Although Jacob Burckhardt’s bold assertions about the emergence of a new model of individualistic selfhood in the Italian Renaissance have been endlessly debated by scholars, a simpler and less contentious point has largely escaped notice. Whether or not it saw the birth of a new ‘Renaissance Man’, the Italian Renaissance quite indisputably saw the birth of a new model of woman. In 1300 or 1350, it would have been difficult for the best-informed observer to cite examples of women outside religious life who contributed to literary and intellectual culture as producers, rather than as consumers, with the exception of a handful of female troubadours and distant memories of a few classical poets like Sappho. By 1600, the figure of the secular female writer was well established in elite public consciousness in Italy, and educated readers could cite a tradition of women’s writing dating back several generations. The first all-female anthology of poetry, incorporating the work of more than 50 writers, dates to 1559; the first biographical dictionary of women writers to 1620.1 The same arc of time, and more specifically the later sixteenth century, saw the emergence of secular women as artists, as musical performers, as composers, as actresses. The figure of the creative woman, the virtuosa, is one of the Italian Renaissance’s most clearly documentable cultural novelties, and one of this period’s most potent anticipations of modernity.

A further important development in women’s history in this period, with strong causal connections to that just noted, is the emergence of new ways of thinking about gender and about women. Across the course of the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, a body of theory emerged framed to counter traditional visions of women as ‘weak vessels’: less rational than men, and more prone to sin. The new theory instead argued that women were men’s equals by nature, no less rational than men and no less capable of virtue. Rather than seeing men’s social dominance as justified by biological differences between the sexes, the new thinking attributed this dominance to social and cultural factors. Women were kept in an artificial position of inferiority by their inferior education, by cultural conditioning, and by a lack of professional opportunities. If girls were given the same opportunities as their brothers, they would prove themselves the equals of their male peers. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the Venetian writer Moderata Fonte, or Modesta Pozzo, voiced this intuition through a powerful simile, comparing women’s talent and capacity to a buried seam of gold in society, undiscovered and hence invisible. If brought to the surface, it would gleam in the world just as brightly as any other gold.2

By the time Fonte was writing in the 1580s and 1590s, sufficient empirical evidence was available to give credibility to her ‘buried gold’ analogy, as this period saw perhaps the high point in the rise of the virtuosa. Fonte’s literary career coincided with the artistic career of Lavinia Fontana, one of the earliest professional women artists; with the emergence of virtuoso court singers such as Laura Peverara; and with the striking artistic trajectory of Isabella Andreini as actress, theatrical impresario, dramatist, and poet. One of the reasons why gender and women’s history have rarely held a key place in narratives of Italian Renaissance culture is that traditional periodizations that locate the end of the Renaissance in 1527 or 1530 or 1550 miss the crucial late-sixteenth moment that saw the climax of the long-running narrative of women’s emergence as cultural protagonists. The same is true to a lesser extent with the associated narrative of the emergence of proto-feminist thinking on gender in this period. Although the new thinking on women was largely the product of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century humanists, and we find it enshrined already in a work of the 1520s like Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, it was in the mid- to late sixteenth century that this new model of thinking about gender, once limited to the courtly avant-garde, became widely disseminated throughout society. It is principally in the later sixteenth century, moreover, that women began to contribute themselves to public debate on gender, most notably in the writings of Moderata Fonte and her younger Venetian contemporary Lucrezia Marinella.


As we have seen with every aspect of Italian Renaissance culture, women’s roles, and societal conceptions of gender, varied considerably from region to region and from city to city. Women’s roles and social identities also differed very sharply according to their social status, in a manner that precludes generalization. Even a fundamental question such as what education women received cannot be answered without a detailed breakdown by social standing and context. A study by Sharon Strocchia of fifteenth-century Florentine convent schools shows girls of the commercial and banking elite, along with notaries’ daughters and the daughters of a few aspirant artisans and shopkeepers, receiving a basic education, incorporating vernacular reading skills, but not necessarily extending to writing (‘split literacy’).3 Strocchia’s research suggests a society cautiously opening up to the idea that literacy could enhance a woman’s marriage prospects and improve her performance in managing her household, but still deeply conflicted about the dangers that access to written materials might pose to a woman’s moral virtue. At the same time, however, in the same city, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, wife of Piero de’ Medici and mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the effective rulers of the city from the 1460s to the early 1490s, was very publicly cultivating a literary persona, without any obvious damage to her reputation. Five religious narrative poems survive by her, together with a number of sacred songs (laude). Two other Florentine women within the Medici circle also attained literary recognition. Antonia Pulci, who married into a family of Medicean poets, composed a number of popular religious dramas that continued to be republished throughout the sixteenth century. Alessandra Scala, daughter of the chancellor, Bartolomeo Scala, won renown for her classical learning, and corresponded in Greek with the great humanist Angelo Poliziano.

Although they were outliers by Florentine standards, women like Tornabuoni, Pulci, and Scala would have been considerably less unusual in other contexts in Italy, where female literacy and erudition had a longer and more socially embedded tradition. In the princely courts of central and northern Italy, and in some of the great early humanist centres like Padua and Verona, a robust tradition of female learning evolved at least from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. A striking early figure within this tradition is Battista da Montefeltro, born into the ruling family of Urbino and married to the lord of Pesaro, Galeazzo Malatesta. Battista is the first woman in Italy known to have delivered a Latin oration in public, and she left a sizeable collection of Latin letters and of religious vernacular verse. She was the recipient of an important early humanistic treatise on education, Leonardo Bruni’s On Studies and Letters, dating from the 1420s, which outlines a programme of Latin learning suitable for the well-educated noblewoman, incorporating both the study of patristic writings and of classical literature. Although her erudition was exceptional, Battista’s correspondences with her sister Anna and her sister-in-law Paola Malatesta Gonzaga show her not to have been the only educated woman in her circle. Later women in these same families also distinguished themselves for their learning. Paola Malatesta’s daughter Cecilia was educated at the prototypical humanist school run by Vittorino da Feltre, highly unusual as an educational institution in this period that educated girls alongside boys. Battista da Montefeltro headed what became a dazzling dynasty of erudite women, stretching down to Vittoria Colonna, the most famous female intellectual of the first half of the sixteenth century.

Another famous female intellectual dynasty of the fifteenth century was that of the aristocratic Nogarola family in Verona. This produced the most impressive female humanist of the century in Isotta Nogarola, exceptional as an instance of a woman who chose not to marry or enter a convent, but to lead a scholarly life in the secular world. Both Isotta’s sister, Ginevra, and her aunt, Angela, were also noted for their erudition, and Angela left a body of writings that are some of the earliest by any Italian woman to survive. Isotta Nogarola has sometimes been presented by feminist scholars as a tragic example of fifteenth-century humanism’s hostility to the notion of the educated woman. After a brilliant early scholarly career, following her decision not to marry and the appearance of a slanderous work questioning her virtue, she is said to have been forced into a reclusive life confined effectively to a ‘book-lined cell’.4 This seems unduly pessimistic as an interpretation of her life, and to reflect an exaggerated idea of how challenging and controversial the figure of the learned woman was in this period within the kind of aristocratic circles in which Nogarola moved. The evidence is, rather, that Nogarola continued to engage actively with the world, corresponding with male humanist intellectuals and contributing to public debate, as with the written oration she sent to Pope Pius II at the time of the Council of Mantua in 1459. Nogarola even seems to have delivered an oration herself in person on one occasion in Verona, at the invitation of the city’s humanist bishop: a Latin sermon in praise of St Jerome.5

The difference in educational patterns that we can observe between Florence and the courtly and aristocratic circles of Battista da Montefeltro and Isotta Nogarola reflects a marked different in women’s roles within the mercantile republics of Italy and the princely courts. The Italian republics, mainly oligarchic by the fifteenth century, entrusted political power to a fairly narrow elite of wealthy men, who alternated in power and were elected to office. Women were excluded both from office-holding and from voting, and, although women’s social networking and charitable engagement doubtless helped consolidate male political alliances and client systems, this was all essentially ‘behind the scenes’ activity. Women were largely invisible in public life, and the ethos that was required of them was that of a modest and chaste wife, a loving mother, and a capable household manager. Showier, non-domestic virtues such as erudition, conversational brilliance, artistic and literary connoisseurship, musical or poetic talent, were either irrelevant to a wife’s social value, or were positively frowned on, as signs of flightiness. Any girl of the Florentine or Venetian patriciate with intellectual aspirations would probably have been best advised to enter a convent, where traditions of study, drama, and music were well established and socially condoned.

Things were very different in the courts, where the centrality of the dynastic system in the transmission of power meant that the ruler’s family was much in the public eye, and where the ruler’s wife, in particular, was among the most salient figures of the court. Women did not rule Italian states except in special circumstances, such as in their husbands’ absences, or as regents for sons too young to accede. Such special circumstances were not particularly unusual in Renaissance Italy, however, where many princes were condottieri, whose military careers often kept them absent from their states for long periods, and where marriages, especially second and subsequent marriages, often paired young women with much older men. For this reason, women bred to princely marriages needed to have an education sufficient to allow them to substitute for their husbands where necessary, and they needed to cultivate a ‘princely’ ethos, sufficiently authoritative to sustain the exigencies of rule. Battista da Montefeltro’s career as signora of Pesaro offers a telling illustration of this point. The political ineptitude of her husband, Galeazzo Malatesta, constrained her to take a leading role within the government and diplomacy of the city, along with Galeazzo’s brothers. Eventually, when her husband left Pesaro after selling his lordship to Alessandro Sforza, the husband of his granddaughter Costanza Varano, Battista remained behind to manage the transition, and ensure that the city passed safely into Costanza’s and Alessandro’s hands.

