La Mandragola

Yesterday evening the Italian Cultural Institute of Edinburgh sponsored a screening of Malachi Bogdanov’s film The Mandrake Root.  It was presented by Dr Davide Messina from the Italian Department of the University of Edinburgh and followed by a question session with the director.

La Mandragola by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) is the earliest comedy in the modern canon of Italian theatre, although of course its plot draws on a much earlier tradition, ranging from Plautus to Boccaccio, and in particular to the latter’s stories of Beatrice and Lodovico (Decameron, 7:7) and of Catella and Ricciardo (Decameron, 3:6).

The comedy was probably written between 1517-1518, although earlier versions may have existed and there are traces of the plot and its devices in letters dating back to 1513 and 1514.  The earliest ms edition still in existence dates from 1519. It was performed in Florence (although possibly not, as used to be thought, at the marriage of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Maddalena de la Tour d’Auvergne in 1518; Ronald Martinez in The Cambridge Companion to Machiavelli, 2010, p. 215), but there is certainly documentation for its subsequent performances in Rome (1520) and Venice.  It was staged twice during the carnival in Venice: first on 13 February 1522, when it was interrupted by a crush of spectators, and again on 16 Februrary (Sanudo XXXII, coll. 458, 466).  Such was its popularity that it was put on again during the carnival of 1526, at the instance of the Florentine community there.

The play is a masterpiece of the Renaissance theatre, involving deception, sex, money and greed.  However, it is also about Florentine politics: as Ronald Martinez [op.cit., p. 214] points out, “the victory over Lucrezia’s chastity requires a committee, and thus a conspiracy”. In an echo of Machiavelli’s most famous political tract, The Prince, the end (in this instance, a multiple end that satisfies all parties) resoundly justifies the means.  However, there is a very serious underlying tone to the play: as Machiavelli knows, some of the audience may well not find the (political) message to be a laughing matter.  “Se voi non ridete” – if you don’t laugh, there will be a reward and he will pay for the wine.

Bogdanov’s film is a faithful and entertaining interpretation. It is staged in period dress and setting, but filmed in Sardinia.  This immediately prompted the question “why set it in Sassari?!”  However, Malachi Bogdanov’s reply was straightforward: “It’s very expensive to obtain permission to film in Florence – and the logistics are horrific.”  Certainly, apart from the initial surprise of discovering that Callimaco had returned home to Sassari rather than Florence – and the film makes no attempt to disguise this change of setting – I saw no difficulty at all in this transposition.  After all, Machiavelli himself states, in the prologue, that the setting of the play could as well be Pisa or Lucca, or elsewhere and the sentiments and psychology are, indeed, universal.

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