Review: Ingrid Rowland on “The Merits of Women”

from Ingrid Rowland

 “You’re right,” said the Queen … “Ultimately, a man without a woman is like a fly without a head.” 

The creator of this marvelously suggestive simile, Modesta Pozzo, was a sixteenth-century Venetian child prodigy who grew up to publish, prolifically, as Moderata Fonte.  Her Queen is not a real monarch, but rather the thoroughly middle-class hostess of a garden party for six female friends, the fictional setting for a conversation newly republished, in a rollicking translation by Virginia Cox, as The Merits of Women, Wherein is Revealed their Nobility and their Superiority to Men.  Hostess and guests of this gathering are prosperous Venetians, proudly grateful that they live in a republic when most of their contemporaries live in autocratic courts, and they voice their opinions with remarkable freedom.  But Venetian families are not republics; there the men hold power, and these cultured women resent their subordination. The “Queen,” Leonora, a young, attractive widow, declares that she “would rather drown than submit again to a man!”  When newlywed Helena steps out of her gondola, the young matron Cornelia warns her “how quickly a wedding cake can go stale.” Lucretia, who has been married for years, insists at first that “the best thing that can happen to any woman is to be able to live alone, without the company of men,” though she softens her position later.  Nubile Virginia would rather stay single but concedes, “I have to obey the wishes of my family.” “When it comes to that,” replies her mother Adriana, “I’d be quite happy to respect your opinion, but your uncles have decided you must marry, because you’ve inherited such a vast fortune and it needs to be in safe hands, so I really don’t know what else I can do with you.”  The happiest partygoer, Corinna, whose lively intellect mirrors that of her creator, is the woman who has chosen to remain happily and conspicuously single.  Although she is described as a “dimessa,” a laywoman who has taken religious vows, Corinna stands out more for her wide intellectual interests and her authoritative way of speaking than for her piety.  On several occasions, her commanding presence, and her independence, seem to grate on her more conventional hostess, Leonora, who tries to bring everyone back to the official topic of discussion—men—and finally delivers an eloquent speech of her own, in which she hopes to persuade men, with infinite charm, to treat women fairly.  (It is also down-to-earth Leonora who compares a man on his own to a fly without a head.)

Deftly balanced exchanges and telling phrases limn for each woman a distinct personality, but Corinna’s, so close to her inventor’s heart, stands out most brightly.  This studiously single woman’s curiosity and learning extend  from astrology to natural history to interpreting the Bible, an activity permissible in late sixteenth-century Venice as it might not have been elsewhere in Italy.  Thus when Virginia repeats the old saw that Eve caused humanity’s fall from grace, Corinna retorts that Eve ate the apple “with a good end in mind—that of acquiring the knowledge of good and evil.”  Adam, however, “was moved not by this desire for knowledge, but simply by greed: he ate it because Eve said it tasted good, which was a worse motive and caused more displeasure.”  After all, as Corinna had noted, God created Adam from dust, and Eve from living flesh. 

Neither men nor marriage fare well in this lively heptalogue, but then neither did early modern women. The city state of Venice may have been a republic, but that republic was governed entirely by men.  The Dogaressa, the wife of the Doge, Venice’s chief magistrate, had her own duties, but they were purely ceremonial.  Arranged marriages were the norm in early modern Italy, Venice included, negotiated between families around a host of practical considerations that might or might not include the feelings of the bride and groom.  Women supervised the day-to-day management of their households, but ultimate authority, in family matters and in business, lay with the paterfamilias, and within a couple, husbands overruled their wives.  The seven partygoers all agree that the only way to survive within this system is to learn to get along. Realistically, The Merits of Women pleads for greater mutual respect rather than outright revolution.  All seven women “make their devotions” at home before gathering in Leonora’s garden, an indication that, like their creator, they lead impeccably conventional private lives. 

Modesta Pozzo seems to have been as forthright as her Corinna.  Her given name was not an exhortation to modesty; she happened to be born on the feast day of Saint Modestus in 1555.  Orphaned young, she was brought up by nuns and then by a foster family who encouraged her passion for books, but she also excelled in music, drawing, and needlework, a form of drawing in silk.  Her talents bloomed, and so did her wit. As an eight-year-old, she performed in the convent for a corpulent prelate, who exclaimed on the spot that she was such a tiny slip of girl that she seemed to be pure bodiless spirit.  “And you, Sir,” she replied, “seem to be pure spiritless body.”  Fortunately, the prelate was jolly as well as fat, and Modesta learned that candor and charm can be a winning combination.  At the advanced age of twenty-seven she married a Venetian official; within four years, she had borne three children.  Time for writing had to be carved out from her duties as a mother and a prominent lawyer’s wife, but she continued to give birth regularly, as her husband would say, to children of intellect (her books) as well as children of nature. The rather dark picture of marriage she provides in The Merits of Women seems to contrast with her own life, apparently filled with men, from her guardians to her husband, who truly respected her for what she was: a remarkable writer who also graciously carried out her role in conventional society. Perhaps there is a good deal of her in Leonora, too.

A surviving portrait shows her dressed in elaborate lace and brocade, a high stiff collar to frame her head and her hair combed up into two horns.  Leonora, in The Merits of Women, admits that she is “none too keen on that fashion,” but Corinna declares that “when it is done judiciously and with moderation, it sets the face off very charmingly.”  “After all,” she concludes, “women were created to adorn and bring gaiety into the world.”  Which is precisely what Modesta Pozzo did, both as herself and as the extraordinary writer, Moderata Fonte.  Sadly, she died in 1592, just after giving birth to her fourth child—and completing the manuscript of The Merits of Women, a conversation as well worth listening in on now as it was four hundred years ago.

Ingrid D. Rowland is a Professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Global Gateway. Her latest book The Collector of Lives: Giorgio ­Vasari and the Invention of Art, cowritten with Noah Charney, appeared this summer.

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