- Angelica's Book and the World of Reading in Late Renaissance Italy by Brendan Dooley
Evidence of early modern women owning and annotating their books is elusive. The unexpected discovery of a sixteenth-century woman's signature inside a sixteenth-century book is the exciting starting point of this short monograph. In a Florentine antique shop, Brendan Dooley found a badly damaged copy of Pleasant Nights, a collection of novels written by Giovanni Francesco Straparola with the signature of a certain Angelica Baldachini. Scholars have found, often by chance, women's ownership marks in books. Dooley's work confirms this is both a fascinating and a frustrating line of enquiry as he tries to uncover who Angelica was and why she owned this book.
The first two chapters focus on the content and context of this particular book. Pleasant Nights is a collection of short stories written by Straparola first published in Venice in 1550. Modeled on Giovanni Boccaccio's famous Decamaron, Dooley explores the process of borrowing and copying in Renaissance literature. He also explains that these collections of novels explored the boundaries between licit and illicit topics. Straparola's stories critiqued the church and contained a lot of magical interventions. Little surprise then that Straparola's work was eventually scrutinised by the Congregation of the Index. During the second half of the sixteenth century reading and owning Pleasant Nights was still allowed but only if certain parts were expurgated. In 1607 it was finally listed as completely prohibited. After the reconstruction of the print history and censorship of this book, Dooley traces which edition Angelica owned (the 1570 edition printed by Domenico Farri in Venice) and tries to find out more about its owner. Who was Angelica Baldachini?
To find clues, Dooley looks for her name and family name in Florentine baptismal records. He explores a possible connection to the Baldachini family originally from Cortona, a city within the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. He then moves on to examine the most (and only) concrete piece of evidence: her handwriting. On folio 144 verso she wrote, "This book belongs to Angelica Baldachini." From this one-line Dooley claims we can learn quite a lot about her. In writing that this book does belong to her, she also uses the reflexive form of the verb which occurs quite often in the Tuscan dialect. We also know she was not only a reader, but also a writer. This is a significant point because many women were taught to read but not necessarily to write. He delves further into issues of calligraphy. In Renaissance Italy having good handwriting was crucial; [End Page 1397] countless manuals were published to teach writing in different scripts. Angelica used chancery handwriting, a well-established and much used script by the end of sixteenth century in Italy. He dates her handwriting to right around the same time as the 1570 edition she owned.
It is an established trope that this type of literature was read and consumed by women. Straparola addressed a female audience, but how many women owned a copy of his Pleasant Nights? Dooley rightly points to many pitfalls in the available source material to find female readership. Probate inventories are the go-to-sources for book historians to try and find books and their owners. But overall those inventories do not list property of women. Women's signatures are most often used in current scholarship to further our understanding of female literacy. While it is not possible to answer exactly how many women owned or read Straparola, Dooley unfortunately does not delve in detail into women's book ownership in Renaissance Italy. At the end of the book he recognises many questions remain unanswered but makes a case for the importance of accidental discovery.
The book is written and structured in such a way that as a reader you closely follow the train of thought of the author during his search for answers. In trying to solve which edition of the book Angelica owned, he writes...