Renaissance and Reformation Arcangela Tarabotti
by
Meredith K. Ray
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0328

Introduction

Venetian nun Arcangela Tarabotti (b. 1604–d. 1652; born Elena Cassandra Tarabotti), was the author of at least seven works, five of which were published during her lifetime and a sixth only posthumously. A versatile polemicist, Tarabotti was the most radical female voice of her century: in treatises, confessional and memorial works, satire, and letters, she openly criticized the social, political, and religious forces that contributed to the mistreatment and subjugation of women in 17th-century culture. Cloistered in the Benedictine convent of Sant’Anna in Venice’s Castello neighborhood, Tarabotti was deeply marked by the experience of forced monachization: the perpetual enclosure—common throughout Counter-Reformation Italy—of women who did not have a religious vocation. Her early manuscripts, Inferno monacale (Convent hell) and Tirannia paterna (Paternal tyranny), condemn the social and religious underpinnings of this practice and explicitly contest the ragion di stato behind it. Tarabotti’s Tirannia paterna was published posthumously in Holland as La semplicità ingannata (1654); it was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1661. Even her first published work, Paradiso monacale (Convent paradise, 1643), which offers a seemingly positive portrait of convent life, praises religious life only if freely chosen and emphasizes the central tenet of free will. Tarabotti’s political and feminist thought also extended beyond the cloister. She defended women’s right to education and autonomy and denounced their unequal condition in early modern society, which she did with customary mordant wit in her Antisatira (Antisatire, 1644), a satire of male vanity published in response to a condemnation of female luxury, and in Che le donne siano della spetie degli uomini (That women are of the same species as men, 1651), penned in response to a treatise that claimed women did not have souls. In her Lettere familiari e di complimento (Letters familiar and formal, 1650), she showcased the wide range of her literary, political, and personal connections and vigorously defended her literary reputation. The Lagrime d’Arcangela Tarabotti per la morte dell’Illustriss. signora Regina Donati (Tears of Arcangela Tarabotti upon the death of the most illustrious Signora Regina Donati), a brief memorial work appended to the Lettere, offered Tarabotti the opportunity to eulogize her convent sister and dear friend as a true—not forced—nun. Initially praised and then quickly condemned by many of her contemporaries for her sharp tone and controversial arguments, Tarabotti and her work went largely ignored until the 20th century. A resurgence of interest in Tarabotti as a writer, protofeminist, and political theorist has led to an increasing focus on her by scholars across disciplines.

General Overviews

With the exception of Zanette 1960, there have been no book-length studies devoted solely to Tarabotti. Among the earliest serious studies of Tarabotti, after Zanette, is Conti Odorisio 1979, which takes a comparative approach to its subject. Tarabotti is included in several general women’s histories (King 1991, Panizza 2000) and databases of women’s writing in Italy (Ray 2007). Weaver 2006, an edited collection of essays, signals a late-20th-century revival of critical interest in Tarabotti, subsequently reflected in a number of more focused articles and book chapters (see also sections on Correspondence, Literary Culture, Literary Works, Religious Culture, and Other Cultural Activity).

  • Conti Odorisio, Ginevra. Donna e società nel Seicento: Lucrezia Marinelli e Arcangela Tarabotti. Rome: Bulzoni, 1979.

    E-mail Citation »

    Important reevaluation of Tarabotti’s work that helped launch modern scholarship on the nun. Useful starting point for examining Tarabotti within her 17th-century context and assessing development of Tarabotti studies. In Italian.

  • King, Margaret. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226436166.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Tarabotti appears in the section titled “Women and the Church” (pp. 89–93) as example of an involuntary nun. King draws extensively on Tarabotti’s Inferno monacale and Tirannia paterna. Useful resource in undergraduate classrooms for teaching about varieties of religious life and experience in early modern Italy. Originally published as Le donne nel Rinascimento (Rome: Gius. Laterza & Figli, 1989).

  • Laven, Mary. Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent. New York: Viking, 2003.

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    A more general study of convents in Counter-Reformation Venice, with particular focus on nuns remembered in archival records for breaking vows or committing other transgressions. Includes brief but illuminating consideration of Tarabotti (pp. 30–35). Useful and accessible resource for placing Tarabotti in historical context.

  • Panizza, Letizia. “Polemical Prose-Writing, 1500–1650.” In A History of Women’s Writing in Italy. Edited by Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood, 65–78. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    Situates Tarabotti against the broader backdrop of polemical writing by early modern women. Focuses on Tarabotti’s representation of forced enclosure as reflected in Paternal Tyranny.

  • Ray, Meredith Kennedy. “Arcangela Tarabotti (1604–1652), Venetian Nun and Writer.” Italian Women Writers. Chicago: University of Chicago Italian Women Writers Project, 2007.

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    Concise overview of Tarabotti’s life and major works, with selected bibliography and suggestions for further reading.

  • Weaver, Elissa, ed. Arcangela Tarabotti: A Literary Nun in Baroque Venice. Ravenna, Italy: Longo, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    Important collection of essays organized in two sections: “The Venetian Context,” and “Arcangela Tarabotti: Life and Works.” Also contains general studies of convent and literary culture. Includes early versions of work later published elsewhere (see Ray 2004 (cited under Lettere familiari e di complimento), Jed 2011 (cited under Political Thought and Protofeminism), and Heller 2013 (cited under Other Cultural Activity).

  • Zanette, Emilio. Suor Arcangela, monaca del Seicento veneziano. Rome and Venice: Istituto per la Collaborazione Culturale, 1960.

    E-mail Citation »

    Monograph devoted to Tarabotti, her literary works, and the cultural context of 17th-century Venice. Initiated rediscovery of Tarabotti by modern scholarship. Indispensable tool for study of the nun, rich in information, but frustrated by paternalistic approach and inconsistent notation of archival and print sources consulted. In Italian.

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