Even when her husband was alive, at home, and competent, the role of a princely consort required a degree of showiness far in advance of that of a patrician wife within a republic. On multiple occasions—feasts, ceremonies, weddings, funerals, diplomatic visits—she needed to be seen alongside her husband and to converse with important visitors, representing the dignity of the state in the same way as the prince. At the very least, taste in dress, courtly manners, and articulacy were required of a princely consort, in addition to a patrician wife’s domestic virtues. As the courts became larger and more sophisticated, across the course of the fifteenth century, dance skills and musical ability became increasingly sought-after qualities in court ladies, while, especially after 1500, some princely consorts showed their taste, intellect, and learning through such activities as art collecting, architectural patronage, and the commissioning and composition of verse. Education was not an optional extra for such women; it was a necessary professional competence.

Although the role of the dynastic consort was an exceptional one, the aristocratic practice of educating women was not limited to the ruling families, as the example of the Nogarola family suggests. As the size and complexity of the courts grew, princely consorts increasingly surrounded themselves with an entourage of noblewomen as their ladies-in-waiting, who frequently came to play an important role as cultural ‘brokers’ by virtue of their closeness to their mistresses: a relationship we see immortalized in Castiglione’s Courtier in the figure of Emilia Pio. Talented young girls might also be invited to court to share in the education of the daughters of princes. This was the case with two notable Italian female intellectuals, Caterina Vigri, or St Catherine of Bologna, in the fifteenth century, and Olimpia Morata in the sixteenth. Both were educated at the court of Ferrara as companions to daughters of the Este family. Late in the sixteenth century, we see a fascinating document of this custom in a published treatise of 1586 by a Piedmontese gentleman, Annibale Guasco, addressed to his 11-year-old daughter Lavinia, who had just obtained a post at the court of Savoy, in the entourage of the recently arrived bride of the duke. Before instructing Lavinia in the mores of the court, Guasco recalls in detail the rigorous education to which he subjected her, which left her possessed, among other things, of superb musical skills, beautiful handwriting, mastery of the abacus, and the capacity to beat her father at chess.6

The special place of the courts within the history of women’s engagement with elite culture was, of course, not simply an Italian story. Cultured queens and other ruling women constitute a well-known feature of late medieval and early modern European history. What was different in Italy, however, and what contributed immensely to the diffusion of court manners and mores throughout society was that, instead of a single royal court, as we find in many other European nations by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italy had multiple courts. Moving east from the Alps, in the 1490s, just before the Wars of Italy reshaped the Italian political map, we find the courts of Savoy, Monferrato, Milan, Mantua, Ferrara; then, to the south, Forlì, Pesaro, Rimini, Urbino. Further south was the great court of Naples, seat of the only Italian-based dynasty to bear the title of king. This list includes only the larger courts, not the very numerous smaller feudal estates, in the north and the south, from whose rulers the great powers of Italy drew their ranks of military captains, diplomats, and courtiers, and with whom they frequently tied themselves in kinship through the marriage of younger or illegitimate daughters and sons. It also excludes quasi-courtly regimes in cities that remained formally republics, such as those of the Bentivoglio family in Bologna and the Medici in Florence.

The proliferation of courts meant, most obviously, a proliferation of dynasties, a proliferation of entourages, and a proliferation of women educated for court life. It also resulted in an intense cultural rivalry between courts, manifest especially at showpiece events such as weddings, which demanded flamboyant expressions of princely magnificence. Precisely on account of this competitive dynamic, the courts proved a productive habitat for women’s cultural activity: here was a field, like art patronage, architectural patronage, spectacle, in which a court might seek to excel. By the late sixteenth century, this showcasing of female virtuosity was beginning in some cases to take on a quasi-institutional character. Ferrara in the 1580s had a famous and influential female vocal consort, the concerto delle donne, made up primarily of non-aristocratic singers imported into the court for their talents. The same court featured a female dance ensemble, the balletto delle donne, sponsored by the duchess, Margherita Gonzaga, and including aristocratic ladies-in-waiting among its participants, along with several members of the concerto delle donne.7

The extent of women’s engagement with elite culture in the Italian Quattrocento and Cinquecento was obscured until recently by the fact that twentieth-century scholarship on the Italian Renaissance, especially in the field of social history, concentrated disproportionately on Florence and Venice, probably the most conservative major cities in Italy in terms of attitudes to gender and women’s education. It is still not unusual to read generalizations about women in this period being confined to the domestic sphere; about literacy in women being regarded as an index of sexual availability; about female education consisting purely in needle skills and the ability to read simple religious texts. All these statements may have a degree of validity when applied to Florence and Venice, especially in the fifteenth century, but they are all highly misleading when applied to Italy as a whole.


With the rise of the courts and the increasing visibility of the court lady as a social type, traditional philosophical models of sex difference began to come under pressure, and new models of thinking about sex and gender began to evolve. We can see signs of this already from the late fourteenth century, but the key period is the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. Unsurprisingly, the initial locus for this revolution in gender thought was the princely courts. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the new thinking had become widely disseminated throughout the Italian urban elites.

In order to understand this segment of intellectual history, it is necessary first to have a grasp of the Aristotelian model of thinking on sex and gender, which was hugely influential in shaping Western thought on these issues from the thirteenth century onwards. First evolved by Aristotle and his followers in fourth-century BCE Athens, and appropriated and Christianized by the medieval scholastics, this formed the basis of thinking about sexual difference within a number of key university disciplines, including natural philosophy, medicine, law, and theology.8 It also informed writings on subjects such as household management, where the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics was one of the key classical sources. The dominant feature of this model of thinking is what is often termed ‘gender essentialism’: the notion that the sexes have different capacities, rooted in intrinsic, or essential, biological differences, and that these biologically differentiated capacities determine their societal roles. Within Aristotelian thinking, this essentialism has a strongly evaluative dimension. Women are not merely different from men in their intrinsic capacities, but inferior to them, so that their natural role in society is one of obedience and submission.

The cardinal point in Aristotle’s theory of sex difference is found in his writing on reproduction in animals, where he argues that the female is a defective version of the male. At the moment of conception, Nature always aims to produce the perfect form of the species, the male, but, for many medical and circumstantial reasons, ranging from the age of the parents to the direction of the wind, this precarious process may fail and a female be produced instead. In the case of humans, this results in a being deficient in the specific human virtue of rationality, as well as the more general animal virtue of strength. Although women do not lack reason, their reason is feebler than men’s, just as their bodies are weaker. Nature has fitted them to lesser tasks than men in the conduct of politics and the governance of cities; essentially, man is framed to command, women to obey. As a consequence of this thinking, women’s virtue-system was conceived of as complementary and opposite to men’s. Eloquence was praiseworthy in man, as it was needed for leadership, while the corresponding virtue in woman was silence. Fortitude and courage were key virtues in men, while women were held to be naturally timorous and so were not judged by the same measure. Within the household, man’s stronger and more active nature fitted him to work outside the home, earning household revenue through warfare or commerce, while a woman’s more sedentary nature equipped her to remain within the domestic world, conserving and managing the wealth her husband has gained.

The Aristotelian notion of women as inferior beings, and as timorous and weak by nature, did not gel easily in all respects with late-medieval Christian culture, with its deep reverence for the Virgin Mary and its panoply of valiant female martyr saints. The Christian tradition, however, had its own, strong vein of misogyny, centring on a demonization of female sexuality, and encapsulated in the Genesis story of Eve’s fatal temptation of Adam, which brought about the Fall. Aristotelian thinking worked with the grain of this, providing a ‘scientific’ explanation for the association of women with sensuality and moral corruption. Within Aristotelian thought, the relative weakness of women’s reason made it more difficult for them to master their bodily appetites, so that they remained prey to unruly sexual urges, as well as being generally volatile, unpredictable, and impulsive. All in all, Aristotle’s system was sufficiently compatible with other influential ways of thinking about sex difference to supply a robust philosophical legitimization of current social beliefs and values—at least in republican political environments, where the roles of men and women differed relatively little from those in Aristotle’s Athens.

Justly famous as a statement of Renaissance republican ideals concerning gender roles is Leon Battista Alberti’s shrewd, semi-caricatural account of one Florentine patrician’s ‘training’ of his wife in the third book of his 1430s dialogue, On the Family.9 The passage is Aristotelian in its basic philosophical premises, drawing on Aristotle’s Politics, and pseudo-Aristotle’s Economics, as well as a dialogue by Xenophon on household management. Alberti brings these classical sources into dialogue with contemporary Florentine experience, however, giving the task of speaking on marriage to Giannozzo Alberti, one of the most sharply characterized speakers in his dialogue—an older, garrulous, opinionated, somewhat folksy figure, whose account of his marriage is rich with details of fifteenth-century Florentine domestic life.

