Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Lucrezia Marinella, "A Woman of Wondrous Eloquence and Learning"

Lucrezia Marinella Vacca (9 August 1600)

Despite her literary fame among her contemporaries, we know very little about Lucrezia Marinella's life. She was born in Venice in 1571. She married Girolamo Vaca, but just when is not clear. We know that she had two children, Antonio and Paulina, only because they are named in her will, dated to 1645, and in a codicil, added in 1648, she mentions a granddaughter. She died on 9 October 1653 and was buried in the church of San Pantaleone, in Dorsoduro, one of the six sestiere, or districts, of Venice.

About Marinella's life, Letizia Panizza, notes, "Despite the fame bestowed on her by her publications, her own life was lived in seclusion--the norm, it must be said, for a Venetian woman of her social rank, regardless of intellectual status."*

Marinella "did not travel," and "there is no evidence" that she was included in any of the intellectual and literary academies in the city. Nor is there any "record of her corresponding with her admirer Arcangela Tarabotti," her contemporary, living in the convent of Sant'Anna, whose own work, protesting “paternal tyranny,” addressed themes similar to those treated by Marinella.

Marinella does not seem to have known about another Venetian contemporary, the Jewish writer Sarra Copia Sulam, who was able to form a salon and engage in intellectual discussion with a variety of men of letters. Nor does Marinella mention the Venetian poet Veronica Franco, who died in 1591, just before Marinella begins her literary career.

But Marinella's work survives. Between 1595 and 1606, she published  ten books--including a sacred epic, The Holy Dove (La colomba sacra); an epic on the life of St. Francis; a life of the Virgin Mary, La vita di Maria Vergine imperatrice dell'universo; an anthology of sacred verses; a pastoral drama, Happy Arcadia (Arcadia felice); a life of the virgin-martyr St. Justine; a major prose life of St. Catherine of Siena; and a heroic epic, Enrico; or Byzantium Gained (L'Enrico overo Bisantio acquistato). 

I am posting about Lucrezia Marinella today, 9 August, because a dedicatory letter prefacing her most well known work, The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, is dated 9 August 1600.

When I first ordered a copy of Marinella's book for my university's library, the collection specialist laughed uneasily at its title, so it's important to say something about that before we go any further. Marinella's title may seem odd, if not funny--or perhaps even offensive--today, but the title is carefully crafted and demonstrates that Marinella's work is a direct response to a vicious attack on women that was published in Venice in 1599, Giuseppi Passi’s The Defects of Women (I donneschi difetti). 

Passi’s Defects is a scathing attack on women, and it is voluminous in its treatment of women’s defects, running to nearly four hundred printed pages. It is also a work that proved exceedingly popular, running through at least three editions between 1599 and 1618.(Marinella’s book seems to have been republished at the same pace as Passi’s: the first edition of The Nobility and Excellence of Women was published in 1600, a second edition in 1601, and a third in 1621.)

To be sure, Passi does not present his work as an attack on women but, rather, as a book with an entirely worthy purpose, that of warning young men about women’s faults: “young men, in reading this book and learning of the deceits of women,” will be kept out of harm’s way, and to this end, Passi says that he will “consider carefully and discuss the infinite events that have befallen men on account of women.” In support of his “warning” Pass cites nearly two hundred and fifty authorities listed alphabetically, from Accurso and Augustine to Virgil and Xenarchus, at the beginning of his book.

Having marshaled his authorities for the reader’s immediate consumption, Passi then follows with a table of contents designed to illustrate his assertion that women are “defective”--and, if unchecked, a danger to men. This table summarizes the contents of the thirty-five chapters that follow. He begins with a chapter devoted to defining “woman,” then proceeds to a series of chapters, each devoted to a particular “defect”: “proud women,” “avaricious and traitorous women,” “lustful women” (with their inordinate appetites), “irascible women,” “gluttonous and drunken women,” “envious women,” “boastful women,” “ambitious women,” “ungrateful women”--all in the first ten chapters.

Women are pitiless, adulterous and “roving”; women prey on men, selling their own sexuality--as prostitutes and whores--or selling other women, as bawds. Women dabble in magic, they color their hair, they love to adorn their bodies with beautiful clothing and jewelry, and they are entirely untrustworthy, their beauty and their advice equally dangerous to men. Chapter 21 is devoted, simply enough, to jealous women, while Chapter 22 bristles with synonyms, devoted to women who are fickle, inconstant, unstable, frivolous, credulous, foolish, and stupid. Further chapters focus on women who are nosy, litigious, hypocritical, vain, and, in another chapter filled with excess, “faint-hearted, cowardly, timid, and fearful”; women are “worthless, incompetent, and useless.” Women are obstinate, indolent, thieving, tyrannical, fraudulent, and, in yet another bit of overkill, “slanderous, talkative, feigning, biting, and lying.” And, finally, they are unable to bear any of life’s adversities.

