The Contest for Knowledge: Debates over Women's Learning in Eighteenth-Century Italy

The Contest for Knowledge: Debates over Women's Learning in Eighteenth-Century Italy

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At a time when women were generally excluded from scholarly discourse in the intellectual centers of Europe, four extraordinary female letterate proved their parity as they lectured in prominent scientific and literary academies and published in respected journals. During the Italian Enlightenment, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Giuseppa Eleonora Barbapiccola, Diamante Medaglia Faini, and Aretafila Savini de' Rossi were afforded unprecedented deference in academic debates and epitomized the increasing ability of women to influence public discourse.

The Contest for Knowledge reveals how these four women used the methods and themes of their male counterparts to add their voices to the vigorous and prolific debate over the education of women during the eighteenth century. In the texts gathered here, the women discuss the issues they themselves thought most urgent for the equality of women in Italian society specifically and in European culture more broadly. Their thoughts on this important subject reveal how crucial the eighteenth century was in the long history of debates about women in the academy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226010564
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/01/2007
Series: The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
File size: 614 KB

About the Author

Rebecca Messbarger is associate professor of Italian at Washington University in St. Louis. Paula Findlen is Ubaldo Pierotti Professor in Italian History at Stanford University.

Read an Excerpt

Debates over Women's Learning in Eighteenth-Century Italy

By Maria Gaetana Agnesi Giuseppa Eleonora Barbapiccola Diamante Medaglia Faini Aretafila Savini de' Rossi
Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-01054-0

Chapter One

Woman has an extra-fine intellect, But the shrewd man will not let her study. If woman were educated, sorry man Would be seen to spin at the distaff. And if a woman uses her intellect, Man will be on the bottom and woman on top. -Carlo Goldoni


During the course of the Italian Enlightenment (1700-1789), four women, Giuseppa Eleonora Barbapiccola, Aretafila Savini de' Rossi, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, and Diamante Medaglia Faini, joined the vigorous and prolific debate over the education of women waged by learned men across the peninsula. These enlightened letterate epitomize the unprecedented authority attained by women during the Settecento within the academic establishment and their increasing ability to influence the public discourse. In sharp contrast to the restricted presence of women in centers for intellectual exchange in the past and in other contemporary European countries, they asserted arguments in favor of the education of their sex within the leading institutions that constituted the Enlightenment Republic of Letters-in the pages of respected scholarly publications and from the lecterns of scientific and literary academies to which they belonged. This shift in the locus of women's defenses of women from the perimeters to the hubs of intellectual exchange is paralleled by their rhetoric and arguments, which, with rare exceptions, scrupulously adhere to the ruling discursive conventions in their moderation of tone and their commitment to rational critical analysis founded on esperienze and aimed, ultimately, at practical social reform. Individually and as a whole, these four arguments in defense of women's learning elucidate women's evolving agency and discursive strategies in the pivotal contest for knowledge during the Italian Enlightenment.


The same cannot be said for the earlier querelle des femmes instituted by men and typified by such misogynist harangues as Giuseppe Passi's On Feminine Defects (1599). In The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men (1600), the Venetian writer and scholar Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653) countered Passi's thirty-five chapters point by point, opposing his descriptions of such wicked women as the jealous, the ambitious, the lustful, the inconstant, the hateful, the thieving, the tyrannical, and the hypocritical with thirty-five chapters of her own defending women's virtue and castigating male villainy and abuse. From her convent cell, Marinella's Venetian contemporary, Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-52) similarly rebutted Valens Acidalius's exasperated misogynist tract A New Disputation against Women Which Proves That They Are Not Human. Tarabotti's vigorous and systematic counter-argument, That Women Are of the Same Species as Men, refuted "word by word, argument by argument, and concept by concept" each of her opponent's "deceptions" with "counterproofs" derived from scripture and common truth. In 1600, the year in which Marinella published The Nobility and Excellence of Women, Moderata Fonte, another celebrated Venetian, constructed a literary refuge from the plague of male abuse in her fictional dialogue The Worth of Women. However, the target of Fonte's fictional conversation among seven women secluded in a palace garden was not a single male adversary but the entrenched misogynist tradition, both literary and actual.

As the titles of these arguments for and against women make plain, the worth, the integrity, and, indeed, the very humanity of the female sex were at issue in the seventeenth-century Italian querelle des femmes. Constance Jordan has demonstrated that both sides of the quarrel invoked the authority of natural and divine law, and mined both scripture and the classical master narratives, especially the work of Plato and Aristotle, for proofs of women's inherent virtue or corruption and their inferiority, equality, or even superiority to men. Writers in the genre commonly compiled catalogs of illustrious and infamous women from miscellaneous sources-historical, religious, and mythological-to establish women's intrinsic nature and appropriate roles. Indeed, as Jordan, Ruth Kelso, Marc Angenot, Linda Woodbridge, Virginia Cox, and others have shown, before the Enlightenment, the dispute about women constituted a genre with set themes, tropes, and authorities that academicians often exploited to display their rhetorical skill and ingenuity, at times even arguing both sides of the debate.

EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY EXTENSIONS AND TRANSFORMATIONS OF THE CONTROVERSY illuministi undertook a modernization of the terms and methods of the querelle, effectively developing a new "science of woman," an offshoot of the flourishing "science of man." They applied the principles of modern medicine, physiology and anatomy, natural philosophy, economics, and political and social ethics in an effort to determine women's practical value and her appropriate roles in modern society and the state. The empirical method served the pursuit of the "facts" of feminine difference, difference translated in the terms of the Enlightenment project itself.

For the authoritative intellectual class of the illuministi, the crux of the "woman question" shifted in the eighteenth century from women's inherent "worth" to their practical functions and their potential influence over the collective welfare-the "public good" or "bene pubblico." Noted male intellectuals across the peninsula discussed women's proper role in contemporary society, both as a crucial subject in its own right and in relation to such pressing contemporary issues as public health, education, child rearing, birth rates, the private and the public economies, social morality, bourgeois consumerism, and the nature and duties of citizenship. Luciano Guerci rightly states that "those who wrote about marriage, breast-feeding, conversations, the education of women, etc., did so well aware that they were confronting issues fundamental to the organization of society." Indeed, of all the "old questions" revised and revisited during the Italian Enlightenment, the "woman question" stood at the center of public debate.

The currency and ubiquity of these issues are evident in the number and prominence of the letterati who formally addressed them. Participants in the controversy included the Venetian poet, prose writer, gazetteer, and critic Gasparo Gozzi; the Paduan scientist and philosopher Antonio Conti; the Milanese political economist, journalist, and government official Pietro Verri; the Venetian playwrights Carlo Goldoni and Pietro Chiari; the Neapolitan political theorist Gaetano Filangieri; the Venetian writer and adventurer Giovanni Casanova; the Milanese economist Carlo Sebastiano Franci; and the Venetian intellectual and cosmopolitan Francesco Algarotti.

This is not to say, however, that the vehement misogyny expressed a century earlier by Passi and Acidalius vanished during the Italian Enlightenment. Echoes of the seventeenth-century misogynists' discourse clearly survive in numerous popular texts of the Settecento. Foremost among these are Ferdinando Galiani's semiserious tract Croquis d'un dialogue sur les femmes with its description of women as sick, weak and, indeed, deranged animals; the soidisant anti-philosophe Giuseppe Antonio Constantini's Lettere critiche commanding men to subjugate those "haughty, deceitful female beasts"; and Diunilgo Valdecio's nearly seven thousand rhyming verses vilifying women as the Ruin of Humanity (Lo scoglio dell'umanità). But the illuministi generally viewed these texts as frivolous and outmoded and consigned them to the margins of contemporary intellectual debate.

In contrast with the rhetorical formality and practical inconsequence of the querelle des femmes, the eighteenth century witnessed relatively little controversy about women's educability and ample debate over what and how much they should be taught. The illuministi increasingly viewed educating women as a reasonable and practical way to improve both the private and the public welfare. In the words of illuminista Pier Domenico Soresi, women were the "linchpin of public happiness" through their roles as guardians of the hearth, a site deemed by another Enlightenment thinker, Melchiorre Delfico, the new "cradle of [modern] deportment and reason." Limited academic preparation for women thus gained broad acceptance as necessary to help them educate the nation's young and manage their household economies. However, some illuministi went further and considered the education of women crucial to the refinement of social life and to cultural progress generally. In the Age of Sociability, as it was known, the influence of women, especially those from the upper classes, extended beyond the home to shape social life in limited but pivotal ways. Women often joined men in the elite art of the "conversazione"; they consumed material and cultural commodities-from fashionable goods to fashion magazines; and they entered the Enlightenment Republic of Letters with new authority and in unprecedented numbers.


When Marinella, Tarabotti, and Fonte put their quills to paper to castigate men's abuse of women, they wrote from the cultural borderline, as isolated and remote voices. Tarabotti was physically sequestered in her convent cell, but all three could be said to have occupied the private and obscure terrain that Margaret King so eloquently describes as the "book-lined cell." By contrast, the eighteenth century in Italy witnessed a marked relaxation of the borders that separated female from male writers and intellectuals. In other parts of Europe, notably France and England, women intellectuals exerted their influence in the shadow academic world of the salon because they were forbidden entry into academies and universities. In Italy, though, a number of learned Italian women achieved true institutional authority, beginning perhaps in 1678, when the thirty-two-year-old Paduan aristocrat Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646-84) became the first woman to receive a university degree. More than twenty thousand spectators, including native and foreign political and ecclesiastical leaders, heard her defend her thesis in philosophy and saw her admitted into the rarefied, hitherto wholly masculine, domain of the Paduan studiosi. To acknowledge her unique achievement, several scientific and literary academies made her a member, including the Academy of the Ricovrati of Padua, among whose founders had been the patriarch of the "new science," Galileo Galilei. Although the University of Padua closed its doors to women less than a year later, Cornaro Piscopia's admission into the academic establishment signaled an opening, narrow as it may have been, of an institutional acceptance of learned women that continued throughout the century.