After enjoying his listeners’ compliments on the sagacity of his wife, who was apparently well known for her efficient management of their household, Giannozzo gives a detailed narrative of ways in which he socialized her to this role after her first arrival in his household as a young bride. The dialogue makes clear that Giannozzo’s own age at marriage was 30, the norm for upper-class Florentine men. We are not told the age of his wife, Nicolosa Pazzi (who tellingly remains nameless in the text), but, going by norms, we should probably imagine her as much younger, most likely between 15 and 17. Giannozzo tells his listeners how he led his young wife through the house to show her his possessions, with the exception of his books and his personal and business writings, which he defined as strictly out of bounds to her. Following this, he lectured her on the need both to be chaste and to maintain the strictest appearance of chastity; this entails remaining as silent and modest as possible in public and avoiding any form of cosmetic beautification. As a dutiful girl, already well indoctrinated in the need for obedience by her parents, Giannozzo tells us that Nicolosa followed this doctrine religiously, except on one social occasion, when she forgot herself slightly; she greeted her guests laughing and talking, and her colour was high, leading her husband to suspect she had applied rouge. This deviance he quickly corrected, not through a direct reprimand, but by mock-innocently asking her whether she may have accidentally smeared her face in some way. He then followed up the lesson with the cautionary tale of a 30-year neighbour who already resembled an old woman, so much had she ruined her skin through the use of cosmetics. Giannozzo contrasts this ruined hag with the fresh-faced women of the Alberti family, whose unadulterated beauty stands as an index of their moral purity.

Giannozzo Alberti’s complacent account of his wife-taming has become a locus classicus for feminist scholarly critiques of Renaissance patriarchal oppression—and not without reason. His insistence on chastity as women’s core virtue (Nicolosa is made to reiterate three times over that she will never invite another man to her bed) is familiar from many other Renaissance texts, both literary and non-literary. Giannozzo’s insistence on the appearance of chastity is equally familiar, as is the fact that the curation of appearances is not limited to the fields of dress and personal adornment, although these are of course crucial. Along with personal vanity and a concern with self-beautification, sociability and readiness of speech are also regarded as important ‘warning signs’ of a woman’s potential unchastity. The party at which the otherwise docile Nicolosa makes her ill-advised venture into the world of cosmetics is also the only moment in the text at which she reveals a vivacious and outgoing social self. Another wifely tendency against which Florentine husbands are put on guard in the dialogue is a propensity to show interest in the world outside the household. Giannozzo approvingly quotes another Alberti patriarch who corrected his wife’s tendency to pry into his movements outside the house by pointing out to her that women who show too much interest in the world of men may be suspected of having too much interest in men themselves. Giannozzo’s own jealous protection of his books and papers from his wife is perhaps motivated by similar reasons, as well as his stated concern with women’s inability to keep a secret—a familiar topos in the literature of the time.

Although Alberti’s treatment of gender roles has often been taken as paradigmatic for the Renaissance in general, it will be clear from the preceding discussion of women’s roles within the courts that it was nothing of the kind. The Aristotelian model that saw women as fitted by nature for submission to men was radically ill-suited for a political system in which a woman might, at times, exert supreme power in the state. The notion that women’s reputation was best protected by curtailing their social interactions was similarly ill-matched to an environment like the court, in which mixed social interaction was the norm. A different theoretical model was required to describe and legitimize the different social practices of the courts. This evolved gradually, across the course of the fifteenth century, largely through the writings of humanists working in court contexts or enjoying court patronage. This tradition of thought reached maturity in the early sixteenth century, when it first began to be disseminated in print. The episode as a whole offers an excellent example of the way in which the Italian humanists’ polemics with scholasticism led to fresh models of thinking. It also illustrates very well the close connection between humanist thought and its social and patronage contexts.10


Fig. 31: Anon., woodcut illustration to Jacopo Filippo Foresti, De plurimis claris sceletisque [sic] mulieribus (Ferrara: Laurentius de Rubeis, 1497), fol. CLIr.

Initially, the new humanist model of thinking on gender took a largely narrative, descriptive, empirical form. Early works in this tradition are mainly collections of paradigmatic examples of women of classical or biblical antiquity who were celebrated for achievement in fields typically thought of as male preserves, or who manifested ‘masculine’ moral capacities such as fortitude, constancy, prudence, and sexual temperance. This tradition of writings on ‘famous women’ was initiated by Boccaccio in the 1360s, and it gained new impetus in the fifteenth century when humanists became acquainted with a classical precedent for such collections, Plutarch’s The Virtues of Women. Initially strictly ‘ancient’—Boccaccio’s Famous Women features a sole modern example, Queen Joanna I of Naples—such collections later expanded their reach to encompass modern examples of high-achieving ladies. The climactic work of the fifteenth-century tradition, a vast compendium of 1497 by the Augustinian canon Jacopo Filippo Foresti, pulls together classical heroines, medieval saints, and modern courtly women, reconstituting a genealogy of female excellence stretching from the present day to the earliest times.11 Illustrations to texts in this tradition, both in manuscript and print, helped to give imaginative life to the new female archetypes. A striking instance is the woodcut of a female scholar used in Foresti’s volume to illustrate the figures of Angela and Isotta Nogarola, and of the early Christian poet Proba (Fig. 31). This shows an elegantly dressed woman seated before her desk in a spacious study, with books piled and propped around her, several of them open, in a way suggestive of advanced scholarly labours such as commentary or manuscript collation.

Looked at collectively, as a tradition, the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century ‘famous women’ treatises serve implicitly to undermine the Aristotelian essentialist theory of sex difference by providing a mass of counter-examples to the thesis of women’s intellectual and moral defectiveness. This implicit proto-feminist argument could be more or less stressed, depending on the individual author. Boccaccio, for example, is notoriously ambiguous, sometimes presenting his outstanding women as exceptions that prove the rule of women’s general weakness, though at others suggesting that classical heroines’ high achievements should inspire contemporary women to follow their lead. In general, however, it is possible to trace a marked trend towards more assertive positions with regard to women’s capacities across the course of the fifteenth century, until, at the turn of the sixteenth, we find humanists beginning to counter Aristotelian theory explicitly. The first traces of this development are found in the writings of humanists associated with the courts of Ferrara and Mantua, and closely associated with the circles of those courts’ powerful princely consorts, Eleonora d’Aragona and her daughter Isabella d’Este. The same patronage circles were responsible for Jacopo Filippo Foresti’s famous women compendium, published in Ferrara in 1497 with a dedication to Eleonora’s sister Beatrice d’Aragona.

A key feature of the new humanist theory of sex and gender was its anti-essentialist bias. Women’s subordination to men was not explicable in this theory by biological differences that made them intrinsically unsuited to leadership roles. Male superiority was rather a matter of custom, entrenched by differential educational practices and social expectations. If society were differently configured, there would be no reason why women should not successfully inhabit male roles. Where Aristotle had taken men’s dominion over women as a model for legitimate political rule in his Politics, Renaissance theorists sometimes figured it as a ‘tyranny’ or arbitrary rule. When a spokesman for the Aristotelian position in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier contests that women’s natural defectiveness may be inferred from the fact that they instinctively wish they had been born men, a pro-feminist speaker replies: ‘the poor things do not wish to be men in order to be perfect, but to have some freedom and to escape that dominion that men have claimed over them by their own authority’ (my italics).12

Castiglione’s dialogue is important in the history of the humanist profeminist tradition of thought, as the first work to bring to a wide, Italian and European public what had previously been a relatively arcane and avant-garde courtly model of thought. The third book of The Courtiercontains a lively debate on the theoretical issue of sex and gender, incorporating both the earlier humanist tradition of argument by example and the more recent tradition of explicit anti-Aristotelian polemic. The profeminist position is mainly voiced by Giuliano de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo de’ Medici and grandson of the poet Lucrezia Tornabuoni. Giuliano argues against the Aristotelian theory of women’s defectiveness both by pointing out the weaknesses in Aristotle’s thinking and by emphasizing his differences from Plato, whose radical vision of the ideal polity in hisRepublic envisages men and women sharing equally in the governance and defence of the city. Aristotle had argued that the root cause of women’s defectiveness was a lack of vital heat at the moment of conception, which left them cold and moist in their physical composition, rather than hot and dry, like men. In mental and moral terms, this translated into a certain sluggishness and passivity in woman, contrasting with alertness and agency in men. Giuliano counters this by pointing to other passages in Aristotle where he appears to see the perfect entity as temperate, rather than hot: a state Giuliano argues is closer to that of women than to men, whose excessive heat inclines them to impulsiveness and violence. Giuliano also questions the notion that physical strength and mental excellence inevitably go together, pointing both to empirical evidence and to internal contradictions within Aristotle’s writings.13

In addition to his theoretical discussion of sex difference, Castiglione also includes in The Courtier an influential sketch of the ethos and manners of the court lady. To the jeers of a small hard core of misogynists in the court circle, who serve to underline the novel and still controversial character of the ideal proposed, Giuliano de’ Medici sets forward an ideal of the court lady as educated, musical, sociable, and possessed of the same moral virtues as a man. Although she must be chaste, she need not manifest her chastity through the kind of rigorous demureness and self-effacement envisaged by Giannozzo Alberti. A lady who is too timorous to speak in public or who becomes flustered if the conversation turns mildly salacious will look uncouth in the worldly context of the court. The court lady’s prime professional attribute is conversational ‘affability’, defined as a capacity to modulate her speech according to circumstances and to combine wit and vivacity with decorum, modesty, and poise.14 Castiglione embodies Giuliano’s ideal of the court lady within the dialogue in the two principal female speakers, the dignified and authoritative duchess of Urbino, Elisabetta Gonzaga, and her livelier second-in-command and sister-in-law, Emilia Pio, whose sarcastic asides and witty sparring with the male speakers of The Courtier contribute much to the dialogue’s dramatic life.

