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What Italian ‘feminist forgery’ reveals about history and memory

photo of Findlen

Paula Findlen

Jun 8 2021

 Historian Paula Findlen’s latest project on women and academia in early modern Italy began with an impossible footnote. Findlen, a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow and the Ubaldo Pierotti Professor of History, found herself struggling to summarize conflicting accounts of women professors in 13th- and 14th-century Italian universities. While various texts and works of art referenced a coeducational tradition and celebrated female legal scholars at the University of Bologna, the historical record was vague and at times contradictory, leaving Findlen with “a box of very unreliable information.” Her continued research efforts led her to archival documents spanning centuries, an interrogation of the very concept of historical precedent, and uncovered moments of outright forgery. Findlen presented her talk, “Inventing Medieval Women,” at a recent event for Clayman Institute faculty fellows.

For Findlen, the project’s “textual nucleus” is Christine de Pizan’s 1405 Book of the City of Ladies, a foundational Italian Renaissance text that went largely forgotten until its rediscovery by 20th-century feminists. Pizan wrote in conversation with 14th century Tuscan author Giovanni Boccaccio, who challenged readers to find historical examples of accomplished women more interesting than the ones he discussed. Many responded to Boccaccio, but “none more famously or earlier than Christine de Pizan,” Findlen argued. 

Pizan’s counterpoint was an account of Novella d’Andrea, daughter of famed University of Bologna law professor Giovanni d’Andrea. Novella’s appearance in the City of Ladies helped cement her legendary status as a brilliant legal mind in her own right. According to Pizan, the law professor would occasionally “send his daughter Novella in his place” to teach his classes, where, “to prevent her beauty from distracting the concentration of her audience, she had a little curtain drawn in front of her.” Novella’s simultaneous brilliance and mystique would continually reappear in subsequent books and paintings. Tracing Novella from Pizan’s brief mention forward in time, Findlen decided that her project “was going to be about this dialogue between Christine de Pizan’s work and everything that came from it, and late medieval Renaissance, early modern readings of Boccaccio.”

Other illustrious women Italian academics of the era, including Novella’s own accomplished sister Bettina Calderini, “rockstar legal professor” Bitisia Gozzadini, and skilled scientist Alessandra Giliani, appeared in the sparse historical record.

The resulting centuries-long chain of references to Novella led Findlen to surprising conclusions. Other illustrious women Italian academics of the era, including Novella’s own accomplished sister Bettina Calderini, “rockstar legal professor” Bitisia Gozzadini, and skilled scientist Alessandra Giliani, appeared in the sparse historical record. Mentions of these women accumulated into the 18th century, helping bolster the reputation of the University of Bologna as well as the city itself. Findlen demonstrated that the historical archive, consisting of university records, chronicles, and even tomb sculptures, accumulated over time into a living “tissue of evidence, supposition, history, [and] memory.” 

Findlen’s work illuminates the blurred line between historical invention and fact, most discernible in the case of a young Bolognese noblewoman named Maria Vittoria Delfini Dosi, which Findlen reconstructed from a complex array of sources. Maria’s father, so impressed with her intelligence, sought her admission to the University of Bologna for a law degree, prompting deep disagreements about women’s educational access. When some at the university believed Maria would revive a storied tradition of the female law doctorate, others worried that Maria’s degree would enable her, and future women, to teach or even practice law. After failed attempts to find concrete evidence of past law doctorates awarded to women, such as the renowned Novella and Bitisia, the university refused to admit Maria. An opponent of this decision, Findlen discovered, was new law student Alessandro Macchiavelli, who wrote a passionate historical defense of the female doctorate based on the examples of Bitisia and the d’Andrea sisters. The problem, Findlen notes, was that Macchiavelli cited forged medieval evidence and wrote under the names of his siblings, making him “the great feminist forger of the 18th century.” Machiavelli would help “invent” other women, in the words of Findlen, contributing to a long tradition of constructing female medieval precedents.  

A skeptic may determine that forgery and history are mutually exclusive, and that women such as Novella were more imagined than real. Yet for Findlen, potential conclusions are more varied and complex. First, she argued, “to find your sources was to invent them” throughout the early modern period. The fraught record of Italian women’s academic precedents, in other words, illustrates a common practice of intermingling documentation with fabrications to fill in the gaps in evidence that persisted into the 18th century. Similarly, archives as modern scholars understand them emerged from such practices. “The first step to having a historical and archival context,” Findlen explained, “is thinking that there is such a thing as an archive or there is such a thing as precedent.”  

Findlen concluded her talk with images of feminist artist Judy Chicago’s 1979 installation, The Dinner Party. The piece featured a triangular table with elaborate settings and a “Heritage Floor” honoring notable women in history. Inscribed into the floor were the names of Novella d’Andrea, Bitisia Gozzadini, and Alessandra Giliani, and seated at the famed table was Christine de Pizan. Just as past European scholars and artists saw the women of Bologna as an important precedent, Chicago and other modern feminists reshaped and celebrated a long tradition of female achievement. When asked by a faculty fellow about the continued risk of others ventriloquizing women’s lives and accomplishments, Findlen concluded that even fictive elements of history have merit. “We should not dump these stories,” she argued, “but we should actually see them in this broader and different light, of that need for having a past, for creating a past, which ends up being a very creative as well as evidentiary endeavor.”

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