"The role of women in the Italian Renaissance"

A presentation by Angelo Mazzocco, professor of Italian and Spanish

Angelo Mazzocco received his Ph.D. in Romance Languages from the University of California at Berkeley and has been a professor in the Dept. of Spanish and Italian at Mount Holyoke College since 1975. Professor Mazzocco's work brings him frequently to Italian libraries; most recently he was a Delmas Fellow at the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. In addition, he has received grants from the NEH, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the American Council of Learned Societies to support his research. He has published widely in the fields of Roman antiquities, historical linguistics, Dante, and Renaissance humanism. His latest book "LinguisticTheories in Dante and the Humanists" brought together many of his research interests. His newest book-in-progress is entitled "Rome, Florence and Venice: Three Expressions of Renaissance Humanism". Prof. Mazzocco presentation on the role of women in the Italian Renaissance, is a component of his course on the "Dawn of the Italian Renaissance".

Report on the European Studies Seminar Lecture

by Guergana N Gougoumanova

Rinasita (Renaissance) is the historical period that follows the so-called "dark ages" and that brings the rebirth of the greco-roman artistic values. In the Renaissance one observes the transition from a sacred/metaphysical culture to a secular/physical one. For instance, Lux and Tenebrae (light and darkness) change their meaning. While in the Middle Ages Lux was a synonym of the divine revelation of Christ, in the Renaissance it was linked to a scientific progress, to the development of modern thought, to the idea that one can shape his own destiny. While Tenebrae in the Dark ages referred to the ignorance of the nonbelievers, in the Renaissance it was connected to the failure to rediscover classical culture. Keeping in mind the differences between the two periods, one can evaluate the place of women in the Renaissance.

Did they have a Renaissance? What was their role in society?

The woman of the Middle Ages (in the poems of Dante for example) was an embodiment of the Madonna -- full of platonic (spiritual) love, endowed with marvelous qualities, virtuous and holy. She was timeless in her intangibility in the sense that she christianized everyone she was in contact with.

The woman in the Renaissance poems of Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554), on the contrary, was the Donna -- the embodiment of passion, of eros, and of sensuality. In writing her poems, Stampa identifies with a male point of view, conforms to the conventions of society, and accepts the system as a whole. But while professing female emancipation, she becomes a real martyr torn between two opposite feelings:

    But either way it nourishes my heart
    And either way brings suffering and joy.
    To this end I was fated from my cradle.

Isabella d'Este (1474-1539), on the other hand, turns out to be a stong woman and a clever diplomat. Having received a classical male education, she was relentless about collecting artistic works from the leading artists of the century. Aggressively assertive, she knew her own mind and set clear conditions to the artists: "but you are forbidden to introduce anything of your own invention." Her educational level could be reached by a woman only if she followed certain educational criteria.

According to Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), a young woman's education should aim at acquiring literary skills and factual knowledge. Literary skills were essential since they included the reading of the most outstanding classical writers, the knowledge of literature and grammar, the selection of good word choice and the use of excellent expression. Factual knowledge was necessary because it was related to logic, mathematics, and the sciences. However, in all these skills rhetoric had no importance for a young woman for she was not granted any significant social functions. For Bruni learning of the "finishing touch" becomes negligible compared to the emphasis on the studia humanitatis or the liberal arts.

To conclude, upper-class women in the Renaissance were given ways to express themselves. Their voice, however, was shaped by a male point of view since the education they received was male oriented. Did women have a Renaissance? Yes, compared to the Middle Ages perspective, and not, compared to the modern perspective. Women were allowed to express themselves but not sufficiently. Their role was marginal but still existant.