(University of Toronto Press, 2002)
Eighteenth-century Italian playwright Pietro Chiari designated the age in which he lived “the century of women” — an age when women gained considerable power through education and admission to various academic positions and professions.
The Century of Women: Representations of Women in Eighteenth-Century Italian Public Discourse by Rebecca Messbarger, Ph.D., assistant professor of Italian in Arts & Sciences, is structured as an extended disputation.
It tells the tales of five paradigmatic and ideologically divergent 18th-century Italian texts by male and female authors whose leitmotifs are women. These include an academic debate, a scientific tract, an oration, an Enlightenment journal and a fashion magazine.
Analysis focuses on the specific ways in which the exigencies of the “new science” and the burgeoning Enlightenment project founded on rational civil law, secular moral philosophy and utilitarian social ethics forced a transformation in the formal controversy about women.
By uncovering the characteristics of the expansive dominant discourse about women among Italian Enlightenment thinkers and of the counter-discourse women authors produced to assert their own distinct authority over constructions of femininity and the public sphere, this study reconceives 18th-century Italian culture and rectifies misconceptions about Italy’s position and influence within the literary republic of the European Enlightenment.
Groundbreaking and original, this study is the first to examine the contribution of women to the Republic of Letters of the settecento and will revise prevailing notions of 18th-century Italian culture and academia.
“I was originally drawn to this subject after reading a chapter in Giulio Natali’s influential study of the Italian Enlightenment (Il Settecento, 1929) outlining women’s new authority within the Republic of Letters of the settecento,” Messbarger said. “After searching for more comprehensive and current analysis of this distinctive aspect of the settecento, I discovered that it had been largely overlooked by historians and literary scholars.
“Italian women’s expanding influence and the attributes and cultural consequences of their rejoinders to the ‘woman question’ are the primary focus of this book.”
In the book, Messbarger contrasts women’s strictly limited access to official academic centers in France, England and other European countries with the institutional sanction secured by numerous learned Italian women.
Although French and English women intellectuals asserted their authority in the shadow academic world of the salon because they were barred from native academies and universities, across the Italian peninsula women held seats in prestigious literary and scientific academies, a select few obtained university degrees and several attained university teaching positions.
The Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago recently nominated the book for the International Flaiano Prize (“Premio Flaiano di Italianistica”), awarded by the Ministry of Italian Culture.
— Neil Schoenherr