Katharina Natalia Piechocki
Hercules: Procreative Poetics and the Rise of the Opera Libretto
Katharina N. Piechocki is an associate professor in Harvard’s Comparative Literature Department. She is the author of Cartographic Humanism: The Making of Early Modern Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2019). At the center of her work, supported by numerous fellowships, is the importance of spatial and poetic figuration embedded in a nuanced analysis of early modernity’s diverse linguistic, literary, and cultural manifestations. Her research explores the emergence and translation of new interdisciplinary, predominantly performative, art forms (opera, ballet, revival of ancient theater) and the rise and transformation of new disciplines (cartography, philology, translation) as they traveled across regions, nations, and continents.
"Hercules" tells an unprecedented story of the rise of opera, which first emerged at Italian courts to mark events of dynastic significance. It redirects our understanding of opera by making a dual shift: from music to the poetics of the libretto, and from Orpheus – associated with the new blend of word and music around 1600 – to Hercules, a figure often mobilized in early librettos to represent ruling monarchs. By delving into the question of the sovereign’s fertility (and potential sterility), the use of Hercules in opera librettos shows to codify not the king’s body politic, but the king’s body natural and anxieties about dynastic continuity and political stability, often with surprising agendas. A powerful catalyst of ideological mobilization and a spectacular display of sovereign authority, opera informed and was informed by competing philosophical and scientific discourses – from Descartes to Spinoza, from Galen to Galileo, from Aristotle to Leeuwenhoek. At the same time, the opera libretto also opens up to recent theoretical discourses, including the “affective turn.” This book sees the libretto as a poetic laboratory in which the most important ideas of the century merge into a vibrant microcosm. It terms "procreative poetics" the novel bonds among literary, medical, political, and gender discourses which coalesced, with the figure of Hercules, into the poetics of opera, whose transformation will be traced from Rome to Florence to Paris (1638-1674).