Medaglia, Diamante (1724-1770)[*]

Portrait     Editions of Works

The poet and natural philosopher Diamante Medaglia was born in the village of Savallo in the northern Italian province of Brescia on August 28, 1724. Her father, a doctor, was obliged to travel frequently in his medical practice, and thus assigned her moral and academic instruction to his uncle, Father Antonio Medaglia, the pastor of the Church of Santa Maria di Savallo. Under his tutelage, Medaglia studied theology, religious history, Latin, and Italian literature. It was, however, the poetry of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Petrarchisti, so popular at the time, that proved most decisive for her early intellectual formation and her later fame in the region.

While still quite young, Medaglia began to compose impassioned love sonnets and canzoni modeled stylistically on her prized Tuscan poets. She quickly came to the attention of the members of the Brescian Republic of Letters and such regional lights as the historian and literary scholar Lucio Doglioni, the poet and playwright Mattia Giovanni Butturini, and the improvisational poet Father Francesco Lucca. On the basis of her poetic talent, she was elected to several prestigious academies, including the Agiati of Rovereto (1751), the Arditi of Brescia, the Orditi of Padua, the Unanimi of Salò, and the national Academy of the Arcadia (1757).

Yet, according to Giuseppe Pontara, one of her contemporary biographers and the editor of her works, Medaglia's father objected to her poetic vocation and the increasing publicity it brought, and thus arranged his daughter's marriage at the age of twenty-four to fellow-physician Pietro Faini. His design to stifle her literary career was, in fact, largely successful.[1] Although Medaglia Faini did not forswear her poetic ambitions entirely after she married, she no longer wrote on the subject of love, and generally avoided any sentimental expression in the first-person voice. Medaglia instead confined herself to occasional verses that contemporary opinion deemed appropriate to her new civil status. The new leitmotifs of her lyrics became the various deeds and accomplishments of other, mainly local, protagonists, including young men and women entering religious life, brides, and noted cultural and political personalities. Antonio Brognoli, a friend and another of Medaglia Faini's contemporary biographers, underlines with pointed irony the sacrifice she made on the altar of poetic integrity to satisfy the social conventions governing the public conduct of women:

Of these [occasional] Sonnets by Mrs. Faini, we have a sizable number, many of which certainly merit our praise, the most estimable being those subjects especially daunting to portray because of their triviality and simplicity. She has happily composed so many of these that I advise every poet, who in the future is similarly put upon, to turn to this rich arsenal, and to reprint one of these without troubling himself in so vain an endeavor.[2]

Medaglia Faini did compose one final impassioned, autobiographical sonnet, but this served, however, to renounce once and for all her poetic vocation. In the following excerpted lines she bluntly declares her disillusionment at the misuse of her poetic talent and repudiates the social constraints that obliged her to commemorate people and events of no personal relevance:

I, who until now, at others' behest, have written
Sonnets, stanzas, and madrigals
For doctors, betrothed, lawyers,
For those who take the veil and holy vestments,
No more will wrack my brain
Without gain, and for such things, waste my time.[3]
True to her word, Medaglia Faini relinquished her muse and never wrote another poem. She turned instead to a new, ultimately more gratifying font of inspiration in the "new" science and philosophy. Determined to master astronomy, philosophy, mathematics and physics, she placed herself under the tutelage of noted regional scholars. She studied philosophy and history with the Reverend Domenico Bonetti of Volciano; and she lived and studied Euclid's Elements for three months in 1765 with Brescian mathematician Giovanni Battista Suardi, the author of two influential mathematical studies, New Instruments for the Description of Diverse and Modern Curves (Brescia, 1752) and Mathematical Diversions (Brescia, 1764).[4] Indeed, her extensive correspondence indicates that for the last ten years of her life, until her death in 1770, science and philosophy were the focus of her intellectual life.[5]

On May 5, 1763, near the time of her renunciation of poetry, Medaglia Faini came to stand before members of a Brescian academy to which she not only belonged but was the elected Princess to vigorously defend the education of women.[6] Implicitly repudiating her own intellectual trajectory in her oration to the Unanimi of Salò, Medaglia Faini advocated a remarkable curriculum that emphasized the sciences and philosophy while sharply challenging the benefits of literary instruction, and of poetry in particular. Instead, Medaglia Faini argued for women to be taught classical and moral philosophy, religious history, logic, and most importantly, physics and mathematics. This unorthodox proposal challenged even the most progressive Enlightenment arguments for women's education to appear during the century.[7] Broad-minded illuministi like Pietro Verri, Giovanni Bandiera, and Pier Domenico Soresi, who advocated the formal instruction of women for their own sake and for the sake of society as a whole, were uniformly wary of the influence of the "sublime" sciences on the female intellect and character as tending to undermine women's primary domestic responsibilities.[8] Medaglia Faini, moreover, went on to further defy conventional wisdom by denouncing upper-class women's now-conventional literary education, especially the poetic training considered de rigeur during this new Arcadian age.

