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  • The Prodigious Muse: Women's Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy by Virginia Cox
  • Kathleen Olive
Cox, Virginia , The Prodigious Muse: Women's Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011; hardback; pp. 472; R.R.P. US$60.00; ISBN 9781421400327 (available through Footprint Books).

Virginia Cox's The Prodigious Muse: Women's Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy is an important contribution to a field about which too little is now written and, conversely, in which women were a strong contemporary presence. As Cox notes, 'The half-century from 1580 to 1630 saw the publication of more than sixty single-authored works by Italian women' (p. xi), with the Counter-Reformation a moment of great 'confidence and assertiveness' (p. xiv), but also one in which social and cultural norms continued in 'maleness'.

Chapter 1 is an investigation of the Counter-Reformation contexts of Italian women writers. It sets up textual production and tradition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and illustrates how women writers were inspired by, and responded to, them. One of the changes Cox identifies is the importance of publication: while earlier 'respectable' elite women circulated manuscripts and avoided publication, post-Tridentine women writers actively pursued it. More problematic in terms of circulation are the works of cloistered women, emphatically patrolled after Trent. Considering scholars' conclusions on the invisibility of convent writers, Cox argues - not entirely persuasively - rather for their increasing relevance in the new spiritual landscape, despite the paucity of their publications.

Chapter 2's focus is religious and secular lyric verse. Cox considers well-known poets (Laura Battiferra, Isabella Andreini) but the chapter's strength is its presentation of lesser-known complex works, such as Lucchesia Sbarra's sequence on the death of her infant son, adopting a traditionally male-authored mode from its usual 'domestic and familial context' (p. 79) to a Petrarchan model allowing for the hyperboles of grief. In her remarkable 1628 Rime, Francesca Turina offers her autobiography and meditations on motherhood and grand-motherhood (but of sons and grandsons - Turina's daughter is [End Page 222] absent). One criticism here, which may be extended to the volume in general, is that there is not more direct quotation from the works themselves: some are given in the notes (relegated, however, to a final section), while some are given in reference only. For such unique and dramatic examples as these, it would be useful to hear more of the contemporary voice.

Secular drama - particularly a comparative analysis of pastorals - takes up Chapter 3. The mode, still a novel choice for women, offered authors such as Barbara Torelli, Andreini, Maddalena Campiglia, and Valeria Miani significant possibilities and was, Cox argues, suitable in subject and tone. Yet pastoral drama was not all modesty, with the leading figure of the nymph commonly standing in for the poet and allowing for a striking degree of self-assertion. One example: Andreini rewrites a scene from Tasso's Aminta, in which a satyr strips the nymph Silvia, ties her up, and threatens rape. In Mirtilla's redux, the satyr is physically humiliated, a novel departure from the male tradition and one that seems to derive from Andreini's knowledge of physical farce in the Commedia dell'Arte.

Chapter 4 divides sacred narrative into three categories: works employing the Gospels to tell Christ's story; hagiographical writings; and the sole surviving female-authored work in this period inspired by the Old Testament, Maddalena Salvetti's 1611 David perseguitato. Cox argues here for the formative involvement of women in developing new religious narratives (e.g., lagrime poems) and repositioning archetypes. This was a genre in which women were relatively uncontroversial - with the subject matter and appropriate exemplars - and, as a transforming mode as yet undetermined by male experts, it offered a relative plasticity. Cox's analysis of Turina's description of Christ's infancy is strong, particularly her emphasis on his physicality (pp. 140-41); striking, too, is Lucrezia Marinella's 1624 De' gesti heroici e della vita meravigliosa della serafica S[anta] Caterina da Siena, which expands the role of Catherine's mother to develop dialogue and characterization, creating an 'emotional core' (p. 156) that almost...


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