In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women Writing in Italy

  • Introduction
  • Monographs 2002–2011
  • Monographs 2012–2017
  • Monographs Focused on a Single Author
  • Collections
  • Monographs and Collections on Female (Co-) Regents and Patronage
  • Women Writing and Sacred Narrative
  • Women Writing in Selected Verse and Prose
  • Women Writing in Prose (Dialogues, Epistles, Orations) and Selected Verse
  • Women Writing in Defense of Women
  • Women Writing in the Dramatic Genres
  • Women Writing and Music
  • Women Writing and the Romance Genre
  • Women Writing and the Epic Genre
  • Women Writing and the Scientific Field
  • Anthology of Italian Women’s Verse
  • Anthology of Italian Women’s Convent Theatrical Works
  • Databases and Archives
  • Biographical Dictionaries and Other Resources

Renaissance and Reformation Women Writing in Italy
Alexandra Coller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0478


Women’s writing in Italy has gradually come to the forefront of academic interest and scholarly inquiry as a result of ongoing research, specifically undertaken in the Anglophone world, since the 1990s. Groundbreaking on every front, no history of women’s writing in Italy can underestimate the contributions of Virginia Cox’s Women’s Writing in Italy: 1400–1650, The Prodigious Muse: Women’s Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy, and her anthology of Italian women’s lyric verse, Lyric Poetry by Women of the Italian Renaissance. Following decades of misconception in Italy (and in the Anglo-Saxon world) that Italian women’s writing was limited to a short-lived cluster from around 1538 (the year that witnessed the princeps of Vittoria Colonna’s Rime) to 1560, Cox sets out to dismantle Carlo Dionisotti’s thesis put forth in his 1967 essay, “La letteratura italiana nell’età del Concilio di Trento” (in Geografia e storia della letteratura italiana [Turin: Einaudi]) which provides an incorrect notion of women’s writing, one that is based on a (misleading) historiographical model. In no way a short-lived phenomenon, Cox proves her case by publishing two encyclopedic monographs in close succession of one another, studies that have forever changed the course of our understanding and research of women writers in Italy from 1400 to 1650, precisely the period under review in this article. According to Cox’s archival findings, there were seventy-nine single authored printed works by Italian women for the period 1540–1599 and an additional seventy-one for 1600–1659. In fact, women published more in Italy during the 16th century than anywhere else on the European continent and Cox has provided an invaluable road map of their significant output. Without a doubt, it was the rise of the vernacular and the printing press, in the late 15th century, that allowed women to enter the literary domain. The invention of the printing press, in particular, helped create a book-reading public that publishers were eager to satisfy (A History of Women’s Writing in Italy). Such historical advancements encouraged the emergence of an active and robust female literary presence in the early modern period. A more recent monograph, focused on the 16th century, addresses women’s literacy, reading, and writing in the context of the questione della lingua (Helena Sanson, Donne, precettistica e lingua nell’Italia del Cinquecento: Un contributo alla storia del pensiero linguistico). Moving across the centuries from the Renaissance to the modern era, it is remarkable to note the recovery of dozens of female-authored texts since the early 1990s, and the greater availability, thanks to collective scholarly efforts on both sides of the Atlantic, of well-known women writers as well as less familiar ones in the form of critical editions (scholarly or student oriented), bilingual editions, and English translations that address the needs of the ever-growing field of interdisciplinary studies. In this regard, The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series (henceforth OVS), begun by Albert Rabil and Margaret L. King, has been instrumental, publishing works by and about women since 