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Alternative Public Forums for Italian Women Authors and Readers at the Turn of the 19th Century

(The following is a post by Lucia Wolf, reference librarian for Italy, European Division.)

A Sibyl reading a book while a winged spirit, a putto, inspires her. Woodcut by Bartolomeo Coriolano (ca. 1599-1676) after a design by Guido Reni (1575-1642). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Angelo De Gubernatis launched “La Cordelia.” Foglio settimanale per le Giovinette Italiane”
(Cordelia: weekly periodical for young Italian women), Florence: November 6, 1881. Library of Congress, European Division.

Although Italy has a long history of celebrated female authors, women’s writing in that country really began to flourish in the 19th century, thanks to the proliferation of journals that provided public forums for women to express themselves. The Library of Congress recently acquired a nearly complete run of the Italian women’s magazine, “La Cordelia: Foglio settimanale per le Giovinette Italiane” (Cordelia: weekly periodical for young Italian women), from its first issue in November 1881 through 1928, and 1933 through 1935. “Cordelia” was dedicated to the education of young women, and during its long run became a venue for distinguished Italian women writers to voice their progressive views.

Judging by the many depictions of inspirational muses, and the semi-mythological sibyls who could foretell the future, women have possessed knowledge since antiquity. Moving from oral to written communication, an Italian saint, Catherine of Siena (1347-80), a mystic of the Middle Ages, gained great influence in political and ecclesiastic circles for her interpretation of the divine. She authored the influential 15th-century book “Libro della Divina dottrina” (“Book of the Divine Doctrine”).

The Renaissance was probably the most prolific historical period for Italian women writers, with the most renowned being the humanist scholar Cassandra Fedele (1465-1558), from Venice. Desiring to move upward in Venetian society, her father promoted her education by finding the best scholars of the time to tutor her in the classics and the liberal arts. Fedele wrote various works, most of which have been lost, except for her “Oratio pro Bertucio Lamberto” (“Oration in Honor of Bertucio Lamberti”). “Oratio” was an academic speech that Fedele delivered at the University of Padua in 1487, in the presence of prominent academicians with whom she regularly conversed.

The Cumaean Sibyl, shown here as a young woman, prophesied for the early Romans. Painting by Domenichino (1581-1641). Galleria Borghese, Rome. Courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.  Also, “Felsina pittrice: Lives of the Bolognese Painters.” Vol. 13, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2013, p. 294.

Except for a few intervals, particularly during the Counter-Reformation (ca. 1534-63), and the socio-economic turmoil of the early modern period, Italian women continued to publish their works, but at a much lower rate. Mostly from the upper classes, these women writers had to outsmart persistent social attitudes that barred them from the academies and universities, as well as from freely expressing their opinions. They wrote pseudonymously, or expressed themselves in ambiguous language through poetry.

Saint Catherine of Siena. “Libro della Divina Dottrina” (“Book of the Divine Doctrine”). Bologna: Balthasar Azoguidus, ca. 1475. Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

Woodcut frontispiece in Cassandra Fedele’s.“Oratio pro Bertucio Lamberto.” Nuremberg: Peter Wagner, 1489. Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

Only in the latter part of the nineteenth century were Italian women able to pursue innovative venues to express their opinions in public forums. Among the various factors contributing to these new developments were the unification of Italy, women’s emancipation movements, and school reforms. Between 1859 and 1861, the new Italian state-school system took effect, making elementary school compulsory for both boys and girls, although secondary schools and universities still remained off limits to young women until 1875.

It is within this historical context at the close of the 19th century that the burgeoning market of new Italian periodicals produced a genre dedicated to the education of young women. These periodicals became alternative public forums for Italian women writers, educators, and social activists to voice their opinions and publish their works, while establishing lively, ongoing networks among themselves and their readers.

One of the most emblematic and longest-running Italian periodicals for young women was “Cordelia.” Founded in Florence by the orientalist Angelo De Gubernatis in 1881, the journal continued until 1942, under the direction of other editors-in-chief, all women. De Gubernatis wanted “Cordelia” to supplement young girls’ learning, especially needed because of the lack of secondary education for women. In the section “Conversazioni con mia figlia” (Conversations with my daughter), he explained to his daughter Cordelia the double origin of the title—from her own name and from Shakespeare’s Cordelia in “King Lear.” (Cordelia was King Lear’s most loving daughter.) His “Conversations” continued throughout his directorship of the periodical (1881-84), and he relied on friends and colleagues for wide-ranging articles on history, geography, literature, popular science, and current news. De Gubernatis pleaded with one of his closest friends, a reluctant Carlo Collodi (1826-90), author of “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” to contribute an article to the second issue of the periodical. Collodi obliged him with a witty story about two adolescent sisters bickering over he name for their new life-sized doll.

