Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Arcangela Tarabotti: Anger and Indictment

Arcangela Tarabotti (born 24 February 1604)

"Arcangela" Tarabotti inhabits the kind of all-female world that Christine de Pizan imagines as a safe space for women. Tarabotti is a Benedictine nun, living in the convent of Sant’Anna in Venice.* But she’s not there because she wants to be. In the opening passage of Paternal Tyranny, she tells us who has put her there and why:
Men’s depravity could not have devised a more heinous crime than the wanton defiance of God’s inviolable decrees. Yet day in and day out, men never cease defying them by deeds dictated by self-interest. Among their blameworthy excesses, pride of place must go to enclosing innocent women within convent walls under apparently holy (but really wicked) pretexts. 
Men “force women to dwell in life-long prisons, although guilty of no fault other than being born the weaker sex. . . .” The man whom she indicts--the man who has enclosed this angry young woman in a convent, which she compares to being buried alive--is her father.
Paternal Tyranny,
retitled La Semplicita Infannata,
published after Tarabotti's death
Born Elena Cassandra Tarabotti, the eldest of nine children, Arcangela has spent most of her life physically confined by the time she writes Paternal Tyranny. Tarabotti inherited a disability from her father, a limp, which enabled him to make her disappear, for all practical purposes. As her editor Letizia Panizza notes, Tarabotti’s lameness gave her father a reason for deciding she was “unmarriageable, fit therefore only for the convent”—although the “same condition had not prevented him from marrying.”

Tarabotti was first sent to the convent of Sant’Anna as a boarder when she was eleven, but she was forced to remain there after she reached marriageable age. With no way out, she became a Benedictine nun, in 1623, when she was nineteen.

The three monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience determined the way she would live inside the walls of the convent for the rest of her life. She died in 1652, just four days after her forty-eighth birthday. The additional Benedictine vow of stability meant that she would not only remain inside the same convent for life but also that she would remain inside its walls after her death—the vow of stability required her burial inside the walls of Sant’Anna.

Thus, for Tarabotti, the all-female world of the convent, forced upon her, became both a prison and a tomb.

But her life in the convent did provide her the opportunity to educate herself, and it allowed her to become a writer. Denied a more conventional role as a mother, Tarabotti referred to her literary productions as her children. She calls Paternal Tyranny her “first offspring,” and she asserts its legitimacy—it is her “true offspring”—even while she acknowledges that it will be dismissed as “the offspring of a deranged mind.”

In a preface addressed to her readers, published in the 1643 Convent Life as Paradise, Tarabotti mentions having completed Paternal Tyranny, and in the same volume her printer advises the reader that he will soon be publishing it. Despite her hopes and his confidence, however, the work did not appear. As an indication of the many difficulties she faced in trying to get her work published, Tarabotti ultimately decided to rename her firstborn, and Paternal Tyranny became Simplicity Betrayed.

Despite her problems getting her "first born" into print, she published her Convent Life as Paradise in 1643, her Antisatire in 1644, a collection of letters in 1650, and a defense of women, Women Are of the Human Species, in 1651, the year before her death. The renamed Paternal Tyranny was eventually printed, in 1654, two years after Tarabotti’s death. Even then, it was published not in Italy but in Leiden, and not under Tarabotti’s name but an anagrammatic pseudonym, Galerana Barcitotti.

Tarabotti's first published work,
Convent Life as Paradise,
a more politically and socially
acceptable work than Paternal Tyranny
Tarabotti's Paternal Tyranny is a blazing indictment of male dominance in all its forms. She exposes “fathers” in all their manifestations—and their overwhelming hypocrisy. “What liars you men are!” she rails, “You cruel, inhuman men, forever preaching that evil is good and good is evil.” Men “glory” in their strength while they “wage war among [themselves], killing one another like wild beasts.” “This”—that is, killing one another—is “where [their] strength lies.”

She writes out of her situation but does not focus on her own situation. Instead she condemns all fathers like her own (and there are plenty of them) who similarly enclose their daughters against the daughters’ wishes, denying them what she regards as their God-given free will and forcing them to live as perpetual prisoners. Nothing is worse than the “utter barbarity of fathers against their own daughters,” she writes, although they “veil their baseness with lying phrases.” 

Fathers deceive their daughters by saying “they would only too gladly bestow generous dowries on them, but they could never be sure that their daughters would be happy . . . for so many untoward events could befall them, of which this evil world is only too full.” But all this is “pretense and open prevarication,” words pronounced by a “lying, flattering tongue.”

Fathers are only too happy to shut their daughters away and forget about them. And then Tarabotti observes: “He would never think, of course, of shutting himself up among monks, even if he were beaten black and blue. . . . [H]e preaches withdrawal and chastity for the ones he compels to enter. At the same time, footloose and fancy-free, he strives to enjoy every possible delight, drowning himself in a thousand vices.”

Her condemnation of fathers extends to the “fatherland” and to the fathers who govern Venice—they “defile” Venice, complicit in this “hideous iniquity of immuring women against their will.” They act solely out of “political expediency”—state authorities are complicit in the sacrifice of women in the economic and political interests of their families.

Tarabotti also condemns priests—in their roles as “fathers”—as well as the institutional church itself, controlled by those “holy impeccable fathers, gathered in the sacred consistory,” and the Fathers of the Church, like St. Jerome, who provided the theoretical framework for women’s “inferiority” and warned about the “dangers” they pose to men.

She condemns all male-dominated social institutions, in fact. Men conspire to deny women an education—“So shameless are you that while reproaching women for stupidity you strive with all your power to bring them up and educate them as if they were witless and insensitive.” Men deny women the legal rights they have “usurped over them so presumptuously.” And women have no economic rights whatsoever, defrauded of their rightful inheritances and denied any share in family wealth.

Tarabotti also suggests that men may act because they are afraid of women, recalling the Amazons: “Are you afraid of women in our world multiplying? What cowards!” But she cannot find strength or comfort in this memory of fearsome, warrior women: “These are no longer the times of the brave Amazons, who discreetly killed their male children so as not to be their subjects,” she admits. There is an “intricate labyrinth enclosing [women],” and Tarabotti can find no way out.

A biography of Tarabotti is available online, from the University of Chicago's Italian Women Writers website; to read it, click here. The entry for Tarabotti offers a complete bibliography and access to digitized editions of her texts in Italian.

Letizia Panizza's English translation of Paternal Tyranny is an amazing read--I can't recommend it enough. You will never forget Tarabotti's distinctive voice. Or her anger.