Translation from the Italian by Michael S. Howard, July 2013
[...] Arriving at Acheron’s river, I beheld a multitude of souls that were to be ferried to the Kingdom of death [...] I asked to be transported with the others on the dark banks. Then the old helmsman, raising his hirsute eyebrows and affixed eyes, filled with admiration, told me, "O foolish girl, women never come here, indeed know that this infinity of souls that you see are all of men, most of them condemned for the great contempt with which they treat women, and especially their wives. Let it be known that in this place are exercised the most firce punishments of the Divine Hand against those who always want to dominate women [...]".
Sister Arcangela Tarabotti, Lettere familiari e di complimento [Letters of family and compliment], Venezia, Guerigli, 1650, p. 127
Arcangela Tarabotti, born Elena Cassandra, daughter of Stefano and Maria Tarabotti Cadena, was born in Venice in 1604, the fifth of eleven sisters and brothers. Like her father, she was born lame and it was probably for this reason that she was directed to the monastic life. A woman without vocation, she became Sister Arcangela in the Benedictine monastery of Saint Anna located in the Castello district, her neighborhood.
Although she did not receive an education in keeping with her high command of language and rhetoric, as manifested in some of her polemical writings directed at the system that had brought her, against her will, to take the habit of a nun, most people held her in awe.
Thanks to contacts with members of the Accademia degli Incogniti [Academy of the Unknown,], including Giovan Francesco Loredano, from whom she could enjoy high esteem, she managed to publish her works, focusing on the abuse of forced unification, on the monastery as a hellish place from which it was impossible to escape because the Church that did not allow the dissolution of vows even for those women who had become nuns against their will, their free will trampled on by men, thus worthy of much scorn. Among the most interesting works are Tirannia paterna [Paternal Tyranny] (posthumous, 1654), La semplicità ingannata di Galerana Baratotti [The deceived simplicity of Galerana Baratotti] (posthumous, 1654), l’Inferno monacale [Monastic Hell] (unpublished until recently) and Paradiso monacale [Monastic Paradise] (1643). Her polemic towards men is easy to understand from the first verse of the latter: "Blessed God loves all creatures, but especially woman, and then man, although he does not deserve it ..." and a vision of the afterlife, quoted at the beginning of this essay, received when she was delirious due to intense physical pain, recounted in a letter sent to the patrician Giovanni Dandolo and subsequently included in her Lettere familiari e di complimento [Letters of family and compliment]. In pursuing this vision, the nun, once brought into Heaven, is entrusted with a mission from God to go into the world to preach the truth, even if it would attract the hatred of men: "You in my name freely preach this truth, even if it is considered that making it known is abhorrent to them".
Arcangela Torabotti died in Venice, in the monastery to which she had been entrusted without vocation, on February 28, 1652, at the age of 48.
Francesco Buoninsegni, born in Siena in the early years of the seventeenth century, studied literature, philosophy and law in Rome. While attending the academies of Rome and Siena, he composed most of his literary production, focusing on fashionable subjects: satires on the feminine world and the foolishness of men, Latin elegies (one of them on the death of an elephant), a work on the stigmata of St. Catherine, rhymes on scientific issues and love.
It had all begun when Buoninsegni read, on the occasion of an academy meeting at which Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici was present, his essay Contro ‘l lusso donnesco satira menippea [Against Womanish Luxury, a Menippean Satire] (1). It was, as the title suggests, a stance against the luxury and vanity of women, considered to be a big waste of money. Inspired by the Greek writer Menippus, this type of satire was made up of episodes in prose mixed with verse (2), in comic or serious-comic tones that dealt with issues of a moral and philosophical character. Bizarre analogies, paradoxes and various digressions characterize the work, whose aim is to entertain while satirizing. Although the author protests his innocence, presenting himself as the victim of a constraint imposed by academy members, the female comes out rather ridiculed. The result that emerges is not so much that of a moralizing lesson as of an exercise in academic style, of great interest for understanding the modus agendi of seventeenth-century society. The subjects presented for satire in order to render the poor women ridiculous, appear, as mentioned above, quite bizarre: their huge hairstyles are compared to a tarot deck; the plates of gold and silver that they use are assimilated to the statue of the Biblical King Nebuchadnezzar; their dresses of silk qualify them as worms, since the fabric is produced by silkworms, etc., etc.
To such impudence, the pen of Sister Arcangela Torabotti, champion of women, could not remain silent; there emerged the writing Antisatira di Arcangela Torabotti in risposta al Lusso Donnesco, Satira Menippea del Signor Francesco Buoninsegni [Antisatire by Archangela Torabotti in response to Womanish Luxury, the Menippean satire by Signor Francesco Buoninsegni] (3), where the indomitable nun, displaying extraordinary rhetoric to reply point by point to the allegations of Buoninsegni, gave birth to a poem almost double the length of the enemy satire. If Buoninsegni dedicated his work to Ferdinando II de’ Medici, present on the occasion of his reading, the nun in turn dedicated the Antisatire to Vittoria Medici della Rovere, Grand Duchess of Tuscany.
What will be report here obviously concerns the passage on playing cards and the tarot, as mentioned above in reference to the Satire, together with the related response of the Antisatire. We also allow some digressions useful for a better structural understanding of the two works. The passages of the Satire and Antisatire are reported one after the other to facilitate the comparison.
Donne, e voi che le donne avete in pregio,
Per Dio non date a quest’istoria orecchia
[Women, and you that hold women in esteem,
For God’s sake, do not give ear to this story]
said the Ferrarese poet (4), begging our pardon for speaking ill, so as to avoid the hatred of women provoked to anger against the story that you know. I, condemning to the penalty of blasphemy the unnecessary adornments of women, to escape the hatred of their hearts and the arrows of their tongues, advance as my excuse the same verse,
Women, and those who hold women in esteem,
For God’s sake, do not give ear to this story.
A sick dream, an academy member’s delirium, a married man’s complaint, judging this speech conceived and born among the boiling of unrefined wine, at whose birth the office of harvester was given, not to Lucina, who helps women give birth, but to Bacchus, who helps to miscarry the mind.
With insufficient strength. already Ariosto and Sig. Buoninsegni communicate clearly the remorse of their consciences in blaming the female sex, in as much as the former begins his most mendacious [pun on mendicata, begging] canto, and the latter his Satire against women, with these verses,
Donne, e voi che gli amanti avete in pregio,
Date vi prego a questa istoria orecchia.
(Women, and those who hold women in esteem,
God did not give ear to this story)
The former has a tavern keeper whose customs are always equal to his little honored profession, say bad things, opinions mostly affected by wine; and the latter from his own mouth confesses his [attack on] feminine Luxury to be a disgrace, an abortion generated from his mind, born among the boiling of unrefined wine collected by Bacchus. Consider whether that great poet and this indefensible enemy of women, while pleading to the same [i.e. women] and those who revere them, asking them not to give a hearing to their chatter, deserve to be blamed by all. I, distancing myself a little from their way of beginning, say:
Donne, e voi che gli amanti avete in pregio,
Date vi prego a questa istoria orecchia.
(Women, and you that lovers hold in worth,
Please give ear to this story)
The extent of this blame has been accepted by me, not elected, but overlooked by everyone, with no one being able to say the smallest and slightest danger against women. It matters little that a useless intelligence submits itself to the danger of feminine irascibility. For today I am the victim to be consecrated to the resentment of these ladies. And yet (as you well know) there is no scorn equal to the scorn of women. So said the great sage who, mad with love, idolized women. Indeed for their service, I gladly accepted. Any other electing this load, having more understanding than I, would have said and done worse. I, who have very little intelligence, will not do much harm, and if indeed I wound, know that my weapons are innocent, they are like the spear of Achilles, they wound and heal at the same time, because the knife of academy members, who immortalize with their sayings the names of others, wound youths and with the same acts that wound bring with them the means for staunching the blood of the wounds they make.
