Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Isotta Nogarola: Finding a Place in the "Republic of Letters"

Isotta Nogarola (letter to Damiano del Borgo dated 18 April 1439/40)


Isotta Nogarola was born in the northern Italian city of Verona, probably in 1418.* After the death of her father, Leonardo Nogarola, Nogarola’s mother, Bianca Borromeo, made sure that not only her sons but her daughters were carefully educated; Isotta and her older sister Ginevra were tutored by the humanist scholar Martino Rizzoni. But at the age when most women were either married or became nuns, Nogarola chose a different “career” for herself: she decided on a life of scholarship.

A seventeenth-century "portrait"
of  Isotta Nogarola
Her first letters, from 1434-35, were addressed to family and friends, but the circle was widened as Isotta Nogarola engaged in a literary dialogue with scholars, educators, and statesmen. A letter to one of these correspondents, Damiano dal Borgo, dated 18 April 1439 or 1440, is used as the occasion for today's post.    

Like Nogarola, dal Borgo was from Verona, but he was living in Venice (Nogarola and her family would relocate to Venice in 1439). Between the years 1438 and 1441, the two exchanged letters, and a series of eighteen letters to dal Borgo from Nogarola survives.

In one of his early letters to her, dal Borgo had made a slighting remark about the talkativeness of women. In response, on 18 April, Nogarola writes, “I learned from [your letter] that you trust the words of our comic poet who claims a silent woman has never been found in any age.” Nogarola is “disturbed,” as she says, for two reasons: first, “because you were writing to me when you surely knew I would take offense,” and second, “because night and day you are reading about how many women surpass not only other women but also men in every kind of virtue and excellence and, we claim, in eloquence.” 

To refute dal Borgo’s slighting remark, Nogarola writes a brief history of women, including women noted for their eloquence (Cornelia, Camilla, and Sappho, for instance), but also, and more particularly, women who had earned their reputation by means of their accomplishments in battle and in government. Here she mentions the Amazons, who “increase[d]” their republic without men. The Amazons had “subdue[d] the greater part of Europe” and “occup[ied] a number of cities in Asia,” she reminds dal Borgo, and all “without men.” These women were “powerful . . . in their knowledge and virtue in war.”

As her recent editors note, Nogarola does not indicate any familiarity with the work of her slightly older contemporary, Christine de Pizan. Nor does she mention any other female contemporaries when she drew up her catalogue of women worthies, perhaps anxious about establishing herself as a humanist scholar; for whatever reasons, her “famous” women are all drawn from the mythological and historical past.

And although she characterizes herself in a way that is remarkably similar to Pizan’s opening scene in The City of Ladies—Nogarola writes about receiving her scholarly visitors in her libraria cella, her “little library”—she is not interested in constructing a republic for womankind, as Pizan was, at least figuratively. Nogarola’s interest is in finding a place for herself in the res publica litterarum, in the humanist republic of letters.

A 1497 woodcut, showing Isotta Nogarola
in her "book-lined cell"
Nogarola is also known for her spirited entry into the humanist debate about women in On the Equal or Unequal Sin of Adam and Eve, from 1451.

In this epistolary debate, Nogarola writes herself as “Isotta” and her “adversary,” Ludovico Foscarini, the friend she was debating, as “Ludovico.” Her work represents “the first work of its kind in European literature,” her editors note, one which moved beyond the relative sin of Adam and Eve to a larger discussion of gender; thus Nogarola’s dialogue “stands among the founding works of the controversy on gender and the nature of woman (the querelle des femmes) that persisted on the continent and in England until the end of the eighteenth century.”

On the life and “career” choice of Isotta Nogarola, I recommend Margaret L. King and Diana Robin's Complete Writings: Letterbook, Dialogue on Adam and Eve, Orations

According to King and Robin, Nogarola’s works were “published” in her lifetime by the circulation of copies; she herself “copied out and collected her letters to assemble them for publication in a bound manuscript volume.". Some of her works are also “embedded in humanist miscellanies.” Her collected works were not published until the nineteenth century. 

*Portions of this post are adapted from Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe.