After the recent U.S. presidential election, Urban Dictionary defines a “Nasty Woman” this way:
“An intelligent female who is adept at putting ignorant men in their place.”
“Her: My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald’s — if he can’t figure out how to get out of it.
Him: (interrupting) Such a nasty woman.”
Him: (interrupting) Such a nasty woman.”
But this concept is not new. Venice had its own crew of Nasty Women.
There was Sarra Copia Sulam, a Jewish scholar and poet who ran a literary salon. In 1618 when Baldassare Bonifaccio accused her of not believing in the immortality of the soul, a heretical belief that could put her in grave danger, she countered by writing her own Manifesto. She revealed his faulty logic, at one point writing, “You, by foolishly pretending to prophesy by yourself without any other inspiration than excessive arrogance, have shown, as effects, your totally crass ignorance rather than any marvelous divine virtue.” Baldassare had not made for himself a strong name as a man of letters, and Sarra sarcastically called him “O courageous challenger of women” as he attacked her, whom he saw as an easy target. But it is her work that is now more often studied and read than his.
Gaspara Stampa, known for her beautiful singing voice and even more renowned for her poetry, had to contend with the male world of the literary salon, where her role could not be one of the equal, but had to be one of the entertainer. Because women were not allowed at these salons as scholars, her writing abilities were often questioned, as was her chastity. She was labeled a courtesan, though there is no evidence to support this claim. In 1553 she wrote a sonnet that warned women against men who would judge harshly any woman who entered this world: “You women who have recently embarked upon these waters full of treachery / … beware!” Happily, courageous women continued to pursue an education and a life of letters.
One great woman of letters is Veronica Franco, a poet often best known as one of Venice’s most famous courtesans. While she had many male fans and patrons, she also had her detractors. One such was Maffio Venier, also a poet, who seemed to be jealous of her exceptional writing skills. In a poem where he called her meretrice, or a common prostitute, she retorted in her own 1575 poem with, “Whatever goodness prostitutes may have, / whatever grace and nobility of soul, / the sound of your word [meretrice] assigns to me.” She wanted to have the final say on this argument.
A number of Venetian writers may have chosen topics that displayed female characters as equally able as their male peers, but these women stopped short of putting men in their places in more overt ways. Modesta Pozzo wrote the Thirteen Cantos of Floridoro in 1581, which featured a female warrior named Risamante who outshines the male warriors in this epic tale. Similarly, Lucrezia Marinella penned Enrico, or Byzantium Conquered, that includes the characters Meandra and Claudia who are not only great warriors and leaders, but also who do not need romantic passion or marriage to give them their worth. Like Sarra Copia Sulam, Lucrezia fought back in writing when a man, Giuseppe Passi, wrote a polemical work contending that women were a “mutilated male” or a “mistake of nature.” In her 1600 The Nobility and Excellence of Women, Lucrezia wrote, “My desire is to make this truth shine forth to everybody, that the female sex is nobler and more excellent than the male. I hope to demonstrate this with arguments and examples, so that every man, no matter how stubborn, will be compelled to confirm it with his own mouth.” She also wrote some more incendiary lines, such as this: “I say that compared to women all men are ugly,” but she may be excused some excesses as she tried to survive the male scholars who questioned her abilities and chastity.
Probably the “Nastiest” woman of them all was Arcangela Tarabotti, who in 1623 took her final vows to be a nun. One male scholar, Giovanni Loredan, brought books to her cell but later wrote that women deserve to be second class because Eve was responsible for humans’ fall from grace. Arcangela wrote a number of books about men’s tyranny over women, or the hell of the monastic life if one did not have a true religious calling. In her 1652 book Paternal Tyranny, she referred to men as “liars,” “evil sorcerers,” “enemies of truth,” “blasphemers,” “butchers,” “tyrants from Hell,” “monsters of nature,” “Christians in name and devils in deed,” “madmen,” “wicked dissimulators,” and even “Satan’s pimps.” Okay, maybe she got a bit carried away. But you can imagine her daily rage at the patriarchal society that gave her so few options in life and then still blamed and condemned her gender for its supposed weaknesses.
Lots of women today are embracing the title “Nasty Woman.” I hope you are pleased to know that you are members of a long-lasting sisterhood that stretches back to Venice’s intrepid female scholars.