Updated: May 9, 2018
Ten books, countless articles, two sleepless nights and 20 pages later, I finished my first final essay this week. Although I'm not 100% happy with the end product, I've really been amazed at all that I was able to discover about my source, La nobiltà delle donne. I know I could have gone a lot further with it in my paper, but I've done a good job anyway. This is the perfectionist in me kicking in (I've even told myself that I'll rewrite it once I get the comments back from my professor... I probably will...).
When I started this blog a month ago, I posted about this research. I asked myself these four questions:
~Why did Domenichi write this text?
~Who was the intended audience?
~Did Violante Bentivolgio play a significant role in the debate?
~Was Pierfrancesco Visconte (an interlocutor depicted as an enemy of those Domenichi cast as sensible, gentlemanly defenders of the female sex) right in saying that honouring women was "più cerimonioso, che necessario" (more ceremonious than necessary)?
I didn't realize how crucial these questions would be (and, damn, I wish I focused on them more in my essay).
I also mentioned a bit of background information: most importantly that this was a fictional dialogue held between real people and that Domenichi had been, and still is, accused of plagiarism for this text. These types of dialogues and debates were common at the time, and my research has shown that countless male authors took on the subject of female nobility or virtue, including Boccaccio and Tasso. Domenichi was accused of plagiarising Agrippa's text, published in 1529, called Declamatio de nobilitate & precellentia Fœminei sexus. Due to this, there isn't that much to be found about him or La nobiltà from my current position as an undergraduate student in Montreal. Luckily, my professor (the one who introduced me to this text) wrote her thesis on it and was willing to spend quite a bit of time talking to me about it.
When I originally started drafting my text, I agreed with Pierfrancesco: this debate (so, the text in general) was more ceremonious than necessary. Much of my research showed that the discussion on female worth and virtue amongst learned, intellectual aristocratic men was just an exercise. In short, it was a ceremonious practice that set them apart from other men who were less "gentlemanly" or "virtuous."
It was not necessary because, in the end, they did not seek to truly defend women.
However, as I found out more about Domenichi - or as much as I could with somewhat limited sources - and as I read the text, I realized that there was something different about him. First, he was part of the group of poligrafi (polygraphs). These were intellectuals involved in publishing, writing and editing who wrote on a variety of subjects. Through secondary sources, I found that poligrafi were distant and quite opposed to the courtly culture of the aristocracy. Second, he didn't just talk the talk: he published the first anthology of women's writing with his publisher, Giolito. As a poligrafo, he would have had contact with female authors. Therefore, his audience may have included these women.
I started to piece all this information together, and I wondered where Domenichi fit in this complex society. Despite those differences, he still followed the standard set by courtly traditions: he dedicated his book to a nobleman who would give it credibility (although I wasn't able to find any information on him, so I can't say what position this patron held or what kind of person he was); he identified himself with this group of gentlemanly cavalieri; he used much of the same arguments that others had used before him (mythological, historical and religious examples of great women, but no - or hardly any - contemporary ones); and he did not give Violante a very large role (although, she did initiate the debate and did respond to/verbally attack Pierfrancesco on occasion). In these types of texts, women were usually silent. If they did speak up, it was to thank their male defenders for standing up for the female sex, which Violante did do.
I just feel in the pit of my stomach that there is something deeper here. Pierfrancesco's comment on the necessity versus the ceremonial nature of this debate was what originally struck me; and it's what I wondered about throughout this entire process. Of course, although these were real people, it was Domenichi's hand giving them their voices and opinions. His thoughts are somewhere within this text.
As I read the introduction to the second book two years ago, I believed that it was Domenichi scolding people for not believing in the nobility of women. He was upset: why, he asked, do people simply believe what they are told rather than seeking to understand what they are being told? He gave the example of students who do things a certain way because "the teacher said so." Instead, he argued, they should understand what they are doing and come up with their own conclusions. I thought this was a comment on how people had long negated the nobility of women because they had been told for centuries that they were less than men (he discussed "the ancients" quite often, meaning the Ancient Greeks and, specifically, Aristotle who believed women were the weaker sex/duality). Instead, I now think that his commentary was meant for something larger: on the ceremonial nature of the debate in general. I think that it may have been a comment on the absurdity of the situation in general. But this is just me speculating.
So much more research has to be done on this text! Unfortunately, although I'm super interested in it, this is not my main area of study. So I leave the door open to someone else. If you're interested in this topic, you can find the entire La nobiltà manuscript online here. There are lots of great secondary sources on the topic, especially by Virginia Cox and Androniki Dialeti, and tons of books of collected essays. The ones I found most interesting were Women and Men in Renaissance Venice by Stanley Chojnacki, Strong Voices, Weak History edited by Pamela Joseph Benjamin and Victoria Kirkham, and Women in Italian Renaissance Culture and Society edited by Letizia Panizza.
Edit: I worked alongside a wonderful team of students and professors on the Querelle project, transcribing and preparing La nobiltà for the website. Check it out here.