three pairs of lovers with space

INTRODUCTION TO ALCIBIADES THE SCHOOLBOY

 

The following by D. H. Mader appeared as an “Afterword” at the end of J. C. Rawnsley’s translation of the 17th century Italian classic L'Alcibiade fanciullo, the first into English, published by the Entimos Press in 2000.  However, it is presented here as an excellent introduction to this most important of all early modern books about pederasty.

 

Afterword

Until now, the history of Alcibiades the Schoolboy in English began, and to all intents and purposes ended, on the back cover of another work of fiction with a similar theme, the Asbestos Diary by "Casimir Dukahz." On the back of the dust jacket of the first edition of that book, among five "Books from the Oliver Layton Press," the publisher announced:

ALCIBIADES THE SCHOOLBOY, by Antonio Rocco. The first time this little-known 17th century classic has appeared in English. In dialogue form, it is virtually a manual on how to seduce boys. J.Z. Eglinton, in his introduction, maintains that is also a deadly parody of the Machiavellian doctrine of expediency. Our edition includes the original Italian text, and a bibliographical appendix by Warren Johansson.

In preparation[1]

Regrettably, the book never appeared. It is not known who the translator was, although it is possible it was either "J.Z. Eglinton" (Walter H. Breen) himself, or Warren Johansson (whose actual name was Joseph Wallfield). Nor is it known what happened to the translation, or if indeed it was ever finished. Presumably it was done from the Italian, which was to be printed in the same volume. The present whereabouts of Breen's introduction, if it has survived, are also unknown; it would be interesting to have seen his argument regarding the parody of Machiavelli.

About twenty years later another publisher, Global Academic Press, again announced an English translation as appearing shortly. This translation, also from the Italian, was by Brian Williams, M.A., and was certainly finished. In the mid-1990s it was rumoured that it was finally to appear from still another publisher, Gay Men's Press, in London.

Title page of one of the extremely rare 1652 editions, this one printed in Geneva.

It is not three times, but four, which makes the charm.

II

The publishing history of Alcibiades the Schoolboy, or Alcibiade fanciullo a scola, as he was originally known, has been strange and tangled from the beginning. Of the first edition of the work, apparently published in Venice in early 1651, there are no known surviving copies; evidence for this edition comes from contemporary letters. The oldest existing copies of the work come from two editions, the title pages of which indicate they were from the printer Juan Wart, of Orange, France, in 1652, the first an octavo of 102 pages, the second a duodecimo of 124 pages. The sonnets by "M.V." (of whom nothing further is known) have already appeared with these editions. Only a handful of copies from these two printings are known today, the principle copies being in Dresden, Grenoble, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (which has a copy of each 1652 printing) and the British Library, in London.

A new edition, still in Italian, appeared in Paris in 1862, from the antiquarian scholar and publisher of erotica, Jules Gay. The edition was condemned by the Public Prosecutor in Paris in 1863, and again in Lille in 1868. This was but a provocation for Gay; he responded by publishing a French translation, which appeared from the safety of Brussels in 1866, and albeit even then with a false imprint of "Amsterdam, chez l'ancien Pierre Marteau" as well. This translation was accompanied by a fifteen page foreword by M. Poulet-Malassis. Two reprints of this edition, both illustrated, appeared in Brussels in the 1870s, and it was reprinted again without illustrations in 1891. A final French edition was issued in Paris in 1936 by Marcel Seheur, with engravings. All these French editions - especially those with illustrations - are also extremely rare.

It was not until a German edition of 1982, a reprint of the Italian text in 1988, and a new translation in French in 1995, that the text became easily accessible. Except, of course, in English.

