Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Laura Cereta: Italian Humanist

Laura Cereta (letter to Giovanni Olivieri, 1 August 1485)

Laura Cereta's "portrait,"
from the 1640 edition of her work
We know that the Italian humanist Laura Cereta was born in September of 1469 and that she died in 1499, just thirty years old. But I am using the date of one of her letters written to the scholar Giovanni Olivieri (her brothers' teacher) as the reason for today's post--it's not a significant letter, but it'll do as a reason for writing today.

Like her predecessor Isotta Nogarola, Laura Cereta is an extraordinarily well educated Italian humanist.* Born in Brescia, Cereta was the daughter of Silvestro Cereto, who was a lawyer and a magistrate in Brescia. Her mother was Veronica di Leno, a member of an old Brescian family--we know little about her, and in Cereta's surviving correspondence, only one letter to her mother is included. 

We know when Cereta was born only because she gives that information in a letter--"I was born in the fourth month before the coming of the seventieth year in the century one thousand four-hundred of our Savior." (She also says that she was named for a laurel tree growing in the family's "burgeoning garden.")

Cereta was sent first to a convent to be educated; she tells us that she was seven years old, and that the woman who taught her there was "highly esteemed both for her counsel and sanctity." She was "entrusted" to this nun "whose learning, habits, and discipline I, who was to be educated, intently absorbed." 

This esteemed woman taught Cereta embroidery--a useful remedy for her "nights of insomnia." After two years, when Cereta was nine, she left the convent and returned home. Her father, she says, was "fearful" that she might "slip into indolent habits," but she did not--as she writes, she "immersed" herself "night and day . . . in long vigils of study." 

At home, she learned Latin and Greek from her father, studied Seneca and Cicero, "attended lectures on mathematics," and "devoured the mellifluous-voiced prophets of the Old Testament and figures from the New Testament." 

But at age fifteen or sixteen, she was married to a young merchant from Venice, Pietro Serina; a handful of letters written to him, from 1485, survive. The marriage is not without its stresses--in one letter, dated 22 July 1485, the young Cereta writes that her husband seems to "pick arguments" with her whether she is silent, as a wife should be, or speaks when she feels "impelled to." "Apparently neither option is permitted," she observes tartly.

And yet, Cereta is not silent. In fact, in a letter from 13 August 1485, she says exactly what she thinks when her husband says that she does not love him:
Do you want me to believe that you expect me to comb my hair in a stylish fashion for your homecoming? Or to feign adoring looks with a painted face? Let women without means, who worry and have no confidence in their own virtue, flutter their eyelashes and play games to gain favor with their husbands. This is the admiration of a fox and the birdlime of deceitful birdhunting. I don't want to have to buy you at such a price.
Within a year, however, Serina was dead. Cereta did not marry again.

After her husband's death, Cereta returned to her study. Her surviving work includes autobiographical letters, letters on marriage and education, exchanges with other women, texts prepared for public lecture, and a literary dialogue. Although her letters circulated in manuscript among humanist scholars in the late fifteenth century, they were not published until 1640. 

In her work, Cereta addresses a number of feminist themes. Like Christine de Pizan, whose Book of the City of Ladies she most probably did not know, Cereta argues against misogynistic attitudes even while she accepts women’s traditional place in society. As her editor Diana Robin indicates, "Though . . . Cereta does see women as an oppressed class, she neither focuses her anger on ills within the culture as a whole that perpetuate gender and class inequities nor calls for the overthrow of the patriarchal state."

In Cereta's letter to Bibolo Semproni, which takes the form of a "defense of liberal education for women," she challenges the notion of the "exceptional woman." Semproni has clearly praised Cereta as unique among women, singling out for praise an individual woman whose accomplishments distinguish her from other women.

But Cereta rejects Semproni’s praise. The gifted and powerful woman is not extraordinary, she argues; rather, she comes from "a noble lineage . . . legitimate and sure." She has descended from "an enduring race," a "republic of women." Having dispensed with Semproni’s praise, Cereta then launches into a "history of women."

Following her abbreviated history, Cereta returns to her point that all women have ability, not just an exceptional few: "Nature has granted to all enough of her bounty; she opens to all the gates. . . ." Cereta also suggests that, while men may occupy positions of power, women have their own abilities, which may challenge, perhaps even frighten, men:
I shall make a bold summary of the matter. Yours is the authority, ours is the inborn ability. But instead of manly strength, we women are naturally endowed with cunning; instead of a sense of security, we are suspicious. Down deep we women are content with our lot. But you, enraged and maddened . . . are like someone who has been frightened. . . . Look, do you tremble from fear alone of my name? I am savage neither in mind nor hand. What is it you fear?
Finally, we might read Cereta’s correspondence with women as, in itself, a kind of history of women and an acknowledgement of their "monstrous regiment." Among her many letters are those addressed to Isabella of Castile, queen regnant of Spain; Beatrice of Aragon, queen consort of Hungary; Eleanor of Aragon, duchess and regent of Ferrara; and Beatrice d’Este, duchess of Bari and Milan.

(Isabella of Spain [1451-1504] married Ferdinand II of Aragon. Ferdinand was the nephew of Alfonso V and an uncle of Alfonso’s son Ferrante; Ferrante was the father of both Eleanor of Aragon [1450-93] and of Beatrice of Aragon [1457-1508]. Beatrice d’Este [1475-97] was Eleanor of Aragon’s daughter.)

Two manuscript collections of her work survive, one from the fifteenth century and one from the sixteenth. In 1640, a collection of her work is published in Padua by Jacopo Filippo Tommasini: Laurae Ceretae Brixiensis Feminae Clarissimae Epistolae iam primum e MS in lucem productae (available on Google Books, which you can access by clicking here).

A brief essay on Cereta's life is available at Italian Women Writers. There is an excellent introduction, one that includes biographical material, in Diana Robin's English translation of Cereta's work: Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist.

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