Five Female Champions of the Venetian Republic
“Do you really believe … that everything historians tell us about men—or about women—is actually true? You ought to consider the fact that these histories have been written by men, who never tell the truth about anything except by accident.”—Moderata Fonte, 1600
By the early 1600s, a canon of female writers existed throughout Europe. These women, eager to stir things up, were not afraid to present ideas bound to provoke dissent. Well before the 1600s, women had been questioning the position of men and women in society. As 20th-century French feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir noted, Christine de Pizan’s 1399 work Épître au dieu d’amour (Letter to the God of Loves) was “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex.” Almost 200 years later, five women in the Venetian Republic added their voices to Pizan’s rhetoric, establishing themselves as some of the earliest proto-feminist writers of the time. The Venetian Republic provided a unique framework, one in which many women could write freely regardless of subject matter. Veronica Franco, Moderata Fonte, Sara Copia Sullam, Arcangela Tarabotti, and Barbara Strozzi—each strong-willed, opinionated, and unconventional—were five women who were able to produce provocative music and literature that seem well ahead of the time.
The Venetian Republic—also known as La Serenissima, or “the Most Serene Republic”—flourished from the late seventh century until 1797, a thousand-year marvel that reached unheard levels of cosmopolitanism, progressiveness, and innovation. An independent city-state, Venice’s location set it apart from the rest of Europe—a bridge that linked East and West, an empire that prided itself on its adoption of borrowed elements. This, combined with an unlikely hub of culture and wealth, made it possible for the Venetian Republic to become a forum for new ideas, resulting in unprecedented freedom of thought that enabled individuals, specifically women, to produce forward-thinking works despite anxieties regarding public opinion.
Franco, Fonte, Sullam, Tarabotti, and Strozzi acknowledged the potential dangers and difficulties of writing as women, but nonetheless fought against these obstacles, making their resoundingly inflammatory ideas known to the world. As courtesans, unmarried women, and those carrying out nontraditional relationships, they all worked hard to achieve success. Though Venetian women were excluded from most positions of power, they had limited economic autonomy and were able to gain educations, providing them with the tools required to speak freely and knowledgeably. Many of these educated women in Venice were courtesans, specifically cortigiane oneste, or “intellectual courtesans.” Though women could not attend universities, intellectual courtesans were accepted into academic salons, providing them with poetic discussions, concerts, and debates that gave them access to the literary world of Venice. Those who were not courtesans most often were connected to men of high status, enabling them to travel in intellectual circles.
Portrait of Veronica Franco by Paolo Veronese, ca. 1575
The most celebrated cortigiana onesta in the Venetian Republic was Veronica Franco, who asserted that women were equally as capable as men. Franco’s mother, another cortigiana onesta, taught young Veronica to use her natural feminine assets to ensure she would find a proper marriage. Though she was married as a teenager, Franco eventually turned to serving as a courtesan for wealthy men in order to support herself. Successful not only as a high-class courtesan (she is famed for serving Henry III, the King of France), Franco established herself as both a writer of poetry and letters, as well as an editor who compiled anthologies of other leading writers.
“When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realized this, for if they should decide to do so, they would be able to fight you until death; and to prove that I speak the truth, amongst so many women, I will be the first to act, setting an example for them to follow.” —Veronica Franco
Portrait, ca. 1588–1589
Moderata Fonte challenged women’s subservience, becoming a very early champion of gender equality. As she aptly wrote, we should question history, specifically as it relates to the place of men and women in society. Well aware of the challengers she would face as a female writer, Fonte chose to write under a pseudonym, though uncommon at the time, in attempt to avoid public scrutiny for writing as an unmarried girl. Born Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi, Fonte became a highly educated young woman, first from her several years in the convent of Santa Marta and later from her studies with her male relatives. An early proto-feminist writer and theorist, she is most well-known for Il merito delle donne (The Worth of Women), in which she claims women’s superiority to men. In the literary dialogue, Fonte invents a utopian community inhabited only by women, presenting their debate over the relation of the sexes. By presenting women as individuals capable of intellectual thought and debate, Fonte aimed to counter the misogynist argument that men could think but women could only feel.