Despite his insistence on the moral and intellectual equality of the sexes, Castiglione’s Giuliano de’ Medici distinguishes quite sharply between masculine and feminine social identities. Robustness and virility are attractive in the male courtier, but the female courtier should be aesthetically more delicate. Beauty is more important in the court lady than the male courtier—though he, too, must be handsome—and Castiglione’s speakers are even prepared to countenance some cosmetic embellishment, as long as it is sufficiently discreet. Both male and female courtier must be expert dancers, but the court lady should leave the more vigorous styles of dancing to men, focusing on grace. Similarly, she risks seeming too masculine if she indulges in energetic physical activities and sports. There are similarities here to the Aristotelian model of a dichotomized, gendered system of virtues, but with the fundamental difference that femininity and masculinity are conceived by Castiglione less as intrinsic, biologically determined ‘essences’ than as social and aesthetic styles to be self-consciously assumed.

In practice, Castiglione’s prescriptions for gendered behaviour at court seem to be somewhat conservative with regard to contemporary practice. A speaker in the dialogue, indeed, Castiglione’s cousin, Cesare Gonzaga, contests Giuliano de’ Medici’s constraints on the court lady’s physical activity as unnecessarily restrictive, noting that he has often seen women ‘play tennis, wield arms, ride, hunt, and perform almost all those exercises we might expect of a knight’.15 Where dancing is concerned, it is difficult to square Giuliano’s insistence that women limit themselves to movements compatible with feminine ‘delicacy and softness’ with accounts of the choreographed battle scenes staged by the Ferrarese balletto delle donne in the 1580s, where the aristocratic dancers performed cross-dressed and in armour. Closer to Castiglione’s own day, an admiring description by Paolo Giovio of a solo Hungarian dance performed to great applause by the young Vittoria Colonna, marchioness of Pescara, at a royal wedding in Naples in 1517, sounds considerably showier and more physically exuberant than anything Castiglione’s Giuliano would condone.16

An interesting vision of the qualities of the court lady, complementary to Castiglione’s yet differing in some regards, is offered by a collection of female courtly biographies by Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, written in Bologna in the 1480s. Arienti’s Gynevera, or On Famous Women, is dedicated to Ginevra Sforza, wife of the city’s effective ruler Giovanni Bentivoglio, and it presents itself not merely as an entertaining collection of narratives but as a didactic ‘mirror’ for Ginevra’s own self-fashioning. Arienti’s noble ladies are a composite of traditional feminine virtues, such as modesty, chastity, and devotion to family, with fresher ones, such as erudition, eloquence, and physical and moral courage.17

Turning to Arienti’s biographies from Castiglione, one immediately striking feature of them is how physically active many of Arienti’s subjects are. Cleofe de’ Lapi of Cesena is praised for her falconry skills, which are said to have equalled those of a professional falconer, while Diana Saliceto is lauded for her expertise as a horsewoman and huntress (along with witty conversation, Arienti tells us, ‘the forest was her joy’).18 Several women are praised for their military skills. The sharp-tongued, cross-dressing Bona de Vultulina, or Bona Lombarda, first catches her aristocratic lover’s eyes as a shepherd girl when he sees her fighting with her young male peers. When he is moved by her loyalty to marry her, she fights alongside him, as well as taking control of the administration of his lands. The term ‘virago’, from the Latin vir, man—‘a manly woman’—is a compliment in Arienti’s book, in a way that differentiates him sharply from Castiglione. Ursina Visconti is characterized as impressive in her movements, and a fast speaker; ‘a virago in many respects’, as she demonstrates most notably when she defends her husband’s fortress at Guastalla from an invading Venetian army.19 Interestingly, this virility is not seen as detracting from Ursina’s moral exemplarity as a woman. She is also characterized as civilized (humana), as liberal and charitable, as a strict and devout Christian, and as chaste.

Along with physical prowess, Arienti’s biographies also place much emphasis on intellectual and artistic attainment in his women. We hear of the renowned Latin eloquence of Battista da Montefeltro, Costanza Varano, and Isotta Nogarola; of Angela Nogarola’s poetic talents; and of Diana Saliceto’s conversational brilliance and wit. Costanza Sforza Gonzaga is commended for her keen interest in literature, her compendious knowledge of sacred and classical history, and her taste for literary debate, besides being credited for inventing a new style of figurative embroidery in gold and silver thread and silk, representing ‘meadows with diverse flowers and leaves; woods with many different trees, and animals picked out in relief, looking quite real’.20 In other cases, Arienti highlights more utilitarian fields of knowledge. Giovanna Bentivoglio Malvezzi and Ippolita Sforza are both praised for their shrewd understanding of statecraft. Arienti’s detailed biography of his Bolognese compatriot Giovanna is especially striking as a portrait of a political woman, fiercely committed to the furtherance of her family’s interests. On several occasions, we see her raising troops for Bentivoglio campaigns (Arienti tells us his father was among her conscripts); and we see her counselling her exiled brother ‘with great art and cunning’ on how to regain his state.21 On one occasion, after a victory against the rival Canetoli faction, Giovanna is seen to out-Machiavel the men of her family, counselling that the Canetoli leadership should be eliminated in its entirety so that they can never trouble the Bentivoglio again.

In an interesting gesture, Arienti concludes his collection with a tribute to his late wife Francesca Bruni, a Bolognese woman of relatively high status—higher than his own—but not of the exalted aristocratic level of most of his subjects. Arienti’s biography of Francesca is interesting as a counterpoint to Alberti’s portrait of the ideal Florentine bourgeois wife. While she is not given the heroic and virile qualities of many of his aristocratic women, nor any particular intellectual distinction, Francesca is portrayed as an intelligent and sociable woman, as well as a chaste, loving, and pious one. Arienti mentions her taste for hearing the verses of Virgil (presumably in translation) and he notes that her reading embraced Pliny’s Natural History in the vernacular, as well as sacred works. Of her social skills he notes that she was pleasant in her dealings with visitors to the house, welcoming them in such a way ‘as to make the smallest bird into a falcon’.22 She was also committed to her husband’s literary labours, urging him on in his composition of Gynevera, in particular, so that the work may almost be seen as a posthumous tribute to her. We are at a considerable distance here from Alberti’s portrait of a wary Florentine husband assiduously hiding his books and writings from his wife.


It was not solely through theoretical writings and biographical compendia that the new humanistic discourse on women circulated. The theme of women’s prowess and moral exemplarity was also taken up in literature and art. Where art is concerned, we see the ‘famous women’ theme taken up in a series of panels painted by Ercole de’ Roberti for the Ferrarese court in the 1480s showing three classical heroines (Lucretia, Portia, and the wife of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal), all probably chosen to compliment the virtues of the duchess Eleonora d’Aragona. In Mantua, in the 1490s, Andrea Mantegna painted a further series, in a trompe l’oeil classicizing style, probably as a tribute to Isabella d’Este. The women featured there are the biblical Judith; Dido, queen of Carthage; Artemisia, queen of Caria; and the Roman Vestal Virgin Tuccia, who proved her chastity through the miracle of carrying water in a sieve. Notable in the Mantegna sequence is the presence of two female rulers, both of whom were also celebrated for their devotion to their husbands. Dido is almost certainly portrayed not in her Virgilian guise, but in an alternative tradition stemming back to antiquity and championed by Petrarch and Boccaccio, which has her suicide motivated by her desire to keep faith with her dead husband Sichaeus, when she has come under pressure to marry again.23

Where literature is concerned, perhaps the most interesting development of this period is the prominence given to warrior women in the great chivalric romances of Matteo Maria Boiardo and Lodovico Ariosto, Orlando innamorato and Orlando furioso, both written for the Ferrarese court. These popular and hugely entertaining works tell the tale of the Carolingian-era battles of Christians against Saracens, though with much influence also of Arthurian tales of wizardry and love. The chief female character in both poems is Bradamante di Montalbano, a Christian knight who falls in love with a Saracen warrior, Ruggiero, whom she eventually marries, after many vicissitudes and after Ruggiero’s conversion. Following a device used by Virgil, Bradamante and Ruggiero are represented as distant ancestors of the ruling Este family of Ferrara, so that Bradamante may be read as an indirect portrait of the contemporary ladies of that line.24

With Boiardo and Ariosto, as with Castiglione and Arienti, we are looking at innovative representations of women crafted by men, but by the early sixteenth century, secular literary writings by women themselves were becoming more frequent. Women had been writing in Latin and publicly circulating their works since the late fourteenth century, but in minuscule numbers. In the later fifteenth century, they participated in the growing vogue for vernacular poetry, especially in the courts. By the first decades of the sixteenth century, we start seeing the earliest literary productions of Veronica Gambara and Vittoria Colonna: the two most famous women writers of the sixteenth century, and the female figures who were most instrumental in disseminating the model of the culturally distinguished court lady beyond the world of the courts.25 Both Gambara and Colonna descended from distinguished lineages of intellectual women. Veronica Gambara was the great-niece of Isotta Nogarola on her father’s side and niece of Castiglione’s Emilia Pio on her mother’s, while Vittoria Colonna was descended through her mother from the great female intellectual lineage of Battista da Montefeltro. Both were prominent for political, as well as intellectual reasons. Gambara ruled the small state of Correggio as dowager countess after her husband’s death, while Colonna was the wife of a prominent Spanish-Neapolitan general, Ferrante d’Avalos, and a leading member of one of the greatest Roman baronial families.