III

          Pietro Aretino by Titian, ca. 1545

The authorship of Alcibiades is at least as tangled as its publishing history. The earliest editions bore the attribution "D.P.A.," which the reader was clearly supposed to expand into "di Pietro Aretino." Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) was the bad boy of Renaissance culture, although by a combination of luck and good management he succeeded in never having to pay too grievously for his outrageous behaviour (unlike the second candidate for authorship), but only grew rich and famous from it. A true Renaissance man, he was a painter, art critic, poet, playwright, religious biographer, epistler, gossip monger, political satirist and pornographer. Called in his own time the "Divine Pietro" and "Scourge of Princes," once he was safely dead he gained a further title, Prince of Blackmailers. He rose to fame in the mid-1520's with a series of lewd sonnets composed to accompany Guilio Romano's infamous erotic "postures," which had been engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi - a work which survives in only one copy, found in the 20th century after being believed totally lost for 400 years. A few years later Aretino expanded his fame in the field of erotica with his Ragionamenti ("Dialogues... composed by the divine Aretino for his pet monkey Capricio, and for the correction of the three states of women"), which conclude that of the three classes of women - prostitutes, wives and nuns - the former are most to be esteemed, as the latter two are faithless cheats, whereas prostitutes normally at least can be persuaded to return an honest night's work for their pay. Not just his pornographic works, but all the fruit of his pen proved wildly successful commercially, making Aretino the best-selling author of his day, and for a long period afterward. To create the impression that a text came from his hand - particularly an erotic text - was merely smart advertising. But Alcibiades is almost a century too late, and, despite Aretino's being accused (and acquitted) of sodomy in a politically motivated prosecution late in his life, it just wasn't his style. Although the attribution was accepted by bibliographers for over two centuries, that was largely for the lack of alternatives.

Pallavicino, from Vita di Ferrante Pallavicino by Brusoni, 1655

With the rise of scientific literary criticism in the 19th century a new candidate for authorship arrived, proposed by Gianbattista Baseggio in 1850. Baseggio's candidate was Ferrante Pallavicino (1618-1644), a political pamphleteer and pornographer residing in Venice. Baseggio makes his attribution on the basis of stylistic comparisons of passages in Alcibiade with other works known to be by Pallavicino. He was also undoubtedly active in the field of erotica, as his La retorica delle puttane (Whore's Rhetoric, 1642) - a dialogue on the best arguments for a whore to use in obtaining clients - makes clear. Obviously, the format and general theme of how to persuade a reluctant party to engage in sexual activity is not worlds away from that of Alcibiade, and it is possible to see the latter as a homosexual pendant to the former.

In his political writings, Pallavicino made the grave error of criticizing Pope Urban VIII and his family, the powerful Barberinis, and having made the still graver, indeed fatal mistake of travelling into territory loyal to them, he literally paid with his head in 1644, at the age of 26. He left behind friends and supporters in Venice, however, in the Academia degli Incogniti there, who could well have seen manuscripts he left behind into print in the early 1650s. It is his name, then, which beginning in 1866 appears as author on the new title page of the French translations published in Brussels (although they also reproduce a facsimile of the Italian title page of 1652, with the "D.P.A."), and which is borne by the German translation. It still remains the entry under which the book is found in many bibliographical authorities to this day.

The apparently true authorship is revealed in the same letters which refer to the now lost first, Venice, edition of 1651, mentioned above. These were brought to light by another Italian literary researcher, Achille Neri, in 1888. He discovered letters from Gian Francesco Loredano (1606-1661), founder of the Venice's Academia degli Incogniti, to Father Angelico Aprosio. In a letter dated to January, 1651, Loredano, who clearly had a sense of irony, or knew his man, or both, writes, "I send you a Carnival booklet not so rude, I think, as to trouble the serenity of your spirit." He goes on to say, "It is given to Don Antonio Rocco. He might have written it when he was much younger, and I have been holding it in manuscript form for 20 years." As Legman observes, if Loredano is telling the truth here and has had the manuscript since about 1630, that would mean if it had been by Pallavicino, he would have been only 12 when it was written. While, in light of the age of Alcibiades in the story, that is an interesting thought, in practical terms that rules Pallavicino out as author. As Neri also noted, this suggests that Loredano, as the source of the manuscript, had at least some role in the publication of the book, if indeed he was not the actual publisher.

Antonio Rocco, almost certainly the true author, by Jacopo Pecini, from the book, Le glorie degli Incogniti, 1647

Antonio Rocco (1586-1652) was also a priest, a man of letters, author of many studies on Aristotelian philosophy, and renowned philosophy teacher in Venice. In the Archivio di Stato at Venice, the contemporary gay scholar Giovanni Dall'Orto uncovered denunciations made against Rocco. These five documents, dated between 1635 and 1652, among other things allege that he "does not celebrate any Mass, and lives as an atheist," that he "is used to saying many things against the Catholic faith and religion," that he believed that "our soul is not immortal in itself, but for the grace of God," and that "one who behaves honestly will be saved, and also the Infidels will be saved according to Natural Law." The 1652 denunciation sums it up by alleging "il Rocco non crede niente" - Rocco believes in nothing - although it would appear that it was more the case that he in fact believed a great many things of which the Church did not approve.

