How to be a Classical scholar – and a woman – in the fifteenth century

Josey Parker

In 1439, an unknown writer from Verona used the pseudonym Plinius Veronensis to publish an outrageous invective. Although its target was the Nogarola family, who were prominent local nobles, it focused especially on their daughter Isotta (1419-66), accusing her of both sexual promiscuity and incest. The reason for this charge? Her newfound respect and fame in the respublica litterarum (the intellectual community) of the early Italian Renaissance:

Come now, let us stop wondering at all this, since the other sister [Isotta], who is unmarried and has gained so much praise for her eloquence, does things which certainly do not suit such great erudition and renown, although I have learned this adage from many far wiser men – that no eloquent woman is chaste – which can be proved by the example of many learned women… Unless, that is, you approve at all of the exceedingly foul and obscene sin that, before she offered her body constantly for fornication, she first allowed – and indeed eagerly desired – the honor of her virginity to be taken from her by none other than her brother and allowed herself to be thus bound by a closer bond… Oh, for the faith of gods and men, “who would not mix heaven with earth and sea with sky,” [1] when she, who does not restrain herself in her most filthy lust, dares to throw herself into the noblest literary studies?[2]

This accusation appears to have been entirely false – a malicious invention of Plinius. Indeed, Nogarola’s virtue was defended at length by her correspondents, including the Venetian humanist Niccolò Barbo (1420–62). Rather than any actual indiscretion, it seems that her education and public scholarship precipitated this slander.

How, then, did Nogarola achieve such fame? Why did her scholarship provoke such a violent response? And what does her reaction to it reveal about her ambitions in the male-dominated world of Renaissance humanism?

Nogarola’s Life

Born in Verona, Isotta was the niece of another educated woman, Angela Nogarola (1380–1436). Most famous for her poetry, Angela also corresponded with a number of humanists, including Antonio Loschi (1368–1411), and continued composing verse even after she was married in 1396. Her most famous works include a 342-line elegiac poem, the ‘Book on Virtues’ (Liber de Virtutibus) and a cento requesting that the Lord of Rimini, Pandulfo Malatesta, return one of her books. This poem mixes an array of lines from Vergil, Ovid, Horace, Lucan and, much more recently, Petrarch (1304–74), amply demonstrating her wide reading and engagement with Classical literature.

Isotta’s mother, though illiterate herself, ensured that her four sons and six daughters received elite humanist educations. Isotta’s primary tutor was Martino Rizzoni (1418–66), a student of Guarino Veronese (1374–1460), one of the first professional teachers of both Latin and Greek literature during this period.

Remarkably, in her mid-teens, Isotta first began to correspond with prominent humanists. During the Renaissance, before the advent of mechanised printing, humanists would collect copies of their correspondence into a ‘letterbook’, which would then be copied and put into wider circulation. These letterbooks would showcase their education, friendships and achievements. Isotta’s own letterbook contains numerous quotations from Classical literature, including the works of Cicero, Vergil, Juvenal, Plutarch, Aristotle, Diogenes Laertius and, most interestingly, Petronius, then a rare and rarely read author. In fact, Isotta owned one of the earliest copies of the Satyricon, parts of which had recently been rediscovered in Italy by the great bookhunter Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459). Her copy, decorated with the Nogarola family arms, is now housed in the Vatican Library.

Isotta’s first letters were exchanged with local students and noblemen who often had existing relationships with the Nogarola family. After being in the public eye for several years, however, a few of her and her sister’s letters were shared by a friend with the aforementioned Guarino, who wrote of their style in extremely complimentary terms:

Quid, cum scripta ipsa perlegas, aut apta verborum constructione concinnius aut ipsa puritate et luciditate elegantius aut sermonis proprietate consuetudineque Latinius? … id legendo conflatur, quod de Nestore dixit Homerus et Tullius meminit: cuius ex ore melle dulcior fluebat oratio. (Abel 1886, 1:58)

What, when you read their writings, is more stylish than their apt syntax, or more elegant than their verbal purity and clarity, or more Latinate than the quality and manner of their speech?… Reading it elicits the effect that Homer ascribed to Nestor and that Cicero repeated: “out of his mouth flows speech sweeter than honey.”

Emboldened by these compliments, Isotta decided to address a letter directly to Guarino. In it, she thanked the professor for his words, praising his eloquence and erudition while maintaining her own modesty as a mere novice in the res publica litterarum. Guarino, however, did not respond.

After six months, Isotta wrote again, blaming Guarino for the mockery which she faced in Verona for being spurned by such a prominent figure. Unlike today, writing letters was a very public exercise for the humanists, more like an open blog than a private epistle.

After this second letter, Guarino replied almost immediately. He apologized for the delay in his response and encouraged Isotta to continue her studies: as a spur, he provided her with the examples of various mythical women, including Dido and the Muses. This letter cemented Isotta’s place in the public – and patriarchal – world of Renaissance humanism and gave her license to correspond freely with others in Guarino’s circle, whose letters appear alongside her own in her letterbook.

Nogarola’s Scholarship

Many of Isotta’s letters during this period begin with remarks on the limits of her nature as a woman and excuses for her allegedly ineloquent speech. For example, in a letter to Ermolao Barbaro, when she was around fifteen years old, she excuses the length of her letter by saying that women are by nature very talkative:

sed apud nonnullos me sexus ipse meus excusabit eo maxime, cum mutam mulierem reperire difficillimum sit… (Abel 1886, 1:7)

But, as some say, my sex will excuse me all the more, since it is very difficult to find a quiet woman…

Feminist critics have tended to read these remarks autobiographically in Isotta’s works, taking at face value the profession that her femininity made her inadequate for scholarly writing.

