Alessandro Marcigliano: Chivalric Festivals at the Ferrarese Court of Alfonso II d'Este (= Stage and Screen Studies; Vol. 2), Bern / Frankfurt a.M. [u.a.]: Peter Lang 2003, 182 S., 20 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-3-906769-65-3, EUR 36,20
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This short study of five late sixteenth-century festivals will be of interest to different audiences. Marcigliano focuses on the festivals of Ferrara in the 1560s because, he argues, important developments in Renaissance drama took place at that time. Specialists in the Italian theater will be pleased by Marcigliano's detailed discussion of five elaborate and innovative cavallerie (pageants with a chivalric theme) that were staged by Duke Alfonso II d'Este. The book, however, has more to offer, and readers with no previous interest in theatrical history may learn much from it.
Ferrara by the 1560s had long been a theatrical center. Fifteenth-century scholarship had inspired efforts to revive the classical drama. At the same time, Ferrara, like other parts of Italy, had a rich vernacular tradition of civic festivals, including tournaments, entries, and horse races (the palio). Thus theatrical productions in Renaissance Ferrara were hardly slavish reproductions of the works of the ancients. The most praiseworthy performances, even if based in part on classical models, were characterized by intermedi: "in them", Marcigliano says (19), "dance, music, pyrotechnics and machinery were fused to create stunning visual effects". These displays became standard features of great festivals staged by princes, who alone could finance them and who used them to assert the glorious nature of their regimes. What might appear at first glance to be purely frivolous entertainments were political acts of great importance. Given the effort and resources necessary to stage them, they could be nothing less.
The political use of festivals by Alfonso II d'Este emerges as a leading theme in this study. Alfonso was the proud ruler of a proud city, but both the dynasty and the city had fallen on hard times. When Alfonso returned from a youthful sojourn in France in 1559 to succeed his father, he faced an unenviable situation. His family was divided, his relations with his overlord the pope were poor, and the duchy was suffering from environmental degradation and economic decay. Worst, from Alfonso's point of view, was his lack of a legitimate heir: he would struggle his whole life in vain to gain papal approval for some illegitimate relative to inherit his title.
Nonetheless, Alfonso desired to play an important role in European politics, and if he did not have sufficient diplomatic or military resources to impress his fellow-rulers, Ferrara possessed significant cultural assets, in the form of its artistic and especially theatrical tradition. In his first decade as duke, Alfonso exploited these assets to gain recognition; it was during this time that the five chivalric festivals described and analyzed by Marcigliano were staged.
The choice of chivalric themes for his productions reflected both Alfonso's personal interests and a long-standing tradition of celebrations with a martial character. Before his accession he had spent seven years at the French court, where he perfected his military skills and took part in two high-profile tournaments, including the one in which King Henri II died in a jousting accident. A young, athletic ruler might naturally choose to host a kind of event that for centuries had been sponsored by princes with military ambitions. Further, if tournaments and jousts had earlier been competitions that showcased the talents and achievements of actual combatants -, including great lords who actively took part - over time tournaments had increasingly come to include elements of symbolism and even scripted performance, and to emphasize not the prowess of the competitors but the generosity, culture, and glory of the patron who made the event possible. The Ferrarese of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were well aware of this European tradition of tournois à theme and indeed had presented many themselves.
Marcigliano identifies Alfonso's chivalric festivals as a new type of tournois à theme. These cavallerie were no longer competitions at all: "True combat had been rejected in favour of a 'fixed' predetermined tournament, in which the winner was established prior to the outset of the combat" (43). Earlier tournaments had been staged in such a way as to make a satisfying dramatic impression. Now the entire event was a scripted performance including intermedi. The choreographed fighting was interspersed with singing, dancing and fireworks, all of which added up to "the perfect celebration of the Duke's power" (43). Students of the earlier tournament will be struck by how subordinate the noble combatants were in this whole scheme.
If the combats themselves lacked the inherent drama of earlier martial exercises, the festivals of Duke Alfonso supplied something else: magical sights and sounds on a vast scale. The best known of his festivals was L'Isola Beata, set on an artificial island in Ferrara's moat, and performed in honor of a visit by the Archduke Karl of Austria, whom the duke was determined to cultivate. The most spectacular feature of the pageant was a huge naumachia or boat-battle between knights and monsters, marked by a profusion of fireworks. Marcigliano is able to describe the design and the action of L'Isola Beata in great detail thanks to published accounts, many of which were written to the duke's order to spread his fame, and even a modern reader is impressed. L'Isola Beata, however, needed as much good press as it could find because it was marked by a tragic accident; four knight-performers fell into the moat in full armor and drowned before the festival had even begun. Discussion of the festival was dominated by a debate about who should bear the responsibility for the deaths, the duke / patron or the performers themselves. The accident, it seems, had negated the good impression Duke Alfonso had hoped to make.
L'Isola Beata was a fiasco, and Alfonso's festivals did not help him achieve any of his political goals. Nevertheless, his efforts to build a reputation through lavish theatrical patronage casts an interesting light on Renaissance politics. Public performances, athletic events, and other spectacles are ephemeral and often leave little trace in the historical record. Alessandro Marcigliano has shown, however, that such events were part of the fabric of political as well as cultural life, and that they deserve serious consideration by historians hoping to recover the atmosphere of the times.