Cereta, Laura (1469-1499)
Laura Cereta, imitating the humanist writers of her day, crafted Latin letters in the form of orations and invectives on such themes as marriage and family, education, fate and fortune, solitude, avarice, war, and consolations on death. Like the first great humanist Petrarch, Cereta claimed to seek fame and immortality through her writing. Indeed, it appears that her letters were intended for a general audience -- they were written over a brief period of time (between 1485 and 1488), some of the correspondents were fictitious, and her father sent a number of them to the Dominican friar Tommaso of Milan, who wrote back praising them. Cereta assembled 82 of her letters in a volume, together with a burlesque dialogue on the death of an ass, and dedicated it to her patron, Cardinal Ascanius Maria Sforza, possibly seeking legitimization as a writer. This volume remained unpublished until the seventeenth century, but circulated in manuscript form between 1488 and 1492 among humanists in Brescia, Verona, and Venice.
Because her Latin composition was so good, some intellectuals accused her of plagiarism. One critic even sent his wife to demand proof on the spot of her writing abilities. Faced with such opposition, Cereta responded with one of the finest defenses on the education of women in Quattrocento Italy. In it, she proposes that a woman can be just as learned as a man if she applies herself: "[K]nowledge is not given [to women] as a gift, but [is gained] with diligence" (quoted in Shibanoff 190).
Cereta's life provides a good illustration of the type of dedication she advocated. She was born in Brescia in 1469 to Silvestro Cereto, an attorney and magistrate, and Veronica di Leno, a descendent of an old Brescian family. At the age of seven, Cereta was sent to a convent to learn religious principles and the rudiments of reading and writing. This was not uncommon for girls her age during this period. What appears unusual is that she suffered from insomnia for two years. In her writings, she relates how she spent many sleepless nights in the convent reading and doing embroidery. When she was nine, her doting father brought her home from the convent so she could help care for her younger siblings. She remained accustomed to the habit of staying up late at night after all the chores were done in order to read. In addition to learning Latin and Greek from her father, Cereta also showed great interest in mathematics, astrology, agriculture, and her favorite subject, moral philosophy. At fifteen or sixteen years of age (1484 or 1485), she married a Brescian businessman, Pietro Serina, and unlike most learned women of her time, continued to study just as intensely as before she was married. After eighteen months of marriage, her husband died of a fever (most likely a version of the plague) and Cereta remained childless. She mourned his death but found consolation in her studies. When she was eighteen years old, she delivered her first public oration, and two years later, it is believed by her early biographers that she began a seven year career of teaching moral philosophy, although there are no public records that verify her position as a teacher.
To many scholars, Cereta's early writings combine classical ideals with religious beliefs while her later writings reveal a tension between humanism and religion. Since none of her writings exist from the last eleven years of her life, it is difficult to know what she thought in her later years about linking secular and religious subjects. Perhaps we may assume that Cereta followed the advice of her spiritual advisor, Brother Tommaso, who urged her in multiple letters (1487) to turn from her studies to a greater religious commitment. Following the deaths of her husband and father, the two men who supported her intellectual endeavors, it appears that Cereta struggled to understand and maintain her position as a learned Christian woman in a society that valued women primarily for their domestic and religious involvement.
Works by Laura Cereta:
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