For those who wish to read ... some of my work from a class on Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance...
Women writers of the Italian Renaissance, such as Moderata Fonte and Veronica Franco, faced a challenging environment of patriarchal domination and expectations as they attempted to practice their craft. Their goals were similar: to make their voices heard, to write about issues that were important to them, and to influence the minds of men and women in favor of the position of women in that time period. Their perspectives on the influence of men and their ideas about what were the highest forms of being vary greatly. Class plays a major role in altering the perspectives from which Fonte and Franco, who lived and wrote in
Fonte was born into an upper class family in 1555 (Stortoni and Lillie, 209). As with all women during that time, she was not allowed to go to school, but gleaned an education from her brother’s lessons. She had a hunger for knowledge and sought it any way she could. Fonte usually wrote herself into her works, likely an attempt to be heard in a time where women were meant only to be seen. Writing was a way to reveal herself and her ideas. She wrote a great deal in her youth, but was forced to give it up once she was married. Stortoni and Lillie don’t indicate that her husband disapproved of her writing. However, it can be inferred from the writings of Alberti on family life during the Italian Renaissance that her wifely duties left little time for writing.
One of the most fundamental attributes sought from an upper class woman during the Italian Renaissance was her dowry. Deals were brokered by parents, “matches” made to link together wealthy and powerful families. An unmarried woman of the upper class was likely to find her life and livelihood in jeopardy, as women were sometimes killed to keep the dowry money in the family. Marriage meant that the money was claimed, whether or not there was any affection between the partners involved.
Fonte found herself caught between two worlds, longing for the “freedom of her youth” and the need to fulfill the expectations of her station (Stortoni and Lillie, 211). On the one hand, being unmarried meant that Fonte would have ample time to write, but none of the security that a marriage and a husband provide. On the other hand, having a husband meant that she had a new set of expectations laid on her, not to mention the rearing of three children. It is indicated that Fonte was very bitter about the fact that her “household responsibilities took her away from her studies and literary endeavors” (Stortoni and Lillie, 211). For Fonte, men were always requiring something of her, either her money, her labor, or her attention. Her bitterness and angst toward men, revealed in her work “The merits of women, in which it is clearly shown how women are more worthy and perfect than men,” are largely due to her class perspective.
The prose portion at the beginning of the excerpt from “The merits of women” that Stortoni and Lillie included in their text describes marriage as “the pain.” Lucrezia says Corinna, Fonte’s persona and the focal character in the work, is “happy and most blessed” along with those who choose to follow her way of life. Virtuous acts performed with God given talents bring great joy, according to Lucrezia, and may make Corinna immortal. She is viewed as free to study religious and earthly texts, leading “a celestial life” that rejects the world of men entirely. Corinna is encouraged to write a guide for “the poor maidens” exhorting them to embrace their maidenhood and not be eager to shed it. The goal of opening women’s eyes to the evils of marriage and men is seen as serving God and the world. (Stortoni and Lillie, 215)
Corinna then sings a song. The first line, “A free heart makes its home within my breast,” indicates she is an unmarried woman. The next line, “servant to no one but myself alone,” shows that Fonte thinks of marriage as servitude. She lifts up modesty, courtesy, virtue, and chastity as her nourishment. She claims to serve God and resents being “wrapped in human veil” so unnatural and restricting (Stortoni and Lillie, 217). Her view of the world and its “perfidious ways which carelessly deceive the simple souls,” is contemptuous and indicative of her desire to prove that society has done women wrong by excluding them or disallowing them the right to pursue intellectual and philosophical passions. Her thoughts are pure and high, “trophies for [her] will, not gifts of fate,” and her fear is that the “deceitful ways” of man will repress her voice and her writing, denying her any chance for “fame and glory after death” (Stortoni and Lillie, 217).
Veronica Franco, born to a Venetian courtesan in 1546, paralleled Fonte in many respects. Living and writing in the same city at the same time, Franco and Fonte knew many of the same scholars and literary experts. Franco faced the same challenge of being a woman and desiring to be heard in the world by men and women alike. However Franco, rather than seeking to withdraw from the world of men, inserted herself into it as a means to pursuing fame and glory and a voice in the intellectual arena.
Franco’s chosen profession of courtesan can be seen as an embrace of the system in an effort to have an impact on it. Her other choice would have been a life of servitude, ignorance, and poverty. By choosing to please men, she elevated herself to a level that allowed her the freedom to exercise her ability to write and influence the happenings of the time. For Franco, men represented the doorway to the life she wanted.
Franco remarks on the injustice of society in repressing women in her “Terza Rima 24,” saying that “this does not come from any fault of ours, because though we fall short of men’s robustness, we are the same in mind and intellect.” She acknowledges the troubles of women, saying “poor female sex, you are forever troubled with evil fortune, held in base subjection and forced to live deprived of liberty!” She lifts up women as greater than men in mind and ability, claiming that their modesty holds them back.
Franco says that by being humble and submitting to men, by viewing pride as a sin, women “[reduce themselves] to vassalage.” She argues that rather than claiming modesty as a virtue with regard to feminine intellect “if she but wished to prove her value in power of mind, she could far excel the men, not merely to prove herself their equal” (Stortoni and Lillie, 207). Franco urges women to have a voice in the only arena that exists, encouraging women to participate in the world of men. Her argument is that by withdrawing from the world, “[treating] men coldly and with bitterness,” women do themselves a disservice, saying “they freely have surrendered all earthly rule, leaving it up to men” (Stortoni and Lillie, 207). Franco’s position is opposite that of Fonte’s, encouraging participation in the intellectual and political spheres of the time rather than separation from it.
By removing herself from the world of men in order to find the freedom to express herself, Fonte reveals that she is tired of the expectations placed upon women to bear children and keep house and bring the dowry. Her standpoint, based on her class, is that men always want something from her and it is better to be separate from them in order to focus on what is most important. Franco came from a line of prostitutes, not by any stretch of the imagination a part of the upper class. Her only pathway to knowledge and an audience for her writing was through the world of men. By virtue of her class, she learned to find a balance between catering to and taking advantage of the desires and expectations that men and society place on her, and so earned her freedom.