Renaissance and Reformation Laura Cereta
by
Aileen A. Feng
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0432

Introduction

The neo-Latin humanist Laura Cereta (Cereto, Cereti, b. 1469–d. 1499) is considered one of the earliest proto-feminist voices in Italy because of her epistolary critiques of misogyny and women’s lack of access to education, as well as her defense of the female intellect and interrogations of marriage. In her letters she often plays on weaving and needlework with the art of writing and sleepless nights of study, transforming traditional “women’s work” into exercises of the female intellect. From Brescia, she is counted among the illustrious female humanists in the Veneto region, including Isotta and Ginevra Nogarola, their Aunt Angela, and Cassandra Fedele. She was the first of six children born to Silvestro Cereto, an attorney and magistrate, and Veronica di Leno. Cereta benefited from her father’s dedication to providing her with an education beyond the traditional skills of women. At age seven she entered a convent where she was educated in Latin. When she returned to the paternal household, her father continued to educate her in the liberal arts. At age fifteen, she married the Venetian merchant Pietro Serina, though her marriage lasted only eighteen months before he died of complications likely related to the Black Death. Unlike her contemporary Cassandra Fedele, Cereta’s marriage did not mark the end of her humanistic career. Indeed, she often wrote about her husband, as well as his untimely death and her subsequent grief. In 1488, three years after Serina’s death, Cereta published her autobiographical Epistolae familiares, containing eighty-two documents, and dedicated it to Cardinal Ascanio Maria Sforza. It circulated widely in the Veneto area, and it includes letters to noted intellectuals like Bonifacio Bembo and Agostino degli Emigli, as well as fictive addresses as characteristic of Francesco Petrarca’s epistolary collection, relatives (including her mother, husband, and maternal uncle), and her contemporary female humanist Cassandra Fedele, with whom she tried to begin a correspondence, seemingly to no avail. In addition to her Epistolae she also wrote a Latin dialogue titled “Asinarium Faunus” (On the Death of an Ass), and delivered a series of public lectures between 1486 and her death in 1499. Of the Quattrocento female humanists, Cereta’s writing seems more experimental as she covers a wide array of literary genres and traditions, while often imbuing them with her personal sentiments: her invectives against women and contemporary culture show the breadth of her literary knowledge, as she engages with writers like Juvenal and common misogynist tropes; she rewrites and corrects Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris with her own “respublica mulierum”; her public orations display her training in the studia humanititatis; she engages in the theological debate on original sin, as her predecessor Isotta Nogarola did; her letters to her husband are rife with Petrarchan amatory tropes, and those about his death reminiscent of Dante’s journey through Hell. Her letterbook is more reminiscent of Petrarch’s Rerum familiarum libri than what we find in her contemporaries, both male and female. In her 1487 letter to her sister Deodata di Leno, for example, she describes her ascent of Mount Isola, first, in a similar fashion to Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux (Familiares 4.1) and, then, only to ultimately abandon her literary model to emphasize the sensual experience as a way to explore Epicurean philosophy. While Cereta did not reach the same level of fame as Nogarola and Fedele, nor was her social circle as elevated as theirs, her letters display a level of self-awareness, confidence in her skill, and desire for fame that are unmatched by her contemporaries. As she famously declared in a letter to Nazaria Olympica, she wanted to give the name Laura, once praised by Petrarch, a “second, new immortality” through her.

General Overview (Manuscripts, Editions, and Translations)

While we do not have an autograph manuscript of Cereta’s Epistolae her letters were initially copied into two manuscripts: Marciano Latino XI, 28 (4186) in Venice, and Vaticano Latino 3176 in Vatican City. The first printed edition of her letterbook was published by Jacopo Filippo Tomasini in 1640 (Cereta 1640a) and includes seventy-one documents, some of which are not found in the Marciano manuscript. The Vatican manuscript includes a total of eighty-four documents—the largest of the three versions we have—and is the only source that includes the “Asinarium Faunus” as well as twenty hexameters of Cereta’s poetry. These were the only three Latin sources available to a limited number of scholars studying Cereta’s works until the beginning in the 1980s when Albert Rabil and Margaret King, pioneers in the field of Quattrocento female humanists, began to painstakingly transcribe and translate into English portions of Cereta’s Epistolae in an anthology dedicated to female humanist writing (Rabil and King 1983). They were also the first to argue that while educated women like Cereta were rare, their contributions to the intellectual and cultural milieu of Quattrocento Italy could not be discounted in light of their exceptional status. Diana Robin published a full English translation of Cereta’s letterbook, including the “Asinarium,” for Rabil and King’s new series “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe,” which they coedit. Cereta 1997 is thus the first time the female humanist’s complete works is fully accessible to anglophone audiences. Since then, selections of letters have appeared in several anthologies dedicated to women’s writing (Kaborycha 2015), Italian civilization (Bartlett 2011), and European humanism (King 2014). The University of Mannheim’s library has made a digital reproduction of its copy of Cereta 1640a available online with unrestricted access (Cereta 1640b), making it possible for scholars to more easily consult the original printed edition.

