Eloquence and Silence: Learning and Societal Roles of Women in Renaissance Italy

By Sunnie Habgood

Edited by Charlotte Allan

Image Credit: Sandro Boticelli. Birth of Venus. ca. 1425. 172.5 x 278.5 cm, tempera on canvas. Florence, Uffizi Gallery. https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/birth-of-venus.

The Italian Renaissance is categorised by the scholarship, art, and revival of classical ideals that thrived during the era. Great minds created works which have remained in the limelight for hundreds of years – that is, great minds housed by male bodies. Francessco Barbaro’s 1415 treatise On Wifely Duties encompasses the attitudes towards women’s education and their place in society during Renaissance Italy. Barbaro’s statement reveals the attitude was that a woman’s place was not amongst the learned class, but rather where the virtue of eloquence was of now use and where silence was of the upmost importance. In deconstructing his words and analysing societal values of the time, we can conclude that education amongst women was limited – and only covered their dual roles in society as wives and mothers. 

It’s possible that two people could read the extract from Barbaro’s treatise and come away with different interpretations; that is why, to begin the essay, we will breakdown the statement and summarise what it tells us. Barbaro’s phrase “women should believe” (Barbaro’s On Wifely Duties, 151) in and of itself speaks volumes regarding Renaissance attitudes towards women. Here we see a man speaking on behalf of the opposite sex, deeming what was appropriate for belief rather than independently forming critical opinions. This speaks to the Renaissance attitude that women’s education wasn’t imperative to their roles as wives and mothers, which will be expanded upon later in the essay. In terms of the “glory of eloquence” Barbaro mentions, eloquence was a major part of the Renaissance humanist movement, where classical ideals centred around the beauty of Latin prevailed. Eloquence was and still is, according to the Cambridge Online dictionary, “the quality of delivering a clear, strong message”. This went against a women’s role in society – which is why they should only believe they have achieved it, through “honoring themselves with the outstanding ornament of silence.” As the definition shows, eloquence in the spoken and written sense went against the ornament of silence that Barbaro mentions; hence, women must believe that eloquence and silence equate to each other – eloquence therefore wasn’t seen as an achievable goal for Renaissance women. Women were, in On Wifely Duties, categorised as outside the learned class of society, as Barbaro enforces the contemporary attitude that women should be seen and not heard. 

Furthermore, we must define what period will be discussed and give context as to what was happening during the Renaissance. Barbaro’s contemporaries did not believe they were living in a “renaissance” – that term wasn’t coined until the nineteenth-century, with Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy published in 1860. The etymology of the word Renaissance invokes ideas of rebirth – as stated before, the Renaissance in Italy was categorised by a revival of classical ideals, which were mainly manifested through art, scholarship, and architecture. Italy during this time was forming independent governments, with periods of “relative freedom from foreign influences” that would later be marred by a succession of European invasions in the late fifteenth-century. Italy was moving power from the hands of the nobility into independent governments (though it would later shift back into the hands of monarchies and foreign powers). Tensions between classes had been rife since the mid-thirteenth-century – so, at the time of Barbaro’s writing, Italy was experiencing a period of general stability. On top of governments, the Church’s “moral prescriptions were enforced” by the Church as well as the laws of the states – religion was, at this time, seen as the primary authority. We can see that the class system was being altered, as power was shifting; breaks from foreign invasions meant relative peace and stability for all areas of society; and most importantly, the Church was the authority on all moral and social issues, as well as natural law.

The “ornament of silence” named was a trait associated with femininity and therefore women at the time of the Renaissance. Historically, femininity and masculinity – both social traits –  were equated with biological sex. According to Kent in their chapter “Women in Renaissance Florence” from Virtue and Beauty, gender was a social construct as much as a biological given, where women were “universally constricted in accordance with […] male needs”. Female destiny was entirely in the hands of men, as femininity and the virtue of silence became associated with women. This wasn’t a new idea in the Renaissance and stemmed back to Biblical times where Eve was believed to be created from Adam’s rib. Females were second to men from the time of creation – Eve was created after Adam, and natural law in the Renaissance (perpetrated by the Church) stated that a hierarchy of creatures was established through the order of which they were created. Furthermore, Eve was seduced by the serpent, and in doing so influenced Adam; she was sentenced to pain during childbirth and “the labour of motherhood”, and from then on women were “weak, foolish, sensual and not to be trusted”. This ties back to the belief that women should “honor themselves” with silence – Eve’s sins followed women into the Renaissance, as did her creation after Adam, and there was no place for second class citizens in the realm of eloquence. Women were believed to have motherhood thrust upon them as a punishment, speaking to how their social position was cast in society. 

