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Elena Arcangela Tarabotti

Early feminist nun

Seicento, Life of Tarabotti

Elena Cassandra Tarabotti (February 24, 1604 – 1652) was the eldest of nine children, including six girls. Because she was born lame, her marriage prospects were dim, so at age 11 she was sent to the convent of Sant' Anna as a student. At age 16 she dutifully took her vows, and at 19 became Sister Arcangela.

Like all the nuns, she would never leave the convent again. She did, however, write, and become one of Italy's most articulate proto-feminists; although she received the bare minimum of an education in the convent, she referred to herself as an autodidact. Her first two works were Tirannia paterna (Paternal Tyranny) and the Inferno monacale (Nun Hell), both passionately attacking the custom of forcing women without a religious vocation into convents to wither away. Neither made into print while she was still alive—although thoughtfully written, they were far too provocative. Today they are her best known works.

Scholars say her first of four published, Paradiso monacale (Nun Heaven; 1643) wasn't a refutation of the Inferno monacale, but an effort to make it into print and get noticed by the world outside: it praises life in the convent for women who have a vocation for religion. She began to attract attention, and allowed visitors (through a grille, of course) and more books. Her work was promoted by members of the Accademia degli Incogniti, a group of prominent Venetian free-thinkers, led by Giovan Francesco Loredano, who published at least two of her books, including her Lettere familiari e di complimento (1650) that demonstrated her wide network of contacts.

Her other books were responses and refutations of misogynist texts. One, tellingly, was poignantly entitled Che le donne siano della spezie degli uomini ('That women are of the human species').


Text © Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Image by Centro Donna Venezia