The Emblematic Woman
Because many things are necessary to men at the same time, that is to say prudence, eloquence, expertise at governing the Republic, talent, memory, art, and industry to rule life, justice, liberality, magnanimity, and so many other things that it would be too long to list them all…. But in the woman one does not look for profound eloquence, subtle talent, or the highest prudence, the art of living, or the administration of the Republic, justice, or anything else, except for chastity…. Oh, said Lucrezia, what else is there to be saved when chastity is lost? And, yet, in the violated body there was a chaste soul.1
LUDOVICO DOLCE, Dialogo della institution delle donne (1547)
In mid-seventeenth-century Venice, opera was introduced to a public that was already accustomed to examining the position of women in society. 2 As residents of one of the major European publishing centers, the citizens of Venice could read a vast array of books concerning the training and education of women, their appropriate behaviors, their virtues and vices, and their position within early modern society. Some of these writings were overtly anti-female, but many treatises took the defense of women as their ostensible goal. These writers rarely argued for any social change in the modern sense; instead such defenses of the female sex more often served to confirm contemporary attitudes, to damn with faint praise, or to reinforce traditional views of women through the mind-numbing repetition of what appear to be pro- or anti-female commonplaces.
The Venetian version of the “querelles des femmes” has a number of important implications for our consideration of women in Venetian opera. First, like opera, the writings about women are yet another facet of the Venetian humanist project, with patriotic overtones. Authors well versed in classical literature used their vast knowledge of ancient sources to validate their prescriptions concerning appropriate behaviors in their own society. The virtues and vices of women were not considered in the context of “real” life; instead they were illuminated through discussions of a well-codified set of mythical and historical exemplary women—many of whom also appear in opera—whose virtues and vices could be altered according to the preferences of the author. Second, in early seventeenth-century Venice the discourse about women became increasingly polemical, in terms of both the vehemence of the attacks and the enthusiasm of the defense, such that a few
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Publication information: Book title: Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women's Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice. Contributors: Wendy Heller - Author. Publisher: University of California Press. Place of publication: Berkeley, CA. Publication year: 2003. Page number: 27.
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