When Laura Bassi Veratti (1711-78) became the second woman to receive a university degree in 1732, women had become increasingly present within the centers of intellectual exchange. Bassi defended her degree in philosophy at the University of Bologna before an elite crowd that included the Bolognese Senate and civic, cultural, and church leaders. Subsequently, the Senate appointed her lecturer of universal philosophy and designated her an honorary member of the Bolognese Academy of Sciences. In 1745 Pope Benedict XIV appointed her as a regular member of the Benedettini of the Academy of Sciences, a separate society he had established that year to distinguish the leaders of the Bolognese scientific community. As part of her civic duties as Bologna Minerva, Bassi presented Latin treatises at the Institute of Sciences and lectures at public anatomies, frequently on Newtonian optics and physics, on which she was a recognized expert. In 1776 she was named professor of experimental physics in the Institute of Sciences. After Bassi, the legal scholar Maria Pellegrina Amoretti (1756-87), the Newtonian philosopher Cristina Roccati (1734-1814), and the classics scholar Clotilde Tambroni (1758-1817) also received university professorships, and several other learned women were appointed to posts at the University of Bologna. Pope Benedict XIV, the former Archbishop of Bologna and a zealous advocate of modern scientific study, had been instrumental in bringing about Bassi's appointment to the university. Later, he sought to install the Milanese mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-99) as honorary chair of mathematics, but Agnesi declined the offer. He also sanctioned the appointment of Anna Morandi Manzolini (1714-74), the internationally known anatomist and anatomical wax modeler, as lecturer of anatomical design at the University of Bologna.

As the century advanced, so did women's presence in elite academic institutions, a development unquestionably linked to the growing influence of Enlightenment ideals and their social and political practice. Growing numbers of women, Italian and foreign alike, were inducted into the most prestigious Italian scientific and literary academies. Even more impressively, Bianca Laura Saibante Vannetti (1723-99) and Clelia del Grillo Borromeo (1684-1777) founded, respectively, the Academy of the Agiati of Rovereto and the Academy of the Vigilanti. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Arcadia Academy, which was founded in 1690 at the inspiration of Queen Christina of Sweden but whose colonies eventually spanned the peninsula, had become a center of literary production and exchange shaped by the presence of women. As Elisabetta Graziosi has observed, this discursive site, where the poetic voices of the shepherdesses vied equally with those of shepherds, "relegated to the past the misogynistic closure of the seventeenth-century Italian intellectual class." The crowning in 1776 as poet laureate of the Arcadian improviser Corilla Olimpica (Maria Maddelena Morelli Fernandez, 1727-1800), the only woman in Italy ever to achieve this distinction, shows the real and symbolic institutional gains women had made by the last quarter of the century.


Excerpted from THE CONTEST FOR KNOWLEDGE by Maria Gaetana Agnesi Giuseppa Eleonora Barbapiccola Diamante Medaglia Faini Aretafila Savini de' Rossi Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Series Editors' Introduction
The Italian Enlightenment Reform of the Querelle des Femmes
Volume Editors' Bibliography
  I. Giuseppa Eleonora Barbapiccola
Translator's Introduction
The Translator to the Reader: Preface to René Descartes's Principles of Philosophy (1722)
  II. The Debate of the Academy of the Ricovrati
Translator's Introduction
To the Gracious Reader, from Giovanni Antonio Volpi (1729)
Antonio Vallisneri, Introduction on the Problem: Should Women Be Admitted to the Study of the Sciences and the Liberal Arts (1723)
Giovanni Antonio Volpi, Protest Regarding His Academic Discourse on the Education of Women (1729)
Antonio Vallisneri, Judgment on the Problem (1723)
  III. Aretafila Savini de' Rossi 
Translator's Introduction
Apology in Favor of Studies for Women, against the Preceding Discourse by Signor Antonio Volpi (1723)
  IV. Maria Gaetana Agnesi
Translator's Introduction
The Studies of the Liberal Arts by the Female Sex Are by No Means Inappropriate (1727)
  V. Diamante Medaglia Faini
Translator's Introduction
An Oration on Which Studies Are Fitting for Women (1763)

Series Editors' Bibliography

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