A Review of Per lettera: Le scrittura epistolare femminile tra archivio e tipografia secoli XV - XVII a cura di Gabriella Zarri. Roma: Viella, Libreria editrice, 1999. xxix + 629 pp. 3 illus. PB.
A slightly altered version of this essay-review appeared in The Sixteenth Century Journal: The Journal of Early Modern Studies, 33/2 (2001), pp. 632-636.
by Ellen Moody
The Letter (1670) by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675)
This anthology of essays on letters by women in early modern Europe is an important and valuable work of scholarship. Its essayists build upon the work of (among others) Janet Altman Gurkin, Roger Chartier, and Adriano Prosperi who have analyzed epistolary narrative from sociological, psychological, and pragmatic perspectives. The volume shows us how an individual's perception of time, space and selfhood was transformed as an efficient, relatively secure postal service was established across Europe. Yet not until well after the seventeenth century were letters available for use as private space for people to evolve a self apart from others: while letters enabled a relatively privileged few to reach outside a local terrain of possibilities, familial networks which supported women's lives prevented or punished any enactment of an identity whose interests could oppose the group's collective goals. In those letters left us in archives and published books, we find only a few whose writer has counted on a single interlocutor. The early modern letters which have survived usually contain only unconscious or half-acknowledged self-revelation, and are partly performative attempts to negotiate with, inform and influence recipients at a distance from the writer.
These essays should be read by all those engaged in serious study of early modern women's lives and writing. Here is a wealth of documents which put before us in revealing detail particular conditions and mores which shaped what early modern women could do and write. The letters studied are not chosen for their literary value or exemplification of traits or skills held to be admirable in public today. They are undated or misdated, filled with grammatical and orthographical mistakes, and often dictated to male secretaries, sons, brothers or a more literate woman. From these letters we can gather what exactly were some of the contemporary presuppositions about what women ought to think, feel, do and write (or not write) that reached public discourse and see them contrasted with words which vibrate with actual women's desires, perceptions and descriptions of behavior really enacted. These early modern women's words suggest they had goals and feelings and values which are also different from or escape what has been imposed on them by what modern feminists would like to believe was once true of or imposed on women. In this book we hear in as uncensored as form as we are ever likely to get the voices of many many women hitherto lost to respectable public history.
Per lettere is divided into three sections. The first contains essays which examine how the documentary nature of a letter, its pyschological content, and the social characteristics of an epistolary situation are exploited in imaginative literature. We also see how real epistolary situations and the nature of a given postal service are used by actual writers constrained by their particular familial, social and economic circumstances. Adriana Chemello opens the book with an examination of the very first letters recorded in imaginative literature which, revealingly, involve female characters: these are stories of false accusations of sexual seduction, conflicts arising within a family group from the violent repeated raping of a female by a male, and of frustrated isolated women in love. We read generous excerpts from, as well as descriptions and analyses of, the published correspondence of well-known actual and legendary figures (e.g., Eloisa and Abelard, Pietro Bembo, Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara, St Geneviève of Paris, Genoveva of Brabant) and records, documents, letters, and notes still unpublished in Italian library, state, ecclesiastical, and family archives. The section closes with Genoveffa Palumbo's demonstration of how apocryphal letters are the product of the desire of early modern readers to believe that legendary and holy women and female saints secretly influenced central mythic and real events described in public histories. These invented letters are expressions of a community's anxiety about their own powerlessness and desire to control women's private ways of gaining power over others.
