WOMEN’S WRITING WITH SEX EDUCATION –
Lettere di molte valorose donne
Venice, Gabriele Giolito de’ Ferrari, 1548
FIRST EDITION. 8vo. ff. 161 (iii). Italic letter, little Roman. Woodcut printer’s device to t-p and verso of last, woodcut initials. Slight yellowing, light water stain to some lower outer corners. A very good copy in c.1800 half vellum over marbled boards, gilt-lettered morocco label to spine, c.1800 casemarks to front pastedown, C19 purchase note and Italian ownership inscription to ffep and t-p, C16 underlining and marginalia.
A fresh copy of the first edition of this fictional collection of letters sent to and from important women—‘varying polemic, reproving, instructive, playful and even comic’ (Ray, ‘Writing Gender’, 45), and an important, ahead of its time, stepping stone in the success of women’s writing in early modern Italy. Published anonymously, it concludes with several sonnets by Sansovino, Dolce and Aretino which attributed the work to Ortensio Landi (or Lando, 1510-58), an Italian humanist who, after travelling through Europe, settled in Venice. There he became a ‘polygraph’ involved in editorial and translation work and the authorship of texts from different genres, aimed at the vernacular market. Accused of sympathising with heterodox religious views—including the personal understanding of the Bible and justification by faith alone—Lando saw his works added to the Index of Prohibited Books in 1544 and had to write under pseudonyms. The ‘Lettere’ gathers fictional epistles written by dozens of ‘wise women’, which the editor purported to have collected during his peregrinations. Some of the correspondents were indeed contemporary to Landi, often his patrons—e.g., Isabella Sforza and Isabella Gonzaga—but also invented figures like the Jewish lady of Mantua. Fascinating is the letter by Clara de’ Nobili, the wife of a physician, addressing in unusually physiological language the problems of fecundity and sterility—whether due to the woman’s body or her husband’s semen—and the specifics of conception. She also proposes to her friend and her husband a leisurely visit to their villa to favour conception, with the possibility of aphrodisiac medicaments. In her letter, Mamma Riminalda discusses pregnancy, giving advice and suggesting recipes to women struggling with side effects like swollen feet. In the context of learned debates on female authorship, Lando’s treatise generated a great interest in a book market increasingly keen on women’s writing. The careful early Italian annotator of this copy was studying it for its literary value. He or she was interested in the numerous classical references and mythological episodes, often involving women and gory acts (e.g., King Camble who ate his wife for gluttony one night), as well as in the use of similes, allegories of virtue and vice, and even recipes for medical concoctions. The sections on conception and pregnancy are also marked, especially the physiological descriptions. Was the annotator a young, educated woman?
BM STC It., p. 376; Annali di Giolito, p. 237; Fontanini II, 121; Melzi, Opere anonime e pseudonime, II, 115. Not in Gay. M.K. Ray, Writing Gender in Women’s Letter (Toronto, 2009).