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Aileen A. Feng. Writing Beloveds. Humanist Petrarchism and the Politics of Gender.

Aileen A. Feng. Writing Beloveds. Humanist Petrarchism and the Politics of Gender. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017.

Aileen Feng's study focuses on a lesser-known aspect within the vast field of Renaissance women studies: what happened when lovers and beloveds picked up their pens and started to write to each other when the distant female beloved was not silent and unreachable anymore, but instead actively speaking in her own voice. The first issue that Feng confronts, and that serves as a major argument throughout her book, is the lack of any classical model of reference for such an exchange. While Cicero provided a model for male friendship and for epistolary exchange among men, no such ancient example existed in the case of men writing to women, or women writing to men, or women writing to each other. Yet, in the fifteenth century, the appearance on the cultural scene of erudite women who interacted and competed with their male peers made the development of a language for the interaction between genders a necessity. Petrarchism, at the time the most famous language of interaction between a man and a woman, was employed as a model.

The adoption of Petrarchism as a language of reference was not without its problems, however. As Feng shows, Petrarchism is in fact a language with strong social and political implications. Petrarchism deals with politics of patronage and of gender, and when used outside of the lyric form becomes a language "of mastery and power" (11). Moreover, as Feng clarifies, Petrarchism is an inherently masculine language, based on male superiority over the female interlocutor. Feng undertakes an in-depth exploration of what she defines as "Humanist Petrarchism," an adaptation of Petrarchan tropes into Humanist writings, with a particular attention to the epistolary form. The goal of such analysis is to produce a gendered history of Petrarchism that focuses on the differences in the adaptation of such tropes between male and female writers, and how these eventually affected their mutual relationship.

The first chapter deals with Petrarch himself and with his use of the mythical figure of Medusa. With her power to freeze men into stone, Medusa serves as a symbol for the passive agency of women, whereas the (male) poet embodies the far nobler and active power to turn men--specifically, the patrons--into marble monuments and grant them immortality. The second chapter investigates the anxieties that followed the arrival of learned women on the cultural scene, and explains how male writers' invocation of Petrarch's Laura to refer to learned women was double-faced. While the analogy praised the women's chastity and beauty, it also restricted them to the role of passive and voiceless objects of desire, eventually disempowering their intellectuality.

By contrast, female humanists avoid reference to Petrarchan rhetoric in their responses to men. As Feng shows, female humanists reacted to male humanists' Petrarchan letters with replies in Ciceronian style, thus distancing themselves from the imposed image of the beloved. Such a refusal of a Petrarchan identification is explored in the third chapter of the book, which focuses on the Humanist Laura Cereta's attempt to give to her own very Petrarchan first name a new immortality. Cereta refused the Petrarchan association of her name and, with it, the role of the woman as the passive beloved, contrasting such an image with the one of a new Laura, whose name comes to symbolize erudition.

A further change happened in the epistolary exchange between Pietro Bembo and Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola focusing on neo-Latin language and imitation, which is the focus of the fourth chapter of the book. What is relevant for gender studies is that such theorizations, although not involving women writers directly, refer to the role for educated women in Humanistic culture, thus indirectly granting them recognition. The fifth and final chapter concentrates on correspondence between an erudite man and two of his equally erudite beloveds: the letter exchanges between Bembo and his two love interests Maria Savorgnan, and later Lucrezia Borgia. As Feng shows, Bembo's correspondence is full of Petrarchan references, and yet it differs from Petrarch's writing in featuring a beloved who is actually reciprocating the poet's love and interacting with him, and who is his intellectual peer as well--and, in the case of Borgia, also his social superior and patron.

Feng's Writing Beloveds has the merit of being an exhaustive and erudite investigation, spanning from Petrarch's own writings to Petrarchism by sixteenth-century male and female authors, and concentrating on the lesser explored genre of epistolary correspondence. The main point of interest of the book lies in its casting light on the inherent contradiction of Renaissance Petrarchism: while it gave women agency and fame in the sixteenth century literary scene, it was also constructed on poetic tropes that could easily been used to silence women and force them to perform their supposed "natural" passivity. Future scholars may now further assess the way in which Petrarchism, usually understood as the set of tropes that finally provided early modern women writers with a means to affirm themselves on the cultural scene, represented instead both an advantage and an obstacle for the educated women of the Renaissance.


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Author:Ugolini, Paola
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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