But more interesting is a denunciation quoted by Dall'Orto regarding sexuality: "Once, when quoting the Scripture by St. Paul, who complained about the thorn in the flesh and received the answer ‘sufficit tibi gratia mea,’ he [Rocco] explained and interpreted that the said grace of the Lord was the fleshly pleasure that men experience in the sexual act. Moreover, he often asked us how long ago we had intercourse naturally or against nature, and sometimes we answered yes, and he added, `Well done, since that tool was made by Nature for us to have from it our pleasures and delights.'" As the reader who has finished the preceding pages is aware, much of Philotimes's argument turns precisely on this question of Nature, and Dall'Orto suggests that we find a precise philosophical parallel for the words attributed to Rocco in the denunciation, rather expanded, in Philotimes's words in Alcibiades - that it is indeed Rocco himself speaking there: "Nature, in your opinion, Alcibiades, must be singularly lacking in foresight, very uncaring for our welfare, very begrudging of our pleasure! No - on the contrary, she has done simply everything possible for us, both for our pleasure and for her own glorification. Not to use her gifts is to insult her, not to apply her inventions is to alienate oneself from her, to be in revolt against her, and to deserve in consequence to be deprived of life itself. If she gives us pleasure, it is because she wishes it, and thus, by enjoying it, we render homage to the dearest, the wisest, the richest and the kindest of all mothers." (pp. 39-40 in this translation).

For all his deviations, unlike Pallavicino, Rocco died at a ripe old age. Dall'Orto argues that only "political reasons," which included jurisdictional disputes, and Rocco's distinguished position can explain his remaining unscathed. Whatever the case, he did not attach his name to this manuscript, although it is possible to see the "D.P.A." as an ambiguous identification: while, to the uninitiated, it suggests an Aretino connection, to the initiated it could be resolved as "di Padre Antonio." And of course the argument attributing Alcibiade to him is not conclusive: parallels of thought and the ambiguous initials do not a certainty make, and even the Loredano letter says only that the manuscript is attributed to him. But until a candidate to whom more evidence points is found, Rocco's name must be attached to it as the author. That this happened in English bibliography as far back as the 1960s is in no small part due to the assiduous scholarship of the paradoxical Joseph Wallfield/Warren Johansson, who discovered the Neri article and alerted both Breen and Legman to it while it was still largely unknown in Europe.

IV

We now reach the most vexed, and vexing question of all regarding Alcibiades the Schoolboy: just what is this document we have before us? For what purpose was it intended? Is it a satire on Machiavelli's doctrine of expediency? An historical and philosophical dissertation in the form of a dialogue? A manual for the seduction of boys? A denunciation and exposé of sodomitical schoolmasters, or perhaps "a blow against priests" - that is to say, the earliest warning on record against Child Sexual Abuse, in particular among clergy? Or is it merely a rude jest for Carnival, as Loredano implies? Asoka terms it "the first novel about pedophilia ever to appear." Several authors use the word homosexual for it, and Dall'Orto actually goes so far as to use the term "gay," although he does place the word in quote marks. Is it pedophile? Is it homosexual? Gay, with or without quote marks? For that matter, is it even a novel? At moments like these, one is pleased to have recourse to a postmodern portmanteau like "text."

Title page of the 1861 Parisian edition, the first since 1652 and still untranslated

Several of these oppositions can be disposed of rather quickly. Without his arguments, it is hard to evaluate Breen's proposal that it is a satire on Machiavelli, so that had best be set aside - and at best the "also" suggests this was not its main purpose. But that main purpose - a "manual" or "lessons" in seducing boys - is also arrant nonsense. It is a conceit - in both the dictionary senses of the word - to believe that anyone, least of all an adolescent boy, is going to be persuaded to engage in sodomy on the basis of philosophical arguments - and even sillier to suppose that an adolescent is going to respond with such weighty counter-arguments. However serious the text may be as a compilation of philosophical arguments regarding sodomy, it is certainly of no practical use in seduction.

On the other hand, the argument of the two introductions that this text is a warning against sodomitical schoolmasters has something of the "redeeming social value" strategy about it - you can get any old piece of obscenity past a censor if you argue it must be widely known for a good social purpose, like keeping innocents from falling into the vices described - and indeed, the style of these introductions has more than a whiff of the sanctimonious air of feigned, breathless outrage of a British tabloid, salaciously wallowing in every shocking - SHOCKING! - detail of a sex crime or scandal, the better to condemn it.

