What was a man in Renaissance Italy? How was a man made and what could go wrong in the manufacturing process? Drawing on a multidisciplinary approach, but mainly focusing on the literature of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, Valeria Finucci unravels these questions and more in a densely-documented yet readable series of studies. This cannot be said to be a coherent treatment, since two of the chapters have previously been published in slightly different forms, but it nevertheless provides a challenging array of cases which expose the fissures in Renaissance understandings of ideal masculinity and, incidentally, femininity. Informed by psychoanalytical discourses and using a vast array of Renaissance medical and literary sources, the book challenges the established paradigm of a change to a more exuberant, ornamented and feminized masculinity in the mid-seventeenth century, arguing convincingly that such an aesthetic was already making an appearance in the sixteenth, epitomized by the gender slippages inherent in cross-dressing, comedic and tragic literary portrayals of fatherhood, repeated strictures in the newly-fashionable conduct books and the appearance of the castrato in Italian culture. Although genitalia were an obvious sign of masculine sex, it was their procreative use which, Finucci argues, was key to underpinning masculine gender identity, and which caused anxieties surrounding the possibility of disputed or dubious paternity.
Providing the reader with an extended discussion of Renaissance theories of reproduction, she then moves on to use literary sources to expose popular belief surrounding strange births, the role of surrogacy in fatherhood (a less- than-informative digression into a modern U.S. court case does not initially help the non-U.S. reader here), and the blame attached to mothers in the case of monstrous or unusual birth. She then considers depictions of hyper- masculinity in Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, showing persuasively that excessive sex without procreation was not enough to expunge the shame that the two cuckolds felt, and goes on to two further chapters discussing hermaphroditism and castration, literal and metaphorical. The former of these is potentially the most valuable in the book, for in discussing what happens in the crucial adolescent phase when gender experimentation has to end and a 'proper' adult gender role embraced, Finucci makes an important contribution to current discourses on the life-cycle as a theme in the history of masculinity. However, the close and detailed readings in each chapter are sometimes self-defeating in that they fail to situate the works under scrutiny: more than once I wanted Finucci to stand back from her sources and consider in more depth issues of reception. The potential of the literary material she uses is clear, even if it parodies rather than reflects contemporary views on reproduction, but in order to draw convincing conclusions from its use we need to know how audiences reacted, or at least to have some guidance from Finucci about the circumstances in which texts and plays were presented. She might also have probed in more depth the regional prejudices that her texts reveal: Naples and Puglia seem to have been as exotic and other-worldly to her authors as Ethiopia, which does receive extended treatment. Another serious omission here is the scant consideration given to medieval precedents: medieval medical treatises also engaged with Aristotelian and Galenic ideas of reproduction, and although the novella was a Renaissance product, its themes of monstrous birth, impotence, cross-gender disguise and cuckolded husbands would all have been familiar to medieval ears as well. The preceding medieval history of homosexuality also deserves a rather more extended treatment than it receives here, particularly as it buys uncritically into the Boswellian image of antiquity and the earlier Middle Ages as a time of tolerance. A key Renaissance transformation appears to be the discussion of such issues in secular rather than ecclesiastical sources, and the potential to derive public amusement from them, and this change is important and worth highlighting. Nevertheless, this is a rich and rewarding book which effectively conveys the distance between Renaissance beliefs and our own.