Portrait by Antonio Laborio, ca. 1660s (perhaps a copy of an earlier portrait)
Only a few decades later, Sara Copia Sullam established herself as a woman with strong theological, philosophical, and literary ideas. Being Jewish, she faced additional obstacles, yet she remained outspoken and steadfast in her assertions. Born to a prominent family, she embraced both Jewish and Italian cultures, and learned Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Though already married when she read Ansaldo Cebà’s drama L’Ester, Sullam began a multi-year exchange of letters with the Genoese monk and author, who eventually fell in love with her. The two never met, however (Sullam refused to convert to Christianity), and she instead became a part of an artistic circle with her husband, inviting both Christian and Jewish writers and intellectuals to their home. Sullam’s obstacles intensified when the poet and priest Baldassare Bonifacio accused her of heresy in his 1621 treatise Dell’ Immortalità dell’anima (On the Immorality of the Soul). In response, she wrote her Manifesto …, which defended her point of view and attacked Bonifacio’s assertions. She displayed her knowledge of classics and Jewish culture, including references to the Old and New Testaments, Aristotle, and Dante, proving her intellectual capabilities and her dedication to make herself known.
Following in the footsteps of those who came before her, the polemical nun Arcangela Tarabotti wrote pieces that attacked the subservient position of women in society. Born with physical disabilities, her father concluded that she was unfit for marriage, placing her in the Sant’Anna convent, where she taught herself enough to sustain relationships with important literary figures. Her early writings, though not published during her lifetime, protested her own confinement by attacking coerced monarchization, illuminating how young girls in a convent were confined both physically and emotionally, as well as excluded from learning. Her work continued to gain defensiveness, and Tarabotti did not shy away from exposing the injustices to women of her day. In response to Francesco Buoninsegni’s 1638 satire Contro’l lusso donnesco (Against Women’s Luxury), Tarabotti wrote Antisatira (published anonymously in 1644), which attacked male dominance by turning each of Buoninsegni’s allegations toward women back on men. By leveraging her connections, she ensured that she was never exposed as the author. Her final work, Che le donne siano della specie degli uomini (1651), also responded to a misogynist text, taking down Valens Acidalius’s argument that women were not human beings and responding with Biblical examples. Tarabotti was thus able to exhibit her inclination to defend women and debate the place of the sexes in theological, literary, and philosophical arenas.
“When women are seen with pen in hand, they are met immediately with shrieks commanding a return to that life of pain which their writing had interrupted, a life devoted to the women's work of needle and distaff.” —Arcangela Tarabotti
The Viola da Gamba Player, believed to be of Barbara Strozzi, by Bernardo Strozzi, ca. 1630–1640
Barbara Strozzi, a gifted literary and musical mind, was uniquely able to package her artistic skills with a proto-feminist spin. In addition to gaining an education, women were able to leverage social and economic mobility if they had careers as musical performers. Strozzi, a soprano known as the virtuosissima cantatrice, set herself even farther apart, creating a large body of original compositions. The high status of her father, Giulio (who was also a poet), enabled Strozzi to travel in the circles of the Venetian elite. This, combined with her substantial training in rhetoric, gave Strozzi a uniquely sophisticated position in Venetian artistic society. Strozzi put her musical and literary talents to good use, creating eight collections of melodically inventive songs, cantatas, and vocal chamber works (more than 150 individual pieces) with beautiful text settings. Each collection of songs was dedicated to a different member of a European political circle, and it is here that Strozzi could present her combined literary and musical artistry. As an unmarried, single mother, Strozzi still remained wary, as evidenced in her Op. 1 dedication to Vittoria della Rovere, Grand Duchess of Tuscany: “I must reverently consecrate this first work, which as a woman, I publish all too anxiously, to the Most August Name of Your Highness, so that under an oak of gold it may rest secure against the lightning bolts of slander prepared for it.” By the time she wrote the dedication to Anna de Medici, Archduchess of Austria, in her Op. 5 collection, Strozzi had become significantly more confident and resolute in her capabilities as a female composer: “Since my feminine weakness restrains me no more than any indulgence of my sex impels me, on the lightest leaves do I fly, in devotion, to bow before you.”
Veronica Franco, Moderata Fonte, Sara Copia Sullam, Arcangela Tarabotti, and Barbara Strozzi were 16th-century female risk-takers. The Venetian Republic provided the framework for them to work within, but each individually contributed intellect and artistry that provoked discussion of gender equality and proto-feminist notions. As part of La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic, you can learn more about all five of these forward-thinking women. On February 10, attend a roundtable discussion with readings from the works of Franco, Fonte, Sullam, and Tarabotti. The next afternoon, on February 11, see the Kairos Italy Theater’s production of Fonte’s Il merito delle donne (The Worth of Women), translated by Virginia Cox. Both events are at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. On February 17, hear the music of Strozzi’s, alongside Monteverdi and other prominent Venetian composers, in a performance by TENET in Weill Recital Hall.