- Boccaccio's Heroines: Power and Virtue in Renaissance Society
Margaret Franklin offers an innovative analysis of Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris (Famous Women) and its role as mediator between women of legend and those of reality. She argues convincingly that, by depicting the legends of famous women who were active participants in the society of their day, Boccaccio prepares the male power base [End Page 1172] of the late Trecento for the reality of Renaissance females and the expansion of female authority. He also presented familiar classical examples of virtuous women in a new way that provided powerful women with emerging authority a model with which they could identify. Far from being scattered, inconsistent vignettes that expose fragmented authorial purpose, as modern critics have suggested, the De mulieribus claris, when seen as the complex whole that Boccaccio intended, "offers a remarkably consistent, coherent and comprehensible treatise concerning the appropriate functioning of women in society" (2).
In her interpretation of De mulieribus claris and its subsequent influence throughout the Renaissance, Franklin views the work from within the cultural framework of its time. She suggests that much of the frustration felt by modern readers results from their trying to impose twenty-first-century cultural norms on a piece with a Trecento mindset. Rather than find fault with Boccaccio for not suggesting changes to a social order that was unequally gender-based, modern readers should concentrate instead on his presentation of female achievement, and his celebration of women whose power he deems legitimate in that it derives from duty and not from personal ambition. Indeed, these females do not threaten social structures because they achieve authority naturally, aided by the male power base.
In addition to giving a close reading of Boccaccio's work, Franklin also considers an impressive array of sources from allied disciplines. The first part of Boccaccio's Heroines shows how the De mulieribus claris served as a humanist exemplum and details the circulation it enjoyed among the major dynastic courts of Renaissance Italy. She demonstrates how the various legendary women whose biographies appear in Boccaccio's work surface in artistic depictions of the day, and how the interplay between art and literature contributes to the definition of social values.
The middle segment of Franklin's Heroines deals, first, with women whose lives provide examples of self-serving, power-hungry females and, second, with women who have power thrust upon them and turn into effective rulers, wise companions, or simply clever, self-sacrificing players, such as the Minyan wives. She draws comparisons between Boccaccio's exempla and their historical counterparts who interacted, within the bounds of acceptable behavior, with Quattrocento males. Franklin's observations concerning the blurring of gender boundaries with regard to male and female virtues in the Boccaccian work are juxtaposed with the reactions of some Renaissance males to decidedly female achievement. The argument then segues into a discussion of how this gender blurring is manifested in contemporary artistic depictions, such as in the uomini famosi cycle at the Florentine Villa Carducci.
The final chapter delves into the emerging role of the female consort in the late Quattrocento and her power within the male hierarchy. These women were expected to run a stable governmental operation in the absence of their husbands, thereby, in effect, controlling men. For her examples of this type of Renaissance woman, Franklin focuses on two remarkable females of the Este family: Eleonora d'Aragona, wife of Ercole I d'Este, and her daughter, Isabella. Both women personified Boccaccio's fictional heroines who ruled wisely, within the bounds of legitimate authority and, at least outwardly, not because of personal ambition. What is most impressive is that not only did these women recognize the strength of their own authority but also that their authority was acknowledged gratefully by the men around them. In women such as Eleonora and Isabella, Boccaccio's fictionalized, classical ideals became flesh and blood.
Franklin's work is replete with primary and secondary sources and examples from literature...