Fonte, Moderata (1555-1592)
Modesta Pozzo or Moderata Fonte (Venice, 1555-1592), although little known to modern criticism before around 1980, is now recognized as one of the most accessible and appealing of sixteenth-century Italian women writers. Her best-known work is the dialogue Il merito delle donne (The Worth of Women), which was published posthumously in 1600, and is one of the liveliest and most original contributions to early modern debate on sex roles, as well as one of the earliest to have been authored by a woman. Fonte's oeuvre also encompasses a number of other works deserving of critical attention, notably her chivalric romance, Il Floridoro (1581) and her two poetic narratives of Christ's passion and resurrection (1582 and 1592).
Our main source for Fonte's life is the biography written by her uncle by marriage and one-time guardian, Giovanni Niccolò Doglioni (1548-1629), which circulated in manuscript following her death and was published in preface to Il merito delle donne in 1600. While Doglioni's Vita is predictably idealizing in its presentation of its subject, subsequent researches have confirmed its factual reliability as a source. It is also of literary and historical interest as one of the fullest and most vivid early biographies of a secular creative woman. As Doglioni records, Modesta Pozzo was born in Venice in 1555, to Girolamo Pozzo a lawyer, and Marietta dal Moro. Both her parents came from moneyed families of the peculiarly Venetian rank of cittadini originari, a secondary elite group, excluded from the patriciate and thus ineligible for political office, but clearly differentiated from the 'populace' in terms of education and lifestyle. Modesta was orphaned within a year of her birth, and was brought up, alongside her elder brother Leonardo, in the household of her maternal grandmother Cecilia di Mazzi and of Cecilia's second husband, Prosperi Saraceni, a lawyer. She received an elementary education at the convent of Santa Marta, where Doglioni recounts that she amazed visitors with her intellectual precocity and charm. On returning to her grandmother's house at the age of nine, she continued her education informally under the guidance of Saraceni, who allowed her the run of his library. At the same time, Doglioni tells us, Fonte attempted to teach herself Latin by having her brother repeat his lessons to her on his return from school. The success of these linguistic studies was probably limited; certainly, the adult Fonte was less erudite as a writer than her younger Venetian contemporary Lucrezia Marinella (c. 1571-1623), and her literary influences and points of reference appear exclusively vernacular.
The next turning point in Fonte's life occurred in her early twenties, when she went to live with her childhood companion, Saracena Saraceni, the daughter of Prospero and Cecilia, following Saracena's marriage to Doglioni, some time after 1576. Doglioni was well connected in Venetian literary circles and clearly encouraged his protégée's literary ambitions, although some of the works she published at time may have been begun some time earlier (Doglioni tells us in the Vita that Modesta had been eagerly writing since childhood). Her earliest substantial published work was the unfinished chivalric romance, Tredici canti del Floridoro, which came out in 1581 with the Venetian publisher Francesco Rampazetti, in an elegant quarto publication, accompanied by sonnets by Doglioni and two other Venetian letterati, Bartolomeo Malombra and Cesare Simonetti. The poem is dedicated to the Grand Duke of Florence, Francesco de' Medici (1541-87), and his Venetian-born Duchess, Bianca Cappello (1546-87). Set in a fanciful ancient Greece, heavily inflected with chivalric values, the Floridoro recounts the adventures of the young prince Floridoro and his future bride Celsidora, putative ancestors of the Medici dynasty. A sub-plot concerns the adventures of the female knight Risamante, modeled on archetypes in Lodovico Ariosto's vastly popular Orlando Furioso (1532), whose influence is apparent more generally in the Floridoro's structure and style. The published version of the poem breaks off abruptly after thirteen canti, although a recently discovered dedicatory letter to the work makes it clear that a much longer work, of fifty canti, was originally intended (Carinci 2002). Doglioni's Vita confirms that more of the poem was written than was published in 1581. The reason for the suspension of the project remains unclear, although the sudden death of both dedicatees in 1587 seems a plausible explanation.
