Subjects, Objects, Authors: The Portraiture of Women in Giulia Bigolina's Urania

By Nissen, Christopher K. | Italian Culture, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview
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Subjects, Objects, Authors: The Portraiture of Women in Giulia Bigolina's Urania


Nissen, Christopher K., Italian Culture


Ever since Boccaccio claimed a special status for women as readers and narrators of the Decameron, then proceeded to provide that text with a gallery of dynamic and memorable female characters, the novella has stood forth as a genre which, on the whole, offers more insights concerning relations between the sexes and the image of women than any other fictional literary form of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It would thus seem all the more regrettable that Giulia Bigolina, the only woman to have achieved any renown as a writer of early Italian novellas, has been so completely overlooked by modern literary critics. (1)

Bigolina was a Paduan of the minor nobility who flourished in the mid sixteenth century. Very little is known about her life. (2) She apparently wrote at least part of an unnamed novella collection; only one of these stories, published in 1794, has survived, but it contains elements of a frame story, indicating it was meant to be part of a larger, more complex effort. (3) Bigolina's only other extant work is the still unpublished prose romance Urania, written shortly after 1552, which has survived in but a single manuscript, along with an eighteenth-century copy. (4) It is a lengthy and intricate love story which includes debates in the tradition of Boccaccio's Filocolo, centering on a questione d'amore and the defense of women.

By any estimation, Bigolina was a minor literary figure of her time. None of her works was published while she was alive, and although her existence was acknowledged in positive ways by many of her contemporaries in Padua and Venice, including Pietro Aretino, Francesco Barozzi and Bernardino Scardeone, she was only occasionally remembered in subsequent centuries and is virtually unknown today. (5) Nonetheless, I believe her works have been unjustly ignored, and that a renewal of interest in her could contribute much to current trends in Italian literary study. In both of her surviving works she adds a unique and compelling dimension to her narratives: that is, a carefully crafted identification of her authorial persona with the fictional protagonists she creates. My study will concentrate on this commingling of the experiences of subject and object in the romance Urania, as it relates to that work's pervasive motif of the portraiture of women. It is my hope that this approach will help the reader appreciate the special emphasis which Bigolina gives to her own role as author and creator of her fictions.

In her introduction, Bigolina describes the genesis of the work to Bartolomeo Salvatico, the young doctor of law to whom she has dedicated it. Bigolina was most likely in her thirties by this time and clearly portays herself as older than Salvatico; while she admits great fondness for him, she stresses all the while that hers is an "honesto amore" and that she loves him purely for his virtues. Deciding her task is to find a suitable artistic object to leave to Salvatico, so that he will have cause to remember her after she is gone, she reaches the following conclusion:

   Ma non essendo a fatto il lume della ragione in me estinto, il quale pur mi
   lasciava discernere come al sesso, ne al grado, et meno alla bassezza delle
   operationi mie non convenevasi che in Scoltura (sola convenevole a gran
   personaggi) io mi vi lasciassi, deliberai la imagine mia lasciarvi in
   Pittura; et solamente mancavami a deliberare il modo, nel quale pingere io
   mi facessi. (4 r)

However, this resolution turns out to be ill-advised, and it sets the stage for an allegorical visitation of the author in her study, similar to those which serve to give direction to the authors' creative processes in Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, and Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies. (6) As she ponders her problem and paces alone in her room, Bigolina suddenly feels someone tugging at her dress. Turning, she sees a naked homunculus with a colossal head, in the center of which is a single shining eye, like a mirror.

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