Fashioning Adria, Fashioning Femininity: Venetian Women and the Radicalization of the Querelle des Femmes, 1550–1635
McKenna, Katherine Rose
In 1600, literate Venetian society witnessed the publication of two subversive tracts on gender and marriage by Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella. Both women belonged to Venice’s elect citizen class and both combined matrimony and motherhood with literary careers. When the veneziane broke onto the local print scene, patriarchal hegemony and the primacy of Aristotelian gender ideology in Venice were strong. Three-fifths of the Republic’s elite women were immured in convents. Contemporary science alleged that women were deficient males lacking in reason and self-control. The doors of academic and government institutions were closed to the “other” sex. While European intellectuals had disputed female merit in the querelle des femmes for over a century, the debate on women was primarily a venue of rhetorical gamesmanship rather than social criticism. Venice was the print capital of Europe, but among its subjects men held almost exclusive license to publish. How then did Fonte and Marinella come to successfully produce texts that advanced female claims to intellectual autonomy and questioned contemporary definitions of womanhood? I draw on literary treatises, epic poetry, civic ephemera, and letters to demonstrate that local categories of authorship expanded in relation to sixteenth-century changes to the Republic’s imperial status, print culture, and state mythos. Over the Cinquecento, Venice experienced the diminution of its Mediterranean empire and continental influence thanks to peninsular warfare and the economic widening of the spice and pepper trades. Also, conflict with the Ottoman Empire. I argue that the rise of the secular Venetian woman author and the radicalization of the local querelle correlated to these crises and the state’s related and increasing investment in civic myth as arbiter of its image. Single-author pro-Venice print by secular Venetian and Veneto women first appeared in the 1570s, the decade of the War of Cyprus (1570–1573). As writers like Issicratea Monte and Fonte accessed mythic rhetoric to burnish Venice’s reputation, civic discourse became a tool by which to assert women’s intellectual authority, experiment with genre, and ultimately re-conceptualize the scope of contemporary femininity.