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Female Biographies in Renaissance and Post-Tridentine Italy

  • Author(s): Hopkins, Sienna
  • Advisor(s): Ciavolella, Massimo
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the development of female biography in Renaissance Italy, particularly highlighting the thematic changes the genre experienced as a result of the Counter Reformation, and how the female ideals it portrayed often conflicted with the societal expectations of the donna illustre. The first chapters lay the groundwork for this investigation by providing a survey of the biographical genre in Italy and its ancient Greek and Roman influences, then highlighting the cultural attitudes about women as portrayed in querelle literature and female conduct manuals of 16th and 17th-century Italy. These communicate the standard of expected behavior for women in the Italian Renaissance, by which the female protagonists of biographies are measured, and the juxtaposition reveals that while the protagonists in the earlier biographies generally conform to the standards of contemporary conduct manuals, those in Post Tridentine biographies do not. Their protagonists are instead lauded for their fervent, often extreme, religious practices and for their inward search for humility. The investigation thus reveals the genre’s shift in focus to be one that moves from the civic to the religious, from the public donna illustre to the private donna umile. The biographies discussed in this study are: Sabadino degli Arienti’s Gynevera delle clare donne (1483) and Vita di Anna Sforza (1500); Sebastiano Morales’ Vita, et morte della serenissima Maria di Portogallo principessa di Parma, & Piacenza (1577); Giovanni Petruccini’s Relazione della vita esemplare della Signora Sestilia Sabolini (1621); Hippolito Porro’s Vita, e morte della sig. Cornelia Lampugnana Ro gentildonna Milanese (1624); Gregorio Leti’s Vita di Donna Olimpia Maldachini, che gouern� la Chiesa, durante il Ponteficato d'Innocentio X (1666); and Antonio Lupis’ L'eroina veneta, ouero la vita di Elena Lucretia Cornara Piscopia (1689). Three of these women’s stories have survived history and accounts of their lives and influence can be found in multiple Renaissance texts: Ginevra Sforza is known as a domineering and vindictive tyrant of Bologna; Olimpia Maidalchini as the “popess” who controlled the Vatican during her brother-in-law, Pope Innocent X’s reign; and Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia as the first woman ever to earn a doctoral degree. The lives of the other female protagonists, Princess Maria of Parma, Cornelia Lampugnana Ro, and Sestilia Sabolini, have only one historical voice, their biographies.

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