Colonna’s earliest surviving poem, a verse letter to her husband, offers an interesting instance of the self-fashioning of the Renaissance ‘New Woman’.26 The poem was written in the wake of the terrible battle of Ravenna of 1512, in which both Colonna’s husband and her father, fighting on the side of the Spanish army, were taken prisoner by the French. The form of the verse epistle, written by a woman to her absent husband or lover, was a familiar one in humanistic literature, modelled on the Roman poet Ovid’s Heroines, a collection of such letters written in the voices of famous women of classical mythology. Late fifteenth-century humanists revived the genre, penning epistles in the voices of the wives of contemporary princes and generals. Colonna seems to have been the first woman to write one herself, taking specifically as her model Ovid’s letter from Penelope to Ulysses, one of the few of Ovid’s letters where the heroine writing was a lawful wife, rather than a lover.

In her pistola (‘epistle’), as it is sometimes called, Colonna portrays herself on the island of Ischia, near Naples, living with the island’s ruler, her husband’s aunt, Costanza d’Avalos. The young Vittoria, around 20 at the time the poem is set, is seen anxiously awaiting news of her husband and father, lighting candles before every shrine on the island; then, after a series of fearful portents—sudden storms, a boiling sea, sinister howling of night-birds—the grim news of their captivity arrives. For much of the poem, the gender polarities familiar from Ovid’s Heroines are observed. Men are rash, daring, courageous, active, addicted to war and the pursuit of glory, while women are timorous, emotive, waiting anxiously on the sidelines, their lives consumed almost entirely by thoughts of love.

The end of the poem, however, registers a sharp change in perspective, when Colonna’s poet-figure reproaches her husband for leaving her behind when he went to war. She invokes famous loyal Roman political wives like Pompey’s Cornelia and Cato’s Marcia, who bravely accompanied their husbands in their war against Caesar, and the legendary Hypsicratea, wife of King Mithridates of Pontus, who followed her husband into battle disguised as a squire. Colonna’s invocation of Hypsicratea ushers in a different ideal of wifely potential than her earlier, more lachrymose one: ‘A wife should follow her husband wherever he goes … Let the one risk what the other risks; let them be equal in life and in death.’27 The ideal here is very close to Boiardo’s and Ariosto’s representation of the affianced Bradamante and Ruggiero, or to Arienti’s descriptions of condottierecouples in which both husband and wife showed themselves capable of military action. It is possible that a portrait medal representing Vittoria Colonna and Ferrante d’Avalos, he with a fanciful classicizing helmet, she with a classicizing hairstyle and with one breast bared, is intended to allude to a famous warrior couple of Greek mythology, the hero Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta, whose story had been popularized in Italy through Boccaccio’s romance Teseida, the source for Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.28

Although it would be attractive to imagine that Colonna was proposing to her husband a literal reliving of the Mithridates-Hypsicratea relationship, it seems much more likely that the spousal equality in arms she was advocating was to be understood on a more symbolic level. By penning the pistola, and hence personally inhabiting the author-position readers of Ovid’s Heroines were accustomed to seeing occupied by a male author ventriloquizing women’s voices, Colonna was already making a notable claim to ‘virility’. Renaissance thinking identified two principal routes to worldly glory, ‘arms’ and ‘letters’—military prowess on one hand; literary, scholarly, or philosophical eminence on the other. Although intellectuals debated which of these two routes was superior, both were essentially seen as equal in dignity, and both were still seen at this time as predominantly limited to males. The pistola praises d’Avalos as a hero on a par with the ancient prototypes of Achilles and Hector, but at the same time it establishes his wife as a poet capable of sustaining comparison with Ovid. This model of d’Avalos and Colonna as a heroic couple, excelling respectively at arms and letters, became enshrined after d’Avalos’s early death in 1525, when Colonna’s mourning verse for him began to win her national fame as a poet. Already in 1532, in the final edition of his Orlando furioso, Ariosto presents Colonna as the archetypal woman writer, as well as the epitome of the devoted wife.29


Down to around the 1520s or 1530s, literary composition remained the preserve of aristocratic women from the same courtly circles as Veronica Gambara or Vittoria Colonna. After this, however, we can note signs of a broader participation by women in literary culture, becoming more marked as the vernacular rose to challenge Latin’s primacy as the dominant literary language in Italy.

A fascinating instance of the dissemination of the courtly ideal of the culturally active woman is offered by the small city of Siena in the 1530s to 1550s, home to a famous literary academy with a strong commitment to the promotion of high-quality vernacular literature, the Academy of the Thunderstruck (Intronati).30 Siena was ruled as a republic, yet we do not find the rigid gender roles there we saw theorized in Alberti’s On the Family. On the contrary, perhaps to differentiate itself from Florence, its traditional rival, and perhaps also due to its close ties with courtly Naples in these years, Sienese patricians seem to have made it a point of pride to cultivate a courtly model of culture. Mixed social interaction on the courtly model played an important role in elite Sienese culture, with its taste for veglie or ‘vigils’, evening parties enlivened by games. The courtly ideal of the witty, sociable, culturally engaged woman was rapidly domesticated, and it began to be celebrated in literary works. One intriguing dialogue of the 1530s, surviving only in manuscript, shows a Sienese woman with a reputation as a poet, Atalanta Donati, entertaining a veglia with an improvised commentary on a popular song: a parody of the wordy, erudite commentaries on Petrarch that proliferated in these years. The work is one of the few Renaissance dialogues featuring real-life speakers that shows a woman taking the dominant role in the conversation. In Castiglione’s Courtier, although the duchess of Urbino and Emilia Pio direct the discussion, they are not among the principal speakers themselves.31

Atalanta Donati was not the only woman in Siena to gain fame as a poet in these years. On the contrary, Sienese women’s literary creativity became a source of pride in the city and something of a trademark. One of the first things the English traveller Thomas Hoby recorded in his account of a visit to Siena in 1549 is that ‘most of the women are well learned and write excellentlie well bothe in prose and verse’.32 In the second half of the century, after Siena had lost its independence and been absorbed into the Medici duchy of Tuscany, the Sienese poet Girolamo Bargagli nostalgically recorded this brilliant season of Sienese culture in his Dialogue on the Games that are Played in Sienese Veglie (1572). One of the speakers in the dialogue recalls in particular the ‘heroic and free manner of proceeding’ of Sienese ladies in the last years of the republic, as if this were symbolic of Siena’s free and heroic past.33

The female protagonists of Sienese culture in the 1530s–1550s were still noblewomen, though of the relatively broad class of the provincial urban nobility rather than great princely and baronial families such as the Colonna, Este, Sforza, and Montefeltro. The aspiration to participate in literary culture was no longer limited in this period to women of noble birth, however. Increasingly, from the 1540s, we begin to see women writers emerging from the urban professional classes, the daughters of lawyers, doctors, teachers, and also from the rising segments of society discussed in the previous chapter: merchants, shopkeepers, upper artisans. The social dissemination of the practice of women’s writing was greatly stimulated by publishers, who began to see the potential market interest of this great literary novelty from the late 1530s onwards. The first printed volumes of verse by a female author that began to appear were unauthorized editions of Vittoria Colonna’s poetry, of which 11 came out between 1538 and 1547, the year of her death. From 1547, works by other women began to follow, with the facile works of the Neapolitan Laura Terracina, in particular, proving a popular hit.34

A good example of a woman writer of this period from a non-aristocratic background is Chiara Matraini, author of an important collection of Petrarchist love poetry published in 1555, as well as, more unusually, a vernacular translation (via the Latin) of Isocrates’s oration To Demonicus, a key statement of classical educational ideals. Matraini was born into a moneyed and politically ambitious family of weavers in the small republic of Lucca, in northern Tuscany. The family fell into disgrace when Chiara’s brothers were involved in an uprising against the city’s oligarchic elite in 1531, and, at the time of her emergence as a poet, she was a young widow of straitened means. Matraini’s poetic talent appears to have been spotted by a writer closely associated with Venetian print culture, Lodovico Domenichi, who had previously been instrumental in the ‘discovery’ of Laura Terracina.

Matraini prefaces her printed verse collection with a polemical letter addressed to an anonymous male critic (‘M. L.’) who has questioned the propriety of a woman like her engaging in literature, and especially writing of love, suggesting that such pursuits were only appropriate in women of aristocratic descent. Matraini replies by defending the ‘decency’ of her background, but also by citing the alternative view of nobility that Italian intellectuals of non-noble background had advanced since the days of Dante: ‘it is not antiquity of blood, nor power won through subjugation of others, nor gold or purple, but a mind shining with virtue that makes a man truly noble’.35 The pursuit of literary excellence, in this view, was not limited to the elite; rather, as a virtuous exercise, it was itself constitutive of elite status, as it evinced the innate nobility of the writer’s mind.

This same logic—writing as an ennobling activity—informs the verse of another notable non-noble Italian female poet of these years, Gaspara Stampa, the daughter of a jeweller from Padua. Stampa’s mother moved to Venice with her family after the death of her husband, and Gaspara and her sister Cassandra began to acquire a reputation as virtuoso singers, performing at their mother’s house and also at select gatherings of the Venetian cultural elite. Through these contacts, Stampa met and became amorously involved with a nobleman from the Venetian mainland, Collaltino da Collalto, a literary patron and small-time poet, and a soldier in the service of the king of France.

Stampa’s bittersweet account of her affair with Collalto, published by her sister after Gaspara’s premature death in 1554, in her late twenties or early thirties, has been recognized since the eighteenth century as one of the classics of Italian Renaissance literature.36 Stampa portrays herself in a manner consonant with many of the speakers in Ovid’s Heroines as the yearning lover of a flighty and treacherous beloved, forgotten back in Venice while her heedless soldier-lover pursues military glory in France. As in Ovid, however, the ‘abandoned woman’ is rhetorically empowered by her eloquence, even as she describes herself as vulnerable and abject. Medieval Provençal and Italian love lyricists had long established the notion that love for a noble object was ennobling in itself, while the very language of Petrarchist lyric—a stylized version of fourteenth-century Tuscan—bespoke the speaker’s distance from the modern dialect of the ‘vulgar hordes’. Stampa’s poetry thus serves to bridge the status gulf between the humble poet and her aristocratic lover, while casting her in dramatic terms as a heroine of doomed love worthy to stand beside Ovid’s Dido or Sappho.