This aspect of Christian doctrine was so engrained into everyday life in the Renaissance that chastity became the foremost virtue a woman could aspire to uphold, as they were pushed to do what Eve could not. Virginity and chastity were continuously brought up as a reason why women shouldn’t engage in eloquence or broader studies, linking into both their educations and their role in society. Let us first focus on how attitudes towards women’s learning were centred around the idea of chastity. In his infamous letter to Battista Malatesta, Leonardo Bruni discusses his belief that to women, “the intricacies of debate or the oratorical artifices of action and delivery” would never be of any practical use. Rhetoric in all its forms, Bruni suggests that it was “absolutely outside the province of women”, and they should primarily subscribe to “the whole field of religion and morals” as well as Church literature. Here another Renaissance man believes eloquence was an unattainable virtue for women to uphold and/or possess; rhetoric and eloquence were closely linked in humanist studies, as humanists strived to reinvigorate medieval rhetoric through eloquence. Eloquence in women was viewed as not only going against their nature, also as a sign of corruption of character. The rationale for this was that eloquence was a public activity – according to classical Aristotelian thought, women “were passive, irrational, opinionative, and inferior to man”, and therefore must be confined to the private sphere. Young females were discouraged from learning even Latin or Greek, as it was believed this could expose them to “obscene or frivolous literature”; girls’ educations were always designed to protect their chastity and virtue. As learned women would be exposed to lude materials, it was believed they couldn’t remain chaste while analysing classical texts, which is a key fact that shows how important chastity was. An important perspective on objections surrounding the attitudes towards women’s learning comes from Laura Centra, a prominent female humanist, in her letter to Bibulus Sempronius. Cereta is exasperated with Sempronius, who has labelled her as a “female prodigy” – she believes that women “have been able by nature to be exceptional” but have had their opportunities limited. She goes on to list the names of many learned and brilliant classical women, whose achievements show that “nature imparts equally to all the same freedom to learn”. We can see that women were suppressed by their social circumstances, and that those who had access to education wished for it to be more readily available. Both Bruni and Barbaro, by encouraging women not to become schooled in rhetoric and eloquence, reflect a key Renaissance attitude that higher education for women would be unsuitable for a gender that was supposed to remain chaste.

The reason for higher education being unsuitable was because it didn’t fit into the idealised role for women in society. One constant that overlaps with both women’s learning and their role in society was that all females, regardless of their social standing, were educated in domestic chores such as sewing and needlework. A woman was only supposed to master as much rhetoric “which would serve her for domestic purposes”; she would teach her children the basics of grammar and religion and leave the rest up to tutors or their father/male guardian. It was truly believed that women had nothing to contribute to society except in their role as a mother. Tying back into education, eloquence was a virtue only suitable for the public sphere, and we can see that a woman’s place was only in the private, domestic sphere. Silence was also a very large part of a woman’s life, particularly in relation to her husband. If women took the initiative during sex, it was seen as socially unacceptable – they were taught to remain chaste and modest, “in the bedroom as much as elsewhere”, and expressing any form of sexual desire was deemed inappropriate. This tied back into the idea of the ideal woman remaining chaste, even throughout marriage.

A case which exemplifies Barbaro’s views, and shows his attitudes towards both women’s learning and their place in society is that of Isotta Nogarola, a Veronese noblewoman who is recognised by twenty-first century scholars to have been a prominent fifteenth century humanist. Isotta’s eloquence in Latin became renowned throughout Italy by the time she was eighteen as she wrote to prominent humanists, but a theme that emerged from her praise was that she wasn’t a great humanist, but instead great for a woman. Her achievements were consistently equated to her gender, and in her famous letter to Ermolao Barbaro she self-deprecates, writing “it may be very difficult to find a silent woman” in reference to herself, and acknowledging that her writings may seem “too verbose”. In an attempt to be taken seriously, Isotta had to acknowledge she was going against the norm of her gender – against the lack of eloquence and silence Barbaro preferred. She further referenced Cicero and Virgil in the letter, making it known she’s skilled in Latin, which was yet another rebellion against the norm of her gender. Due to her eloquence and this skill, she was a standout in her society, an oddity which many learned men had never encountered before. As put by Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine in “Women Humanists”, a fallout was inevitable: “triumphant warrior-women all too easily become voracious, men-eating monsters”. Isotta could not be a triumphant, learned woman without facing public backlash. Furthermore, engaging in higher education wasn’t her only wrong, as Isotta swore herself to celibacy and refused to marry. This went against the social expectation for women to wed, and an anonymous accuser would make accusations of sexual deviancy against her. As we discussed previously, chastity was the utmost virtue which a woman could aspire to uphold, however, it was genuinely believed that women couldn’t engage in humanism and live chaste lives simultaneously; it was therefore assumed that Isotta must have been engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage. She would later retreat from the humanist scene, instead devoting herself to the study of religious texts, which was seen as a more appropriate pass time for noblewomen. While her motives for doing so aren’t known, male humanists had not accepted her and, as a woman, and she most likely “lost courage when faced with the monumental task” of being taken seriously. Isotta was unmarried, educated, and had a public voice, going against Barbaro’s ideals expressed in On Wifely Duties, and the outcome of her life highlights the attitudes towards women’s learning and their place in society.

To conclude, the relationship between women’s learning and their place in society meant that the education of young women was limited. Barbaro’s statement reflects that silence and chastity were the main virtues a woman could uphold, and this attitude had age old roots and was perpetrated by Christian doctrine. If a woman was skilled in eloquence, they were going against their nature and the silence that was key to their roles in society. Isotta Nogarola, who summarised a woman going completely against her gender norm, suffered due to her skills in eloquences and had silence forced upon her as she retreated from the humanist scene. Women’s learning was clearly designed to serve their societal roles as mothers and wives.



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