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Reviewed by:
  • Gendered Contexts: New Perspectives in Italian Cultural Studies
  • Valeria Finucci
Laura Benedetti, Julia Hairston & Silvia Ross, eds. Gendered Contexts: New Perspectives in Italian Cultural Studies. New York: Peter Lang, 1996

This collection of essays constitutes a welcome addition to the ever growing publication on Italian literature read from a gendered perspective. The result, partly, of two conferences organized by the graduate students of Italian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and held in Baltimore respectively in 1990 and 1992, Gendered Contexts presents an array of authors and genres from the 14th to the 20th century. The organization of the essays is chronological, from Boccaccio’s Decameron to Francesca Sanvitale’s Madre e figlia, with two methodological pieces placed at the start of the volume. The first is by Luisa Muraro, the keynote speaker at the 1992 conference, on the symbolic order of the mother, and the second is by Itala Rutter on feminist practices in Italy in the last thirty years. The other contributions limit their scope to specific authors or works; one essay focuses on cinema studies. All pieces are uniformly short, the general length being of 9–10 pages plus notes.

The size of the essays constitute, as it can be imagined, both a blessing and a problem. On the plus side, the coeditors are able to register a wide range of voices and critical positions spread throughout seventeen articles—an intellectual feast. On the minus side, the essays are too short for any sustained reflection—literary, social, philological, philosophical, or political—on any given author or genre. Thus, in this sense, the different contributions function more as written testimonials of how thriving the field of Italian studies has become than as road maps for further explorations.

Canonical and non canonical authors are mixed in this collection with intriguing results: an examination of nudity and a study of the role of widows in Boccaccio’s Decameron (respectively by Tommasina Gabriele and Eugenio Giusti) are juxtaposed toward the end of the book with an essay on lesbian desire in the narrative of Dacia Maraini (the contribution of Beverly Ballaro); and incest and anxieties about gender in-differentiation in Casanova (the essay by Cynthia Craig) echo in Galileo’s oedipal fantasy of a virile, intellectual father—Aristotle—and a debased, rhetorically bound mother—the earth (in the piece by Dolora Wojciehowski).

Fathers loom large, as it can be expected, in reconstructions of female identities: I have particularly in mind Chiara Bassi’s study of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, where the sadomasochistic aspects of a father/daughter, jailer/prisoner relationship are analyzed or, more spectacularly, Graziella Parati’s examination of what is at stake in the paternity of an Italian father for a multiracial African daughter in search of an identity.

Mothers too are center stage, and it could not be otherwise in a collection claiming the importance of the symbolic order of the mother as in the personal, self-reflexive piece by Luisa Muraro, “The Narrow Door.” Thus we [End Page 250] have, to give a couple of examples, an examination of the incestuous erotic fantasies of the mother in the essay on Dacia Maraini and the inscription of the maternal persona as a way to give oneself a voice in Davida Gavioli’s rendering of Francesca Sanvitale’s evocative and tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter.

Gender relations are also studied in a number of contributions: Robert Rodini shows how Petrarchan imitatio was plied according to the gender of the writers so that women poets’ appropriation of heroic postures worked to decenter the standard Petrarchan sonnet; Eugenio Giusti argues that the Boccaccian widow rewrites her gendered role in society by appropriating autonomy and self-determination; Patrizia Bettella shows how female ugliness can be used, surprisingly, to control relationships; and Rosalind Kerr reconstructs Commedia dell’Arte scenarios to problematize gender boundaries. Finally, another common topic in women writers’ narratives—the relationship of female characters to silence—is examined in two essays: Giuliana Minghelli shows that woman’s silence speaks volumes in Svevo’s narrative and Sandra Carletti argues that silence is women’s response to patronizing exchanges in her examination of the negotiations that attend...

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pp. 250-252
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