I must, however, of this beautiful beginning confess that the great Signor Buoninsegni is a genius as modest as he is learned, since giving birth to his composition and knowing it to be scandalous, he immediately gives it the names of academic delirium, dreams of a sick person and complaint of a married man. In the present century most presentations of the academies deserve the title of craziness, if not delirium, for as everyone knows they do not discourse on matters of importance except when giving offense to that sex which is the glory of the world, of which you may have no doubt. The sick do not dream these horrible things. And what more horrible error can our intellect imagine than that we have before our eyes and ears, o this man, who indeed obtained his life from woman, blaming and accusing her even in her dress, unmindful that abuses in the world are enlarged and widened in [this] manner, making licit men’s vanity in their continuous disdain of the feminine sex, so that in our day we can freely say vanitas est omnis homo.
Cato the Censor, of great Roman pomp, judged then that Rome was close to its final ruin, when he heard that a fish had been sold for as much as an ox. Oh poor Cato! And what would you say if I were in these times and saw not a mullet, even one such as you eat, but an eel in rags on the head of my wife, to be valued the price of a hundred oxen? In truth, this thing built of hemp would do better that office imposed by nature than the one to which you bind with art, if it served not as an ornament, but to remedy your little brain [binding, i.e. connecting, its thoughts].
Pearls and salt are born of the same father: both are children of the sea. It’s fine. Whoever does not have salt here takes pearls, and whoever does not have anything valuable in the brain goes to remedying outside what is lacking inside. Our poet said well in this regard:
I corpi delle donne
Che corrono alla festa
Con cosí ricche gonne,
Con tante gioie in testa,
Son cappanne di fieno,
Coperte con pazzissimo lavoro
Da tegole di perle e docci d’oro.
That run to the fest
With such rich gowns,
With so many joys in their head,
It is huts of hay,
Covered with the craziest work
Of tiles, of pearls, and docci of gold) (1)
(1) docci = gargoyles, curved roof gutters
With good reason Cato judged then the loss of Roman liberty, hearing that there was sold a fish for as much as an ox, but a wife’s spending on adornments is different from spending for the satisfaction of the throat, and he detests for different reasons than you detest feminine pomp. He longed to see the people of Rome preserved free, and you long to insinuate against feminine freedom. Not without indignation would that great father of his country see the tyranny today used to imprison women. Yes, the authority of Cato this time, Signor Buoninsegni, ends up against you, as does the concept of pearls and salt.
Truly a subtle talent does not lack philosophizing [arcigogole] and stretching to relieve his itching and to pump up the value of sheets of paper [by writing on them], Dulcis est homini panis mendacij [Sweet is to men the bread of deceit], said the great savant. What an extravagant [i.e. ridiculous] thing you have come up with, that pearls and salt are children of the sea, and that those who do not have salt [i.e. wisdom] are served with pearls. These are things to laugh at, they are sophisms and disguised lies, not truth. Even you know it well. Why not sooner say that being the most precious pearl, the purest and whitest among joys, a woman adorns herself proportionally to the whiteness and purity of her soul and of her most divine quality? I will, however, stick to your concept, saying that men, because they profess to have salt and are deprived of pearl, have neither pearls nor salt.
The heads of women with many beautiful figures seem to me just a deck of playing cards. Exactly parallel. Ask these gentlemen who are playing and they will tell you (especially when forgiven) that cards (there I might add) and women have the brains of rags. And yours in particular will not be one of those figures they call the World and the Trumpets, but what is called the Fool of the Tarot. Have you considered in this deck of cards the four suits? The money [dinari] is there, but spent badly in so many joys. The swords [spada] are not lacking; every woman looking like Pallas, goddess of wisdom, who is armed, and takes her silver spadina (1). The stiaves [bastoni] are worn hidden under tufts of hair (2), but not seen by the eyes, providing cases of staves [bastoni] from their vanity. So that the poet said pleasingly (5):
La donna muor se non ha sempre tutto
Del suo marito addosso il capitale,
Ond’è che questo e quello è mal condutto.
(The woman dies if she has not always everything
From her husband's capital,
So that this is and that is led to pain)
That is from the hard beatings [bastonate] that the wives give their heads. Of cups, also, women do not lack. They do not do other than attach cups [coppe] (3) to their husbands’ purses, to suck out what little blood we have. And to those who play with French cards, there is shown on the heads of these ladies so many flowers [flori = clubs], but touched by the hands of King Midas (4). The hearts are imprisoned there by the dozen, each hair holds one hanged by it. The spades [picce, pikes] are there, and placed well. How many lovers do they prick, and, because they are long pikes, we never reach [our goal]? Of tiles [mattoni, i.e. diamonds, but also bricks] women do not lack, all the bricks (5) being given to her husband.