At a rather higher level a presentation of the same argument, that the text is a critique of sodomy, can be found in a recent discussion of L'Alcibiade by Armando Maggi. Writing from a postmodern perspective, his basic paired themes are that the text is a sophisticated critique of the Biblical discourse of Sodom, "silenced" by Philotimes' refusal to explicitly take it up despite Alcibiades' reference to it (pp. 36-7 in the translation), indirectly dismissing it instead ("Sodom cannot be defended or `reclaimed,' because it signifies against whoever speaks it") as a lie for the sake of political expediency, in an argument which also neutralizes the legislation of Solon (pp. 51ff), and that the text is also a sophisticated critique of the discourse of sodomy itself, by similarly showing how "the sodomite master fulfills his lust, but he actually becomes prey to the other." Whatever the merits of the first part of his argument (one must acknowledge the presence-by-absence of Sodom in Alcibiades, but I am far from convinced by Maggi that it is a sophisticated and conscious strategy which lies at the core of the text), that it is a sophisticated critique of sodomy is distinctly dubious. Unquestionably satire is applied liberally, and the portrait of Philotimes in his infatuation as falling so far from the self-knowledge and moderation that are the ideal for a philosopher is but one example, though a major one. (The "innocence" of Alcibiades, who can still almost best his master with sophisticated arguments, is another.) But the outcome of the contest, and the "rightness" of Philotimes' argument, is never in doubt; nor are the "warmth," "passion" and "conviction" that dominate the book, which, as the Preface to the 1891 edition remarks, undermine any theory that the book is a work of irony. Rocco was, after all, a philosopher and a "sodomite" himself, and while he is willing to use irony against himself, to tweak himself and his own kind, it is against human foibles and not the arguments themselves that his criticism is levelled. The further discourse by Rocco uncovered by Maggi, "Amore è un puro interesse," actually serves to underscore this. Rocco's thesis there is that all "love" is actually self-interest: "When one loves, one loves oneself and not the other." Philotimes may be a textbook example for this thesis - but even in that case the critique is not of sodomy, but of human hypocrisy about all forms of love.

So Alcibiades is neither a manual for seduction nor an attack on it. The other oppositions are, however, reconcilable. On its face, it is both an extensive, semi-serious compilation of philosophical arguments regarding sodomy, and, at the same time, given the mock-horror of the introduction, the fantastical conceit of a frisky pupil giving his wise old mentor a good run for his money - the intellectual equivalent, one might say, of Cardinal Pirelli's pursuit of Chicklet around the cathedral in Firbank's novel? - and the somewhat largiloquent style, it is also a jeu d'esprit, particularly suited to the brief reign of the Lord of Misrule, when social values are stood on their heads.

Now, whose arguments are these? Although the "gay" community has a persistent habit of seizing upon dead "pedophiles" and turning them into gay heros (as but one telling example, Oscar Wilde, had he been convicted 100 years later, would be on Britain's "Pedophile Register" today) while at the same moment joining in the general screech against "child molesters," it is certainly going too far to suggest that this text can be accommodated in any way with the fundamental gay insistence on relationships in which the partners are equal in age and power. The suggestion that it is a "pedophile" novel similarly can be dismissed: to the extent that the term "pedophile" still means anything today, the arguments in Alcibiades are incompatible with eroticism involving prepubescent children. Even in - perhaps precisely in - the otherwise hyperbolic language about the attraction of boys "from nine to eighteen" (p. 79), it must be clear that this is the decade of puberty and adolescence, not the decade of childhood, and no amount of waffling around about the declining age of puberty is going to alter that much. Further, the whole argument is certainly incompatible with eroticism with prepubescent children irrespective of their sex, children qua children.