Yet, despite the subversive quality of her proposed curriculum, Medaglia Faini also betrayed the influence of the politics and poetics of the masculine discursive tradition, even as she exploited the enlightenment terms available to her to suggest fundamental changes in women's condition. For example, addressing as she did a male academic elite, she adhered to the classic conventions of oratory, employed the tono medio of academic disputation, and built her argument upon the tried infrastructure of master narratives, ancient and contemporary. She cited Cicero, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Horace to defend the primacy of philosophy and science in her curriculum. Anticipating the likely attacks on the propriety of teaching women classical philosophy, she quoted extensively from such noted theologians as Jean Mabillon, St. Basil the Great, the French Jansenist Charles Rollins, and the Church father Clement of Alexandria, all of whom defend the importance of the pagan philosophers to the education of Christian students. But at the same time she rested her defense of the importance of women's education in mathematics, science, and philosophy on women's inherent intellectual frailty and vanity, her own feminine defects, and the deficiencies of her very oration; only these disciplines, she averred, can counter the primitive irrationality, impiety, and "torpid indolence" to which women naturally incline.

Medaglia Faini's oration thus epitomizes the ideological tensions and subterfuge that characterized many pro-woman arguments by women during the Italian Enlightenment. Forty-four years later, amidst the boisterous atmosphere of resistance and emancipation that followed the French Revolution, Carolina Lattanzi could unequivocally condemn The Slavery of Women.[9] But in 1763 Medaglia Faini felt compelled to challenge women's oppression more surreptitiously. Co-opting traditional analytic and discursive methods and flattering the misogynist prejudices of her scholarly male audience, Medaglia Faini defends women's instruction in the "new" science and philosophy not for its own sake but as the best way to enhance women's domestic skills and Christian modesty.

She begins by quoting the conservative judgment that only economically and intellectually superior women should be allowed a formal education that had been rendered thirty years earlier by Antonio Vallisneri, the Prince of the Paduan Academy of the Ricovrati. In this way, Medaglia Faini not only assuaged the anxieties of the male audience before her, but also by extension, cloaked herself in Vallisneri's mantle of authority. But this is only a strategic maneuver. In her address, Medaglia Faini referred repeatedly to the benefits of education for the whole of her sex and contemned the plight especially of those "rough and uncouth women" unable to express themselves cogently and clearly, thus underlining her support of universal education for women and directly contradicting Vallisneri's limitation of it to the exceptional few.

At the same time, she passed over in silence the arguments of other women on the same question. For example, nowhere does she mention Aretafila Savini De' Rossi's vigorous defense of women's education published in the 1729 edition of the Ricovrati Debate. In fact, she cites no female authorities at all. This deliberate repression of the arguments of her precursors unmistakably aimed to promote her own legitimacy among male academicians. In her insistence on women's intellectual inferiority, including her own, and her suppression of the pro-woman arguments of other women, Medaglia Faini paradoxically rested her defense of women's education on a negation of women's intellectual integrity and authority.

Nonetheless, Medaglia Faini constructed a singular and potent argument for women's education, which incorporated the even more radical proposition that they should be taught the elite disciplines that had traditionally been closed to them. Her "devised resolution" may pragmatically have solicited the approval of men in power, but as her exuberant praise of the power of mathematics and physics to reveal the truth showed her aim was, in fact, women's intellectual emancipation, not their redomestication. She claimed for all women, elite and common alike, the right to read the secrets of Galileo's book of the universe. Indeed, despite her antifeminist assertions, her call to extend women's intellectual authority to the entire cosmos, from the deepest recesses of the sea to the farthest heavens, and from the metaphysics of the Greeks to the "new" science and philosophy, tacitly unlocks women's domestic confines and confers on them new authority in both the substantive world and the realm of ideas.

Nor should the setting and occasion of Medaglia Faini's oration be overlooked. Speaking her defense from the podium of the Academy of the Unanimi to her fellow academicians, Medaglia Faini embodied in herself the new authority of women, and not only of the aristocratic class but also of the bourgeoisie, in the sphere of intellectual exchange. Unlike Aretafila Savini De' Rossi and the other eminent proto-feminist spokeswomen such as Moderata Fonte and Arcangela Tarabotti, who were forced to assert women's rights from the margins of the Academy,[10] or from their monastic or "book-lined cells,"[11] Medaglia Faini stood within, at the symbolic apex of authority at the same time that she stood at a liminal place within the literary republic of the Italian Settecento, as the conflicted politics and poetics of her discourse poignantly reveal.

Suggested Reading on Diamante Medaglia Faini:

  • Bandini Buti, Maria. Poetesse e scrittrici. Enciclopedia biografica e bibliografica italiana. Vol. 6. Rome: EBBI, 1942.
  • Findlen, Paula. "Becoming a Scientist: Gender and Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century Italy." Science in Context 16.1 (2003): 59-87.
  • Messbarger, Rebecca. "Palliated Resistance: Diamante Medaglia Faini on "Which Studies Are Fitting for Women," Chapter Three, 69-86. The Century of Women: Representations of Women in Eighteenth-Century Italian Public Discourse. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
  • _____. "Introduction to Diamante Medaglia Faini's Oration in Defense of Women's Education." The Contest for Knowledge: Debates About Women's Learning in Eighteenth-Century Italy, co-editor and translator Paula Findlen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming.