Like her later works, Fonte's Floridoro was published under the pseudonym 'Moderata Fonte' ('Moderate Fountain'): a witty literary transcription of the author's rather less euphonious real name, which means 'Modest Well'. This use of a pseudonym was uncommon among women writers in sixteenth-century Italy, and may reflect the particular situation of republican Venice, where 'respectable', upper-class women played a less salient role in cultural life than they did in many other environments. Prior to Fonte's emergence in the 1580s, the most important women writers in Venice had been the musical virtuosa and demi-mondaine Gaspara Stampa and the courtesan Veronica Franco. 'Decent' Venetian women, by contrast, barely register as writers prior to Fonte, with the exception of the mid-century poet Olimpia Malipiero, who spent most of her adult life in Florence. The dedicatory letter to the Floridoro explains Fonte's decision to publish under an 'imagined name' as arising from a desire to obvert the 'public censure' that might otherwise result, especially given the fact that, as an unmarried girl, she is 'compelled to observe many scruples (rispetti)' in her behavior (Carinci 2002, 9). While it is true that most 'respectable' women who had published prior to Fonte had been married or widowed, rather than giovani da marito, cases do exist outside Venice of unmarried girls who had published under their own names (Laura Terracina, Issicratea Monte). From the 1590s, we find Lucrezia Marinella as the first instance of this phenomenon in Venice, plausibly emboldened by the precedent established by Fonte's 'semi-public' literary career.
Fonte published two other works before her marriage, besides the Floridoro: a dramatic dialogue entitled Le feste (Celebrations) and a narrative poem, La passione di Christo (The Passion of Christ), both published by the press of Domenico and Giovanni Battista Guerra in 1582. The latter, the more substantial of the two works, is an interesting example of the kind of secularizing narrative-meditational religious poems that enjoyed vast popularity in late sixteenth-century Italy, following the popular success of works such as Luigi Tansillo's Le lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of St Peter). Like Fonte's later work in the genre, La resurretione di Christo (1592), La Passione recounts its biblical narrative in a vivid and emotive style influenced by Petrarch and Ariosto, and adopts the verse-form, ottava rima, typical of chivalric romance. Its narrative passages are interspersed with impassioned lyric interludes, relating the story of Christ's suffering to the writer's and readers' own spiritual lives. Both poems are notable for the attention they pay to the female protagonists of the gospel story, the Virgin and Mary Magdalen in the Passion, the Magdalen particularly in the Resurrection. In this respect, they may be compared to Vittoria Colonna's prose Pianto sopra la passione di Christo (1557), and may be seen as prefiguring later works such as Francesca Turina Bufalini's Rime spirituali sopra i misteri del santissimo rosario (Roma: Giglietti, 1595).
Le feste is a slighter work, though typically lively and engaging. It takes the form of a dialogue between a Stoic and an Epicurean philosopher, whose debates over the issue of whether virtue or pleasure should constitute the end of human life are resolved by the intervention of the Eritrean Sybil. Short dramatic works of this kind, known as rappresentazioni, appear to have been performed before the Doge of Venice two or three times a year on feast-days, in a tradition seemingly dating from the second half of the 1570s. A note in the edition of Le feste notes that Fonte's drama was performed before Doge Niccolò da Ponte on St Stephen's Day (26 December), 1581. It seems very likely that Le feste was not Fonte's only published work in this genre; indeed, Doglioni records in his Vita that 'she wrote several rappresentazioni performed before successive Most Serene Doges of Venice, which have been published, though mainly anonymously'. It is worth noting in this context, as a precedent for Fonte's surprisingly public debut as a writer, that a young woman writer from Rovigo, on the Venetian mainland, Issicratea Monte (c. 1562-84), had created something of a stir in Venice in the late 1570s when, aged only in her mid teens, she had written orations of congratulation for Doges Sebastiano Venier and Niccolò da Ponte. That Issicratea Monte served as an inspiration for Fonte, and a spur to her literary ambition, seems highly likely, especially if we attribute to Fonte the laudatory sonnet by a 'Mad[onna] M.P.' that prefaces the printed edition of an oration by Monte that appeared in 1578 (Monte 1578, A 1v). If this poem, which praises Monte as a 'new Minerva, beloved of the Heavens', may indeed be attributed to the young Fonte, or Pozzo, it would mark her earliest appearance in print, predating the Floridoro by three years.
