Introduction
La
donna
e
mobile.! In the strains of Verdi's best known aria, from
the third act of Rigoletto, the spirited lover offers his memorable en-
capsulation of women's "fickle nature" while he chases a lithe young
maid about the room. If the amusing irony for Verdi's audience lies in the
evident fact that it is the Duke-and not his sweetheart, Gilda-who is
"mobile," no matter.2 The lilting refrain marks men's age-old dismay at their
failure
to
"fix" woman in her place, to prevent her straying from the express
wishes of fathers, husbands, brothers, and lovers. Mobility in this instance
carries both the positive connotations of adaptability and free flow, and
the negative overtones of inconstancy and error. Its double edge cuts both
ways through the concerns of this book. Errancy, at least since the Divina
commedia's Christian pilgrim confronted Dante's dark wood, has named a
wandering away-be it spiritual, moral, or geographical-from the straight
path that is thought to be right and good. Errant spirits both diverge from
the norm and stray from the course of truth, rectitude, or purpose. Every-
day usage often recalls the second meaning recorded in the Oxford English
Dictionary for wayward: "Capriciously wilful; conforming to no fixed rule or
principle of conduct; erratic"; but my subtitle dwells equally on an addi-
tional sense of the word: "Disposed to go counter to the wishes or advice ·
of others, or to what is reasonable; wrongheaded, intractable, self-willed;
froward, perverse. Of children: disobedient, refractory."
Taking as its backdrop the vast literature devoted in the Italian Renais-
sance to the "proper" conduct and education of women,3 this book presents
the problem of wayward feminine behavior in five different cultural articu-
lations of that period. Each text examined here presents "woman" as the
site of potential disorder. Each entertains in a different way the possibility
that woman might exceed whatever bounds society
b
set for her, might
I
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