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THE OTHER VOICE
Giulia Bigolina (ca. 1518-ca. 1569) was a polished writer of prose fiction whose name and work have been recovered only very recently. Although known in her lifetime and admired for her learning, she never published any of her work. Her first printed composition, a novella entitled "Giulia Camposampiero and Tesibaldo Vitaliani," which seems to be part of a longer narrative that was perhaps lost for good, appeared only at the end of the eighteenth century. From then on, there was almost total silence surrounding her persona, and she even began to be confused with a relative of the same name. Yet in the archives of the Biblioteca Trivulziana in Milan and in an eighteenth-century copy at the Vatican Library in Rome, there is the manuscript that was to become her claim to fame, a long prose romance entitled Urania that was published for the first time in 2002. Currently, this romance constitutes, together with the novella "Giulia," the first fiction in prose authored by a woman writer in Italian.
Inside Urania there is also a short treatise on the worth of women. This is chronologically another first in Italy, predating Moderata Fonte's more complex The Worth of Women by perhaps 40 years. Therefore, Urania can be studied not only for its fictionalized rendering of a woman writer's peregrination through the country in search of herself, but also because it constitutes the first feminist entry into the debate on a woman's proper place-politically, culturally, and philosophically-in early modern Italian society.
The prowoman development of Urania definitively makes Bigolina a resonant "other voice" of the European early modern period. It is unfortunate that the decade in which she did most of her writing, the 1550s, was to become notorious in Italy for the works that were not published, as presses became progressively more cautious in bringing out books in light of a powerful Counter-Reformation thrust to control the intelligentsia. But the 1550s was also the decade in which new experiments in long prose narrative by writers like Bigolina from Venice and the Veneto region took place; these set the stage for the development of the Baroque romance-today's psychological novel.
We know very little about Giulia Bigolina. She belonged to a noble Paduan family whose origins went as far back as 1297 and was the daughter of Gerolamo Bigolin and Alvisa Soncin, who must have been married by 1516, since Alvisa's dowry was paid off that year. We do not know how many children they had, but in addition to Giulia, only a younger son, Socrate, born in 1523, reached adulthood. We do not know the precise dates of Giulia's birth either, but we do know that by 1534 she was married to Bartolomeo Vicomercato because he received her dowry that year. Vicomercato was a lawyer from Crema, Lombardy, and we find him listed as a law student at the Studio (University) in Padua in 1533. Thus, in the absence of any precise documentation, I hypothesize that she married at the usual age for Venetian noblewomen in the sixteenth century, at fifteen or sixteen, and therefore that the year of her birth was somewhere around 1518-19.
Although there are many documents about her mother and her brother, those regarding Giulia are scarce and are mostly dated 1542, when a series of notarized acts chronicled the exchange of some of her farming property, which she brought to her marriage in dowry, with that of her brother in the region of Montagnana and Camposampiero. We do not know when Bigolina became a widow, but her husband was still alive in 1555 because the treatise "A ragionar d'amore," in which she appears as one of the three interlocutors, mentions him, as I shall describe below. In any case, she was a widow by 1559 or at the latest by 1561, because she did not mention her husband in a detailed tax survey of her property at that time. Once widowed, she did not remarry. We know of a son, Silvio, who presented the "estimo" of his mother's property in 1561. He was probably the son to whom Bigolina referred in a letter to the famous mathematician Francesco Barozzi, who invited her to a performance in his house in Padua of a comedy he had written. This letter constitutes the last piece of information we have about Bigolina. We know that she was dead by March 21, 1569, because in that tax document she is referred to as "quondam" Giulia Bigolina.
Given the confusion until recently surrounding the biography of Giulia Bigolina, one would imagine that she had no name recognition through the centuries, but this is not the case. The first mention of Bigolina as a poet comes from the authoritative pen of Pietro Aretino, who published three letters he sent to Bigolina between September and October 1549. In the third letter, Aretino acknowledged Bigolina's writing skills by thanking her for the lively sonnet she sent him. Bigolina was praised by the historian Bernardino Scardeone in a book published in 1560, in which he noted her facundia, the grace of her prose, and her facility with the Tuscan tongue. Scardeone also mentioned that her novellas were in the style of Boccaccio, but without any licentiousness. Most of the early critics referred to Bigolina as a poet, although only one of her sonnets has survived, and all of them followed Scardeone's early assessment of her worth as a writer. In 1589, Hercole Filogenio aligned Bigolina with the best-known Renaissance women writers, such as Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, Laura Battiferra, and Laura Terracina; a few years later, in 1605, she seemed a new "fecund Sappho" to the historian Andrea Cittadella; and she was the most eloquent composer of fables, comedies, and amorous pieces in the style of Boccaccio, indeed without peers in her time, according to Pietro Paolo Ribera, writing in 1609.
