WOMEN DEFENDING WOMEN
La bella e dotta difesa delle donne.Venice, Bartolomeo Imperatore, 1554
FIRST EDITION. 8vo, 151 (v). Italic letter, large woodcut portrait of Dardani on t-p and verso of last. T-p a bit dusty, very slight age yellowing, upper outer corner of two margins cut away. A good, clean copy in contemporary limp vellum, covers soiled and worn, original ties. Modern ms. signature “D. L. Cumming” in blue ink pen to verso of fly, bibliographic annotation below.
A good copy of the first edition of this fascinating defence of women in the Italian vernacular in the form of a trial. This is the only known work of the humanist and politician Alvise Dardani, published posthumously by the author’s grandson, Ippolito. Challenging the male structured historical discourse through his forceful female speakers, Dardano wrote a “splendidly incisive rereading of history” (Panizza).
In the 16th century, literature celebrating the moral and intellectual integrity of women – written mostly by men – flourished in Italy, particularly in Venice. In the introduction to this work, the author states: “Both my verse and my prose intend to demonstrate with pretty clear arguments that, even if women’s virtues cannot be considered superior to that of men, at least they are not inferior. I consider this effort not only pleasant but also useful for readers, because nowadays the world is full of wicked men who, […] would like to stain the name of the courageous women […] They deserve not only repression but also harsh and severe punishment”.
The work, in seven books, opens with a long poem in which Dardani urges his female audience to disregard male criticism and follow the example of heroic ancient women. The central section of the volume is the most interesting and captivating, ingeniously arranged as a series of orations: “the literary scene is set as a fictional court where an allegorical figure, Giustitia, and thiee judges – Traiano Imperatore, Carondo Prencipe and Selenco Dominator di Locrensi – will judge the role of men and women in the course of history. The conflict between the sexes is represented in a verbal combat between Hortensia, a known woman of Ancient Rome, and Fulvio Stello. […] In the fourth book Hortensia’s superiority becomes unchallengeable. Fulvio remains completely silent whereas Hortensia draws from mythology and history to slander men’s actions and praise women’s achievements. In the fifth book, Hortensia continues praising female deeds and simultaneously mocks Fulvio’s silence. In the sixth book, Hortensia uninterrupted comes to the conclusion that women have excelled in military arts, politics, religion, prophecy, inventions, arts and sciences […] When Fulvio attempts to counterattack by citing women from the Bible or mythology who were traditionally seen as negative figures, such as Eve, Bathsheba, Delilah, and lole, the author offers these women the opportunity to defend themselves. They appear before the court, protest their innocence and give a different version of the events”. (Dialeti). The final book contains a short treatise on the education of children, dealing also with conception and the astral influence on birth.
A prominent member of the Scuola di San Marco, Alvise Dardani (often referred to as Luigi Dardano, c. 1429-1511) had a very successful political career in the Republic of Venice. As provveditore of Mirano, in 1509 he played a fundamental role in securing the allegiance of the city of Padua to the Republic during the Italian wars. The following year, he was elected Grand Chancellor, the highest office a ‘cittadino’ could achieve and one of the most prestigious.USTC 825480; Brunet II, p. 521: “cet ouvrage est rempli d’anecdotes et de petites narrations”; Graesse II, p. 335, Erdmann 28; D127. Not in BM STC Italy 16th century. A. Dialeti, The Debate about Women and its Socio-Cultural Background in Early Modern Venice (2004). L. Panizza, Women in Italian Renaissance Culture and Society (2017).