Found in Translation

September 24, 2012Italian Professor and Chair Laura Benedetti recently published a translation of Lucrezia Marinella’s (1571–1648) Exhortations to Women and to Others if They Please, bringing the work to a contemporary audience for the first time.

Raised in L’Aquila, Italy, Benedetti connects her research to her homeland, using literary texts to learn more about Italian culture and society across time periods. During her career, she has explored the treatment of historical figures in fiction, issues of narrative strategy and construction, and the notion of motherhood in 20th-century Italian literature.

“I have always had a passion for literature, and I feel truly fortunate for having been able to convert that passion into a career,” said Benedetti, who from 2000 to 2009 contributed the entry on Italian literature to the annual update of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “I think that literature—and more generally, the humanities—play a crucial role in sharpening our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us, and are therefore necessary not only to the individual but also to society.”

Earlier this year, Benedetti published an English translation of Exhortations (Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2012). First printed in 1645, Exhortations is as rare as it is historically significant. Only three copies are known to exist, and Marinella has emerged as an important figure in Italian literature.

Benedetti included over four hundred notes that shed light on the cryptic allusions used by Marinella. “If she said, for instance, that the ‘mysterious Egypt’ worshiped the God of Silence, I tried to figure out where she could have found that particular piece of information,” Benedetti said. “However time-consuming and at times frustrating, this search gave me a better understanding of the breadth and depth of her knowledge.”

A feminist for her day, Marinella published more works than any other Italian woman of her time. Her biographical details are foggy, but her thoughtful and occasionally radical views on politics, society, and family have endured.

“I became interested in Lucrezia Marinella while I was working on a book on Torquato Tasso, the last great author of the Italian Renaissance,” Benedetti said. “I read a volume in which she lashed out against Tasso—and Boccaccio and Aristotle—for harboring negative views of women. I was struck by the boldness of her attack against such established authorities and by her progressive ideas on women’s equality, especially as far as access to education is concerned.

“Even the title of that volume—The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men—is inflammatory,” Benedetti continued. “The more I read her books, the more I grew intrigued by this mysterious and unconventional author.”

At first Benedetti focused on understanding Marinella from different literary angles. There were many genres to investigate, as Marinella published poetry, novels, religious works, and even an epic poem on the Fourth Crusade.

But after coming across Marinella’s last work, Exhortations, Benedetti was moved to translate the book for modern readers. She took a special interest in how conservatively Marinella advises women in the book. Marinella recants “the bold pronouncements of her youth” in Exhortations, telling women to embrace housework and to avoid intellectualism.

According to Benedetti, this shift occurred because Marinella, discouraged by a cultural environment that had grown hostile to women writers, questioned the theories by which she had lived her life.

“I thought this book was important because it complemented and complicated everything we knew about Marinella and, secondarily, about the plight of women writers at a specific and often neglected time in Italian history,” Benedetti explained. “However, when I presented the volume at the Italian Embassy last February, many people took it as a reminder that progress does not follow a straight line, and that we cannot afford to be complacent about our rights—lest we wake up one morning and find out they’re no longer there.

“In other words, they interpreted Exhortations as a call to vigilance,” she said, “which I think would have pleased Marinella.”

—Brittany Coombs