Creative Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renaissance

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Creative Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renaissance. Edited by E. Ann Matter and John Coakley. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1994. Pp. xiv, 356. $36.95.)

The fourteen essays gathered in this volume had their origin in a conference of 1991. They a grouped into three sections: in the fist they deal with "Women's Religious Expression" in the late Middle Ages; in the second they examine the same subject in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while in the third their focus shifts to "Women's Artistic Expression." All address the fundamental issue of how to discover and understand the creativity of women in periods which offered them little, if any, public scope for its expression The authors do not collectively espouse a revisionist approach to the role of intellectually or artistically gifted Italian women. Rather, the strength of the essays lies in their often imaginative and subtle analysis as they examine how women were able to carve out areas in which to make distinctive cultural contributions.

A useful introduction sets the main issues into a larger framework by reference to the debate between Rudolph Bell and Caroline Walker Bynum about the meaning of fasting for medieval women. Like these scholars who dealt with the same phenomenon but gave it different interpretations, the authors of the essays look at Italian women between 1300 and 1700 and see a variety of meanings in their words, writings, musical activity, or plays. Because the religious sphere offered women the most opportunities for using their creativity, the majority of essays deals with aspects of women's religious lies.

One of the general conclusions is that late medieval Italian women were socially less circumscribed than their counterparts in the early modern period. Among the former were Catherine of Siena, who had community support, or women who exercised moral authority over male clerics, especially their biographers who we willing to express reverence and admiration for their subjects. Yet one of the problems, touched upon repeatedly in the essays, is that we often hear women's voices only through the woods and works of male writers. …