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Culiseo: the Roman Colosseum in Early Modern Jest


The Mirabilia literature of the high and later Middle Ages portrayed the Colosseum in Rome as a lofty, celestial building.  As the amphitheater declined, from a lively village in the twelfth century to an abandoned wasteland in the fifteenth, these descriptions became ever more elaborate and magical, reaching an apex in the Trecento.  Starting with the poetry of the Florentine barber-poet Burchiello in the first half of the Quattrocento, however, and above all during the 1520s and 1530s, when Burchiello had many admirers and imitators, comic and satirical writers -- particularly Tuscans (Vignali, Aretino, Berni, Bronzino, Cellini) -- made the 'Culiseo' a synonym for "backside” and the butt of countless sodomitic and scatological jokes. Rome's most notable antiquity, which for the Middle Ages had been a consummate symbol of Rome as caput mundi, was thus reconceived in comic terms as a giant backside, a culo, and as a venue for sodomy.

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