Yesterday, two American women graduated from the Army’s ranger school, the first to ever do so. Kristen Griest and Shaye Haver proved that they can meet the same tough requirements as the men who apply, and they have the strength, courage, grist, and leadership skills (among many other qualities) to serve in this elite soldier corps.
So what does this have to do with Venice?
Well, I can’t tell you that Venetian women of yore were elite soldiers or military leaders. But two Venetian women from over 400 years ago wrote epic romances about women who were such warriors.
In her book Tredici Canti del Floridoro, Modesta Pozzo tells the story of Risamante and Biondaura, nobel twin sisters separated at birth. Risamante is raised by a wizard to be a knight in armor, learning sword fighting, how to ride a horse into battle, and how to employ her ready courage to assist others in distress. She saves a damsel from a serpent and tests her mettle against male knights. Fonte writes,
If when a daughter is born the father
Set her with his son to equivalent tasks,
She would not be in lofty and fair deeds
Inferior or unequal to her brother,
Whether he placed her among the armed squads
With himself, or set her to learn some liberal art. (Fonte, Floridoro 145-6)
This was written in 1581, 434 years before Griest and Haver achieved their remarkable Army tabs proving their abilities. Modesta Pozzo envisioned a future that has come true. These lines seem to presage women’s combat and military roles:
Women in every age were by nature
Endowed with great judgment and spirit,
Nor are they born less apt than men to demonstrate
(with study and care) their wisdom and valor. (144)
But Pozzo was not the only woman to envision women in these roles. Her contemporary, Lucrezia Marinella, likewise wrote an epic romance that featured women warriors. L’Enrico overo Bisantio acquistato (Enrico, or Byzantium Conquered) tells the tale of Doge Enrico Dandolo leading the Venetian army against the Turks. The soldier Meandra is hailed for leading her soldiers into battle and for inspiring them to greatness on the field, for “with her words she strengthened, reinforced, and reassured their disheartened and hesitant spirits” (Canto 12.42, 246). Then there is Claudia, a leading member of the archery corps, fighting alongside men. “Each arrow she threw let loose its anger in the Thessalians’ chests,” wrote Marinella. “Soon the best and most courageous were left lying and slow to go to their weapons because of her” (Canto 19.56, 46-47). Change arrows for guns and the action could belong to Haver and Griest.
Lucrezia Marinella and Modesta Pozzo wrote so long ago about women’s rights that feminism and women’s rights were not even terms yet. But they believed in equality of opportunity and ability. I bet they would have loved to be at the graduation ceremony to see Shaye Haver and Kristen Griest receive their Ranger tabs.