Tarabotti, Arcangela (1604-1652), Venetian Nun and Writer
Elena Cassandra Tarabotti was born in the Castello neighborhood of Venice to Stefano Tarabotti and Maria Cadena in 1604. She was one of eleven children, and the eldest of six daughters. Tarabotti – who described herself as "zoppa," or lame, like her father – was destined for the convent at an early age, perhaps because her family deemed her marriage prospects less favorable than those of her sisters. She entered the convent of Sant'Anna in Castello as a student-boarder in 1617, taking the veil three years later along with the name Arcangela. She was consecrated in 1629 and spent the rest of her life among the Benedictine nuns of Sant'Anna, but her true vocation was literary, not religious. Tarabotti's years in the cloister were spent composing and circulating works that vigorously attacked the political and social underpinnings of the practice of coerced monachization – the perpetual enclosure of women who did not have a religious vocation – and the exclusion of women from the tools of learning.
A self-described autodidact, Tarabotti expressed dismay that others might judge her for errors in her writing, especially in her use of Latin. Despite her condition of enclosure and her lack of access to formal schooling, Tarabotti wrote at least six works, four of which were published in her lifetime. Through her literary activity, she forged relationships with some of seventeenth-century Venice's most important literary figures, including Giovan Francesco Loredano, a founder of the Accademia degli Incogniti, who helped her to publish her works.
Tarabotti's earliest works were the Tirannia paterna and the Inferno monacale, both of which targeted the practice of coerced monachization. The Tirannia (published posthumously as La semplicità ingannata  under the pseudonym Galerana Baratotti), takes aim with great political acuity at the role of the state in promoting forced enclosures, while also targeting the fathers who betray their innocent daughters by confining them to the convent. The Inferno describes the experience of these young girls as they move from their first introduction to the convent, represented to them by family and nuns alike as an earthly paradise, to the realization that they have been consigned to a condition of unbearable physical and emotional stasis. Neither of these provocative works was published in Tarabotti's lifetime, although she made several efforts to have the Tirannia printed, even sending a copy to France, to no avail.
Tarabotti's first published work was the Paradiso monacale (1643). Once considered a revocation of the strong views expressed in the Inferno and the Tirannia, recent scholarship has emphasized that the Paradiso is not a conversion narrative. Rather, the Paradiso constitutes a reasoned effort to achieve publication and literary status through the composition of a less provocative, more socially acceptable work. Far more conventional than Tarabotti's two previous efforts, the Paradiso praised the convent for those women who had a true religious calling and included prefatory material by other writers praising the author. Its publication earned Tarabotti numerous admirers, and she courted others by sending them copies of the book. She continued to strengthen her associations with members of Venetian literary culture by seeking literary advice, offering praise, and exchanging sought-after books with men such as Loredano, Angelico Aprosio, Francesco Pona, and others.
Sometime around 1641, a satire of female vanity and vice by Francesco Buoninsegni (Contro 'l lusso donnesco satira menippea, 1638) was brought to Tarabotti's attention, and she set to composing a response. Despite its light tone, Tarabotti's Antisatira, a defense of women that capably and wittily turned each of Buoninsegni's allegations back upon the male sex, was greeted with hostility upon its anonymous publication in 1644. Many of the nun's former supporters, who had admired her strong opinions and satirical thrust when it targeted political and religious structures, were less supportive when her attack focused on men in general. A number of responses were prepared against the Antisatira; in a published letter, Tarabotti described Girolamo Brusoni's Antisatira satirizzata, with irony, as "the best" of them. The Maschera scoperta of Aprosio, another former admirer, similarly attacked the nun and threatened to expose her as the Antisatira's author. Infuriated, Tarabotti successfully leveraged her literary connections to prevent this work from being published, further stoking a feud with Aprosio that would continue for many years. Tarabotti's relationships with other writers who had once been allies, also turned bitter. She accused Brusoni, for example, of stealing her ideas to compose his Amori tragici that treated enclosed nuns. For their part, the nun's detractors claimed that she could not be the true author of her works, arguing that the Paradiso and the Antisatira were too different in style. Tarabotti angrily refuted this suggestion in her next published work, the Lettere familiari e di complimento (1650).
With her Lettere, Tarabotti demonstrated the wide network of relationships she had forged with men and women all over Italy and abroad. Many of these interactions were conducted through the convent's parlor grille, but others were sustained through the exchange of letters, despite official disapproval of letter writing by nuns. Her Lettere include letters to members of the Incogniti in Venice as well as formal compositions to Vittoria della Rovere of Florence and Cardinal Mazzarin of France. She writes to her brother-in-law Giacomo Pighetti, to her sisters, and to male and female friends in Venice and Bologna. Her letters reveal the complexities of her relationships with the French community in Venice, from her friendship with Ambassador Henri Bretel de Grémonville and his family, to her increasingly antagonistic exchanges with Renée de Clermont-Galerande, who solicited from Tarabotti the fine lace work for which the nuns of Venice were renowned. Tarabotti appended to her epistolario a shorter, commemorative work entitled Le lagrime, composed in honor of Regina Donà, a nun in Sant'Anna whose death Tarabotti mourns throughout her letters.
Tarabotti published one more work after the Lettere. Like the Antisatira, Tarabotti's Che le donne siano della specie degli uomini (1651) was a response to a misogynist text. A new translation of an anonymous treatise, the Disputatio nova contra mulieres (attributed to Valens Acidalius), had brought renewed attention to Acidalius' argument that women were not human beings. As in the Antisatira, Tarabotti responded to the author's anti-woman arguments methodically, here dismantling each of them with Biblical examples. With Che le donne siano, Tarabotti demonstrated her readiness to defend women and debate men in the theological and philosophical, as well as literary, arena.
As a result of the forceful defense of women advanced in her works and her questioning of social, political and religious institutional practices, Tarabotti is considered by many scholars to have been a true protofeminist writer as well as an early political theorist.
Tarabotti's published works contain internal references to others she may have composed: a Purgatorio delle malmaritate that would have constituted the second installment of a Dantesque trilogy together with the Inferno and the Paradiso, and the devotional works La via lastricata per andare al cielo, La contemplazione dell'anima amante, and La luce monacale. These texts, if they exist, have not been located.
Tarabotti died in Sant'Anna on February 28, 1652, at the age of forty-eight.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
Submitted by Meredith Kennedy Ray, University of Delaware, 2007.
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