Giulia Bigolina. Urania: A Romance.
I admit it: I am a sucker for romance in most of its forms. I enjoy Carolina Invernizio, adore Maria Venturi, and, unlike anyone I know, I can even stomach Liala. But normally I have little fun reading translations of Italian into English, and my "reading-for-pure-enjoyment" ability turns off around the late nineteenth century. I would not expect, therefore, to relish the reading of a sixteenth-century Italian romance translated for an Anglo-American audience, but ... in this case, I absolutely did. I could not put down Giulia Bigolina's Urania, and so many times during the narration I wondered how this talented author was going to get her characters out of the bizarre and seemingly impassable situations in which they had impulsively put themselves.
Urania is a prose romance, a genre invented in the Veneto region in the mid-fifteen hundreds. It was written by Paduan noblewoman Giulia Bigolina (1518?-1569?) probably after 1553, but it was not mentioned by any critic until 1732, and was published for the first time in 2002. Valeria Finucci, the Renaissance scholar who produced that first Italian edition based on a manuscript (possibly penned by Bigolina herself) housed in the Biblioteca Trivulziana, is a masterful translator: her English flows beautifully even as it preserves the generally formal tone one would expect of a Renaissance text. The editors' introduction to the series is useful, but even more useful is Finucci's contribution in her own introduction to the volume. She provides a biography of Giulia Bigolina, an overview of the critical recognition of her literary work (first mentioned by Pietro Aretino in 1549, and compared to Boccaccio's), and an in-depth reading of the text. The footnotes clearly and succinctly explain any potentially difficult point and underline intertextual references otherwise obscure to the non-specialist. This analysis leads to a better appreciation of Bigolina's literary context, her fluid movements within it, and her uniqueness as a Renaissance woman writing in the new genre of the romance.
Urania is dedicated by Bigolina to Bartolomeo Salvatico, a Paduan nobleman and lawyer, with whom the author declares she is in love. The protagonist, Urania, is a virtuous and cultured young woman of Salerno, endowed with a beautiful mind, though not an equally beautiful body. She is in love with a worthy young man, Fabio, who, shortly into their relationship, becomes infatuated with Clorina--less virtuous but more beautiful. Suffering from melancholia and dressed as a man, Urania wanders through the countryside, eventually meeting Emilia, an attractive young Florentine widow who, thinking Urania a man named Fabio, falls in love with her. In spite of this basic misunderstanding, the two develop a mutually sustaining affective bond. Both now dressed as men, they go back to Salerno where the real Fabio risks execution unless, out of love for him, a woman manages to kiss the prince of Salerno's wild woman (who has made more than one female a victim already). To everyone's amazement, Urania succeeds; even the wild woman thinks her a man, and the story ends with four marriages: Urania's to Fabio, Emilia's to Fabio's brother, Clorina's to Fabio's competitor Menandro, and the Prince of Salerno's to an unnamed damsel he loved. As in most chivalric romances, the protagonist of Urania is on a quest for honor and identity, which in the end she finds even as she discovers that she had always had them. The text includes a pastoral interlude, but also an overt discussion of the role of women and men in society.
As an added treat, Finucci's English edition includes a short story by Giulia Bigolina, her first printed composition: the "Novella of Giulia Camposampiero and Tesibaldo Vitaliani" (first published in 1794), presented both in Finucci's impeccable English translation and in its original Italian version. The only surviving part of what was probably a longer work, this historical novella tells the story of a secret marriage, focusing on the virtue of heroic constancy in love. Interestingly, constancy in love is not only a womanly virtue in Bigolina's text, for the main male character is also identified by his sentimental constancy. Like Urania, this story revels as well in disguise and cross-dressing; like Urania, the protagonist of this novella is also self-assured, independent, and physically as well as morally courageous. Her conflicts, like Urania's, arise not from her possession of these qualities--however unusual in the representation of women--but from her choice of love object: a man also loved by another woman.
The "Novella of Giulia Camposampiero and Tesibaldo Vitaliani" and the romance Urania are, as Finucci points out, "the first fiction in prose authored by a woman writer in Italian" (1). Furthermore, within Urania, we find another first: the first discussion on the worth of women authored by an Italian woman, and, therefore, "the first feminist entry into the debate on a woman's proper place" (2). In this contribution, Bigolina asserts that women's limited access to politics and culture is at the basis of many of the conflicts between the two sexes. According to Finucci, Bigolina was motivated to discuss the role of women in society and the importance of education because of the restrictive atmosphere and practices of Counter-Reformation Italy. Though Bigolina stresses the traditional virtues of faithfulness, chastity, and constancy--virtues exemplified by both Giulia and Urania--women are individuals with a mind of their own, and therein resides their worth.
Finucci surmises that Urania was never printed either because of the author's family, noble, and thus likely to self-censor, or because of the external pressures against publishing unorthodox books during the time of the Counter-Reformation. Whatever the reason for its delay, the publication of this book was overdue by several centuries and should be welcomed by ours. We can be grateful to Valeria Finucci's careful work of editing, translating, introducing, and annotating Bigolina's work, and to the University of Chicago Press series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe for encouraging and hosting Urania, thus making it easily available to scholars and readers interested in Italian literature, the history of women, and the Renaissance more generally.
Cristina Mazzoni, University of Vermont
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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