Feminism and Renaissance Studies

By Lorna Hutson | Go to book overview

9 Diana Described: Scattered Woman and
Scattered Rhyme

Nancy J. Vickers

The import of Petrarch's description of Laura extends well beyond the confines of his own poetic age; in subsequent times, his portrayal of feminine beauty became authoritative. As a primary canonical text, the Rime sparse consolidated and disseminated a Renaissance mode. Petrarch absorbed a complex network of descriptive strategies and then presented a single, transformed model. In this sense his role in the history of the interpretation and the internalization of woman's “image” by both men and women can scarcely be overemphasized. When late-Renaissance theorists, poets, and painters represented woman's body, Petrarch's verse justified their aesthetic choices. His authority, moreover, extended beyond scholarly consideration to courtly conversation, beyond the treatise on beauty to the after-dinner game in celebration of it. The descriptive codes of others, both ancients and contemporaries, were, of course, not ignored, but the “scattered rhymes” undeniably enjoyed a privileged status: they informed the Renaissance norm of a beautiful woman.1

We never see in the Rime sparse a complete picture of Laura. This would not be exceptional if we were considering a single “song” or even a restricted lyric corpus; gothic top-to-toe enumeration is, after all, more appropriate to narrative, more adapted to the “objective” observations of a third-person narrator than to those of a speaker who ostensibly loves, and perhaps even addresses, the image he describes. But given an entire volume devoted to a single lady, the absence of a coherent, comprehensive portrait is significant.2 Laura is always presented as a part or parts of a woman. When more that one part figures

From Critical Enquiry, 8/2 (1981), 265-78. ©The University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with
permission. An early version of this paper was shared with the University Seminar on Fem-
inist Inquiry at Dartmouth College; I sincerely appreciate the time, attention, and sugges-
tions of its members. I am particularly indebted to Richard Corum, Jonathan Goldberg,
Katherine Hayles, Marianne Hirsech, David Kastan, Stephen Orgel, Esther Raskin, Christian
Wolff and Holly Wolff for their contributions.

-233-

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Feminism and Renaissance Studies
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Notes on Contributors vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I - Humanism After Feminism 19
  • 1: Did Women Have a Renaissance? 21
  • 2: Women Humanists 48
  • 3: The Housewife and the Humanists 82
  • 4: The Tenth Muse 106
  • Part II - Historicizing Femininity 125
  • 5: The Notion of Woman in Medicine, Anatomy, and Physiology 127
  • 6: Women on Top 156
  • 7: The 'Cruel Mother' 186
  • 8: Witchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany 203
  • Part III 231
  • 9: Diana Described 233
  • 10: Literary Fat Ladies and the Generation of the Text 249
  • 11: Margaret Cavendish and the Romance of Contract 286
  • 12: Surprising Fame 317
  • Part IV - Women's Agency 337
  • 13: Women on Top in the Pamphlet Literature of the English Revolution 339
  • 14: La Donnesca Mano 373
  • 15: Guilds, Male Bonding and Women's Work in Early Modern Germany 412
  • 16: Language, Power, and the Law 428
  • 17: Finding a Voice 450
  • Bibliography 468
  • Index 475
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