With regard to the adjective "homosexual," however, the ground is firmer. Perhaps the instructive parallel here is with the other word used to describe the book, the noun "novel." Although Alcibiades has little in common with the classical form of the novel as we know it from the 19th and 20th century, by backwards extension, along with "epistolary novels" and "picaresque novels" and other narrative forms reaching back to antiquity, we have no problem about calling it a novel. Similarly, although fully acknowledging the differences, I would suggest that on the basis of two key characteristics Alcibiades can also, by backwards extension, be "homosexual." First, although their ages are not those we would normally associate with "homosexuality" today, it indisputably deals with eroticism and sexuality between two males. Second, and to my mind just as indisputably, the book gives evidence - is evidence - of the consciousness, the identity which over the last two decades we have come to accept as the key characteristic of homosexuality. This is not a description of same-sex behaviours embedded in another context, as in the case of the Satyricon, for instance, but a consistent, deliberate marshalling of arguments regarding male-male sexual behaviour, with no purpose aside from that - and that can only be the result of a consciousness and identity shared by the author and his audience. Almost from the moment Foucault announced that such identity, and the sodality or sociability - in short, the culture (or subculture) - which went with it was the key to understanding the concept of homosexuality, and located its emergence in the late 19th century along with the emergence of the word itself, other authors have been busy discovering evidence of such identity and culture - or at least emerging identity and culture - earlier. The existence of a document like Alcibiades, and an audience for it, cannot but be evidence of such an identity and culture in Venice of the 1650s, a fact first recognized by Dall'Orto in his 1983 discussion of the significance of the book.

But if, just as we can see the emerging qualities of the novel in a text like Alcibiades, and thus name it a novel, we can also see the emergence of those qualities of same-sex eroticism and identity in it which are basic to homosexuality, and are thus justified in calling it a homosexual novel - indeed the first homosexual novel - we must acknowledge there are also differences. The principle difference is, of course, the age-inequality, which today seems foreign to our notion of homosexuality. That is however precisely the second point at which Alcibiades can be significant, as a corrective for memory.

In dealing with non-Western cultures, Stephen O. Murray has proposed a model of multiple homosexualities containing three strands, all of which may be present in any culture, but one or two of which always predominate, while the other one or two recede or disappear. These are gender-structured, age-structured and (more or less) egalitarian or mutual relations. In the first, one partner adopts the gender role or expectations of the other sex; in the second, one partner is significantly older than the other; the third is more or less equivalent to the modern "gay" concept, but while dominant presently in the West, is considerably less than dominant in traditional societies.

If this model is applied to Western society, one finds that these three strands have varied in strength, or at least in visibility, since the late Middle Ages and early modern period. Many of the histories of homosexuality which have been mentioned in the course of this afterword - Ruggiero and Rocke for Italy, Noordam for The Netherlands - seem to suggest, on the basis of legal records, that the standard model for male-male eroticism at the beginning of this period was age-structured, although this might be affected by the fact that egalitarian relationships might have been less visible, or less vulnerable to the abuse of power which often brought the older partner in an age-structured relationship to the notice of the authorities. The egalitarian model gains strength in the late 17th and 18th century, although age-structured relations do not disappear, and there seems, from the Molly Houses of the 18th century through the transvestites of late Victorian homosexual life, to have been a more significant presence of gender-structured relationships as well. Studies such as George Chauncey's Gay New York reveal a situation in flux at the beginning of the 20th century, with all three strands present - two of which, structured by age and gender, are decisively marginalized by the beginning of the 21st century. This sketch is extremely global, but to the extent it might be shown to be valid in further investigation, Alcibiades is a reminder that we are not dealing with homosexuality, but with homosexualities, and that the first homosexuality to achieve the identity and subculture necessary to deserve that name was precisely the one which is today most despised, even by the dominant strand of homosexuality.

If we may formulate an answer to the final question, then: Alcibiades the Schoolboy is significant as the first homosexual novel - the first clear expression of a homosexual identity and subculture in the modern West; and it is significant as a reminder of the cultural importance and heritage of age-structured homosexual relationships in European culture.

V

Finally, a word on this edition. For all the significance attached to Alcibiades the Schoolboy as a cultural and historical document, and as a philosophical argument with regard to male homoeroticism and sexual practices, it is also well to remember that it is not dressed in its academic robe, but in Carnival attire. We may be confident that its author desired that it be a fun read, full of flashy rhetoric and humour. It was with this in mind that, in commissioning this English translation, the publisher sought out not a specialist in early modern Italian, but a novelist, and was willing to have the translation done into English from the French (specifically, the 1891 edition). Although not an Italian scholar, in addition to his fluency in French Mr. Rawnsley does read Latin for pleasure, and was able to check points - both randomly and where there were problems with the French - against the British Library's copy of the 1652 edition. He has also annotated the translation only to the extent he felt it necessary for the reader's convenience. Finally, a translation of the introduction to the French edition has also been included as providing history and context for the earlier appearances of the volume. But it is the publisher's hope that the book should not have lost its rambunctious Carnival atmosphere, though being "not so rude as to trouble the serenity of your spirit."

D.H. Mader August, 2000