Sex and the Medieval City: Viewing the Body Politic from Exile in Early Italian Verse

  • Catherine M. Keen
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


It may seem incongruous to borrow the title of a contemporary television series to open an investigation of medieval lyric poetry and, indeed, I will not attempt to draw any overextended connections between the two in the main body of this essay. My title however has a more than merely facetious intent, for one of the key points in my investigation of a selection of fourteenth-century Italian political lyrics is the importance of the city as the locus of contention over power and autonomy, expressed in terms of viewing and desiring the female body. In the Sex and the City programs, alluring images of the female body, and contention over the dynamics of power and desire, are explored in a specifically metropolitan context, which, the series’ title suggests, qualifies these issues in a particular way. In my fourteenth-century texts, such qualification extends so far that the female body is the city: for I am concerned with a strand of political verse that addresses not a woman, but the feminine personification of a town.1 Civic and social desires or aspirations are enunciated in these lyrics in terms of desire for the alluring city-lady [città-donna], object of the poetic subject’s gaze.


Female Body Body Politic Feminine Grammatical Gender Medieval Literature Sexual Imagery 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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  1. 2.
    Although there is only space here to consider a few examples, numerous exile lyrics employ this type of personification allegory. Useful recent studies of Italian exile that include considerations of exile verse include: Randolph Starn, Contrary Commonwealth: The Theme of Exile in Medieval and Renaissance Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982)Google Scholar
  2. Jacques Heers and Christian Bec (eds.), Exil et civilisation en Italie, XlIe–XVIe siècles (Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1990)Google Scholar
  3. Georges Ulysse (ed.), L’Exil et l’exclusion dans la culture italienne: Actes du colloque franco-italien (Aix: Publications de l’Université de Provence, 1991).Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    See Julie Galambush, Jerusalem in the Book of Ezekiel: The City as Yahweh’s Wife (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992)Google Scholar
  5. Peggy L. Day, “Adulterous Jerusalem’s Imagined Demise: Death of a Metaphor in Ezekiel XVI,” Vetus Testamentum 50 (2000): 285–309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 4.
    The problematic nature of the label giocoso, often applied to eminently serious poets or works on grounds especially of their sexual “immorality,” is ably discussed by Steven Botterill, “Autobiography and Artifice in the Medieval Lyric: The Case of Cecco Nuccoli,” Italian Studies 46 (1991): 37–57; similar problems are raised over the notion of register in troubadour lyric by Simon Gaunt, “Poetry of Exclusion: A Feminist Reading of Some Troubadour Lyrics,” Modern Language Review 85 (1990): 311–312 [310–29].CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 5.
    The bibliography on the vexed issue of “courtly love” is vast: see Roger Boase, The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love: A Critical Study of European Scholarship (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977); also Gaunt, “Poetry of Exclusion,” pp. 310–11, 329.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    A survey of this theme is provided by Michelangelo Picone in “Adii e assenza: storia di un motivo lirico dai trovatori a Petrarca,” Vox Romanica 53 (1994): 34–48.Google Scholar
  9. Michelangelo Picone, “Dante, Ovidio e la poesia dell’esilio,” Rassegna europea della letteratura italiana 14 (1999): 12 [7–23].Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    See Margaret Brose, “Petrarch’s Beloved Body: ‘Italia mia,’” in Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature, ed. Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 3–10 [1–20]Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    See Sarah Kay, Subjectivity in Troubadour Poetry (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 85–86, 91–95, 115–117, 129–31; Gaunt,“Poetry of Exclusion,” pp. 311, 314, 317–318, 320–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 10.
    On the anomalous constitutional status of the Comuni, see J.K. Hyde, Society and Politics in Medieval Italy: The Evolution of the Civil Life, 1000–1350 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 63–64, 84–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Philip Jones, The Italian City-State: From Commune to Signoria (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), pp. 335–43.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Poem 53 [CXVI], in Dante Alighieri, Rime, ed. Gianfranco Contini (Turin: Einaudi, 1946). Line numbers are provided in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    The woman has been ascribed many different historical or allegorical identities: see Guglielmo Gorni, “La canzone ‘montanina’ Amor, da che convien pur ch’io mi doglia (CXVI),” Letture classensi 24 (1995): 132–33, 144–45 [129–50].Google Scholar
  16. 23.
    Cino da Pistoia CIII, in Poeti del dolce stil nuovo, ed. Mario Marti (Florence: Le Monnier, 1969). Line numbers are provided in parentheses in the text. See Keen, “Images of Exile,” pp. 27–29.Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    Pietro Faitinelli 15, in Poeti giocosi del tempo di Dante, ed. Mario Marti (Milan: Rizzoli, 1956); Marti dates this poem and the following to ca. 1314. Line numbers are provided in parentheses in the text.Google Scholar

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© Emma Campbell and Robert Mills 2004

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  • Catherine M. Keen

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