1996. Currently, there are more than 150 volumes in the series. Its effect on the field of early modern studies, gender studies, and women studies has been transformative as it made available an entire category of works that had previously been entirely unavailable, unexamined, or simply unknown. Many of its editions and translations are listed below following generic categorization for easier reference. In Italy, women writers enjoyed their own Renaissance from about 1500–1650, when lyric poetry, historical epics, and pastoral dramas burgeoned. We also have a comedy (Margherita Costa) as well as a romance (Giulia Bigolina) written by women, the first of their kind in the genre. Women also engaged in the querelle des femmes (debate on women) with defenses of their own—cast in the form of fictive dialogue (Moderata Fonte) and treatises (Lucrezia Marinella and Arcangela Tarabotti). Some women employed a variety of genres throughout their literary careers: Marinella, for instance, authored an epic poem as well as numerous volumes of poetry, including a “defense” of the female sex, as already mentioned; another exemplary figure, less well-known today, was Valeria Miani, the author of a pastoral, several other dramatic works including two comedies (now considered lost), as well as a tragedy—the first extant written by a woman (Valeria Finucci, ed., and Julia Kisacky, trans., Valeria Miani’s Celinda, A Tragedy and Alexandra Coller, ed. and trans., Valeria Miani’s Amorous Hope). Margherita Costa, one of the most prolific among early modern women writers, authored no less than fourteen published poetic volumes as well as a commedia ridicolosa (Sara Diaz and Jessica Goethals, eds. and trans., Margherita Costa’s The Buffoons, A Ridiculous Comedy). The present bibliography provides information with respect to female-authored “first” works or publications in several genres. Few other European nations can boast Italy’s early modern women writers in terms of their numbers, the variety of genres with which they engaged, and the support they received from laymen, clerics, and members of academies or intellectual societies across the peninsula (there were around 250 such academies by the end of the 16th century). My own research has shown that Italian academicians’ support of and collaboration with women writers was incredibly important in ushering these women’s works into publication. This relationship—arguably unique to Italy—reflects the web of sociability among its poets, its letterate and letterati. Women were not only writers in their own right but they were also singers, musicians, and composers—Francesca Caccini, one of the most famous among them, was also the first woman to compose in the operatic genre (Anne MacNeil, Music and Women of the Commedia dell’Arte in the Late Sixteenth Century; Ronald James Alexander and Richard Savino, Francesca Caccini: The Secular Songs from Il libro primo delle musiche, 1618; Suzanne Cusick, Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power). Most recently, women’s contribution to the scientific fields has been rediscovered and reassessed (Meredith K. Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy and Margherita Sarrocchi’s Letters to Galileo: Astronomy, Astrology, and Poetics in Seventeenth-Century Italy; Sharon T. Strocchia, Forgotten Healers: Women and the Pursuit of Health in Late Renaissance Italy). Finally, women featured as influential patrons of the arts and as co-regents—as such, they took on high-profile roles as dedicatees and as recipients of works by both male and female letterati and artists (Gabrielle Langdon, Medici Women: Portraits of Power, Love and Betrayal from the Court of Duke Cosimo I; Kelley Harness, Echoes of Women’s Voices: Music, Art, and Female Patronage in Early Modern Florence; Stephen Campbell, The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella D’Este; Christina Strunck, ed., Medici Women as Cultural Mediators, 1533–1743; Sarah D. P. Cockram, Isabella D’Este and Francesco Gonzaga: Power Sharing at the Italian Renaissance Court; Giovanna Benadusi and Judith Brown, Medici Women: The Making of a Dynasty in Grand Ducal Tuscany).

