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  • Writing Beloveds: Humanist Petrarchism and the Politics of Gender by Aileen A. Feng
  • Massimo Verdicchio (bio)
Aileen A. Feng. Writing Beloveds: Humanist Petrarchism and the Politics of Gender. University of Toronto Press. xiv, 266. $65.00

Aileen A. Feng's Writing Beloveds is an examination of women humanist writings in Latin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries on the poetic model of Petrarch's Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. The study analyses the different ways in which male and female humanists engaged with Petrarchan rhetoric and tropes when forging new and unprecedented intellectual relationships with one another.

The study is in two parts. The first part deals with "Intellectual Masculinity and the Female Intellect in Humanist Petrarchism," which accounts for Petrarch's "intellectual masculinity" against "powerless women and feminized patrons" – namely, "the feminization of the Colonna Patrons" in Rerum vulgarium fragmenta. A major example is Petrarch's Africa and the tragic love story of Massinissa and Sophonisba, where the woman is the figure of the monster Medusa who turns men into stone, hindering military and political power. In contrast, the figure of Scipio stands as the "masculine (military) model," the power of the intellect capable of going beyond the beauty and charm of woman and the danger of her Medusa-like gaze. Petrarch, by aligning active rule with an intellectual masculinity and passive rule with the feminine, "inadvertently" generates a gendered paradigm that will serve as the foundation of what the author calls "humanist Petrarchism."

If Petrarch's notion of "intellectual masculinity" is appropriated by his male imitators, the female humanists grow in Laura's shadow. The author's examples are Isotta Nogarola, a paragon of both female erudition and chastity; Laura Cereta who attempted to recuperate the name (Laura) that had come to symbolize unrequited love and feminine virtue; the Venetian humanist Cassandra Fedele, and Alessandra Scala. While these women were highly esteemed, their entrance in the humanist and public spheres was not without friction or uncertainty. The male humanists, in the absence of a classical model (the use of Cicero's "Letters" was limited) also adapted Petrarchan tropes and conceits to their new social reality. While they compared their female interlocutors to Laura and praised their chastity and beauty, they also devalued their intellect, which reinforced "the dominance of the male intellect and disempowered feminine intellectuality." [End Page 143]

"What is striking," Feng observes, "is the lack of Petrarchan rhetoric in female humanists" in their responses to men: "Consistently, Petrarchan-inspired letters are met with Ciceronian responses." The exception is Laura Cereta, who both attacked the male assumption of female inferiority and blamed women for their lack of schooling. While the Quattrocento female intellectual gained a voice through her writing, she was symbolically silenced "as a Petrarchan beloved." When they did engage in Petrarchan humanism, they did so "to express marital love and female friendship." In the second part, the focus is mainly on Pietro Bembo and his quarrel with Gianfrancesco Pico on the question of imitation, his love letters to Maia Savorgnan and Lucrezia Borgia, and a final discussion on Gli Asolani and "la questione della lingua."

Feng's study sheds an important light on those writers – male and female – who followed in the wake of Petrarch, especially women, who found in his poetry a model to emerge as writers in their own right. The study also looks beyond the practice of sixteenth-century humanists like Pietro Bembo and their newly emerging roles as poet courtiers. Her study points to the problematic that, while Petrarchism made it possible for women to begin to write, it also undermined their intellectuality and exposed their lack of agency and power. This is an important study that should, and will, provoke further research and consideration.

Massimo Verdicchio

Massimo Verdicchio
Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, University of Alberta



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pp. 143-144
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