Reflections on retelling a renaissance murder

History and Theory 41 (4):7–16 (2002)
Abstract
This mischievously artful essay plays out on several levels; think of them as storeys of an imaginary castle much like the real, solid, central Italian one it explores and expounds. On its own ground floor, the essay recounts a gruesome murder, a noble husband’s midnight revenge upon his wife and upon her bastard lover, his own half-brother, in her castle chamber, in bed. In sex. Of course. The murder itself is pure Renaissance, quintessential Boccaccio or Bandello, but the aftermath, in fort and village, is more singular, more ethnographically delightful, as castle and village trace a ceremonious passage from frozen limbo to fluid grief and storytelling, finally set in motion by the arrival of the dead wife’s brother. Meanwhile, one flight up, the essay retells my own investigation of the real castle’s geometry, as I clambered through rooms, peered out windows, prowled the roof, and scanned blueprints seeking the places of the plotters’ plots. In an expository attic, I lodge reflections on my teaching stratagems, as I led a first-year seminar into detection’s crafts and exposition’s ploys. All the while, on its rooftop, this essay dances among fantastical chimneys and turrets of high theory and literary practice, musing on the patent irony of artful artifice, which evokes both the irony and the pathos of scholars’ cool histories about hot deeds and feelings. Art suggests we authors had best hide ourselves, unlike normal essayists, so as not to spoil the show. But, I posit, our self-effacement is so conspicuous that it proclaims our presence, as in fact it should, and, by so doing, trumpets the necessary tensions of our artifice and craft. Thus artfulness itself nicely both proclaims and celebrates the bittersweet frustrations of historians’ and readers’ quest for knowledge and, especially, for experience of a lost past
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