The first precise dating of Bigolina's literary activity-1558-a year offered without any supporting explanation, came from Francesco Agostino Della Chiesa in 1620, who in Theatro delle donne letterate made of Bigolina's "ingegno" the proof that women could write fiction as qualitatively good as men. In fact, unlike Boccaccio, Della Chiesa argued, even young virginal girls could read her work, because it was written with a sense of decorum, honesty, and modesty. In 1639, Jacopo Filippo Tomasini, the canon responsible for the administration of the newly established library of the Studio of Padua, finally revealed the first title of a novella by Bigolina, "Delle avventure di Panfilo" ("Fabula de Pamphilo"), now lost, written in standard Tuscan and dedicated to the prince of Salerno, a title that recalls Boccaccio's male protagonist of the Elegy of Madonna Fiammetta. Three years later, in 1642, Bigolina became a fictional character herself in Ragguagli di Cipro by Luca Assarino, where she functioned as a delightfully witty literary "secretary" at the court of love in Cyprus, in charge of deciphering a letter by Boccaccio to his beloved Maria.
We have to wait until 1732 for the romance Urania to be mentioned. The citation is in a catalog by Scipione Maffei, an erudite collector, who found the work in the rich Saibante collection in Verona. Then in 1794 the Paduan critic and collector Anton Maria Borromeo wrote that he had a copy of Urania made for his own use from the Saibante manuscript. He also had managed to acquire a yet unknown novella, which he proceeded to publish in his Notizia de' novellieri italiani under the title "La novella di Giulia Bigolina raccontata nello amenissimo luogo di Mirabello." Pietro Piranesi reprinted this novella in Paris in 1823 in a collection called Bellezza delle novelle that included twenty-three authors from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, chosen because they wrote the masterpieces of Italian literature with which, according to him, French readers should be acquainted. Bigolina was then mentioned as having a beautiful style by Melchior Cesarotti in 1796, included in a biography of Paduan writers by Giuseppe Vedova in 1832, written about by the literary critic Bartolomeo Gamba in 1835, and among the ancient novelists listed respectfully by Giambattista Passano in 1864.
The first case of wrong identification, that is, of Bigolina being mistaken for another member of her family, took place in 1741, when in Della storia e della ragione d'ogni poesia, Francesco Saverio Quadrio named Polo, Bigolina's second cousin, as perhaps ("forse") her father, because he may have been a writer himself. In 1840, Napoleone Pietrucci, another Paduan biographer, made a certainty of Quadro's uncertain attribution and from that moment confusion about Bigolina's dates marred her biography. In the twentieth century, Bigolina was included in a detailed catalog of women writers by Maria Bandini Muti, Poetesse e scrittrici, which was published in 1941. Then Paul Oskar Kristeller found the eighteenth-century copy of Urania that was mentioned by Borromeo in the Patetta Fund of the Vatican Library. Finally, in 1982, Gian Ludovico Masetti Zannini transcribed for the first time short passages from the Patetta copy of Urania.
Recently, another work in which Bigolina is present as an interlocutor was found by Kristeller at the Bibliothèque Municipale of Besançon, "A ragionar d'amore." This is a treatise on love in three dialogues that involves two lawyers, Monsignor Perenotto and Monsignor Coraro, and Giulia Bigolina. It may have been written by Mario Melechini, also known as "Il Mutino," who does not participate in the dialogue but names himself in the dedication to his patron, Perenotto. "A ragionar d'amore" includes references to contemporary learned Paduan women of the period around 1550 and names thirteen of them as being able to debate earnestly on love. The two men choose Giulia Bigolina because she reasons and speaks well. But they also establish that she should mostly listen to what is being discussed, a typical trick of treatises of the time in which women were involved mostly as listeners or to confirm the opinion of men with their presence and required assent. The character Bigolina, most probably modeled on the writer's own personality as was often the case, soon proves that she has a mind of her own and starts to intervene, energetically and repeatedly, in the conversation.
Treatises that included women in dialogues on love in those times were almost always from the Veneto region, and Bigolina may have read them. They include such works as Dialogo d'amore (1542) by Sperone Speroni, where Tullia d'Aragona was made to prefer sensual to Neoplatonic love (a position that d'Aragona will refuse when she has the pen in her hand in Dialogue on the Infinity of Love (published in 1547); or Il Raverta (1544) by Giuseppe Betussi, in which Francesca Baffa was often allowed to intervene. Both women were "honest" courtesans and thus had a blemished reputation in love matters, which the authors fully exploited. This was not Bigolina's case, and her character is allowed to discuss in earnest Neoplatonic philosophy and the power of desire along the lines of Leon Ebreo's Dialoghi d'amore (1535). She is also made to cite Homer and from time to time even corrects the two men's assertions. "A ragionar d'amore" was never published, although the text seems complete. Like all documents related to the Perrenot de Granvelle's family, it ended up in their extensive library in Beçancon.
