Tuesday, March 12, 2019


Francesca D'Alessandro Behr, Arms and the Woman: Classical Tradition and Women Writers in the Venetian Renaissance. Classical memories/modern identities. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2018. Pp. viii, 285. ISBN 9780814276297. $89.95.

Reviewed by Quinn Griffin, Grand Valley State University (griffiqu@gvsu.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

The classically-inspired works of Renaissance and Early Modern women have for some time occupied a liminal space between disciplines. Classicists may hesitate to work on them for fear of going "outside the canon," while scholars in other fields have in the past lacked access to texts written in Latin and Italian that were accessible only in manuscripts and early print editions and often incompletely transcribed, edited, or translated in modern collections.

High-quality works like D'Alessandro Behr's, and other recent volumes such as Women Classical Scholars (BMCR 2017.09.43),1 are important steps towards making women more visible in the history of Classical scholarship. As D'Alessandro Behr argues for the authors covered in this volume, the classical tradition can offer women the opportunity to challenge the values of their society through a rich shared vocabulary of images and ideas.

In the introduction to the volume, D'Alessandro Behr proposes to demonstrate, in particular, how two women, Moderata Fonte (1555-1592) and Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653), were able to develop and promote their own readings of classical texts outside the constraints of the male-dominated arenas of academia and politics; and how their contributions to epic poetry challenged the traditions of the genre by placing "womanly" virtues such as compassion at the center of the story, rather than male virtus. Importantly, the author notes not only the significance of direct allusions for this study, but also the "meaning of silence" (12). In other words, the moments in which the authors choose explicitly not to echo their sources are just as important as those in which they do. For instance, Clelia, who appears in Marinella's L'Enrico, overo Bisantio acquistato recalls Vergil's Dido, but the similarity ends when Clelia faces her death calmly, with a cold, logical outlook, highlighting a key difference between the two characters. Where possible, D'Alessandro Behr supports such readings with evidence from the two authors' other works. In this instance, the author finds that Marinella explicitly challenges Vergil's portrayal of Dido in her work Della nobiltà et eccellenza delle donne, where she calls his version of events "false" (109 n.1).

One challenge inherent in this type of work is the high degree of interdisciplinarity it demands. D'Alessandro Behr is conscious of this challenge from the beginning of the work and is careful to place the argument in dialogue with philological, reception-based, and gender-based studies. For example, she frequently places the discussion of the two authors' epic poems in dialogue with Kallendorf's The Other Virgil (BMCR 2008.04.02, 2 locating Fonte and Marinella within the tradition of alternative and subversive readings of epic described in that volume. Behr also shows sensitivity to the history of scholarship on the querelle des femmes, using key authorities such as Constance Jordan, Virginia Cox, and Sarah Gwyneth Ross, while discussing Marinella and Fonte's own contributions to the "woman question." Finally, there is attention to the influence of Italian authors such as Petrarch and Vegio. In light of this multi-disciplinary approach, scholars of Classics, early modern literature, gender, and reception studies will find D'Alessandro Behr's volume useful for their research. The text could also serve as a guide for advanced undergraduate students working in gender and reception studies or early modern Italian literature with some introduction and guidance from an instructor.

Part I of the volume is entitled, "Female Fighters: On Women, War and Pietas." Chapter One, "Lady Knights and Pietas," focuses on Moderata Fonte's epic poem Tredici Canti del Floridoro, and consists mainly of a close reading of two battle scenes in the epic, one placed at the beginning (Canto 1-2) and one near the end (Canto 13). The author argues that these scenes constitute an implicit critique of the violence and rage characterizing the end of the Aeneid. Although the lady knight Risamante slaughters her opponent in Cantos 1-2, she mercifully spares the enemy in Canto 13, showing an ethical development in the character that Vergil's Aeneas does not achieve. Behr argues futhermore that Aeneas, in killing Turnus, "does not preserve that pietas which has motivated…the hero's actions throughout his mission" (48). This argument is somewhat problematic, however, given the author's inconsistency in the use of the word pietas. In portions of the text Behr clearly defines it as an allegiance "to fatherland, gods and country" (110), and yet elsewhere seems to equate it with pity (59-60) or the modern Italian piet√†. Still, Behr adds weight to her argument by placing the Floridoro in the context of other "pessimistic" readings of the end of the Aeneid, citing Kallendorf's work 3 and pointing to Francesco Filelfo's rejection of just anger in the De morali disciplina and his construction of the character Francesco Sforza in the Sphortias, who "even on the battlefield, is able to control ira" (51).

Chapter Two, "Women and Compassion," argues that Fonte and Marinella, in encouraging peace and resisting violence in their epics, are part of the larger movement of i giovani in Venice, who were questioning the previous generation's traditional values. The approach of both authors to the problem of cyclical violence is to identify alternative, "feminine" values that disrupt the reciprocal killings often featured in epic.

