Fedele, Cassandra (1465?-1558)
Cassandra Fedele, was the most renowned woman scholar in Italy during the last decades of the Quattrocento. She was born in Venice in 1465 to Barbara Leoni and Angelo Fedele. While we know nothing of her mother (Fedele does not mention her mother in her writings), nor do we know what her father's position was in Venetian society, we have evidence that her father was respected among the aristocracy and took a great interest in his daughter's learning, perhaps seeking to advance his own reputation. When Fedele reached fluency in Greek and Latin at the age of twelve, she was sent by her father to Gasparino Borro, a Servite monk, who tutored her in classical literature, philosophy, the sciences, and dialectics. In 1487, at twenty-two years of age, she achieved instant success in Italy and abroad when she delivered a Latin speech in praise of the arts and sciences at her cousin's graduation at Padua. Her speech, Oratio pro Bertucio Lamberto, was published in Modena (1487), Venice (1488), and Nuremberg (1489). From 1487 to 1497, she exchanged letters with prominent humanists and nobility throughout Italy and Spain. One such correspondent, Isabella di Castiglia, urged Fedele to join her court in Spain. Fedele declined the invitation, writing that she could not go while Italy was at war with France. There may have been more to her stated reason for not going, however. Fedele's early biographers believed that the doge Agostino Barbarigo would not allow this fine "ornament" to leave his country, although there is no evidence of such a decree.
Fedele achieved fame through her writing, oratorical abilities, and simple elegance. In addition to her letters and orations (a volume of 123 letters and 3 orations was published in Padua in 1636), it is believed that she also wrote Latin poetry, although none has been found. She participated with influential humanists in public debates on philosophical and theological issues and was asked to speak in front of the doge Agostino Barbarigo and the Venetian Senate on the subject of higher education for women. In a letter to Lorenzo de' Medici, Angelo Poliziano praised her for her excellence in both Latin and Italian, as well as for her beauty.
Fedele's success, however, was shortlived. The high points of her scholarly activities occurred between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-three, just prior to her marriage at age thirty-four (1499). After she married, and for almost sixty years, she wrote few letters and was invited only once, in 1556, to deliver a public address in honor of the Queen of Poland, Bona Sforza, who came to Venice. When she was about eighty years old, she may have written a book entitled Ordo scientiarum, as the biographical tradition indicates, but this work is no longer extant. Some historians argue that Fedele abandoned her intellectual pursuits when she got married, as was the case for most learned women of her day who married and assumed full-time management of an entire household. Fedele may have also been discouraged by strong social forces that opposed the scholarly participation of married women. While we do not know for certain why Fedele stopped writing, a statement she made implies that she believed a woman could not be married and pursue rigorous studies at the same time. In a letter to Alessandra Scala, who wrote Fedele asking whether she should get married or devote her life to study, Fedele encouraged her to "choose the path for which nature has suited you" (translation in Robin 31).
There are other possible reasons for sixty years of intellectual inactivity. In 1520, on Fedele's return from Crete with her physician husband, Giammaria Mapelli, she lost all her belongings in a shipwreck. Her husband died later that year, leaving her a widow, childless, and in financial straits. Fedele wrote to Leone X asking for help in 1521, but he did not reply to her letter. She tried again in 1547, writing to Paolo III, who responded by giving her a position as the prioress of an orphanage at the church of San Domenico di Castello in Venice where she resided until her death. Fedele may have also struggled with health problems. Before her marriage she complained of an illness that was depleting her strength and making it difficult to concentrate on reading and writing for any length of time.
While we have no proof of her persistence in study, it is likely that Fedele did continue to read and write in private after her marriage and during her years of widowhood, not for praise and honor, but for the enjoyment and solace that intellectual pursuits can provide. In her speech before the doge and the Venetian Senate, she made this suggestion on how she and other women of her day could benefit from the new humanist learning made available to them, since they could not use their knowledge for professional purposes:
[W]hen I meditate on the idea of marching forth in life with the lowly and execrable weapons of the little woman -- the needle and the distaff -- even if the study of literature offers women no rewards or honors, I believe women must nonetheless pursue and embrace such studies alone for the pleasure and enjoyment they contain. . . . (translated in Robin 162)
Works by Cassandra Fedele:
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