As if this comprehensive enumeration of women’s weaknesses isn’t enough, Passi provides yet another extensive list, this one a detailed, eight-page table of all the “notable things contained in the work,” a more-or-less alphabetical hodge-podge of women’s faults (from their appetite for wine, for example, to their venery), of infamous women (from Agrippina the lustful, for example, to Xantippe, the quarrelsome wife of Socrates), and of praise for assorted worthy men (Alexander the Great, for example, noted for his continence) and their revelation of women’s failings (Virgil, for example, who is said to have given evidence of women’s rapacity). If you're inclined, you can take a look at Passi's diatribe by clicking here.

In her discussion of Lucrezia Marinella's literary response to The Defects of Women, Panizza calls her work “dazzling” and “blistering”—a veritable “fireworks display” of Marinella's “stunning” mastery of philosophical, medical, historical, and literary authorities and arguments. Panizza notes that it was composed “at a furious rate” as a direct reply to the misogyny of Passi.

To that end, Marinella’s response to The Defects of Women is two-fold, as indicated by the title my friend and colleague found so funny: first, Marinella will defend women’s “nobility and excellence” against attacks like Passi’s, and then she will herself go on the attack, enumerating the “defects and vices” of men.

In countering Passi’s attacks, Marinella throws male authorities back at Passi—Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Petrarch, and Dante, to name only a few, are all used to defend woman’s nature, her “essence,” and even the very name, “woman,” by which she is known. As Marinella reaches her fifth chapter, “Of Women’s Noble Actions and Virtues, Which Greatly Surpass Men’s, As Will Be Proved by Reasoning and Example,” Marinella is ready to move from defending women to cataloguing their abilities. She has already shown that women possess nobility of soul; now she is ready to show “that their actions are more esteemed than men’s.”

Marinella relates the stories of “learned women and those who are illustrious in many arts,” of “temperate and continent women,” and of “prudent women and those expert at giving advice.” “It is a fact known to everyone,” Marinella asserts, that “we never see or read about [women] getting drunk or spending all day in taverns, as dissolute men do, nor do they give themselves unrestrainedly to other pleasure.” Women are “moderate and frugal in everything.” 

After completing her argument that women are “far nobler and more excellent than men,” Marinella then undertakes what none of her predecessors since Christine de Pizan has dared: she not only “corrects” men’s judgments about women, but she challenges specifically, and by name, a number of her male contemporaries, specifically those who have, motivated by the “arrogance” and “envy” of Aristotle, revived his “shameful and dishonorable” denigration of women.

One final aspect of Marinella’s writing back to Passi is the way she has constructed her work. She is not only responding to them, she is mirroring them. She responds to each argument with a corresponding argument, each quotation with a countering quotation, each example with an example of her own. 

Lucrezia Marinella’s Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, first published in 1600, was expanded and republished in 1601. A third edition appeared in 1621. 

But, like so many women intellectuals and writers who preceded her, Lucrezia Marinella, renowned for her “eloquence and learning,” was rather quickly forgotten. As Panizza indicates, “after her own century, Marinella’s name and The Nobility and Excellence of Women become items in catalogues,” and her “works all but disappeared from sight.” 

Lucrezia Marinella is mentioned twice in the eighteenth century and once in the nineteenth; her works were not republished. Even as the twentieth century drew to an end, only one of Marinella’s many and varied works, her 1605 Arcadia felice, finally appeared in a critical edition in Italian in 1998. 

Anne Dunhill’s 1999 translation of Marinella’s The Nobility and Excellence of Women, with its excellent introduction by Letizia Panizza, which I've quoted here, was the first time any of her work was made available in English. Marinella's epic, Enrico, is now also available in a new English translation, as is her life of Mary and her Exhortations to Women.

These new editions all contain excellent introductory materials, but if you are wanting an easily accessible biography, with a particular analysis of Marinella's arguments in The Nobility and Excellence of Women, the entry on Marinella at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is particularly good, and it contains an excellent bibliography.

*Parts of this post have been adapted from Debating Women, Politics, and Power in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

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