In the sexual irregularity of her lifestyle, of which she made no secret, Gaspara Stampa had much in common with the figure of the courtesan, or cortigiana, a very distinctive Italian Renaissance social type, with no obvious medieval precedent and no real parallel in other European cultures at this time. Courtesans first emerged as a distinctive subset of exclusive sex workers in the papal court in the first years of the sixteenth century: an origin reflected in the term cortigiana, the feminine form of cortigiano(‘courtier’). A famous prototype was Imperia Cognati (1486–1512), whose glamorous lifestyle is evocatively described in a novella by Matteo Bandello (3.42), which shows her inhabiting a palace with cloth-of-gold wall hangings and tables artfully strewn with musical instruments and finely bound books. The humanists who made up Imperia’s circle were well acquainted with the ancient Greek figure of the hetaira, on which the type of the Renaissance courtesan was undoubtedly modelled. Within the papal court, essentially a congregation of nobly born clerical bachelors, the courtesan performed a similar cultural function to that performed by ladies of the type portrayed by Castiglione in the secular princely courts, serving as witty, culturally attuned conversational partners and as providers of refined musical and poetic entertainment. Within the more bohemian ranks of society, at least, courtesans’ cultural credentials served to redeem them from the social slur of unchastity; hence the term we occasionally find used of them, cortigiana onesta (‘honest, or decent, courtesan’): a striking turn of phrase within a culture in which, for women of the elites, ‘honest’ was virtually a synonym of ‘chaste’.37

Two courtesans were among the leading female poets of the Italian Renaissance. The first, Tullia d’Aragona, had the fortune to live and write in the first half of the sixteenth century, when aristocratic men were happy to flaunt their association with fashionable courtesans. The second, Veronica Franco, was active in the stricter moral climate of the post-Tridentine period, when the profession was becoming of necessity more discreet.38 Franco was Venetian and moved in the same kind of bohemian circles in Venice as Gaspara Stampa had a generation earlier, while d’Aragona, probably raised between Rome and Siena, led a peripatetic life, spending time in Venice, Ferrara, and Florence, as well as the two cities of her childhood. D’Aragona, the daughter of a courtesan, grandly claimed that her father was a cardinal from the former ruling family of Naples, though there is some evidence that her father was a dependent of the noble d’Aragona family who had been given the right to use the surname of the house he served. Franco was the daughter of a courtesan who had married into a ‘citizen’ family—a relatively elite though non-noble class, peculiar to Venice—and she was briefly married to a doctor before embarking on her courtesan career.

As was noted in Chapter 4, the most innovative self-fashioners of the Renaissance were often figures who combined social or cultural ambition with a relatively weak or ambiguous ascriptive identity. Courtesans fit this formula precisely, and one of the great fascinations of the writings of Franco and d’Aragona is watching a highly creative process of self-fashioning at work. Both women underline their social dignity by representing themselves in relationships of mutual respect with men of high social and intellectual status. Tullia d’Aragona’s Rime of 1547, the first printed volume of Petrarchist verse by a woman other than Vittoria Colonna, showcases the poet’s brilliant social circle as much as it does her poetic talent. Although it contains a short sequence of love poems, its main focus is correspondence verse (the full title of the work is Verses by the Lady Tullia d’Aragona and by Others to Her). The volume has been described both as a ‘virtual salon’ and a ‘self-promoting autograph book’.39 The work elegantly enacts in print the social and cultural functions of the courtesan in facilitating elite male sociability and literary production, and it maintains a high level of decorum throughout. It is dedicated to the duchess of Tuscany, Eleonora of Toledo, who had recently been instrumental in gaining d’Aragona exemption from a law Eleonora’s husband, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, had introduced constraining prostitutes to identify themselves by wearing a yellow veil, precisely on the grounds of her literary talent (‘let her off as a poet’, the duke’s secretary laconically scribbled on a plea she had submitted for exemption).40

Veronica Franco’s verse, published almost 30 years later, in 1575, is very different in tone from Tullia d’Aragona’s, in a manner that reflects the changing position of the courtesan in the stricter moral climate of the later sixteenth century. The introduction of pre-publication censorship would almost certainly have prevented a work by a known courtesan from being published officially, and Franco’s Terza Rima Poems came out in a clandestine edition, as did her Letters, which were published in the same year. Like d’Aragona’s Rime, Franco’s works show her in conversation with a circle of high-status men, but their names are this time occluded, not displayed. Nor does Franco’s collection attempt to maintain the same respectable tone as d’Aragona’s; rather, making capital out of the necessity of clandestine distribution, it advertises the poet’s sexual skills quite ‘frankly’ (Franco makes liberal use of this pun on her name). In addition to witty, self-dramatizing love poetry, Franco’s Terza Rima Poems includes correspondence poems of various kinds, including a famous polemic against a poet who had written a vicious satire against her (unnamed in the volume, but in fact the louche and brilliant dialect poet Maffio Venier, the nephew of Franco’s chief protector). A trademark of Franco’s sprightly, provocative verse is her use of the metaphor of combat and specifically swordsmanship; in her riposte to Venier, she challenges him to a public duel in Tuscan, Venetian, or any other language he prefers. The metaphor is literalized in the 1998 film The Honest Courtesan (Dangerous Beauty in the USA): a zestful, though highly romanticized and inaccurate version of Franco’s fascinating life.

A long-established cliché in Italian literary scholarship held that the tradition of women’s writing came to an end after around 1560, and that Veronica Franco represented an isolated figure, the end of an impressive but short-lived flourishing of female creativity. This is strikingly inexact; in fact, the 1580s saw the beginning of an upswing in women’s writing, lasting for around three decades, and characterized by a new breadth of range and boldness. While women’s writing in the mid-century period was mainly limited to Petrarchist verse, together with letters and a few small-scale prose works, women in the later sixteenth century and the first years of the seventeenth extended their remit to include pastoral drama, chivalric romance, religious narrative, and epic. They were also more assertive in their authorial self-positioning, far more frequently writing their own letters of dedication and taking full ownership of their works. A survey of women’s writing between 1580 and 1630 in Italy identifies around 200 known writers in this period, ranging from women with a single sonnet in an anthology to figures with multiple single-authored works to their name.41

A representative figure of this later moment in Italian women’s writing is the Venetian Modesta Pozzo, who styled herself in her writings with the pointed pseudonym Moderata Fonte (‘Moderate Fountain’ in place of ‘Modest Well’). Fonte was the first securely identified female writer to attempt a chivalric romance, in her youthful, unfinished poem Thirteen Cantos of Floridoro, published in 1581. Her other works are a short philosophical drama, acted before the Doge and Senate of Venice; two religious narratives on the passion and resurrection of Christ; and a long, two-book dialogue entitled The Worth of Women, published posthumously in 1600.

Fonte came from a cultivated and wealthy background, through not from Venice’s ruling patriciate; she was the daughter and wife of lawyers, of the citizen class, which monopolized employment in the Venetian civil service. She was remarkable as the first Venetian woman from this kind of respectable background to gain fame as a writer in her home city, which was famed for the strict seclusion in which its upper-class women lived. Her relative and writing mentor, Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni, writes in the interesting biography that prefaces the printed version of The Worth of Women that Fonte felt constrained to pursue her writing only in hasty, snatched moments, out of deference to ‘the false notion, so widespread in our city today, that women should excel in nothing but the running of the household’ (WW, 9).42 By Fonte’s time, however, even in republican Venice, ways of thinking about women alternative to this ‘false notion’ were available, whether from books such as The Courtier, or personal contacts such as Doglioni (whose broad-mindedness may reflect the fact that his own family origins lay not in Venice but in the region of Friuli, to the north, whose elites were culturally close in many ways to the world of the courts).

The Worth of Women is a remarkable work: a strikingly original contribution to the long-running debate on women’s status and role, and a lively and engaging dialogue that still reads very freshly today. The speakers are seven Venetian noblewomen of varying age and marital status: an elderly and a younger widow; three married women, including one newly married; and two young girls of marriageable age. The theme they decide to debate, in a light-hearted manner, is whether men are a good thing or a bad one, and the first book of the dialogue more or less keeps to this subject (although it also has much to say on the dignity of women). The second book embarks on an encyclopedic survey of general knowledge relating to the natural and cultural realms, mainly deriving from Pliny’s Natural History, intended to illustrate the way in which women may be empowered by education and a virtuous curiosity about the world. The dialogue is given unity and vivacity by the recurrent theme of the relation of the sexes, which some of the speakers keep trying to bring back to the centre of the discussion, while others seek good-naturedly to thwart them. Prominent as a secondary theme throughout is a critique of the institution of marriage. The younger widow, Leonora, the host of the dialogue, and one of the unmarried girls, the learned and poetically gifted Corinna, both earnestly and repeatedly proclaim their intention not to marry (or remarry). Even the setting of the conversation conspires to foreground this theme. The women gather to speak in an idyllic garden created by Leonora’s now deceased aunt, a wealthy woman who had chosen to remain single, and the garden’s centrepiece is a fountain surrounded by allegorical figures spelling out the reasons for her choice.