Submitted by Rebecca Messbarger, Washington University in St. Louis, 2004


* Significant parts of this biographical sketch have been published previously in chapter three of Messbarger, The Century of Women: Representations of Women in Eighteenth-Century Italian Public Discourse (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), esp. pp. 71-86; and in the forthcoming volume edited and translated by Messbarger and Paula Findlen, The Contest for Knowledge: Debates Over Women' s Learning in Eighteenth-Century Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

1. Giuseppe Pontara, "Vita di Diamante Medaglia Faini," in Versi e prose di Diamante Medaglia Faini, p. xiv.

2. Antonio Brognoli, Elogi di Bresciani per dottrina eccellenti del secolo XVIII (Bologna: Forni Editore, 1972), 269.

3. Diamante Medaglia Faini, Versi e prose di Diamante Medaglia Faini, p. 163.

4. On Suardi see Pietro Riccardi, Biblioteca matematica italiana dalla origine della stampa ai primi anni del secolo XIX (Modena: Tipografia Dell'Erede Soliani, 1870), 479.

5. Biographical information on Faini has come from the following sources: Versi e prose di Diamante Medaglia Faini, edited by Giuseppe Pontara (Salò: Bartolomeo Righetti, 1774); Antonio Brognoli, Elogi di Bresciani per dottrina eccellenti del secolo XVIII (Bologna: Forni Editore, 1972), 254-274; Giudo Bustico, "Diamante Medaglia Faini," in Pagine Benacensi (Salb: Pietro Veludari, 1909), 46-50; Giudo Bustico, "Diamante Medaglia Faini," in Rassegna Nazionale (Rome: 1941), 3-5; Per il Centocinquantesimo Anniversario 1900 dalla Fondazione della I. R. Accademia di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti degli Agiati in Rovereto (Roverato: Tipografia Grigoletti, 1899), 15.

6. Biblioteca dell'Ateneo, Salò, ms. 101 (c. 23), n. 4 (Registri de' Ragionamenti recitati nell'Accademia detta de' Discordi di Salb, ed ora de' Pescatori Benacensi). See entries for 7 May 1761, 11 March 1762, 18 April 1763, and 5 May 1763. I wish to acknowledge Paula Findlen for this information, which she cites in her article "Becoming a Scientist: Gender and Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century Italy," Science in Context 16 (2003): 59-87.

7. For further analysis of the representation of women and constructions of femininity in this oration see Chapter Three, "Palliated Resistance" in Messbarger, The Century of Women: Representations of Women in Eighteenth-Century Italian Public Discourse (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002).

8. See Pietro Verri, Ricordi a mia figlia [1777-1783] (Milan: Sera e Riva, 1983); Giovanni Bandiera, Trattato degli studj delle Donne in due parti diviso. Opera d'un Accademico Intronato (Venice: Francesco Pitteri, 1740); and Pier Domenico Soresi, Saggio sopra la necessità e la facilità di ammaestrare le fanciulle (Milan: Federico Angelli, 1774).

9. Carolina Lattanzi, Schiavitù delle donne [1792], edited by Gilberto Zacchè (Mantua: Edizioni Lombarde, 1976).

10. On Arcangela Tarabotti see Ingrid De Smet, "In the Name of the Father: Feminist Voices in the Republic of Letters," in La Femme lettree à la Renaissance/De geleerde vrouw in de Renaissance (Louvain: Peeters, 1997), 177-196; Nancy Canepa, "The Writing Behind the Wall: Arcangela Tarabotti's Inferno monacale and Cloistral Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century," in Forum Italicum 30, no. 1 (1996 Spring): 1-23; and Elissa Weaver, "Suor Arcangela Tarabotti (Galerana Baratotti, Galerana Barcitotti) (1604-1652)," in Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Rinaldina Russell (Westport: Greenwood, 1994), 414-22. On Moderata Fonte see Beatrice Collina, "Moderata Fonte e Il merito delle donne," in Annali d'Italianistica 7 (1989): 142-164; Paola Malpezzi Price, "A Woman's Discourse in the Italian Renaissance: Moderata Fonte's Il merito delle donne" in Annali d'Italianistica 7 (1989): 165-181; and Constance Jordan, "Renaissance Women Defending Women: Arguments against Patriarchy," in Italian Women Writers from the Renaissance to the Present: Revising the Canon (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 55-67.

11. See Margaret King's path-breaking article from which this phrase is taken, "Book-Lined Cells: Women and Humanism in the Early Italian Renaissance," in Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past (New York: New York University Press, 1980), 66-90.

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