The essays in this section provide information and ways of analysing letters which enable the reader to observe women facilitating connections among their family members and other people in and beyond a local community. Marina d'Amelia attempts to present an accurate picture of sixteenth-, and seventeenth century domestic life. In her essay we observe as we would in a novel why those who corresponded had to live among the privileged: "La scrittura della lettere richiedeva tempo, luce e qualche forma di riscaldamento in inverno, -- la frase ricorrente in molte lettere 'è tanto freddo che non posso tenere la penna in mano' non è pura retorica" ["The writing of letters demands time, light and some form of warmth in winter, -- the phrase which recurs in many letters, 'it is so cold that I cannot hold the pen in my hand' is not pure rhetoric"] (p. 83). We see from an examination of how letters are addressed, ended, spelt, and dictated to secretaries and family members how women interacted with those they lived with as they wrote and read letters. Thorough proficiency among the wealthy and powerful was rare: that was the hired secretary's task. Tiziani Plebiani shows us how norms developed, including which occasions called for letters. We see a husband scold his wife because her inability to understand why it is important that she date a letter and spell correctly is an embarrassment to him: he has learnt to measure his experience against a wider horizon of people who will not respect people who have not attained literacy and attention to time as basic skills for survival (pp. 87-88). We observe the family becoming a place where writings of all kinds, including the imaginative and commemorative, can be produced, and how those who wrote the letters shaped the perceptions and relationships of those who read them.
In a poignant essay by Maria Pia Fantini, we study a book of letters written and then put together to resemble a published book by an early modern woman who seeks to commemorate her attempt through letters to reach out to people for emotional support by turning her thoughts into something ready for others to read. After an initial thorough-going description of the Chigi archive in the Vatican library and of the appearance of a book of letters written mostly by Cassandra Chigi to her mother, Sulpizia Petrucci, probably put together by Cassandra, Pia Fantini describes Cassandra's letters. They are messy, the letters and lines uneven; she has great difficulties with ink, and uses unformulaic language (words appropriate to spoken as opposed to written discourse). An emotionally tense presence struggles to get a letter written down whose tone reads differently from those parts of her letters which were written for Cassandra by her husband. Cassandra then ordered, indexed and had her letters bound to look like a published book. Through a study of the documents also in this archive and left by the families of this wife and husband, Pia Fantini reveals a confused lonely woman whose status had been degraded by her marriage, and whose life among her husband's family leaves her without a trusted companion or, paradoxically, respect. A cry of the heart is heard as we read Cassandra Chigi's frustrated and half-literate appeals to her mother to allow her to express her desperate sense of isolation: "Si non lo scrivessi a vi a chi vuresti [lo scrivessi]?" ["If I do not write to you, to whom can I write?"] (pp. 144-45).
The second and third sections of the book are given over to close readings of particular anthologies of letters; of books or anthologies which contain letters by people who profess the same occupation (books of letters by nuns, abbesses and religious women and books of letters by literary women and men); and of individual real correspondences which can be securely attributed to specific people whose life histories the essayists sketch from archival and other documents. Each essayist pays careful attention to the specific social milieu, political and familial situation and place in which the examined letters were originally written and are now found. In reading the love letters of one woman to her betrothed and another to a husband from whom she has separated herself, it is important to know that these were saved either by the male or his family to be used as possible evidence against these women in a court of law. It is repeatedly pointed out to the reader how the public interpretation of private women's letters has been influenced by the reality that they were often published in a different place, by different people, or during a time very different from the one in which they were written.
The essays on published correspondence are linked by several of the essayists' arguments that letters by supposedly influential women were not published for their literary value or for an original experience presented powerfully, but because of the intervention of males whose interests the particular content of the book or particular woman's reputation suited. In a subsection of essays on letters by women published before the nineteenth century, Francine Daenens examines Lettere di molte valorose donne, nelle quali chiaramente appare non eser ne di eloquentia ne di dottrina alli huomini inferiori, published in Venice in 1548, and probably compiled and heavily edited by Ortensio Lando. She suggests that this volume was published because it disguisedly argues for dangerous heretical and evangelical doctrines. In the same subsection Elisabetta Marchetti shows that Teresa di Gesù's famed Las Cartas was first published more than fifty years after her death and later translated into Italian because it could be interpreted to express what influential Italian people in these places and later eras desired others to consider exemplary social and religious behavior.