Fonte is sufficiently skilful in her handling of the dialogue form for it to be difficult to be certain how seriously she means her anti-marriage polemic. Space is given in the dialogue to the pleasures of married life, as well as the trials, and Fonte incorporates a tribute to her own husband, Filippo Zorzi, who seems to have been supportive of her writing. Fonte’s intent in The Worth of Women seems to have been less to polemicize than to use the humanist techniques of paradox and serio ludere (‘serious play’) to subject traditional ideas about women to critical scrutiny. Marriage was traditionally considered to be necessary for a woman, if she wished to remain ‘in the world’, outside the convent; yet intellectual men debated earnestly whether or not to take a wife, often concluding that the benefits of marriage were outweighed by the responsibilities it brought. The dowry system, whereby the family of a bride paid a substantial amount to her husband, tended to reinforce this notion of marriage as a benefit for women and a burden for men. The entire system rested on the unstated premise that women’s mental and physical weakness made them unfitted to live without either the institutional support of a convent or the personal protection of a man. Once women were acknowledged to be men’s equals, there seemed no reason not to speculate that a wealthy woman might choose to retain her independence and live a life on her own. Fonte’s willingness to canvas this radical notion, however warily and humorously, edges the humanistic theoretical debate on women a few steps closer to the kind of interrogation of social realities that has such a key place in the modern tradition of feminist thought.43


By the time Fonte was writing her dialogue, it was becoming possible to point to achievements by women in a variety of fields of cultural production (indeed, The Worth of Women contains mentions of the singer Laura Peverara and the artist Marietta Tintoretto, daughter of the famous Jacopo Tintoretto). In certain of the performance arts, notably acting and virtuoso singing, women stood at the forefront of cultural innovation, and enjoyed a fame and status far greater than their male peers. The actress, singer, poet, and dramatist Isabella Andreini was one of the most famous cultural figures in Italy at the time of her death in 1604, and her fame extended well beyond the boundaries of her homeland; she died at Lyons, returning from a successful tour to the French court. Similarly feted and sought-after were singers such as Laura Peverara, Vittoria Archilei, Francesca Caccini—also a composer—and Adriana Basile. Women played a key role in this vital and innovatory moment in Italian musical and performance history: the period that saw the birth of opera, the maturing of the commedia dell’arte dramatic tradition, and the emergence of the new monodic style of vocal music that would lay the basis for the Baroque.44 At the same time, with Lavinia Fontana, Italy had its first fully professional female painter, building on the precedent of Sofonisba Anguissola, whose artistic talent had won her a place at the Spanish court.45

The virtuose who excelled in music, art, and performance came from a broader range of social backgrounds than female writers. A few were aristocrats, such as Anguissola, who came from a noble, though financially straightened, family in Cremona, and the Mantuan singer Livia d’Arco. Tarquinia Molza, who sang with d’Arco in the Ferrarese concerto delle donne, was the highly educated granddaughter of a famous poet, while a third member of the consort, Laura Peverara, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant and intellectual who had worked as a tutor at the Mantuan court. More commonly, singers and painters came from families who specialized in these same arts. Lavinia Fontana was the daughter of a successful Bolognese painter; the engraver Diana Mantuana, the daughter of a Mantuan painter, sculptor, and engraver. The singer and composer Francesca Caccini was the daughter of Giulio Caccini, a famous musician in the service of the Medici, while the singers and instrumentalists Lucia and Isabella Pellizzari, who attained court posts at Mantua in the 1580s, were the sisters of a musician employed at one of the great theatrical academies of the day, the Accademia Olimpica of Vicenza. Actresses tended to come from more obscure backgrounds, and it has been conjectured that some of the earliest, such as Flaminia Romana, who rose to fame in the 1560s, may have been drawn from the ranks of courtesans. Although Isabella Andreini, married to a fellow actor, Francesco Andreini, established the type of the ‘respectable’ actress, later also embodied by her daughter-in-law Virginia Ramponi, it is inconceivable that an girl of elite background would have been encouraged to aspire to a career on the public stage.46

A fascinating early document of the emergence of the figure of the virtuosa is the anonymous Life of Irene di Spilimbergo, appended to a collection of verse published in 1561 to commemorate this young woman’s premature death at the age of 19.47 Irene di Spilimbergo was the daughter of a Venetian patrician mother and a nobleman from Friuli, north of Venice. According to her biography, Irene’s mother, not especially well educated by her natal family, studied hard after her marriage and ensured that her daughter received an excellent education. Irene showed herself exceptionally talented from a very early age, turning her ambitions from poetry to music, then from music to drawing—which she studied with Titian—and finally from drawing to painting, inspired by seeing a portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola, which fired her with a desire for emulation.

An interesting feature of the Life is its unabashed celebration of Irene’s powerful urge to excellence and artistic glory. She is said to be consumed by a ‘virtuous envy’ when other women are praised in her presence, and to be possessed by an ambition to become the outstanding female artistic virtuosa of the day. Irene is portrayed as effectively a martyr to her art when she contracts the fever that kills her as a result of rising early and working long hours in an unheated studio in an attic of her house. It is not difficult to imagine this being used as a cautionary tale, warning young girls off following in Irene’s rash footsteps, but this striking secular hagiography does nothing of the kind. Irene’s urge to glory and her all-consuming commitment to art are presented as entirely admirable and her death is lamented as the pure tragedy of a young life cut short. Nor is there any suggestion that Irene’s devotion to her art ‘masculinized’ her or impacted negatively on her marriage prospects; on the contrary, her broad education and her artistic talent are said to have made her worthy to be the consort of a prince.

Another, equally interesting verbal portrait of an outstanding creative woman is the actor and poet Adriano Valerini’s Oration on the death—reputedly by poisoning—of his colleague and lover Vincenza Armani (d. 1567), one of the first Italian actresses whose name has come down to us. Unlike Irene di Spilimbergo, it seems likely that Armani came from a relatively humble background, as Valerini gives no details of her parentage and speaks euphemistically of her innate nobility shining through the disadvantages of fortune. Like Irene, in Valerini’s narration, Vincenza distinguishes herself by the variousness of her talents and by her will to succeed. She is first educated merely in the arts conventional to her sex, learning the art of embroidery so exquisitely as to rival the mythical Arachne herself.48 Before long, however, the young Vincenza realizes that such skills are not sufficient to win her the fame she desires. She hence turns to reading, writing, and penmanship, learning all quite effortlessly and even acquiring an excellent knowledge of Latin, while at the same time working up her musical skills until she could not only play various instruments, but also sing and sight-read ‘as well as the finest singer in Europe’ (5v). More than this, she even made herself a composer, often setting to music sonnets and madrigals that she had written herself.

At the climax of his list of Armani’s accomplishments, Valerini places ‘the immortal light of brilliant eloquence’ (6r). It was in persuasive speech and gesture that Armani truly excelled; and, in order that all should be able to enjoy and be inspired and morally elevated by her divine gifts, ‘Heaven ordained … that Vincenza … devote herself to acting dramatic texts on stage’. This is strategic on Valerini’s part: by equating acting with eloquence, he positions the acting profession, regarded by many at the time as disreputable, as a subspecies of the prestigious art of rhetoric. Valerini’s account of Armani’s acting draws on many commonplaces traditionally associated with oratory, such as the ability to stir the emotions of the listeners through her own feigned emotion (what Aristotle calls pathos), and the capacity to ‘manipulate souls as she wished’ (8r).

An aspect of Vincenza Armani’s acting that Valerini especially emphasizes is her immense versatility: ‘she transformed herself like a new Proteus according to each new turn of the plot’. This Protean quality extended to acting male parts as well as female, so convincingly that no one would have thought her a woman when they saw her appear in male garb. Armani appears in Valerini’s description as an unexpected, low-born, female incarnation of the Renaissance ideal of universality: as miraculously omnicompetent as Castiglione’s courtier, and a virtuoso self-fashioner, even across boundaries of gender. In the improvisatory culture of the commedia dell’arte, Armani can even claim distinction as a dramatist as well as an actor. Indeed, Valerini concludes by comparing her not only to the famous Roman actor Roscius, but to the greatest dramatists and pastoral poets of antiquity—Terence, Plautus, Sophocles, Euripides, Theocritus, Virgil. ‘She was not only a great actress, but a great poet, as well, and a living lesson to her fellows actors in the true modes of art.’49

Although it would be easy to dismiss Valerini’s panegyric of Vincenza Armani as pure hyperbole, consideration of the better-documented careers of Isabella Andreini and her daughter-in-law Virginia Ramponi offers evidence of the extraordinary versatility and talent of some of these earlyvirtuose of the stage. Ramponi was not only the most famous actress of her day, but an extremely gifted singer, celebrated especially for an iconic performance of Monteverdi’s Arianna at the court of Mantua in 1608, in which Ramponi stood in at short notice after the death of the singer slated to sing the lead role. Andreini was still more Protean, combining acclaimed skills in music and acting with considerable talent as a poet; she was the author of one of the most popular pastoral plays of the era, Mirtilla, and a writer of polished, witty, sensual madrigals that were widely anthologized after her death and set to music by numerous composers.

