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Joyful Miss: Gendered Perspectives on Marriage in Renaissance Italy

  • Madrigal, Melina Rae
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2013
eScholarship - University of California
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My dissertation investigates the convoluted layers comprising profeminist and misogynist precepts through the optic of marriage during the Renaissance period, particularly the Cinque- and early Seicento. My specific intention is to overturn some commonly held beliefs about each respective ideology and in the process unveil how tightly woven together they are, for their divergences are transparent but their points of convergence and overlap are less so. In fact, while many studies, such as Pamela Benson's &ldquoThe Invention of the Renaissance Woman,&rdquo seek to underline the misogyny penetrating works commonly held as profeminist, my scholarship instead locates some very concrete marks of profeminism locatable in works commonly held as misogynist. My chapter on Giovanni Della Casa's An uxor sit ducenda (Se s'abbia da prender moglie) is a prime example: his reputation as a steadfast misogynist precedes him, but his text on whether or not marriage is useful actually enlists logic that speaks to the profeminist cause, adopting misogamist arguments that simultaneously criticize social treatment of women and indirectly promote levels of emancipation for them. While works like Benson's provide useful insight into the lives of Renaissance Italians, I would argue my work brings an innovative and much-needed perspective to understanding gender studies in the early modern period.My chapter on Moderata Fonte's Il merito delle donne takes a different approach. Her work is heralded as a critical text in the history of profeminist literature, and rightly so, but the complex type of feminism she practices is at the pith of my interest here. She represents the dramatic shift from the forward ideas of the first half of the Cinquecento to their abrupt curbing by the Counter-Reformation and post-Tridentine reforms in the latter half; she displays a fiery feminism that is concomitantly tempered and tailored for the social architectonic of her day. Fonte is what I term a reluctant feminist: she is abiding and approving of the patriarchal infrastructure--of her subordinate position--until the point abuse is introduced. She argues against the opprobrious practices of men, but in the end abandons calls for reform and instead resigns to advising on how women can fold as comfortably as possible into the existing misogynist framework. In this sense Fonte's text is realistic as it is meant to be a practical, rather than idealistic, manual for women. She avoids fantasy--an eradication of misogyny--in favor of counsel that could hopefully be of veritable use to women in her contemporary society. I argue that her discourse on the numerous existence of opposite pairings in nature (e.g. sun/moon) sustain her own resigned stance in regards to men: just as those pairs are pitted against each other by natural instinct, so men and women are naturally inclined to be contrary and there is no potential for rectifying it, as Nature has willed it so. Despite her impassioned feminist arguments, in the end she adopts a defeatist attitude that acutely reflects the delicate state of profeminism in Renaissance Italy.My chapter on Suor Arcangela Tarabotti explores the other type of marital path available to women in Renaissance Italy--that of spiritual marriage. The parallels between laic and religious marriages are numerous and many of the arguments Tarabotti adopts to abnegate forced vocation echo those of feminists who decry the injustices in the secular marriage market. However, Tarabotti's work distinguishes itself fundamentally by invoking a tactic of shame to cogently persuade her stance, whereas other feminists tendentially employ softer approaches that attempt to appeal to sympathetic inclinations. I juxtapose her work specifically with that of Fonte's (which relies more heavily on emotional pleas to incite pity and provoke change), to put into relief the vehemence and starkness of Tarabotti's words, examining the elements and effectiveness of both strategies in the process. I also argue many paradoxes in Tarabotti's work. Ironically, she is only able to be so unhinged in her condemnation of forced monachization because her lifelong confinement in the convent provides her an immunity against the socio-political repercussions other "worldly" feminists (i.e. writing outside the convent) faced. Additionally, Tarabotti's rebellious nature in encouraging young maidens to defy their parents' wishes to have them take the veil against their will is perplexed by her concomitant upholding of sense of honor: she encourages rebellion until the consecration of the vow, at which point honor and duty replace personal aspirations within the familial/societal framework. This mindset demonstrates at once her anachronistic feminism and her deep investment in contemporary culture.All three authors offer intriguing insight into preconceptions of feminism, misogyny and marriage in early modern Italy. What I hope to reveal in my dissertation is the discordant issues wringing the daily interactions of men and women did not stem primarily or firstly from natural inclinations to contrariness, but were exacerbated instead by ill-conceived institutional hegemony, meaning that the two main institutions that determined much of the quotidian details of married life--the Church and the State--put in place a set of ideologies they may have purported as ideal and right, but that ultimately failed to function practically in favor of marriage or in favor of male/female relations in general, having neglected much of the aspect of emotional well-being so critical for a successful marital union.

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