Lisa Kaborycha. A Corresponding Renaissance: Letters Written by Italian Women, 1375-1650. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 320 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-934243-3.
Reviewed by Jennifer Cavalli (Pacific Lutheran University)
Published on H-Italy (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Brian J. Maxson (East Tennessee State University)
Lisa Kaborycha’s A Corresponding Renaissance: Letters Written by Italian Women, 1375-1650 begins with a brief line from a 1630 letter of Sister Maria Celeste to her father Galileo Galilei. In it, the nun requests “familiar letters.” With this single line and request from a much longer letter and much longer pattern of correspondence between daughter and father, Kaborycha sets up the unifying themes of the present study. Near the far end of the date range of the volume, the letter represents what scholars of women’s history have accepted for decades, that “traditional chronological limits may not always apply” (p. 25). Maria Celeste corresponds as a daughter on personal matters in this particular letter, but it is implied that elsewhere she participates in correspondence in her capacity as a nun on practical and spiritual matters, underscoring the multiple perspectives and roles from which women wrote. The letter requests “familiar” letters, which establishes the context of Renaissance epistolography and the popularity of the familiar letter as a genre, and shows women’s engagement in and command of a “quintessentially Renaissance activity” (p. 1). The latter also speaks to access to formal education, literacy, and a connection to the broad cultural innovations of her time. Within this framing, Kaborycha “considers the Renaissance through the practice of letter writing, or epistolography as it is also called,” situating women’s letters as representative of the cultural achievements of the Renaissance (p. 2). In so doing, Kaborycha pursues her goal of offering a new perspective on women’s contribution to Renaissance culture “that corresponds with the well-known male-dominated cultural movement,” constituting as her title suggests, a “corresponding Renaissance” (p. 2).
Throughout the introduction, Kaborycha develops each of the characteristics the line from Maria Celeste’s letter suggests, including letter writing as an essential practice in the Renaissance, women’s access to and mastery of the art form, education and literacy rates, the complexity and overlap of female authors’ motivation and need to write letters, and women’s knowledge of the variety of information and ideas letters communicated. She contextualizes the letters with a broad history of letter writing and then moves into the issues most pressing for women writers. Under her first heading, “A Brief History of Letter Writing,” Kaborycha introduces the importance of the letter for economic and political organization in the ancient world and then offers an extended discussion of private, or “familiar” letters, in ancient Rome. She includes two brief excerpts from letters of Cicero and Seneca to support the notion that familiar letters sought to bridge distance between correspondents and the permeability of barriers between public and private with letter readership. She notes the drop in frequency of letter writing, as well as decreased diversity among those who were writing, through the early Middle Ages, and then the return of its frequency around 1000 CE with the revival of urbanity and increased commerce, the rise of the university, and the development of the ars dictiminis (p. 5). Petrarch’s rejection of the ars dictiminis, humanism and the humanist Latin letter, the increase in literacy rates tied to education in Italy, and the technology of paper occupy the rest of this first section. Kaborycha then turns to a section on “Letter Writing in Sixteenth-Century Italy” where she discusses the printing centers of Venice and Rome, the popularity of the familiar letter book genre in Italy, and circulation numbers of printed books. Describing how Pietro Arentino, who is credited with popularizing the vernacular letter, broke with formal conventions, Kaborycha highlights the use of the vernacular familiar letter and the development of a new genre that showed “the private writings of one individual acquiring an authorial voice that had worth” (p. 11), which invited participation from a wider population, including many women.
In this larger context of the history of letter-writing and its sixteenth-century characteristics, Kaborycha turns to the issues and conventions that affected and influenced women’s access to writing and the form of their letters. In the sections titled “Renaissance Women’s Writing and Reading,” “Letter Writing, a ‘Natural’ Form of Expression for Women?,” and “A Renaissance of One’s Own,” she takes up women’s access to education and literacy skills, how women’s letters were commonly perceived, the complications of marriage, and the effects economic and social constraints and exile could have on a woman across her life span. She begins her discussion at the height of publication of women’s writings during the sixteenth century, with a graph detailing publications throughout Europe, a chart of titled “Italian Women’s Single-authored Letter Collections Published 1450-1650,” and the emergence of the woman writer as a legitimate and sought after authorial voice. She ties the amount of writing women did and the popularity and demand for female-authored texts to the higher literacy rate of women in Italy compared to the rest of Europe. The latter includes an overview of access to schooling, education and extended stays in convents known as serbanza, and the importance placed on education in vernacular literature for women in the sixteenth century. She contrasts the perceived naturalness of women’s letters in the vernacular, in which “women were believed to write simply as they spoke,” to the extreme unnaturalness for “women to express their words in print at a time when they were discouraged even from public speech” (p. 20). The impact of print and the larger audience it brought allowed women to make claims for themselves as individuals and for women overall. It is these larger claims about female experience that Kaborycha uses to organize the letters she presents. She asserts that if there is anything natural about women’s letters, it is their unstudied nature, writing, “While some Renaissance women used the written word to voice polemics and enter into the arena of public debate or, in the case of female rulers, to write letters of state, the vast majority had more common, everyday objectives in mind when they sat down to write a letter” (p. 21).