Fonte encourages her reader to see other valuable qualities in women besides the traditionally feminine attributes of chastity and beauty. Another of Fonte's works, Il merito delle donne, argues similarly that women should also be honored for nontraditional qualities like valor and skill. In this work, Fonte goes a step further than in the Floridoro, using Aristotle and Galen to argue that women have less bile and blood than men, and so are better able to overcome appetites. D'Alessandro Behr notes that this argument was not original to Fonte; in Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano the character Magnifico Juliano argues along similar lines that the moisture of women balances their warmth, and so makes them more temperate than men.4

Whereas Fonte alludes to Aeneas and Turnus, Marinella looks to Virgil's character Camilla in her epic poem L'Enrico, overo Bisantio acquistato about the thirteenth-century conquest of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, led by Enrico Dandolo. In Behr's reading of the Aeneid, Camilla disappoints Diana by going to war (see 11. 584-5: vellem haud correpta fuisset / militia tali, conata lacessere Teucros). Behr sees a parallel between Camilla and Marinella's Amazons Claudia and Meandra, who participate in violence that continues the cycle of war and ultimately leads to their own deaths; as opposed to the Amazon Emilia, who decides in the face of defeat to go into the woods and become a follower of Diana.

Part II of the volume is entitled, "Lovers at War: Virgil, Ovid and the Resistance." Chapter Three, "Epic and Elegy," continues the conversation on Marinella's L'Enrico. D'Alessandro Behr argues that Marinella uses references to the Aeneid, the Heroides, and Ovid's Metamorphoses to complicate a seemingly straightforward praise poem by showing the effect of Dandolo's war on those left behind, noting also the influence of Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata (1581) and Lodovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1532). Marinella resists the epic impulse to abandon, kill, or otherwise silence the women standing in the way of the heroes' quest, using two love stories in particular to highlight alternative values within the narrative: the stories of Lucillo and Clelia and of Corradino and Areta. In so doing, Marinella "disrupts the heroic economy of her poem and undoes (or problematizes) the claims and progress of the male heroes" (107) and, in fact, shows men being punished for placing war above family.

Chapter Four, "Love and Lamentation," more fully treats the two love stories introduced in Chapter Three's discussion of L'Enrico. D'Alessandro Behr identifies Aeneid Book 4 and Metamorphoses Book 11 as models for the love story of Clelia and Lucillo, while Areta and Corradino's story mirrors that of Hector and Andromache as told in Iliad 6 and Heroides 13. Particularly convincing is the author's comparison of Lucillo to Ovid's Ceyx (Metamorphoses Book 11), who dies in a shipwreck after his wife Alcyone begs him to remain at home with her. Lucillo, too, dies calling out in vain to his beloved and admitting that he is getting what he deserves for leaving her behind. This moment is significant in that it shows the ability of a female character to influence an epic hero's view of himself.

Part III of the volume is entitled, "Women in the Garden: Enchantresses Erina and Circetta." Chapter Five, "Ancient and Modern Prototypes," presents Marinella's character Erina as a new kind of "positive enchantress" (156), who appeals to men not through magic and seduction but through philosophy and education. The character Venier's interactions with Erina recall Odysseus' encounters with Circe, Calypso, and Nausicaa with two important differences: a lack of erotic undertones, and, more importantly, the fact that Venier refuses to stay on Erina's island is rewarded not with kleos or nostos, but instead, an ignoble death.

Chapter Six, "Away from the City," places Erina's episode in the context of pastoral poetry, which D'Alessandro Behr identifies as a natural foil for the genre of epic. The placement of a pastoral episode in the middle of the epic makes explicit the contrast between the world of men and war, and the world of women, peace, and knowledge, while at the same time evoking the Renaissance debate on the value of the vita contemplativa versus the vita activa.

Chapter Seven, "Fonte's Enchantress and Beyond," looks once more to Fonte's Floridoro, which features a character called Circetta, daughter of Circe and Odysseus. Circetta rescues two knights stranded on her island and uses magic to protect them from wild animals, replaying and reversing the moment where Hermes appears with a magic herb to protect Odysseus from Circe's magic. The episode reverses the Odyssey's message about the dangers of seductive, magical women by juxtaposing the men's lack of trustworthiness with Circetta's naivete and sincere desire to help throughout the rest of the encounter.

D'Alessandro Behr reflects in the Epilogue that "Classical learning was defended on the basis that it strengthened children's moral and physical fiber. Boys studied…texts that reinforced religious, classical and manly virtues" (231-2). She makes the case that classical texts also served young women's intellectual empowerment by providing a medium for the reassessment of the masculine values found in both the texts and the reader's own society.

D'Alessandro Behr argues convincingly throughout the volume that Marinella and Fonte accomplish this reassessment by seeking out the abandoned and silenced women of epic and placing these women and their values at the center of their works. The writer finds that these woman-centered epic poems argue for the importance of love and marriage to society and for the value of qualities in which women are traditionally superior to men, like compassion and mercy, ultimately making the case that the separation of men and women into different and incompatible spheres is detrimental to both sexes.


1.   Wyles, Rosie, and Edith Hall, ed. Women Classical Scholars: Unsealing the Fountain from the Renaissance to Jacqueline de Romil. Oxford University Press, 2016.
2.   Kallendorf, Craig. The Other Virgil: 'Pessimistic' Readings of the Aeneid in Early Modern Culture. Oxford University Press, 2007.
3.   Kallendorf, Craig. "Historicizing the 'Harvard School': Pessimistic Readings of the Aeneid in Italian Renaissance Scholarship." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 99: 391-403.
4.   Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier, trans. G. Bull, p. 222. Penguin Classics, 1967.

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