In this and a later subsection of Per Lettere we observe how a woman's published letters were often misunderstood and how her reputation distorted the reality of what had been her life's meaning for her, sometimes with her collusion. The late seventeenth-century poet Maria Selvaggia Borghini's letters were published during her lifetime but in a volume not published by her and otherwise filled with letters by highly-respected learned males. Maria Pia Paoli analyzes those places in these and other letters by Borghini where Borghini departs from her assumed stilted self-presentation as a grave dignified practitioner of stylized coterie poetry. We glimpse a poet who valued a style that captured the rhythms of the poet's emotions, and who used the enignmatic language of Arcadia poetry as the only way poets at the time could express socially unacceptable truths: "se nel primo [sonetto] io ritrovavo forse uno stile più andante e naturale in riguardo d'una materia non così facile da esprimersi francamente" ["The style of the first sonnet is more moving and natural when the poet is expressing that which is hard to say frankly"] (p. 534). The same attention to disjunctive detail enables Giovanna Rabitti to uncover for the reader in Chiara Matraini's letters evidence of "una tormentata e difficule existenza" ["a tormented and difficult existence"], of a woman dismayed by her son's disloyalty and selfishness, and throughout her life driven to defend her choice to spend her life studying and writing literary texts.
The bulk of the correspondence of nuns in this period is still only to be read in archives, so the basic goal of those essayists in the anthology who examine letters by nuns is to argue for their publication and to use them to build a picture of the real inward and domestic lives of women in convents. Anna Scattigno reveals the center of religious life for nuns resided in the reciprocal relationships between the sisters, and how an ideal of peace, noble-minded spiritual companionship, self-abnegation, and charity towards others held them together. She also discovers letters written by pairs of sisters which express a teasing kittenish playfulness shared during the moments of hard deprivation in their existence: "Io, suora Bernarda, mi raccomando. La vostra mamma, iermattina era ratta in sulle spalle di quell'Iesù che porta la croce e voltali al viso, che pareva li favellassi e così stette un pezzo, e poi lo baciò tutto, giù giù, insino a pié ... " ["I, sister Bernara, recommend myself to you. Yesterday morning your mother was so rapt by the shoulders of that Jesus who carries the cross and whose face is turned away, that it seemed she heard words, and then I kissed him all over, and down down down to his feet"](p. 328). Manuela Belardini's study of the letters of Suor Orsola Fontebuoni reveals how the claim to have had miraculous visions and to enjoy some special holiness or power to cure deadly and lesser ailments could end up destroying nuns if they provoked either resentment, distrust or found themselves on the wrong side of a political fence at a particular point in time. We see letters performing important function for nuns and those they wrote to who were not in convents or monasteries: letters created and kept up friendships, helped women through ordeals, provided advice and support, commiseration, prayers, news of the outside world or another convent, spiritual exercises, and moving narratives which offered love at a distance, particularly when either of the correspondents was dealing with a death.
The anthology as a whole covers the gamut of early women's lives. Eleven out of the seventeen studies provide a documented believable portrait of women active in state politics and as de facto heads of their families involved in educating their sons and land management and commerce (Manuela Doni Garfagnini on Alessandra Macinghi Strozzi); as unmarried and engaged daughters and sisters (Scattigno on Suor Maria Celeste as Virginia, Galileo's daughter); as mistresses and prostitutes and courtesans (Chemello on Veronica Franco); and as wives, mothers, grandmothers, and widows (Belardini on Maria Maddalena d'Austria). The shared goal is to present hidden realities and outward behavior in ways that highlight the distinction between what is often said about early modern women and what the actual evidence we have tells us.
The content and findings of three of the essays in the volume deserve to be singled out because they make us face the banal amoral reality of earlier lives and offer generalizing perspectives which can lead us to understand ourselves better. Maria Fubini Leuzzi chooses to analyze the letters of Giovanna d'Austria and Bianca Capello, as these demonstrate how and why early modern women living at courts led disquieted, depressed and psychologically- troubled lives (Capello's pregnancy is written down as "fantasma, o nervosa, o isterica" ["a phantasm, or the results of nerves or hysteria"] (p. 438), and such women could be half-coerced into serious crimes: even when women were members of wealthy and powerful families, became wives or mistresses of powerful men or abbesses in a convent, or had an influential position in a court, as women they were subject to both incapacitating and unachievable demands and pressures. Elisa Novi Chavarria writes about a young Neapolitan convent-educated bourgeois widow, Antonia Battimiello and her unpublished archival love letters, which Battimiello expected would be read only by her betrothed. Chavarria's study reveals that when a public mask is set aside early modern women had impulses, desires, and thoughts very like our own.