This reading seems unconvincing, however, when one remembers that expressions of modesty are frequent in male writings from Classical antiquity onwards. When they are found there, such statements are almost never taken literally. Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria, ‘Education for the Orator’, 4.1.8-9) even advises rhetoricians to adopt ‘false modesty’. He argues that, by representing oneself as weak and unprepared, one may win ‘silent support’ from the audience.

Isotta’s expressions of modesty should therefore not be taken literally simply because she was a woman. Her own behavior reveals a woman who dared address famous scholars directly – far from the timid lady she often claimed to be. It is much more plausible (and surely a more feminist claim) that she has adapted the modesty trope to help her navigate her unique situation.

Isotta never married, although she rejected a proposal in 1453. Nor did she become a nun. Instead, she lived as an independent scholar in her family home, a very rare phenomenon for women of this period. Her singleness was probably what allowed her to continue her studies. In contrast, her younger sister Ginevra (1419–68), who had once corresponded with humanists just like Isotta, ceased all literary activity after her marriage. However, her unusual lifestyle placed her squarely in the public eye, making her an easy target for Plinius’ malicious attack.

Isotta fell silent for a period following the accusations, after which her circle of correspondents narrowed and her focus turned more to Christian texts from antiquity.  There is an almost ten-year gap in her extant writings before she addressed a letter to a new Venetian governor, Ludovico Foscarini (1409–80). In this letter, she introduced herself as a woman who had turned her study from the profane to the sacred.

Nogarola busily at work (Ferrara, 1497)

During this later phase of her career, Isotta wrote her most famous work, ‘On the equal or unequal sin of Adam and Eve’ (De pari aut impari Evae atque Adae peccato). This work was a dialogue between Isotta and Foscarini which debated Augustine’s judgment that Adam and Eve had sinned unequally with regard to their sex (De Genesi ad litteram, ‘The literal meaning of Genesis’,11.48). Here Isotta argued that Adam should be held more culpable than Eve for original sin, adducing arguments from Aristotle, Ambrose, Augustine, and Cicero. The dialogue circulated extensively, and fifteenth-century manuscript copies still survive in Verona, Florence, Naples, Rome and even Vienna, usually alongside one or more of her letters.

A few years later, she was also invited to write a speech in praise of St Jerome for public delivery. It is uncertain, however, whether Isotta herself was the one to deliver the oration. In this work, she referenced classical authors extensively, while also praising St Jerome for his biblical translations and commentaries. Like Jerome himself, Isotta here displays a remarkably learned synthesis of Christian and classical sources.

Nogarola’s Career Reassessed

Despite the positive reception of Isotta’s later works, the narrative of her life has been most often presented as one of thwarted ambitions:[3] “the poignancy of a potentially-brilliant career stifled by oppressive patriarchal intervention,” as Lisa Jardine put it.[4] These scholars take Isotta’s retreat from the res publica litterarum and her focus on Christian sources in her later career as a failure on her part to be fully accepted into the world of Renaissance humanism.

Certainly, Isotta’s career looked different from that of her male counterparts. However, her letters, debates, and orations had an extremely wide reach. Humanist contemporaries praised her work and encouraged her literary pursuits. And no-one should underestimate the depth of scholarship required to appreciate Christian texts properly.  Perhaps most strikingly, Isotta lived as a single, female scholar outside of a convent. She thus managed to paint and promulgate a new picture of what it could look like to be both a scholar and a woman in the early fifteenth century.

Must we then be so pessimistic about the scholarship of women during the early Renaissance? Was it really unthinkable for women to win praise for scholarly pursuits, and in fact to triumph over misogynistic slurs from those who feared the threat of ‘learned women’? Can Isotta’s immense learning be explored in a more positive light? Put differently, how does our focus on patriarchal oppression obscure and downplay the very real achievements of Nogarola, as well as of all other similarly brilliant women in history?


Josey Parker is an MPhil student in Classics at the University of Cambridge.


Further reading

For the collected works of Isotta Nogarola, see Eugenius Abel’s edition (Vienna/Budapest, 1886), available online here. Margaret King and Diana Robin have translated the complete works into English (Chicago, 2004). There is far less written on Nogarola than her remarkable career merits. Nevertheless, the following pieces are recommended:

Allen, Prudence. 2002. The Concept of Woman, Grand Rapids, MI. II:944–69.

Borsic, Luka & Karasman, Ivana. 2015. ‘Isotta Nogarola—The Beginning of Gender Equality in Europe.’ The Monist 98, 43–52.

Jardine, Lisa. 1983. ‘Isotta Nogarola: Women humanists – Education for what?’ History of Education 12, 231–44.

Parker, Holt. 2002. ‘Angela Nogarola (ca. 1400) and Isotta Nogarola (1418–1466): Thieves of Language’ in Laurie Churchill et al. (eds.), Women Writing Latin, London/New York. III:11–31.

Stevenson, Jane. 2005. Women Latin poets: Language, Gender, and Authority, from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century, Oxford.


[1] A reference to Juvenal, Satire 2.110.

[2] The Latin text can be found here from Segarizzi (1904) 53.

[3] See, for instance, M. King, ‘Thwarted Ambitions: Six Learned Women of the Italian Renaissance,’ 1976.

[4] Jardine (1983) 242.

Notes

Notes
1 A reference to Juvenal, Satire 2.110.
2 The Latin text can be found here from Segarizzi (1904) 53.
3 See, for instance, M. King, ‘Thwarted Ambitions: Six Learned Women of the Italian Renaissance,’ 1976.
4 Jardine (1983) 242.