The degree of public prominence Fonte had achieved as a poet in Venice by the time of her marriage in 1583 is well illustrated by her appearance in a collectively-authored volume of verse published in Venice in that year in praise of the King of Poland, Stephen (Istvan) Bathory (1533-85), edited by a medic and letterato from Belluno, Ippolito Zucconello, with patronage ties to the Paduan-educated king. Such encomiastic volumes were popular in the period, with the more ambitious ones collecting the work of over a hundred writers and featuring works on Latin and sometimes Greek, as well as the vernacular. The volume for Bathory is divided into two parts, one in Latin and Greek, the other in the volgare. The latter contains the work of some thirty-eight named poets, mainly from Venice and the Venetian cultural sphere, including prominent figures such as Luigi Groto (1541-85) and Erasmo da Valvassone (1523-93) (Zucconello, ed. 1583). Fonte is the only female contributor, but is given a high degree of prominence within the volume, as the author not only of two sonnets, but a seven-stanza canzone, and a fifteen-stanza poem in ottava rima, celebrating Bathory's victorious campaign against the Muscovites in 1580-82. Together with her canzone for the death of Doge da Ponte, mentioned below, these compositions show Fonte at her most public and political, and demonstrate the extent of her integration within Venetian literary culture. This aspect of her authorial persona needs to be borne in mind when considering her Il merito delle donne, which combines a feminist critique of Venetian society with a patriotic celebration of its merits.
To resume the narrative of Fonte's life, she was married in 1583, to a lawyer and government employee, Filipppo Zorzi (1558-98), like her from the rank of cittadini originari, though with patrician connections through his mother. Fonte's age at her marriage, twenty-seven, was unusually late for the period, and equally anomalous was the fact that she was by a few years older than her husband. The reasons for the delay in her marriage are likely to be due to legal problems over her inheritance, perhaps resulting from the untimely death of her parents; there is an allusion in one of the proems to the Floridoro to a protracted law-suit, and one of the speakers in Il merito delle donne speaks feelingly of the difficulties experienced by young girls whose right to a dowry is denied as a result of their fathers dying intestate. Whatever the cause for her late marriage, it seems likely that Fonte's protracted 'adolescence' was an important factor in her intellectual development, in that it allowed her the leisure to devote herself to writing at a time when most women of her background were occupied with child-rearing and the governance of their husband's household. It may also be that the closeness in age between Fonte and her husband allowed for a more equal relationship between the spouses than was generally the case in this period. It is striking, certainly, that in October 1583, a few months after their marriage, Filippo Zorzi signed over to Fonte the full control of her dowry, in contradiction to the usual practice whereby a husband controlled his wife's dowry during her lifetime.
Fonte's marriage to Zorzi produced four children, whose age and sex is recorded by Doglioni in his life. The eldest, Pietro, is said to be ten years old at the time of the composition of the Life in 1593; given the date of Fonte's marriage, it seems likely that he was born in 1584. Again judging from Doglioni's account of their ages, it seems that the second child, Cecilia, was born around 1585, and the third, Girolamo, around 1587. Fonte's death appears to have resulted from complications following the birth of a fourth child, a daughter, in 1592. Doglioni admiringly records his protegée's excellence as a wife and mother, noting in particular the quality of the literary and musical education she was giving to her children. She was also, he observes, impeccable in her commitment to feminine tasks such as needlework, privileging such occupations, he implies, over her writing, which she dashed off hurriedly at spare moments, in deference to the 'false notion, so widespread in our city today, that women should excel in nothing but the running of their household'.
Some critics, citing this comment of Doglioni's, and noting the deceleration in her publications following 1583, have suggested that Fonte's literary activities virtually ceased at the time of her marriage, sometimes further implying that this cessation is likely to have reflected a censorious attitude towards her writing on the part of her husband. In fact, there is little evidence that this is the case. Doglioni's comment on Fonte's custom of subordinating her writing to her domestic labors identifies this as a habit already well established at the time of his marriage, and it is certainly not the case that her literary activities ceased after 1583. A canzone of hers was published in 1585, commemorating the death of Doge Niccolò da Ponte (Fonte 1585), while her second ottava rima sacred narrative, La resurretione di Christo, came out in the year of her death, 1592. The final years of Fonte's life were probably largely occupied with Il merito delle donne, whose second book Doglioni poignantly tells us she completed the day before her death. An admiring sonnet by Filippo Zorzi accompanies La resurretione di Christo, and Doglioni records an epitaph he wrote for his wife, extolling her literary fame. Although not quite a 'creative partnership' of the type that has been described in the case of Laura Battiferri and Bartolomeo Ammanati (Kirkham 2002), and that we also see exemplified by Isabella and Francesco Andreini, Fonte's marriage does appear to have offered a more supportive environment for her writing than has sometimes been suggested.