Monographs 2002–2011

Cross-cultural and transnational approaches such as Campbell 2006, Ross 2009, and Smarr 2005 are joined by studies that are specifically focused on Italian women, their lives, and the contexts within which they produced and published their works. Many of these studies align women’s writing with the major political, literary, and cultural currents with which they engaged and by which they were, in turn, shaped. Groundbreaking in their depth and breadth on women’s writing in Italy are Cox 2008 and Cox 2011, along with her earlier essays on the same subject.

  • Campbell, Julie D. Literary Circles and Gender in Early Modern Europe: A Cross-Cultural Approach. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006.

    The volume’s five chapters explore the relationships between literary circles in early modern Italy, France, and England and the texts authored by the women and men who attended those circles. Cross-cultural and intertextual criticism is at work throughout this study and, as such, it provides a model for future scholarship. Some of the women writers surveyed are: Tullia D’Aragona, Isabella Andreini, Louise Labé, and Mary Sidney Herbert. In this context, the querelle des femmes is recognized as both a literary and a social phenomenon.

  • Cox, Virginia. Women’s Writing in Italy: 1400–1650. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

    An exhaustive assessment of women’s writing in Italy that spans over two centuries. It sets out to dismantle the historiographical model of Carlo Dionisotti which had hitherto limited women’s writing to a short-lived phenomenon of roughly four decades in the mid-16th century. By contrast, Cox’s study spans over two centuries. Her methodology is often informed by a useful contextualization of the historical setting of each letterata with chapter titles that provide a useful periodization of women’s writing in Italy and emphasizes the importance of a varyingly receptive environment for their work.

  • Cox, Virginia. The Prodigious Muse: Women’s Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

    This volume builds on the previous one with more in-depth analyses of women’s writing, emphasizing the depth and breadth of women’s writing in Italy from the late 16th to the mid-17th centuries (1580s–1630s). Five chapters are devoted to the different genres in which women wrote: lyric verse, drama, sacred narrative, secular narrative, and discursive prose. Cox demonstrates—against previous notions that the Counter-Reformation had suppressed women’s writing—the overall positive effect of the Counter-Reformation on female-authored works. Includes a very valuable appendix of “Italian Women Writers Active 1580–1635.”

  • Ray, Meredith K. Writing Gender in Women’s Letter Collections of the Italian Renaissance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.3138/9781442697836

    Presenting letter collections penned by authors of diverse backgrounds (noblewoman, courtesan, actress, nun, among others), Ray seeks to evaluate the effects that social, cultural, biological, and literary conventions have on this particular genre (epistolary construction of gender) and how the genre itself may be analyzed as a form of self-fashioning, social critique, and religious dissent. Demonstrates the genre’s accessibility to both male and female writers, its inclusion of certain previously excluded themes, and its impact on the linguistic register.

  • Robin, Diana. Publishing Women: Salons, the Presses, and the Counter-Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

    Focusing on the collective publication process, Robin portrays communities in Naples, Venice, Rome, Siena, and Florence, where women engaged in activities that ranged from establishing literary salons to promoting religious reform. She situates these literary activities and personal networks in the midst of important local events—such as the siege of Siena, a popular revolt in Naples that ended in a bloody massacre, and a bonfire that destroyed ten thousand heretical books—and shows how they impacted one another.

  • Ross, Sarah Gwyneth. The Birth of Feminism: Woman as Intellect in Renaissance Italy and England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    Ross seeks to refute Joan Kelly’s seminal 1977 essay in which the critic contends that women “did not have a Renaissance.” The monograph offers close textual readings of women intellectuals primarily in Italy and England (includes some French ones) and argues that a recognizable feminism was not only apparent but one in which men were complicit. A growing sense of self-consciousness is demonstrated among women writers as participants in their own community of writers, helping to develop a history of their own.

  • Sanson, Helena. Donne, precettistica e lingua nell’Italia del Cinquecento: Un contributo alla storia del pensiero linguistico. Florence: Accademia della Crusca, 2007.

    Written from the perspective of a language historian and focusing on the 16th century, Sanson examines women’s use of language, against the background of the lively debates on the questione della lingua (language question) and the literary vernacular. Women’s literacy and access to spoken and written vernacular are also evaluated. Sanson’s analysis is based on the examination of treatises on women’s conduct, metalinguistic texts, and other cultural and historical data. Women’s access to language is found to have been codified, controlled, limited.

  • Smarr, Janet L. Joining the Conversation: Dialogues by Renaissance Women. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.17456

    Smarr posits that the dialogue form provided women with a variety of strategies and means for entering into the realm of public speech. By means of the dialogue form, women were in fact able to “join the conversation” and stage their own intervention alongside the dominant masculine discourses of the early modern period. French women writers set side by side with their Italian counterparts. Women’s dialogues are studied in relationship to different genres or models of writing, as the table of contents indicates (dialogue and spiritual counsel, letter writing, drama, etc.).

  • Weaver, Elissa. Convent Theater in Early Modern Italy: Spiritual Fun and Learning for Women. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Weaver places Italian convent culture on the map by discussing the remarkable theatrical productions written by and for Italian nuns and for the girls who were there as students in a boarding school. The study offers an investigation into a medieval and early modern tradition of writing within which women were able to create spaces of their own. This tradition constitutes on the one hand “a feminine sub-culture” and, on the other, its strong ties to the secular world. In addition to providing entertainment, theater was also an educational tool.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.