A detailed account of one of Andreini’s most celebrated spectacles, The Madness of Isabella, which she performed at the wedding of Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine in 1589—one of the most extravagant court weddings of the century—allows us to glimpse something of the star power that won the actress such fame.50 This one-woman tour de force first showed Andreini’s character, Isabella, in a state of love-induced madness, running around a city-centre stage-set accosting passers-by in French, Spanish, Greek, and ‘many other languages’. During this first episode, Andreini sang a number of French songs, surprising and delighting the French bride. The second part of the performance featured Isabella in a series of imitations of her fellow (mainly male) commedia dell’arte actors, each of whom had a set comic character, with its own idiosyncratic speech patterns, gestures, and movements. After these antics, Isabella was restored to sanity through the ingestion of a magic potion, and the performance concluded with an ‘eloquent and learned’ disquisition on her part, on the perils of love and its deleterious effects on the lover. This ability to modulate kaleidoscopically through different registers was one of the trademarks of the commedia dell’arte first lady.

In addition to the performance arts, we can see a few women pursuing careers in the visual arts, despite the fact that women were generally excluded from participation in professional guilds. Examples of professional female artists in the late sixteenth century are the painter Lavinia Fontana, the engraver Diana Mantuana (sometimes erroneously called Diana Scultori), and the woodcut artist and lace pattern designer Elisabetta Catanea Parasole. Fontana made a very successful career in her native Bologna as a painter of portraits and religious narratives to commission, before moving to Rome towards the end of her life. Mantuana, also Rome-based, operated on a more market-led basis, as was usual for engravers, issuing engravings on mythological and religious subjects, and obtaining a papal privilege to produce and market her work. Elisabetta Catanea Parasole published a series of highly decorative de luxe lace-pattern books illustrated with her own woodcut images, as well as working on botanical illustrations for herbals. A cousin of Elisabetta’s, Girolama Cagnaccia Parasole, also worked as a woodcut artist, although only one surviving work by her is known. 51

An interesting feature of the lives and working practices of the artists just named is their relationship of collaboration with their respective husbands. Fontana’s husband was a minor painter, Giovanni Paolo Zappi, who served effectively as agent and assistant to his much more famous wife. Elisabetta Parasole was married to another woodcut artist, Leonardo Norsini, with whom she collaborated on the illustration of one herbal. Diana Mantuana also collaborated with her architect husband Francesco Capriani, or Francesco da Volterra, on several projects, and seems to have worked closely with him on their arrival in Rome to publicize his activities and to help him establish his career. These three cases offer good examples of a phenomenon to which the literary scholar Victoria Kirkham has called attention: instances of husbands and wives both active in the same or different artistic fields, and collaborating or mutually assisting one another. Kirkham’s prototypical example is the well-connected mid-century poet Laura Battiferri and her architect husband Bartolomeo Ammanati.52 Other examples, from the performing arts, are Isabella and Francesco Andreini, and their son Giovanni Battista Andreini and his wife, Virginia Ramponi. The contrast is very sharp with the ‘Aristotelian’ model of domestic economy, in which a husband’s and a wife’s activities and ethos are strictly dichotomized, and they operate in quite separate spheres.


Fig. 32: Lavinia Fontana, Self Portrait in a Tondo, 1579. Oil on copper.

Interesting visual evidence of the self-fashioning of a late sixteenth-century virtuosa is offered by a self-portrait by Lavinia Fontana in the Uffizi, dating to 1579 (Fig. 32). Fontana painted the portrait in response to a request by a Rome-based Spanish humanist, Alfonso Ciacón, who wanted it for a collection he was compiling of illustrious men and women.53 Fontana portrays herself in a manner consonant with this flattering commission, as a wealthy, well-dressed woman and as an intellectual; she sits at her desk, in a study-like setting, surrounded by antique or all’antica statues and fragments, to be used as anatomical models for her art. A piece of blank paper lies before her on the table, and she wields a pen in her hand, whether to write a letter or to begin a sketch. No special effort is apparent in the painting to underline the sitter-painter’s chastity or other specifically feminine attributes such as her modesty and demureness (although her piety is signalled by an oversize cross). Fontana looks out with a calm air of confidence: a professional, sure of her trade.

In the combination of references to the tools of her art with indicators of wealth and status, Fontana’s self-portrait has something in common with Moroni’s portrait of a tailor, discussed in the last chapter. Both represent socially aspirant artisans, confident of possessing a talent that society prizes. In the case of the Fontana self-portrait, moreover, we may see a conscious appropriation by a woman of a model of self-staging—in a study, at a desk, surrounded by the paraphernalia of learning—that had in the past been far more typically used for male sitters, and in which she herself had often portrayed male members of Bologna’s intellectual elite. One of the chief arguments of this book has been that the Renaissance, as a cultural movement, penetrated more deeply through society than has often been assumed. Fontana’s self-portrait makes the point very well. Detached from any attribution, it could serve as an illustration of Castiglione’s ideal of the decorous, poised, cultivated court lady; yet what we are seeing here is not an aristocrat, nor even the wife of a wealthy merchant, but a hard-working painter’s daughter from Bologna, capable of earning her lace ruff through her own toil.


This chapter has concentrated on secular women, as the secular virtuosa was the great cultural novelty of the era. Convents had a long tradition of fostering female learning, and there is nothing as specifically ‘Renaissance’ about the erudite nun as there is about the secular female painter or actress. Nonetheless, it would be misleading to imply that it was secular women only who participated in the cultural novelties of the Renaissance. ‘Choir nuns’, or professe, came from wealthy and prestigious backgrounds (unlike converse, who carried out the manual work of the convent), and their education was consonant with that of girls destined for marriage. Some nuns had even received a full humanistic education, like Cecilia Gonzaga, from the ruling family of Mantua: a star pupil at Vittorino da Feltre’s school, who refused to marry, defying her father’s wishes, and entered a convent after his death. A less famous example is Lorenza Strozzi, from a wealthy and erudite Florentine family, author of a collection of classicizing Latin hymns, drawing on Horace, which was published in 1588.54

The cultural production of Italian convents during the Renaissance was rich, especially in the fields of vernacular poetry, historiography, drama, and music. Theatre was a particular specialism, produced both for an internal, convent audience, and for invited spectators.55 Nun artists are also known, perhaps most notably the Florentine Dominican Plautilla Nelli, who seems to have cultivated something like a school of painting in her convent, Santa Caterina di Siena.56 Nuns were also active in some fields of skilled artisanal production, notably textile work, lacemaking, and printing. The earliest printing press in Florence, founded in the 1470s, was run by the Dominican nuns of San Jacopo di Ripoli, in conjunction with the friars of their brother-convent. The press published not only religious works but classical texts and a few modern secular writings, unexpectedly including Boccaccio’s Decameron, with its numerous lewd stories featuring monks, friars, and nuns.

Like every other aspect of ecclesiastical life, convents were subject to close scrutiny following the Council of Trent, and stricter regulations were introduced to ensure that nuns were rigorously cloistered from the world. Behaviour within the convent was also carefully regulated, and closer constraints were placed on nuns’ reading and their cultural activities in general. It does not appear, however, that this new and oppressive regime put an end to convent traditions of learning and culture, as has sometimes been suggested. A significant tradition of convent music continued in the post-Tridentine period, especially in Milan, with some nun composers winning considerable fame for their music, notably Claudia Sessa in the late sixteenth century and Chiara Margherita Cozzolani in the seventeenth.57 Sacred poetry and drama also continued to flourish within the convents at this time. In some respects, the ‘religious turn’ in Italian culture inspired by the Counter-Reformation may have enhanced the appeal of nuns’ cultural production for readers outside the convent. It is only after around 1550 that we begin to see nuns’ writings beginning to be published; and the majority of convent writings that reached print publication appeared after the Council of Trent.58

A fascinating illustration of the extent of some nuns’ cultural engagement is offered by the copious writings of Fiammetta Frescobaldi (1523–86), a nun at the Florentine convent of San Jacopo di Ripoli, mentioned above in connection with its printing activities. Born into an important Florentine merchant-banking family, Frescobaldi entered the convent at the age of 11 and took her vows at the age of 14. Her writings include various ecclesiastical histories, a history of the first millennium of the Christian era, translations of a number of Latin humanistic works, and a compendium of Francesco Guicciardini’s History of Italy, now lost. Her most wide-ranging work, entitled The Sphere of the World, was a vast compendium of geographical and cosmological erudition, in nine volumes, of which three survive. A trademark of Frescobaldi’s writings is her scrupulous recording of sources, which allows us to trace with a certain exactitude the works to which she had access in the convent. Besides Guicciardini—one of the most markedly anti-clerical historians of the age—these include Vasari’s Lives, the architectural writings of Andrea Palladio, and the writings of explorers like Columbus and Vespucci. Frescobaldi also had scientific interests; a chronicle she wrote between 1575 and 1586 records eclipses, comets, meteorites, and sunspots.59 Although Frescobaldi was clearly exceptional, the range of her interests was not untypical of elite Italian convent culture. History was one of the genres of writing most practised by nuns, and an interest in natural philosophy was not unusual in convents. Indeed, sixteenth-century nuns seem to have made something of a specialism of herbal medicine, even at times running apothecaries’ businesses from their convents.60

It would be misleading to give too rosy an image of the cultural opportunities that Renaissance convent life offered women—just as it would also be misleading to underestimate the constraints and oppression under which many secular women laboured at this time. Despite the empowering rhetoric of sexual equality we often find in literary texts of the period, women were in practice very far from men’s equals; they had fewer educational and professional opportunities and significantly less freedom of movement. It is inaccurate, however, to state that women did not participate in the cultural movement of the Renaissance, or that the only women who participated were a handful of aristocrats of the status of a Vittoria Colonna or an Isabella d’Este. The findings of the past few decades of scholarship have been transformative in this regard.

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