Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, November 2, 2015

Moderata Fonte and a Paradise for Women

Modesta di Pozzo di Zorzi, "Moderata Fonte" (died 2 November 1592)

Born in Venice in 1555, Modesta Pozzo, the daughter of Girolamo Pozzo, a lawyer, and Marietta dal Moro, would rename herself when she began to write. In Italian, her birth name means a “humble, unassuming [modesta] well [pozzo].” But she playfully recreates herself as “Moderata Fonte,” the “well-regulated [moderata] fountain [fonte].”*

A portrait of Moderata Fonte,
c. 1588-89
Orphaned in 1556 when she was just a year old, Modesta was raised by her maternal grandmother, Cecilia di Mazzi, and a step-grandfather, Prospero Saraceni. After several years of education at the convent of Santa Marta, she returned home, where Saraceni encouraged her to read widely in his library and encouraged her interest in writing.

Modesta Pozzo's friend, uncle, and mentor, Niccolò Doglioni, who would later write a brief biography of her, also tells a delightful story about the young girl, who would waylay her brother as he returned from school so that he would repeat his lessons to her--thus she learned Latin. It is a memorable story, but it is also one that shows how a bright girl still had to come by an education second-hand.

In her twenties, Pozzo met Doglioni, who was her uncle by marriage, and he encouraged her to write. Her earliest work, a chivalric verse romance, Tredici canti del Floridoro (Thirteen Cantos of Floridoro), was published in 1581 under her pen name, "Moderata Fonte."

Fonte's verse romance was followed by two more publications the next year. A dramatic dialogue Le feste (Celebrations), an example of a popular short dramatic form, the representazione, was performed before the Doge on 31 December 1581. She also published a narrative poem, La passione di Christo (The Passion of Christ), in ottava rima

In recounting the biblical narrative of Christ's Passion, Fonte focuses attention on the female figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene--while this work can be compared to Vittoria Colonna's 1557 Pianto sopra la passione di Christo, a prose work in which Colonna joins the Virgin Mary in weeping over Christ's body, it also calls to mind in fascinating ways Aemilia Lanyer's later Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum

Fonte's work is also represented in a 1583 anthology of poetry praising the king of Poland, Stephen Bathory, which indicates something of Fonte's reputation in Venice.

The composition of these works dates to the period when Doglioni was Fonte's guardian. Before she joined his household, he writes, “her talent had been lying buried, but I immediately recognized it and determined, as a lover of excellence, to reveal it to the world.” He not only encouraged her, but he says he “started arranging for the publication of her works.” 

Her marriage in 1583 to the lawyer Filippo de’ Zorzi and the pregnancies that soon followed disrupted her literary career. Doglioni seems to suggest that after her marriage she no longer had the time for writing: “[Moderata Fonte] was extremely good at running her household . . . so good, indeed, that her husband scarcely needed to give it a thought and confessed on several occasions that he had no idea what it felt like to have the responsibility of a home and family, for she took everything out of his hands and did it all herself. . . .” Perhaps it is the lack of a room of her own—a room with a lock on the door—that prompted Fonte to create a private space for women as a retreat from the demands of men and marriage.

Despite Doglioni's assertions, however, there were further publications--though certainly the pace of publication seems to have slowed. In 1585, a lyric was published on the occasion of the death of the Doge; a second religious narrative, La resurretione di Christo (The Resurrection of Christ) was published in 1592, the year of her death.

The Worth of Women,
published posthumously, 1600
We know little about what in particular might have prompted Fonte to write what has now become her most most well known work, Il merito delle donne, oue chiaramente si scuopre quanto siano elle degne e più perfette de gli huomini (The Worth of Women, Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Their Superiority to Men), but her daughter tells us that the book was finished on the day before Fonte’s death; it was “brought to the present stage of completion the very day before her death in childbirth, so that she was unable to reread or revise it,” Fonte’s daughter, Cecilia, writes. 

Doglioni supplies a few more details. He notes that Fonte died on the morning of All Souls’ Day (2 November, the day following All Saints’ Day) in 1592. He also says that, on the “very day before she died,” she had finished the second part of the work “which she had titled The Worth of Women.” 

Whatever the specific prompt that caused her to begin her book in the first place, Fonte’s son indicates that his mother’s purpose in writing served a larger end. She intended to write back to men for all the “undeserved abuse, both spoken and written,” that they had “long showered on women”—men who “never believed they would ever have to suffer any punishment that corresponded even partially to the severity of the offense.” What his mother accomplished is extraordinary: “here we see, contrary to all expectations, a woman restoring her sex to its rightful honor and, moreover, exalting women to the skies by the power of her pen.”