In the anthology's concluding essay Elisabetta Graziosi uncovers Maria Mancini's experience as the estranged wife of Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna (as opposed to what has been written about this). The bulk of Mancini's many letters were written after she had left her husband's home in Rome: she must write as she is dependent on him for financial support, for permission to live in this or that convent, and for contact with their three sons. He delays answering and refuses many of her requests. He provides male guardians whom she treats as her friends and protectors while their letters show them to have maneuvered her into becoming a prisoner in one of her husband's political supporters' castles where she was derided and bullied. She constantly reassures Colonna that she is not behaving in ways that will shame him while repeating her choice not to return to live with him in Rome. She says she left him because he had a bad opinion ("il cattivo concetto") of her, treated her as someone he distrusted and disliked, and has publicly shown himself to be indifferent about where she lives. She writes to and about a network of people, sometimes on his behalf; her correspondents write to her, to one another, and to Colonna. Mancini's letters are as eloquent and historically significant as those of her exact contemporary and peer, the famed Marie de Rabutin-Chantal Sévigné. Why were the latter so admired and published and not the former? Graziosi suggests Sévigné's letters reinforced the post-Rousseau ideal of motherhood.
It is customary to find fault. While there is a long and useful bibliography, there is no index. On occasion the essayists who analyze letters by nuns fail to take sufficiently into account that some of the letters attributed to nuns may have been so rewritten by male superiors that they no longer reflect the mind of the woman writer. Silvia Mostaccio mentions only to dismiss the probability that the letters attributed to nuns which she examines may have been so rewritten by male superiors that they no longer reflect the mind of the woman writer: her series mostly attributed to Suor Thommasina Fieschi so closely exemplify an ideal of spiritual rejuvenation that one cannot help but wonder if they are the work of a group of different women. Here and the essayists forget that letters have to remain presentations of the self, cannot be fully adequate mirrors of all that is happening a writer's mind or environment. Daniela Solfroli Camillocci produces a hagiography of Madre Battistina Vernazza: Camillocci forgets that no letter can capture all that happens in human minds and life. To be fair, Vernazza was utterly in control of her pen; there is no crack in the prioress's self-control and consistent self-denial. Some of the interpretations of later distorted pictures of early modern women who were in a position to exercise power over a particular government are themselves distortions. Ilaria Pagliai uses Cristina di Lorena's letters to show that Cristina's behavior has been misrepresented by eighteenth-century historians: Pagliai misreads the passages she quotes in which these historians argue that Cristina governed Urbino badly. They do not claim that Christina was ineffective or unintelligent; rather that under a facade of naïveté she behaved with egregious injustice and out of a blind self-interest without regard for anyone else's ideas or needs.
Yet even when the essayists' perspectives or arguments produce work that is open to objection, there is much to learn. Mostaccio's examination of two manuscripts in some Dominican archives tells us much about why the choice to become a nun was respected and not uncommon among upper class Italian woman; Camillocci shows how Vernazza's spiritual letters could be used to bolster choosing to live such a disciplined life; and Pagliai's documents demonstrate that Cristina di Lorena was erased from twentieth-century histories because it was in the interest of the Urbino dynasty which followed the Medici to present the immediately preceding rulers as decadent and naïve non-entities.
I closed this impressive volume elated from so much contact with the actual thoughts of early modern women as they wrote them down or dictated them. The careful reader of this book will gain a deeper understanding of the real constraints of many of these women's lives and the nature of what fulfillment was available to them. This book will teach readers much about reading and interpreting archival and published materials. The essayists and Gabriella Zarri are to be especially commended for the consistently frank and explicit way in which they describe and document all the sources their studies depend upon. The volume maintains throughout a high standard of integrity
Clio (1632) by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)
Page Last Updated: 9 January 2003.