"GIULIA CAMPOSAMPIERO AND TESIBALDO VITALIANI"
The novella "Giulia Camposampiero," which is reproduced here in Italian with facing translation, was first published by Anton Maria Borromeo in 1794 without a title and with just the name of the author and the place in which it was told. Strange as it may sound, no anthology had appeared since the end of the sixteenth century that grouped, however informally, Renaissance novellas, and therefore from the start this collection was an important preliminary assessment of what was still valuable in the genre. "Giulia" was then partially reprinted without the frame and the final sonnet in Bellezza delle novelle by Pietro Piranesi (a few other changes were also made within the text, mostly to tone down explicit sexual meanings) as the "Novella di Giulia Camposanpiero e Vitaliano Tesibaldi," in which the first name of the main male character was confused with the last.
Borromeo clearly identified the author of "Giulia" with the Giulia Bigolina who corresponded with Aretino and was mentioned by Scardeone in 1560 and not with the Giulia Bigolina who lived more than a generation later and married a Camposampiero and who, thanks to a striking coincidence, took after her marriage the same name as the main character in this novella. At that time, in any case, it was not unusual to write novellas using character names taken from historical or journalistic events.
Borromeo was precise in describing where he found the manuscript: in the well-stocked library of the Paduan gentleman Giovanni Lazara. The Lazara (or De Lazara) were the direct heirs of the Bigolini when the family name died in 1650 at the death of Conte. And it is in the Lazara collection now housed at the Biblioteca Civica in Padua that I found the novella (MS 1451, VIII), which is classified as an eighteenth-century manuscript. But the classification is incorrect as the watermark dated 1545 confirms. This is therefore the original sixteenth-century version from which Borromeo had a copy made for publication, a copy that may not have survived, as was often the case. The manuscript, which may be in the hand of Bigolina herself and may have been written shortly after 1545, is composed of sixteen pages (8v. and 8r.) and is in good condition, with no ink stains but a small correction in the concluding sonnet.
We know that "Giulia" is part of a longer work because the frame refers to other novellas and to a group of ladies and gentlemen gathered in the countryside outside Padua. Here the women tell lively tales under the sponsorship of a "queen." The model is the Decameron in which a company of seven ladies and three gentlemen gathered in a locus amoenus near Settignano, outside Florence, to tell stories, as well as Bembo's Asolani, whose idyllic setting in Asolo, north of Padua, is imitated in Bigolina's choice of the fictional place ("amenissimo luogo") of Mirabello, possibly south of Padua. As the context makes clear, each story seems also to have ended with a sonnet/enigma that the teller recites at the end. The form of the sonnet Bigolina uses is an extravagant one, often employed in burlesque poetry, as in the case of Francesco Berni. It is made up of eleven extra verses following the regulation fourteen-a form called a "sonettessa," in which the coda is repeated more than once.
We do not know how many novellas Bigolina wrote with the intention of composing a book of which "Giulia" was a part, although according to her contemporary Scardeone, she wrote many. None has apparently survived, and the book purporting to collect a number of them may in fact never have been written. Books of novellas were very popular at the time in light of the enduring success and many reprints of Boccaccio's Decameron, and Bigolina must have been a voracious reader of them, although, judiciously for a woman of her rank, she shunned the salacious "Boccacceschi" offshoots that contemporary writers often favored.
As we would expect, "Giulia" is very much in tune with contemporary public reading tastes, which went in the direction of the pathetic rather than the tragic. A generation after the composition of "Giulia," Girolamo Bargagli offered a list of the characteristics of the most popular tales told during evening social gatherings ("giuochi") in the period: they had to have sound examples of constancy, goodness of heart, and loyalty ("contengano qualche bello essempio di costanza, di grandezza d'animo e di lealtà"); they had to display great honesty and suffering on the part of women ("quelle che grande onestà e gran sofferenza di donne contengono"); and they were to use the exemplary stories of Ariosto's Ginevra and of Boccaccio's Giletta of Narbona and patient Griselda. In creating her characters, Bigolina is deeply indebted to both authors. For example, in the Giletta story (Decameron 3.9), Boccaccio had a nobleman make love to his wife, Giletta, thinking that she was another woman with whom he had fallen in love. Reversing gender, Bigolina has a woman make love to a man thinking that he is somebody else, a trick that Ariosto had already popularized in the story of Ginevra and Ariodante (Orlando furioso 4, 5). Like Ariosto, Bigolina zeroes in on dissimulation, uses the motif of the joust in which a knight fights incognito, emphasizes the element of secrecy in love matters, and ends by cloistering a female character.
Excerpted from URANIA by Giulia Bigolina Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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