Redefining Beauty: Giustina Renier Michiel

How does one go about translating Shakespeare into other languages? His language is so particular to its time and place, and he coined so many new phrases and has such an immense vocabulary.

Yet Giustina Renier Michiel was arguably the first Italian to translate his plays from English into Italian.

In this video, see where she held her literary salon in Venice. I film in the sotoportego where her guests would spill out from the small casino to sit at tables or have their drinks outside.

Here’s an excerpt from my chapter on her, titled “Good Soul and Elevated Genius” from A Beautiful Woman in Venice:

“When Giustina looked at her three daughters in their nursery, she wondered about their futures. What would society expect of them? What rules would they be governed by? Would they be honored more for their intelligence or their beauty? Would they feel the freedom to put down their embroidery and pick up a pen? Elena, Chiara, and Cecilia, her blond angels with their rosy cheeks and high foreheads might now be playing with dolls or braiding each other’s hair. But Giustina wanted to ensure that her daughters would grow up to read the classics—not only Aristotle and Petrarca, but also the Bard, that Englishman William Shakespeare.

“An almost general custom in Italy is to deny Mothers the most precious gift, which is their Daughters’ education, which leaves them nothing but the sweet title of Mother” (qtd. in Calvani 10). Giustina Renier Michiel penned this lament in her introduction to her translation of three Shakespeare plays. As a matter of fact, Giustina was the first person to translate the Bard into Italian, with the goal of providing her daughters with a morally instructive set of examples. Her girls—Elena, Chiara, and Cecilia—could learn from the experiences of strong characters who take their fates into their own hands. Marry for love, not custom, like Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, or direct a kingdom’s destiny, like Lady Macbeth, but learn the disastrous consequences of avarice and superstitious belief. Giustina explained that she translated Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanusto prepare for her daughters “a reading, which can, whenever possible, give them joy and instruction, contributing to their happiness and moderating their growing passion with examples” (10). Or, as Giustina’s biographer Susan Dalton, points out, “she often evokes the ideals of civility: of modesty, sensibility, reason, and self-discipline” (Dalton, Engendering 84). Much of Giustina’s writing focused on these goals and ideals, fueled by her love for her daughters.”

Giustina received criticism from male scholars, saying that translation wasn’t serious scholarship but could be relegated to women. I go into detail in my chapter to discern the level of care and knowledge it takes to accomplish what she did. Giustina is also much beloved, particularly by Venetians, for her publication of Origine delle feste veneziane (Origins of Venetian Festivals), which records the plethora of unique Venetian celebrations in six volumes. This has become an invaluable resource for historians.

If you’re at the Piazza San Marco, it’s just a short detour to see this site and remember this pioneering translator and writer.


P.s. Why does YouTube always choose the worst thumbnail shots of me? I don’t really look that psycho all the time!

About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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