The Worth of Women was published in Venice eight years after Fonte's death, in 1600, with a dedicatory letter to Livia Feltria della Rovere, Duchess of Urbino, by her elder daughter Cecilia, now 15, and two sonnets by her surviving son, Pietro. As Cecilia's letter tells us, the two were now alone, Filippo Zorzi having died in 1598 and the younger boy, Girolamo, a year earlier (the youngest child, a daughter, may not long have outlived her mother). The posthumous publication of the dialogue, which was accompanied by Doglioni's Life, written some seven years earlier, is likely to have been motivated by the new topicality of the question of the relation between the sexes, which had been stirred into life the previous year by the publication of a vituperative treatise on 'the defects of women' by Giuseppe Passi of Ravenna (1569-?1620). This appears to have stimulated a Venetian publisher, Giambattista Ciotti, to commission a response by Lucrezia Marinella, whose La nobiltà et l'eccellenza delle donne was published in the same year as Fonte's dialogue. The contrast between the two works is interesting. Where Marinella's Nobiltà is an accomplished exercise in polemic, consciously adhering to the established parameters of academic debate on gender, Fonte's Merito is more original, and balances material drawn from literary tradition with observation of contemporary realities. The work takes the form of a dialogue between seven Venetian women, some married, some unmarried, some widowed, who meet together for two days of light-hearted debate. The subject of their discussions is nominally that of the relations between the sexes -- why does it seem that men are destined to bring women unhappiness? -- but the conversation ranges widely, incorporating an encyclopedic overview of the natural and social universes, and embracing such diversions as fables, poems, riddles, and a full-scale parody of a legal oration. An aspect of the work that has attracted particular attention in recent criticism is its skeptical treatment of the value of marriage for women, and its wistful evocation of the attractions of a single life. While the potential polemical force of this theme is undercut by the dialogue's calculated 'lightness', it is nonetheless undoubtedly of interest, especially in a society in which marriage rates among the upper classes were in decline (Cox 1995).
Where Fonte's posthumous reputation is concerned, some evidence of the diffusion of her works is offered by a series of laudatory mentions found in the early decades of the seventeenth century, mainly in the exemplificatory sections of treatises on women's 'nobility and excellence'. Particularly interesting are the mentions of Fonte's writings found in the works of her Venetian successors Arcangela Tarabotti and Lucrezia Marinella, and her very prominent citation in the preface to Luisa Bergalli's pioneering anthology of Italian women's poetry, Componimenti poetici delle piu illustri rimatrici d'ogni secolo (1726). In recent decades, since Ginevra Conti Odorisio's Donna e società nel Seicento (1979), and especially since the important work of Adriana Chemello in the 1980s, Moderata Fonte's work - especially Il merito delle donne - has attracted a remarkable degree of critical attention. Besides Chemello's Italian edition of 1988 (Fonte 1988), translations of Fonte's dialogue have been published in the past few years into English, German, and French (see below for references). A modern Italian edition of the Floridoro by Valeria Finucci is also available (Fonte 1995), and an English translation by the same editor is forthcoming from Chicago University Press.
Early critical literature on Fonte is listed in Chemello 1983, 106, n. 15. For listings and discussion of recent critical literature, see Fonte 1997, 23, and Fonte 2002, 239-41 and 262-63. To these should be added Carinci 2002 and Malpezzi Price 2003a and 2003b. A useful web-site on Fonte from "Other Women's Voices," offering further links, is http://home.infionline.net/~ddisse/fonte.html.
Submitted by Virginia Cox, New York University, 2004.
2. Further support for this is offered by the dedicatory letter to Fonte's Passione di Christo, addressed to Doge da Ponte, which talks of the Doge having deigned in the past to read 'others of my works' [my italics]. Numerous anonymous works of this type -- some quite ambitious and elaborate -- are found in a collection in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice (Misc. 2615.9).
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