Venetian women writers flourished in the island republic. Whether they wrote in humanist Latin or in the vernacular, they found a generally hospitable audience. However, their social status and family background had crucial implications for their scholarly careers.
Around the mid fifteenth-century a substantial group of wealthy women citizens and from noble families received a sufficiently serious Latin education from humanist tutors to attract the attention and praise of contemporary humanists. Maddalena Scrovegni from Padua and Angela Nogarola d’Arco are a few of the isolated precursors to a larger group of learned women who derived from the leading families of the Venetian Republic such as Isotta Nogarola, Angela’s niece; Ginevra Nogarola, Isotta’s sister; Costanza Barbaro; Costanza Varano and Caterina Caldiera. Their education was viewed as socially ennobling since it could enhance a family’s visibility and cultural standing. Hence, their works were political in character–diplomatic performances with specific dynastic-political ends. Similarly, their highly rhetorical letters were aimed at powerful clans. They also composed poems in Latin which they addressed for the most part to family members. These female scholars corresponded freely with some of the more modest dynastic families and their level of competence in Latin depended on the choice of the individual family. Angela Nogarola, for example, was one of the most highly educated women of her day.
The most substantial surviving epistolary collections in Latin were by Laura Cereta from Brescia and Cassandra Fedele from Venice who were both from the mercantile or citizen ranks in which female learning was the exception. Without any female erudite role models in their lives, it is clear that their education was a personal choice of their families. Cereta’s letters emphasized moral questions and her domestic and family context while Fedele’s letters centered on patronage relations. Isotta Nogarola, too, wrote a letter book in which she interacts principally with male humanists. She also wrote a serious philosophical work (published in 1563) which discusses the relative guilt of Adam and Eve in which she debates the question with the Venetian patrician humanist, Lodovico Foscarini. Cereta also wrote a comic dialogue (1485) called the Asinarium funus (On the Death of an Ass), a parodic funeral oration.
With the rise of vernacular literature in the late fifteenth century, and the vernacular as the dominant literary language in Italy in the early sixteenth century, writers such as Giulia Bigolina and Gaspara Stampa profited from the new technology of printing after 1500. Neither woman’s works, though, was published during her lifetime. Stampa’s poems were published in 1554 by her sister, Cassandra, after her death and they were unusual for their highly erotic content. Bigolina, the author of the romance, Urania, and a novella collection (only one novella has survived), writing in Padua in the 1550s was also extremely unusual owing to the genres (the novella and the epic) in which she wrote. The experimental nature of her work anticipates the later feminist narrative, lyric and dramatic writings of Veronica Franco, Moderata Fonte, Lucrezia Marinella, Arcangela Tarabotti, Maddalena Campiglia, Isabella Andreini and Valeria Miani Negri. While there was a striking decline in the number of published works in the years 1560-1570 when compared to the 1540s and 1550s, Veronica Franco’s poems and letters are one notable exception. So, too, the prolific citizen writer, Moderata Fonte, who wrote in numerable genres—oration, chivalric romance, ottava rima biblical narrative, dramatic libretto, dialogue—and Lucrezia Marinella, who wrote a pastoral romance, the Arcadia, put their city and an all-female creative community at the center of their works. On the whole, women’s writing was overwhelmingly lyric verse. Only the later sixteenth century marked a radical departure from this trend. In response to literary misogyny which had gained in social respectability, Marinella began her long and prolific publishing career in 1595. Her first works included hagiographic narratives, secular and sacred prose and verse, pastoral romance and didactic prose. Her polemical writing includes a work in defense of women, especially the second edition of 1601, which includes a series of combatative essays refuting misogynist texts. This work paved the way for her younger compatriot, the dissident nun, Arcangela Tarabotti, who composed a defense of women in response to a male-authored attack. Sara Copio Sullam, from a wealthy Jewish family, also wrote a polemical Manifesto (1621) addressed to a specified antagonist—the cleric Baldassare Bonifacio—in which she allegedly had disputed the immortality of the soul. Tarabotti’s Antisatira also replied to a satire of female vanity by the Sienese academician, Francesco Buoninsegni. To this can be added her published diatribes against the widespread social practice of committing young girls to convents which were written in this case not in response to preceding male-authored writings but rather as critiques of the socioeconomic realities dictating women’s life choices at the time. In general, Venetian women writers of the early seventeenth century tended to attract public notice as authors only if controversy or scandal were attached to them, as was the case with Sara Copio and Arcangela Tarabotti in the 1640s.
The bulk of this information comes from Virginia Cox, Women’s Writing in Italy, 1400-1650 (Johns Hopkins Press, 2008).