Paolini Massimi, Petronilla (1663-1726)

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Petronilla Paolini Massimi was born in 1663 in the village of Tagliacozzo to Francesco Paolini and Silvia degli Argoli, both of noble lineage. She lived most of her life in Rome, where she was educated at the Convent of the Holy Spirit. Her long canzoni, at times reminiscent of those of Isabella di Morra, express the deep unhappiness of her life. While she was still a child, her father was murdered. The culprit was likely an agent of the Marquis Francesco Massimi d'Aracoeli, who was plotting to marry Petronilla for the fortune she would inherit. At the age of ten, she was forced to marry the Marquis, allegedly by her mother who conceded to the request of Pope Clement X, a relative of Massimi. After the wedding, the poet lived an isolated existence in Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (then used as a prison), where her husband served as vice-castellano. It was here that she witnessed, as her poems attest, many "funeste scene" (sad spectacles) of incarceration and unjust persecution. The effect of such a traumatic environment upon such a young and sensitive girl can be sensed in some of her compositions.

When Petronilla tried to leave the castle for the convent where her literary education had begun, her husband denied her monetary support and refused to let her see her sons--even when one of the boys was critically ill. Propelled by the desire to see her children and to reclaim her inheritance, Petronilla took her case to court and won. The Marquis died in 1709, and the then forty-six-year-old poet lived at the convent for two more years, devoting herself to writing and to the study of philosophy.

Paolini Massimi was elected to the famous Accademia degli Arcadi (Arcadian Academy) under the pastoral name Fidalma Partenide in 1698. Her poems were published in various volumes of the Rime degli Arcadi (1716-1722). Among her most important works is the long canzone "Spieghi le chiome irate" (Unbind your angered tresses), in which she treats many themes. One of these is the likening of her plight as the adolescent bride of an aged man to the tragic predicament of the Greek dawn goddess Aurora, who asked Zeus to grant her husband immortality but forgot to ask that he be given eternal youth. Another of Paolini Massimi's most acclaimed compositions is a sonnet entitled "Sdegna Clorinda a i femminili uffici" (Clorinda scorns female duties), in which she draws upon the image of Clorinda, the heroine of Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, a warrior maiden who rejects traditional female social roles.

Petronilla Paolini Massimi died on March 3, 1726 in Rome, where she is buried in the church of Sant'Egidio in Trastevere.


  • Allen, Beverly; Muriel Kittel, and Keala Jane Jewel, eds. The Defiant Muse. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1986.
  • Gianni, Angelo. Anch'esse quasi simili a Dio. Lucca: Mauro Baroni editore, 1997.
  • Tozzi, Ileana. Petronilla Paolini Massimi: una donna in Arcadia. Pescara: Editrice Nova Italica, 1991.

Submitted by Lisa A. Barca, The University of Chicago, 2008

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