“In Praise of Letters": Cassandra Fedele

Title Page, Newberry Case Y 682.F313
Title Page, Newberry Case Y 682.F313
p. 12, Newberry Case Y 682.F313
p. 12, Newberry Case Y 682.F313

Fortunately for today’s Renaissance historians, in 1636 Giacomo Filippo Tomasini saw fit to print the letterbook of Cassandra Fedele, entitled:  Clarissimae feminae Cassandrae Fidelis Venetae epistolae & orationes posthumae: nunquam antehac editae (Letters and Orations of the Most Illustrious Venetian Woman,  Cassandra Fedele, Posthumous: Having Never Previously Been Edited). Tomasini states that he used three sources to compile this collection of one of the most well-known humanist women of her day, but none of these original manuscript sources have survived to the present.[1] This makes Tomasini’s edition the only source for Fedele’s writings, and the Newberry is fortunate enough to have a copy in its collection.

Cassandra Fedele, the humanist in question, was born in 1465 in Venice and was educated first by her father and then by a monk in Latin and Greek, unusual for a woman of her time, especially since she was of non-noble birth. She was the first professional woman writer who we can be certain spoke publicly, and she exchanged letters with such prominent individuals as Queen Isabella of Spain, Pico della Mirandola, members of the Sforza family, and the Pope.[2]

Less fortunately for Fedele, her writings have been somewhat overshadowed by those of her contemporary, Laura Cereta, whose views on women, education, and other topics are often strikingly modern, even feminist, and thus deservedly fascinating. However, Fedele’s single notably feminist statement – that women should pursue education for education’s sake – is in the context of an oration that Tomasini informs us was delivered before the Doge and Senate of Venice.[3] That is, Fedele spoke her ideas about women and education in her own voice before some of her city’s most prominent men. Fedele’s use of diminutives and her emphasis on her status as foemellam (“just a girl”) should not be taken precisely at face value, either; even Cereta, so ahead of her time in many of her views, refers to herself with such language in her letters.[4]

On this note, Tomasini himself had some advice to offer the reader in a note helpfully titled Ad Lectorem (“To the Reader”). He assures readers that he knows they are waiting eagerly for similar editions of the works of Isotta and Angela Nogarola and Laura Cereta (he published the latter in 1640, but never got around to the former). Additionally, he points out that some letters have been lost to time, and said he considered it dishonest to try to fill in these gaps himself. All these issues aside, Tomasini commended the works of Cassandra Fedele to his reader, praising her honor and learning.  Perhaps Tomasini, too, ought to be commended for publishing the writings of women, and the writings of Cassandra Fedele ought to be considered out of the shadow of Laura Cereta.

Posted by Robin Pokorski, Summer Intern, Center for Renaissance Studies

Full Title and Call Number: Cassandra Fedele, Clarissimae Feminae Cassandrae Fidelis, Venetae, Epistolae et Orationes, ed. Jacopo Filippo Tomasini (Padua: Franciscus Bolzetta, 1636), Newberry Case Y 682.F313.

Notes

[1] Jacopo Filippo Tomasini, introduction, Clarissimae Feminae Cassandrae Fidelis, Venetae, Epistolae et Orationes by Cassandra Fedele (Padua: Franciscus Bolzetta, 1636), 45-46.

[2] Diana Robin, introduction, Letters and Orations by Cassandra Fedele (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 4-5.

[3] Cassandra Fedele, Clarissimae Feminae Cassandrae Fidelis, Venetae, Epistolae et Orationes, ed. Jacopo Filippo Tomasini (Padua: Franciscus Bolzetta, 1636), 201-207.

[4] Fedele, Epistolae et Orationes, 9.

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