- Complete Writings: Letterbook, Dialogue on Adam and Eve, Orations, and: Selected Letters, Orations, and Rhetorical Dialogues
Two new publications from the series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe illustrate transformations in both substance and style that characterize writing by women from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In the space of these 200 years, women writers discovered not only new literary models but also revolutionary ways of expressing themselves. Isotta Nogarola, a generation later than Christine de Pisan, achieved her reputation as scholar of humanist texts, an impressive Latinist, and a skilled rhetorician by corresponding with prominent male humanists in Venice and neighboring Verona. She regularly deferred to contemporary social norms by announcing herself as an ignorant woman. Yet inspired by the affection of Ludovico Foscarini, a Venetian nobleman, she achieved a distinguished place in the world of learned letters. Madeleine de Scudéry, deferring neither to custom nor the presumed authority of men, saw her wit and erudition triumph in the conversations taking place in her Paris salon. Eschewing humanist models, she praised concision and clarity. Above all, she sought to persuade without giving offence.
From the outset, Nogarola confirmed her literary status by modes of indirection. Employing the trope of concessio, she regularly admitted her feminine weakness but also argued generally from cases of exceptional women, and, more courageously, identified herself as one of them. In a letter from 1436 to Guarino Veronese (who had praised her), she calls him a "wellspring of virtue and probity," and then terms both of them heroic, she a Cicero to his Cato, she a Socrates to his Plato (51). Her despair at his failure to respond to her compliments was answered when, in a letter dated 10 April 1537, he reaffirms his estimation of her, challenging her to "create a man within her womanhood" (in muliere virum faciat; [43, n. 11]). In a letter to Niccolo Venier the following year, she appears to have done so, at least in fantasy, discovering her model in the cross-dressed Euclides, a man, who traveled through hostile territory in woman's dress in order to gain wisdom (74). Her defense of women, the Dialogue on the Equal or Unequal Sin of Adam and Eve, was an answer to Foscarini's orthodox claim that Eve, defying God, had exhibited pride and was the cause of sin in Adam. Nogarola's argument exploits Foscarini's assertion of female inferiority by an ironic logic: for if Eve in her created state was weaker than Adam by nature and an imperfect creature, she was also, by definition, incapable of full responsibility. And in fact it was Adam, the superior of the two, who was charged with obedience to God's command. [End Page 315]
Given Nogarola's willingness to test gender distinctions, her Oration to Pope Pius II at the Congress of Mantua (1459) is surprising. Arguing for a proposed crusade against the Turks, she insists that the church must "crush proud peoples and savage nations, trample the land underfoot with a rumbling and stun nations with your rage" (184). There had been at least six crusades, not counting the pathetic Children's Crusade of 1212, before the fall of Acre and the withdrawal of Christian forces from Turkey in 1291, and I find it hard to imagine what impetus there could have been for a renewed effort of that kind almost two hundred years later. Europe had less than fifty years to wait before Erasmus would issue his calls for peace and his condemnation of war in various...