Magic, especially in the form of witchcraft, through its enchantments, wonders, and spells, provided a source of inspiration for numerous Italian comic playwrights during the Renaissance and baroque periods. Outside the inquisitorial tribunals, the veterum sapientia (ancient science), often reduced to trickery, served as the background for the complex intrigues of romantic comedies.
Beginning with Niccolò Machiavelli’s Mandragola (The Mandrake, 1518), in which a reference to the mandrake root (act 2, scene 6) is used by the protagonist Callimaco to signal his desire to lie with the beautiful Lucrezia, magic became a central element in numerous works. In Il Negromante (The Necromancer, 1520), by the well-known playwright Ludovico Ariosto, the protagonist Massimo brings a necromancer, Lachelino, really a master rogue, to cure his adopted son Cintio of impotence. An illness presumed to be the work of the Devil sets into motion the events narrated in Girolamo Bargagli’s La Pellegrina (The [Female] Pilgrim, 1564), in which the protagonist Lepida pretends to be possessed by demons to avoid marriage. The protagonist of Giordano Bruno’s Il Candelaio (The Candle-Bearer, 1582) is Master Bonifacio, a married man who is in love with Signora Vittoria. The gullible Manfurio, an amateur alchemist named Bartolomeo, and Master Bonifacio are swindled by a group of tricksters of various calibers. Bonifacio entrusts the magician Scaramurè with casting a spell on Vittoria that will make her fall in love with him. Interestingly, Bruno’s play contains a reference to witches’ ability to fly, a belief that the playwright attributes to Bonifacio, who thinks “co l’arte magica, facesse uscire Satanasso da catene, venir le donne per l’aria volando llà dove piacesse a lui” (“by magical art made Satan escape from his chains, and made women come to him wherever he wished by flying through the air”) (Candelaio, act 5, scene 20). There were also comedies dedicated to astrological influences, such as Giambattista Della Porta’s L’Astrologo (The Astrologer, 1606).
The theme of witchcraft also became a feature of early modern Italian musical theater, particularly during the seventeenth century, where there are characters with magical powers, such as the magician Falsirena in Catena d’Adone (The Chain of Adonis, 1626), by Domenico Mazzocchi, libretto by Ottavio Tronsarelli (but taken from Giambattista Marino’s L’Adone), Armida in Erminia sul Giordano (Erminia at the Jordan, 1632) by Giulio Rospigliosi from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Liberated, 1581; books 6–7), and Alcina in L’Isola d’Alcina (The Island of Alcina, 1728) anonymous libretto, by Riccardo Broschi, based on Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (Orlando Gone Mad, 1532). Demons and magical practices are also present in The Andromeda by Benedetto Ferrari and Francesco Manelli (alias Fasolo, 1637), in Ferrari’s La Maga Fulminata (The Witch Struck by Lightning, 1638) and Pastor Regio (1640), in librettist Giovanni Faustini’s and the composer Francesco Cavalli’s Virtù de’ Strali d’Amore (The Power of Love’s Arrows, 1642) and Ormindo (1644), in Ulisse Errante (Ulysses Wandering, 1644) by Giacomo Torelli, and in Nicolò Fontei’s (Fonte, Fonteio) Sidonio e Dorisbe (Sidonio and Dorisbe, 1642).
Darker descriptions of magical rites are found in such late-seventeenth-century works as Carlo Re d’Italia (Carlo, King of Italy, 1682), by Matteo Noris, which opens with a scene where “magical operations are performed on a corpse” (Fabbri 1996, 212), and the third act of Rodoaldo Re d’Italia (Rodoaldo King of Italy, 1685), by Tommaso Stanzani, which contains a scene that portrays necromancy in greater detail (Fabbri 1996, 212).
