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  • Women in Arcadia
  • Susan M. Dixon (bio)

The first Italian academy to admit women was the Accademia degli Arcadi. Founded in 1690, the Arcadian Society was primarily an institution dedicated to the reform of Italian literature. For almost forty years after its founding, the heyday of the Society’s growth and activity, it fostered and promoted the poetic output of its female members. Arcadian women produced at least eight percent of the literature printed in the organization’s official publications. Even after the mid-eighteenth century, when the Academy’s prestige and presence in Italian society had waned, some of the shepherdesses or pastorelle, as the female members were called, were well known in literary circles. Maria Maddelena Morelli, better known by her Arcadian pseudonym Corilla Olimpica, was crowned as poet laureate on the Capitoline Hill in 1776. She shared this honor with two other poets: Petrarch, crowned in 1341, and Bernardo Perfetti, a fellow Arcadian, in 1725. 1

Little scholarly attention has been paid to this most uncommon quality: the considerable number of female Arcadians and their professional accomplishments. I believe this has much to do with the seemingly inconsistent and elusive nature of the Society. It was primarily a literary academy whose tenets called for a rejection of baroque conceits in favor of clear language, simple form, and an unexaggerated content. The women who were admitted were expected to be poets committed to this mode of writing. In addition, the Academy saw literary reform as related to larger societal reform, and it maintained a corollary goal to cultivate or sustain the study of the sciences—mathematics, astronomy, physics, jurisprudence and history—to that end. Its enlightened goals and rhetoric, however, seem to be contradicted by its courtly associations and habits. The secondary literature is polarized in assessing the institution either as frivolous and ineffectual, and under the machinations of the Papal court, or as effective in varying degrees at introducing enlightened ideas into an often censorious Papal Rome. 2 The women of Arcadia have been overlooked in the debate.

In an attempt to encourage more research on the topic, this paper will outline the activity of Arcadian women. 3 Because the bulk of the information regarding the Society comes from the Society itself, the task is a bit problematic. The Accademia degli Arcadi officially represented its female members in two ways, as two very different kinds of Arcadian inhabitants. They [End Page 371] are both: pastorelle, whose literary accomplishments were as competent and deserving of publication as those of the pastori, their male counterparts; and nymphs, who instigated and played courtly games. This dual role seems further evidence of the complex and elusive agenda of the Society. The Academy’s attitude toward women was both egalitarian in recognizing their status as professional poets and traditional in its insistence on defining typical feminine behavior.

During the first thirty-eight years of the organization’s history when the Society was under the custodianship of Giovanni Maria Crescimbeni, seventy-four women were admitted. 4 As the total membership in 1728 was 2,419, women then constituted just under three percent of its membership. While this percentage may seem small, it should be noted that after 1711, when significant numbers of Arcadians defected because of ideological differences, Crescimbeni instituted a campaign to increase the membership dramatically. Therefore, among the 2,419, there were many titular members, or members who met only the minimum requirements. 5 The population of writers and poets, that is, that portion of members with whom the women shared professional skills, is difficult to calculate given the records, but I estimate that women constituted about eight percent of that population.

There were five ways to be admitted to the Academy, and one was reserved for women. Female candidates were nominated before the Collegio, a small elite deciding body within the Academy. The individual colleghi then cast their votes secretly. At least six memberships per year were reserved for female candidates. This method of accepting pastorelle was more guarded than others; for example, some nominations were put before the full assembled Adunanza and decided by acclamation. The secret balloting was enacted “to avoid prejudices,” presumably to counter the nominator’s...

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