Kaborycha’s criteria in selecting letters was to offer “snapshots of individual women’s lives and illuminate aspects of Renaissance society and culture as experienced by women as a whole” (p. 24). There are a total of fifty-five letters throughout the eight chapters. The addressees of the letters include family members, both male and female, lovers, confessors, friends, and spouses. Each chapter ranges in number of letters from five (2: “Humanism and Its Discontents”) to nine (5: “Love and Friendship”), and the dates range from Catherine of Siena with a 1378 letter (chapter 1, letter 1) to Elena Lucrezia Corner Piscopia with a 1679 letter (chapter 8, letter 55). Each chapter begins with introductory context that addresses the letters as a whole and what they show with respect to the chapter titles: 1: “The Active Versus the Contemplative Life”; 2: “Humanism and Its Discontents”; 3: “Governing the Household/Governing the State”; 4: “Mothers and Children”; 5: “Love and Friendship”; 6: “Literature and Leisure”; 7: “Art: Patrons and Painters”; 8: “Inquiring Minds: Science and Philosophy.” The background of each author is carefully reconstructed and letters are set in both the larger context of the author’s literary and epistolary production and the particular context of the selected letter’s contents. Some of the women included in the volume wrote many letters, such as Veronica Gambara and Vittoria Colonna. In such cases, Kaborycha sticks to the expressions that characterize the chapter headings. With Colonna, who appears in chapter 5, Kaborycha explains that her selection was determined by highlighting Colonna’s relationship with Michaelangelo and thus her interest in the visual arts, instead of “exquisite examples of epistolary style, potent expressions of feeling, or descriptions of striking contemporary events” (p. 26). In other cases, the letter that appears in the volume is the only surviving letter of the author, such as in the case of Marietta Corsini (chapter 5, letter 29). Kaborycha includes voices little heard, such as Cecelia Liconella (chapter 5, letter 28) and Margherita Aratori (chapter 7, letter 45). Moreover, while some of the authors are well known for other types of writing, such as Veronica Franco (chapter 4, letter 24) and Olimpia Fulvia Morata (chapter 1, letter 5), the focus on epistolary production brings a complexity to women’s lived experience, at times revealing personal and professional struggle, as well as a variety of motivations and various modes of self-representation. For example, the widow Maria Salviati’s motivation for her 1531 letter to a Giovanni (chapter 3, letter 17) was to resist family pressure to remarry. Cassandra Chigi, on the other hand, looks to her mother and family resources to ease the economic constraints of raising seven children in the country after her husband was banished from Siena in 1539 (chapter 4, letter 23). The painter Artemisia Gentileschi focuses her letter to a patron on her professional persona and abilities, revealing extensive knowledge of the business aspect of the art world (chapter 7, letter 48). Responding to a request for a discount, Gentileschi writes, “I must say that the higher the price, the harder I will strive to make a painting pleasing to Your Most Illustrious Lordship and which will suit my taste and yours” (p. 228).
This volume makes several contributions to the scholarship on Renaissance women, one of which is the overall smooth readability and contemporary language of the translations. The biggest contribution of this volume, however, is Kaborycha’s integration of women across life and social spectrums in and across her chapters. As she notes in her introduction to the volume, the majority of the women included came from privilege. Yet she weaves commonality, and also difference, among the women’s lives through chapter headings derived neither from the letters themselves nor from the exceptionality of the more famous women contained within the book. Instead, she chooses to categorize the letters under shared human experience. She underscores these links by referencing letters and authors in the introductory material to each chapter, proposing additional connections and configurations of experience, and suggesting directions for further research. Thus Kaborycha aims to weave two main threads. One thread is marked by showing women as writers with active and reflective minds, thereby revealing the complexities of female life experience. The second thread is marked by placing women, through their correspondence, in the midst of the art of letter writing at the heart of Renaissance Italy, without which “the cultural achievements for which the Renaissance is so famous could not have taken place” (p. 2). In doing so, she meets her goal of demonstrating the “corresponding Renaissance” for women within and through the practice of correspondence. Yet the volume she produces pushes past this aim. By organizing around life experience and integrating a multitude of voices from various points in the life span, Kaborycha minimizes the exceptionalism with which many of the women represented in the volume have been categorized. Instead, she shows how women made sense of their lives and their voices—domestic, spiritual, professional, intellectual, artistic—and the type of authority and agency that accompanied each.
Placing the volume within the debates that address the existence of a Renaissance for women, Kaborycha links her study with the growing collection of studies on women writers, especially The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe, 1300-1700 series, studies of the institutional spaces women occupied, such as convent studies, and digitalization projects that are uncovering women’s contributions to art and cultural production, including the Isabella d’Este Archive (IDEA) and the Medici Archive Project’s Jane Fortune Research Program on Women Artists. Additional features of the volume support its use for both students and scholars interested in women’s and Italian Renaissance history, female authors and Renaissance literature, gender studies, and early modern communication networks. Along with the graph on women’s publishing and chart of letter collections mentioned above, the preliminary pages contain a map with the origin and destination of letters. Between the acknowledgments and introduction there are ten glossy plates that depict women in the household and the convent, women as educators in the home, including Florentine alphabet cookies, women as writers, in painting, in manuscript, and in print. The bibliography is expansive but perhaps the most helpful and welcome feature is the suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter. The suggestions are tailored to each letter, with listings organized under individual authors, providing a tangible starting point for further research and allowing for quick cross reference.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-italy.
Jennifer Cavalli. Review of Kaborycha, Lisa, A Corresponding Renaissance: Letters Written by Italian Women, 1375-1650.
H-Italy, H-Net Reviews.
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