In The Worth of Women, Fonte creates something of a smaller version of the "city of ladies" imagined by Christine de Pizan nearly two centuries earlier. The space Fonte’s women occupy is smaller than the city Pizan imagines, but, like her City of Ladies, their private retreat is both in the world and yet separate from it. In this private space, the women who are privileged to gather together are protected. 

Fonte’s “city of ladies” is a walled garden inside a palazzo along the Grand Canal of Venice. The garden, which the women inside regard as their Paradise, is enclosed by the walls of the palazzo, while the palazzo is enclosed within a city which itself is well-defended. In fact, Fonte’s work begins with a paean to the “most noble city of Venice,” la serenissima, a city that “lies wondrously” on the sea that “surrounds her,” behind walls and fortresses that “guard her,” and within gates that “enclose her.”

This Venice, emphatically figured here as female, is a unique city “as everyone knows”; she is “both adored and respected, both loved and feared.” The citizens of the city are praised, both male and female: the “courage, good sense, and courtesy of the men are remarkable, as are the beauty, intelligence, and chastity of the women.” Our narrator describes Venice as a city notable for “the remarkable freedom enjoyed by its inhabitants.”

The city of Venice is undeniably real, but the women who gather together in this “truly divine city, abode of all celestial graces and perfections,” seem to occupy a kind of once-and-future moment: “there was once not long ago (and indeed there still is) a group of noble and spirited women,” our narrator begins, as if to emphasize the fantasy of what follows. 

The seven women “often steal time together for a quiet conversation; and on these occasions, safe from any fear of being spied on by men or constrained by their presence, they would speak freely on whatever subject they pleased.” Thus “stealing” a moment of freedom in a city that has just been described as “free as the sea itself,” the seven “noble and spirited” women we meet are emblematic of the very restricted status of women not only in the republic of Venice but virtually everywhere in western Europe.

While Fonte's published works were in genres that were more open to women writers in the late sixteenth century—verse romances, lyric poetry, and religious narrative, for example--The Worth of Women represents a genre that not only silenced women but that usually excluded them altogether. The Worth of Women is a literary dialogue, an extraordinarily popular Renaissance form perhaps best known by its preeminent example, Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier

Like Renaissance comedy and tragedy, the literary dialogue looked back to the ancient Greeks for its model, to Plato’s dialogues, in particular, which largely excluded women. In the Republic, the characters Socrates and Glaucon debate women’s ability to act as guardians in the utopian “republic,” and although “Socrates,” of course, wins the argument (yes, some women are capable), no women are present at this debate. In Plato’s Symposium, the character Diotima of Mantinea plays a role, although it is not clear whether she is a historical figure, like his “character,” Socrates, or is the female personification of wisdom. Still, she gets to participate in the conversation. 

By comparison, there are no women present in most Renaissance literary dialogues. Castiglione does include women in his fantasy, but they are largely silent, even when the conversation takes a break from its discussion of the perfect courtier to design the perfect lady of the court, a female parallel to the court gentlemen. 

In The Worth of Women, Fonte turns the tables on her male contemporaries. Not only are men silent, they are completely absent. In the absence of men, these women don’t design a perfect man to fulfill their dreams, nor do they feel any need to defend women—women’s “worth” is a given, signaled by Fonte’s title. While the “worth of women” is not debatable, the “worth” of men is, so these friends decide to entertain themselves by debating the good and bad qualities of men. 

I could go on and on here--but, looking back over this, I think I've gone on long enough already. I will close by saying that I have taught The Worth of Women to students many times--not to literature majors, but to students taking a course to fulfill a core requirement. It is, hands down, one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking texts I've used in literature classes.

As one testament--a student last spring confided in a writing assignment that she never ready anything for fun. But she loved Fonte's work so much that, instead of just finishing the first day's reading assignment, she stayed up late and read the entire book! (Even the pages I hadn't assigned!) What better testimonial than that?

Il merito delle donne was published posthumously in 1600.

An excellent biographical essay by Virginia Cox is posted at Italian Women Writers. If you can read Italian, the site links to digitized versions of some of Fonte's published work. Otherwise, you will find Cox's English translation of The Worth of Women very affordable. Fonte's chivalric romance, Floridoro, is also available in English.

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