Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella, Giuseppe Passi: An Early Seventeenth-Century Feminist Controversy

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella, Giuseppe Passi: An Early Seventeenth-Century Feminist Controversy

Article excerpt

This article seeks to propose some tentative answers to three questions surrounding the controversy involving Giuseppe Passi and Lucrezia Marinella. It will also examine the role of the 'absent' Moderata Fonte as a point of reference for Marinella, an aspect that has been rather neglected in discussions of the debate. The essay addresses the following issues: why was Moderata Fonte's dialogue Il merito delle donne published in 1600, eight years after its author had died in childbirth and, according to her biographer, having just completed the text; (1) why does Lucrezia Marinella not mention Fonte's dialogue in her own treatise La nobilta et l'eccellenza delle donne, first published in 1600, but which underwent major changes in 1601 for the second edition; (2) what was the nature of the polemic that involved Lucrezia Marinella and Giuseppe Passi over the publication of his I donneschi diffetti, and how did he react to such a forceful rejoinder to his opinions on women?

In order to set the controversy between Marinella and Passi in a more complete intellectual context, it is first necessary to underline the extraordinary situation whereby, in the same year, two vernacular texts written by women on their social and intellectual oppression were published in Venice. Never before had there been such an occurrence, and it is unlikely that the appearance of two such works, both critical of patriarchal society, can be ascribed to chance.

Il merito delle donne is prefaced by a biography, written a year after Fonte's death in 1592, by her uncle and guardian Giovanni Nicolo Doglioni. (3) It paints a picture of a gifted woman who had to juggle the demands of a family with her desire to continue writing. (4) Her exceptionality, curbed by the pressures of home and the family, is presented in terms that demonstrate that her talent did not at all conflict with her duties as a wife:

era di cosi gran governo in casa, che 'l marito poca cura n'aveva e ha poi piu volte confessato di non sapere, che cosa sia l'aver carico di figliuoli ne di casa, percioche ella sollevandolo di ogni cosa ne aveva la cura e al tutto con maravigliosa prontezza e diligenza provedeva. (p. 8)

Her desire to become a writer is viewed as emblematic of women's struggle to assert their right to engage in intellectual activities. It is unclear whether and to what extent Doglioni made changes to the biography or to Il merito delle donne itself before publication. In any case, Doglioni presents Fonte as unthreatening to the structures of Venetian society, in spite of her exceptional gifts, precisely because she did not renounce her 'primary' roles as wife and mother. Fonte's combination of traditional female activities with intellectual aspirations was a rather potent mixture in 1600 in view of the circumstances surrounding the publication of Lucrezia Marinella's La nobilta et l'eccellenza delle donne. The discussions generated by the interlocutors of Il merito delle donne certainly supported some of the claims made by Marinella in her own polemic with Passi, particularly by demonstrating that women were capable of carrying forward intellectual arguments in contradiction of the stereotyped view of woman, vehemently taken up in I donneschi diffetti.

As is well known, Marinella's tract was published in response to a deeply misogynous work by Giuseppe Passi, I donneschi diffetti, which appeared in 1599. (5) Indeed, its structure and methodology are almost completely dictated by the Passi text (for example the frequent use of quotations, including those from vernacular classics, such as Ariosto's Orlando furioso). It is a systematic refutation of the male author's slurs, pitting quotation against quotation, example against example. Although Passi claims that his work attacks only those women who have no concern for their honour or their lineage, I donneschi diffetti presents itself more as a general, encyclopedic onslaught on women who, by definition, are totally negative beings to be controlled and subjugated by men: 'sempre desiderando di saper le cose altrui, poco curando i difetti proprii, quantunque elle siano da capo a piedi di vitii e di difetti coperte' (p. …

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