Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

"With Truthful Tongue and Faithful Pen": Arcangela Tarabotti against Paternal Tyranny

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

"With Truthful Tongue and Faithful Pen": Arcangela Tarabotti against Paternal Tyranny

Article excerpt

In questo corrotto secolo pochi sono che non siano macchiati, almeno acconsentendo, di cosi enorme colpa, e per conseguenza appresso questi tali i detti miei faran poco o niun frutto, anzi rimaranno censurati, come nati da un animo non ben composto, sfornito di religione, e accusati di temerita, poiche sempre in questo fallace mondo veritas odium parit.

(Tarabotti, Semplicita ingannata, ed. Bartot 176-77)

In this corrupt age, alas, few are not tainted with the great fault I speak of, at least in giving their tacit approval. And so my words will bear little or no fruit and will remain unheeded, condemned as the offspring of a deranged mind stripped of religion and accused of imprudence, since in this false world, as the proverb goes, "Speaking the truth incurs hatred."

(PT 41) (1)

The Venetian writer Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-1652) spent most of her life in the Benedictine convent of Sant'Anna in the Castello district of Venice, a victim of coerced religious vocation. She had been hurt, unfairly treated by her father and her society, civil and religious, but she made the best of a sad situation, availing herself of the opportunity the cloister offered her to study and write. She was largely, if not entirely, self-taught, yet she became an eloquent and prolific writer; she used her talents to decry her fate, and that of many women like her, and to expose to all who would listen to her or read her prose the social, economic and political underpinnings of a system that, to preserve a family's patrimony and social standing, forced the children they could not or would not marry into religious life. (2) She did not spare fathers, nor the Venetian state that quietly supported the practice in order to limit the size of the aristocracy, nor the Church, which officially condemned it, but remained silently complicit, unwilling to uphold its principles and defend the exercise of free will. Tarabotti's complaint did not remain a personal one. She understood that misogyny was the source of her oppression and that all women were its victims, and she spent her life defending women and exposing the illogic of arguments for their inferiority and suppression. Through her writing and her forceful personality Arcangela Tarabotti made connections in the literary and publishing world of Venice and beyond, and despite being an enclosed nun she was able to publish her work. She could not let the misogynist behavior of men stand without response: she wrote that "he who stings must be stung" (Letters 152). (3) That she felt as she did is easy to understand, but that she was able to react publicly and accuse powerful men and institutions from within her convent walls, even in seventeenth-century Venice, is an astounding tale of conviction, courage, strong will, and exceptional intellect that made her then and now a voice to be reckoned with, that "spoke truth to power."

Since her rediscovery by Benedetto Croce, Giuseppe Portigliotti, and Emilio Zanette in 1929-30, Tarabotti's story has slowly entered the annals of Italian literary history. At the end of the 1970s Ginevra Conti Odorisio claimed an important place for Tarabotti in the history of feminism. Since that time there has been much new research into her life and we now have many modern editions, translations, and studies of her works. It is not my intention in this essay to survey that work. I will instead limit my discussion to characterizing Tarabotti's outspoken attack on the misogyny in her society and the responses she provoked.

Elena Cassandra Tarabotti was born in 1604 to Stefano Tarabotti, a chemist, and Maria Cadena dei Tolentini; she was one of ten children, the eldest of six daughters. So many girls presented the family with the serious problem of finding them marriage partners and the required dowry money. Of all the girls, Elena was the least likely marriage prospect, since she had a limp and was probably frail from an early age--her letters are filled with complaints of poor health--so her family destined her for the convent, where they would also pay a smaller dowry. …

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