  • Bartlett, Kenneth R. The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook. 2d ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

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    Chapter 7, “Marriage, the Family, and Women” (pp. 111–132), presents a brief historical introduction to Italian family and marital structures in the Renaissance and historical documents on family and marriage. Includes Cereta’s letter to Augustinus Aemelius on the ornamentation of women (trans. King and Rabil), along with other literary selections by Francesco Barbaro, Leon Battista Alberti, Cereta, Machiavelli, and Castiglione. This helps to contextualize her writing among leading (male) humanist writings on the subject.

  • Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat.Lat. 3176. Vatican City.

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    Written in cursive script, in a consistent hand with some marginalia and inconsistent use of abbreviations. Manuscript consists of seventy-three folios that include a table of contents, eighty-three letters with their addresses, and final (unnumbered) poem not listed in the table of contents. Digitized version is available online.

  • Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, MS Marc.Lat. XI, 28 (4186). Venice.

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    Written in a humanist script with no marginalia. Manuscript contains seventy-one complete letters and three incomplete or partial letters. The dedication to Cardinal Ascanius Maria Sforza and the funerary dialogue “Asinarium” are listed in the index but missing from the manuscript.

  • Cereta, Laura. Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist. Edited and translated by Diana Robin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226721583.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    The only complete English translation of Cereta’s letterbook based primarily on Tomasini’s Latin edition (see Cereta 1640a). The translation is elegant and thoughtful, with notes explaining variants from the Maricano and Vatican manuscripts, providing close analyses of the Latin and justifications for more liberal interpretations of the text. The introduction provides a thorough recounting of Cereta’s life and works, and letters are grouped into thematic chapters, complete with brief introductions to each letter and explanatory notes about the addressees.

  • Cereta, Laura. Epistolae. Iam primum e m[anu]s[criptis] in lucem productae a Iacobo Philippo Tomasino, qui eius vitam et notas addidit. Edited by Giacomo Filippo Tomasini. Padua, Republic of Venice: Sardi, 1640a.

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    This is the first and only publication of Cereta’s letterbook in the original Latin, published over one century after her death. Biographical introduction, (scarce) footnotes, and the epilogue are in Latin. Subsequent translations by Rabil and King (select letters) and Robin are based on this edition.

  • Cereta, Laura. Epistolae: Iam primum e m[anu]s[criptis] in lucem productae a Iacopo Philippo Tomasino, qui eius vitam et notas addidit. Edited by Giacomo Filippo Tomasini. Padua, Republic of Venice: Sardi, 1640b.

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    The University of Mannheim has made a digital reproduction of the 1640 Tomasini edition (Cereta 1640a) available online through open access. The introductory materials are written in German and provide a summary of Tomasini’s Latin biographical introduction. Hyperlinks to individual letters and the high resolution imaging make this a useful and easy-to-use resource.

  • Kaborycha, Lisa. A Corresponding Renaissance: Letters Written by Italian Women, 1375–1650. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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    In this anthology of women’s writing in the vernacular and Latin, Cereta’s letter to Agostino Emilio on women’s vanity is included in chapter 2 (“Humanism and Its Discontents”). The letter is introduced by a brief biography and overview of Cereta’s works and contains explanatory footnotes focused primarily on the biblical references found in the letter.

  • King, Margaret L., ed. and trans. Renaissance Humanism: An Anthology of Sources. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014.

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    In this anthology divided thematically, King includes Diana Robin’s translations of Cereta’s letters to Bibolo Semproni (1488) and Lucilia Vernacula (1487)—both defenses of female education against male scorn and female gossip, respectively—in chapter 9, “Women and Humanism” (pp. 264–294). Introduction to the letters provides important biographical details and explanations of the major themes that characterize both letters, while also noting the “modern” tone of Cereta’s writing. Includes other letters by Isotta Nogarola, Cassandra Fedele, and Frenchwoman Marie Le Jars de Gournay.

  • Rabil, Albert, Jr., and Margaret L. King, eds and trans. Her Immaculate Hand: Selected Works by and about the Women Humanists of Quattrocento Italy. Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 1983.

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    This anthology of female humanist writings provides the first English translation of three letters authored by Cereta on female learning, and they are grouped with other women’s writings on the same topic. In addition, there are two letters by Fra Tommaso of Milan in praise of Cereta, one addressed to her father Silvestro and another addressed to the female humanist. The introduction includes a two-page overview of Cereta’s biography, and each letter is introduced by contextual information.

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