Women in the Garden: Moderata Fonte and the Role of Boccaccio’s "Decameron" in "Il merito delle donne"
McKenna, Katherine Rose
In 1600, literate Venetian society witnessed the publication of Moderata Fonte’s dialogue Il merito delle donne. Set in a sun-splashed garden, the text features a brigata of women who spar over the merits of men and married life under the auspices of a queen elected to guide the day’s conversation. The characters split into two camps, the first of which is charged with “speaking as much evil as possible of [men],” the other with defending the traditional preeminence of Italian husbands, fathers, and sons. The debate that ensues is both playful and witty, but its frivolity masks a serious purpose; beneath the rhetorical quips and jabs beats an insistent feminist critique of patriarchal hegemony. Through Corinna, the dialogue’s most authoritative speaker, Fonte incites women to “wake up and recover our liberty, along with the honor and dignity that [men] have usurped from us.” She questions contemporary notions of womanhood and claims female intellectual equality. Il merito’s entre into the querelle des femmes marked an important step in women’s historic struggle to be recognized as fully-human and the dialogue has recently begun to attract scholarly attention; however its generative ties to the work of Giovanni Boccaccio has not been studied. This paper examines the relationship between Il merito and the Decameron. I argue that Fonte appropriated the Decameron’s frame and its ideation of female license in the Valle delle Donne to construct Il merito’s alternative vision of a Venice in which women possess the autonomy to reassess traditional gender roles.