Front page of the first issue of “Cordelia” in 1881, with the director’s editorial “Conversazioni con mia figlia” (Conversations with my daughter).

De Gubernatis closely mentored and launched the careers of women authors by giving them journal space. His young readers could publish their pieces for the first time in the “Cordelia” section “La palestra delle giovinette” (Gymnasium for young women), and receive advice on how to improve their writing. During his directorship, his female collaborators made up 42 percent of those he employed. Among his steadiest colleagues were his sister Teresa De Gubernatis Mannucci (1832-93), an educator active in organizations promoting women’s education; Sofia Bisi Albini (1856-1919), author of a successful novel “Una nidiata” (A nest), which first appeared as weekly installments in “Cordelia”; and Dora D’Istria, a pseudonym for Princess Elena Ghika Koltzoff-Massalski (1828-88), a staunch supporter of women’s emancipation.

In 1884, “Cordelia” changed direction under Ida Baccini (1850-1911), who was succeeded by female directors until the periodical’s end in 1942. For 27 years, Baccini spearheaded “Cordelia,” distancing it from the pedantic and detached approach previously taken by De Gubernatis. As a woman already involved in children’s literature and education, Baccini approached her audience with a maternal, personable, and down-to-earth voice, expanding the periodical’s outreach beyond pre-teen girls to include young women of marriageable age.

Baccini significantly increased the number of female contributors, which eventually numbered 186. While male authors still predominated, the number of articles written by female contributors accounted for 42 percent of the total. In her section called “Piccola posta” (Brief mail), Baccini responded directly to her young female readers. She increased subscriptions to “Cordelia” from 2,000 in 1894 to 9,000 in 1904. Under the stewardship of the next two directors, Jolanda (pseudonym for Marina Maiocchi Plattis, 1864-1917), followed by Rina Maria Pierazzi (1873- 1962), female contributors eventually outnumbered male contributors.

First story of one of Cordelia’s young writers, in “La palestra delle giovinette.”

Carlo Collodi’s “In cerca d’ un nome” (In search of a name) in “Cordelia,” vol. 1, no. 2, 1881.

Name of one of the earliest subscribers to “Cordelia,” vol. 2, no. 4, 1882.

Before assuming the direction of “Cordelia,” Jolanda had published various works of fiction and openly defied male critics by saying that women writers were no “freaks,” and would surpass men if given the same freedom to write.

New “Cordelia,” directed by Ida Baccini. Title page featuring King Lear dying in Cordelia’s arms. Issue vol. 17, no. 24, 1898.

Rina Maria Pierazzi, writer and director of “Cordelia.”

While a significant number of women who contributed to “Cordelia” did not remain well-known beyond their time, “Cordelia” provided them for decades with an alternative public forum in which they could express themselves without having to justify the need to voice their opinions, their desire to be creative, or their hunger for learning.

The youngest member of the group, in Florence, 1924.

Actress Paula Maxa (1898-1970), 1927.

Announcement of pianist Alda Cannone’s concert, 1933.

Book ad for “L’ospite” (The Guest) by the 1926 Nobel Literature Prize winner, Grazia Deledda. “Cordelia,” vol. 17, no. 8, 1897.

Changing art styles in Cordelia covers, vol. 43 no. 1, 1924.

Vol. 52, issue no. 1, 1933.

Suggested Reading:

Bloom, Karin. “Cordelia, 1881-1942. Profilo storico di una rivista per ragazze.” (Cordelia, 1881-1942. Historical profile of a periodical for young women.) Forskningsrapporter/Cahiers de la Recherche 54. Stockholm: Stockholms universitet, 2015.

Robin, Diana, ed. and transl. “Cassandra Fedele.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Russell, Rinaldina, ed. “The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature.” Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

For additional information, please contact the European Division of the Library of Congress.

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