisfying, if only for the worthy Moulton’s sake, to report that “La Cazzaria” is a masterpiece rescued from obscurity by a feat of heroic exegesis, but, even making allowances for the nuances inevitably lost in translation, a masterpiece is something shapelier and more solid than an extended riff, however much fun it is. Vignali’s antic prose staggers in and out of coherence like a student video ad-libbed as it is shot, and it also reminded me of the scatological graffiti, most of it in Latin, that one finds in the catacombs of Roman churches, and which seems to have been etched into the stone expressly to deflate, for future generations, the mystique of antiquity.
The animator of “La Cazzaria” is a priapic scholar steeped in the classics who refers to himself by Vignali’s own nom de plume, Arsiccio Intronato. Arsiccio means “burned,” as in scorched by lust, and when the dialogue begins he is intent on seducing a younger academician named Sodo Intronato—the pseudonym of Vignali’s friend Marcantonio Piccolomini. Sodo is laughably ignorant of human anatomy and plumbing, and of nearly all sexual matters, including such basics as “why kissing feels good”; “why women have periods”; “why the crotch is hairy”; and “why jerking off was invented,” not to mention such headier questions as “why monks invented confession” (to ascertain if there were any “secrets in the art of fucking” they didn’t know) and, on a slightly more elevated note, “why no one today has profound knowledge” (people are too busy “making money, dominating others, and similar things . . . because wealth has placed its feet on virtue’s neck”). The conversation is introduced by a letter from a third member of the confraternity, Il Bizzarro, who claims to have borrowed this “naughty” text while waiting impatiently in Arsiccio’s study for a “filthy, succulent, and smutty” wench his host has promised to serve up. “Although our Arsiccio has always shown himself to be an enemy to women in all his affairs,” Il Bizzarro writes, “he is nonetheless as eager for their secrets as a monkey is for crayfish.”
The conceit of a found manuscript was a convention of the Platonic dialogue. Castiglione, for example, employs it for the “Book of the Courtier,” and it briefly occurred to me that Moulton’s account of finding a sensational text with an arcane publishing history written by a sex-crazed proto-Foucault was the conceit of a postmodern novel. In this case, it promises rather more in the way of esoteric revelation than the text delivers, partly because Sodo is such a dimwit, and partly because Vignali’s fable runs on raw nerve rather than imagination.
In a seventeenth-century history of the Intronati, Vignali was described as a “brilliant spirit” who “was accounted almost a monster because of his deformed body.” (The writer doesn’t specify the nature of the deformity.) He apparently fathered two legitimate sons, but extant documents make no mention of a wife. His work flaunts his preference for pliant youths of his own class. Homosexual camaraderie in general and man-boy love in particular flourished in Renaissance Tuscany, as it tends to in cultures that worship women’s purity by keeping them locked up. Moulton makes an interesting analogy between the “hyper-intellectual” machismo of Vignali and his circle and that of the (mostly) hyper-heterosexual Spanish artists of the nineteen-thirties, whose graphic forays into coprophilia and masturbation (Dali), priapism (Picasso), and perversity (Buñuel) were also part of a revolt against orthodox Catholicism, and an impulse to take refuge in absurdity and surrealism from an increasingly repressive and chaotic political climate. Intronato can mean “deaf” as well as “stunned” (though, with a little poetic license, one might also translate it as “stoned,” and the rambling tone of “La Cazzaria” leaves the impression that Vignali dashed it off in a state of intoxication). But the name, Moulton tells us, was an ironic reference to the spiritual battering that refined characters endure in periods of civic violence and instability. Siena’s independence was being menaced externally by the competing forces of the Hapsburg Empire and the Valois of France, and from within by the murderous intrigues among the five hereditary factions (monti) that ruled the Republic.
Despite the fact that his own noble family belonged to the preëminent Monte dei Nove, Vignali made them the villains of a parable that a less faithful translator might have been tempted to entitle “Genital Farm.” Drawing ironically upon accounts by Livy and Plutarch of a speech by the Roman senator Menenius Agrippa to a revolutionary mob (which Shakespeare, a little later, and without the irony, cribbed for a scene in Act I of “Coriolanus”), he dramatizes the internecine struggles that were wasting his city as a tale of warring body parts, though not the head, belly, and limbs of the classical version. Arsiccio describes to Sodo how the Big Cocks and their prideful consorts, the Beautiful Cunts, once formed a dominant party that tyrannized a coalition of the lesser-endowed: the Little Cocks and their allies, the Ugly Cunts and Assholes, whose plot for a democratic revolution was betrayed by the cowardly and opportunistic Balls. In the course of the fable, the victors reassert their mastery and wreak their revenge with the kind of atrocious violations that recent history has reclaimed from the realm of Sadean fantasy. But then, Arsiccio continues, at the urging of a wise if bloodthirsty seeress known as the Great Cunt of Modena, the vanquished negotiate their differences in a fraternal fashion, and strike back at their oppressors, who are, in turn, slaughtered or dispersed. “I will say this about the Big Cocks,” Modena concludes. “It is very possible they have taken refuge with some foreign power, from where, in a short time, seeing our discord, they may return to ruin and destroy each of us.” Her moral is a little vague, though it seems sound: the phallus represents power without a conscience; it cannot, therefore, be trusted; while it sometimes lies low, you can’t keep it down.
Vignali lived at a moment not without a certain cautionary relevance to the present, in which the avidity of a privileged generation shaking itself free from fundamentalism coexists with profound anxiety at the prospect of losing that insouciance to a dictatorship of the right-thinking. Rabelais and Aretino are probably the best known of the many pungent writers working in the same mode. They, as Moulton puts it, “revel in bodily functions, both sexual and digestive.” He also cites the poet Lorenzo Venier, the author of “La Puttana errante” (“The Wandering Whore”), and Niccolò Franco, whose political diatribes in verse employed “shocking, sexualized invective to attack their enemies.” “La Cazzaria,” he continues, “never mentions Machiavelli directly, but it is not hard to sense his influence” in the conception of the state both as a much violated woman and a “female body” of “abiding and unfathomable strength . . . which no man can completely control.”
Though Vignali is more extreme than the least inhibited of his contemporaries, and less artful and lucid than the greatest of them, he shares their rebellious impulse to subvert the sanctimony of pedants, the cruelty of the potent, the authority of patriarchs, and the prestige of virtue; to challenge the medieval dualism of mind and body; and to dose his readers with a bitter aphrodisiac grown in that fertile mire of carnal knowledge which, he believes, nourishes the blood of a secular body politic. “No matter how ugly and vulgar a thing is,” Arsiccio argues, “it is more ugly and vulgar” not to understand it. Almost three hundred years before Sade, Vignali conflates enlightenment with corruption, and, in one of the earliest and, it has to be said, most repellent test cases for free speech, he asserts a quintessential civil liberty, one that becomes more precious as it grows more fragile: the freedom to offend. ♦