A recurrent character in several Renaissance works is the vetula, a term that could refer to a prostitute, a panderer, or a sorceress whose services were sought by a protagonist who knew that such women had the ability to arouse human vices. The prototypical character in this category is found in the Tragicomedia de Callisto y Melibea, or La Celestina (1499), attributed to Spanish author Fernando de Rojas. In this comedy, analyzed by Spanish ethnologist and historian Julio Caro Baroja, the protagonist Celestina is described as an old townswoman witch, astute and experienced in every type of evil. Her practices derive from the realm of erotic magic and are based on the use of medicinal and poisonous herbs, but also diabolical ingredients such as the bones of the dead. In particular, she is depicted as a figure who represents the dangerous aspects of instinctual forces, challenging social norms and disturbing traditional male domination of the social and religious order. In this sense, the vetula shares with the witch the same license for diabolical activity, through both her unrestrained sexual activity and her knowledge of magic.
Celestina reflects a specific sixteenth-century social type that was not only Spanish but also Italian, as shown by the witchcraft trials conducted in Venice, in which the majority of the accused were prostitutes or ex-prostitutes (Milani 1996, 307), and the trials in Naples in 1588, at which one of the principal defendants [Page 295] accused of witchcraft engaged in prostitution and pandering on the Sabbath (Romeo 1990, 6). This social type inspired Ludovico Ariosto’s La Lena (1528), one of his most successful comedies. Its action centers on the character of Lena, a middle-aged procuress whose intrigues are tolerated by her husband Pacifico. Lena seems to view events with veiled rancor and resentment out of bitterness about the crudely materialistic character of relationships based only on convenience and personal interest, and she maliciously hopes that every business initiative of various characters will fail.
In La Cortigiana (The Obsequious One, 1525), Pietro Aretino also includes a vetula in his character Aloisia, whom we find mourning the death of her mistress, Monna Maggiorina. Aloisia exclaims dejectedly that people are burned in Rome for “not having done anything” (Act 2, Sceme 6). Of particular interest is the list of items in Maggiorina’s will, which included detailed descriptions of many of the vetula’s professional tools, such as “equipment for distilling, waters for removing freckles and spots, and a clamp for pendulous breasts” (Act 2, Scene 6). Borrowing from Lucan, Aretino also describes Aloisia wandering in cemeteries “to remove fingernails from corpses,” of her transformations into animals such as “cats, mice, and dogs,” adding her nocturnal flights “over water and through the winds to the noce di Benevento (walnut tree of Benevento).”
Echoes of the Sabbat under the noce di Benevento, a legendary meeting place for Italian witches, also occur in the intermission of La Gelosia (Jealousy, 1550) by Anton Francesco Grazzini (alias il Lasca), in which the witches sing, “Running swiftly like the wind we go to the noce di Benevento.” Much later, this legendary tree even became the focus of an opera, La Noce Maga di Benevento Estirpata da San Barbato (The Walnut Witch of Benevento Taken from St. Barbato, 1665), first performed in Rome in 1666. Its author, Nicolò Piperno, was the son of a medical examiner and historian who wrote De Nuce Maga Beneventana (On the Magical Walnut Tree of Benevento, 1634). This myth continued to inspire theater through the nineteenth century, particularly the successful ballet by Salvatore Viganò, Il Noce di Benevento, with music by Franz Xaver Sussmayr, first performed at La Scala in Milan in 1812.
Paolo Portone; Translated by Shannon Veneble
References and further reading:
Cruciani Fabrizio, and Daniele Seragnoli. 1987. Il teatro italiano nel Rinascimento. Bologna: Il Mulino.
Fabbri Paolo. 1996. “Musica e stregoneria.” Pp. 211–214 in Stregoneria e streghe nell’Europa moderna. Convegno internazionale di studi (Pisa, 24–26 marzo 1994). Edited by Giovanna Bosco and Patrizia Castelli. Pisa: Pacini.
Mamone Sara. 1992. Medioevo e Rinascimento/per Ludovico Zorzi. Spoleto: Centro Italiano di studi.
Milani Marisa. 1996. “Cortigiane e streghe a Venezia nel secondo ‘500.” Pp. 307–316 in Stregoneria e streghe nell’Europa moderna. Convegno internazionale di studi (Pisa, 24–26 marzo 1994). Edited by Giovanna Bosco and Patrizia Castelli. Pisa: Pacini.
Romeo Giovanni. 1990. Inquisitori, esorcisti e streghe nell’Italia della Controriforma. Florence: Sansoni.
Tomlinson Gary. 1993. Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.