(1) silver spadina = the rod used to hold the hair.
(2) staves = hidden support to maintain high hairstyles.
(3) cups = glass cups used in bloodletting. Applied to the skin they draw blood. Similarly, women draw much money from the purses of their husbands.
(4) King Midas = golden flowers.
(5) bricks given = hurts, fig. In the manner of ironing clothes, putting a hot brick on them (6).
However this last, that a woman’s head is like a deck of cards, is no less extravagant and bizarre than the one before. If you speak of the material and real head, this is your great invention to make the brigade laugh, but if it is the mystical head, that is, the husband that you have called by this name, I approve your opinion as very true and most appropriate.
Decks of cards are the major part of these [heads] because those devoted to the game are intent on nothing else and do not think of anything else, in order to keep their attention fixed constantly on their cards, to the point that the head is transformed into a deck of cards. Here is no lack of money, if not true, at least counting under the repeated blows of an ardent desire to possess it, by which many men are reduced to dishonored actions so that they end up selling at a most vile price even the life and blood of their neighbor. No one denies that the same [players] although vile cowards, are not seen with swords at hand, although only for personal ornament. Such a one wants the excellent golden sword comparable with that of Orlando (1) but does not consider that he has the heart and arm of Martano (2) to manage it.
For me there are as witnesses against these brave knights: not only the servants but also the knights’ wives, since there is no shortage of pairs of staves; it is not enough for them to beat the servants for their own indiscretions, also beating the one that God has given them as companion and adiutorium similar sibi (3), i.e, not as subjects and inferior, but equal and possibly to say superior. Bacchus himself may then tell you if this deck of cards in the head of the woman is abundant in cups, since in emptying tens [of cups] he sometimes gets himself into such a stupor that if he were their real leader, as imagined, the poor wives would feel every day aggravated by the wine (4).
(1) that of Orlando = Durlindana, the invincible sword of Orlando.
(2) Martano in Orlando Furioso is an unfair and cowardly knight, who runs when faced with the enemy and then returns when the battle is over, proclaiming himself the winner.
(3) adiutorium similar sibi = a helpmate similar to him (Genesis, 2:18).
(4) would feel every day aggravated by the wine = the wives would be drunk (which obviously does not correspond to the truth). In practice, if it had been possible to address Bacchus, he would have been able to ascertain whether it was true that women’s heads were full of cups, as put by Buoninsegna, because if they were, the women would all be as drunk as the men.
If you want (and let it be said, following in the footsteps of Sig. Buoninsegni) the figures of the tarot in these cards, lift up your eyes to the faces of some you will see, expressing the figure of the Devil, the Hanged Man, the Bagatteliere and the Fool, and in so many will not lack that of Love, but a love, to the point, in tarot cards, painted, i.e., fake and not real, with which interested parties with a purpose sometimes roam around women, confusing them in a sea of lies and swearing them a passionate affection attested for them each sufficiently large to make their hair inextricably linked to their own heart, a concept begged from those words of the Canticle: In uno crine colli tui vulnerasti cor meum (1). But after these flattering fictions, it seems to them to be offering a sacrifice to Jupiter every time, with voice, pen, and base operations, they vilify and abuse those to whom they have just sworn to be souls of their souls.
(1) In uno crine colli tui vulnerasti cor meum = Thou hast wounded my heart with one hair of thy neck (Song of Songs, 4:9)
Ah, crazy men (I speak of the bad), senseless to your good, I have already made known how thirsting for a deck of cards, not to direct the money [denari] in necessary expenses to your families and affordable for the adornment of your wives, swords [spada] to defend in honor the fatherland, staves [bastoni] in livelihood not to the detriment of others, and cups [coppe] for the thirsty to drink, as is commanded by the Church, then [lacking all these] will there not be seen in you the horrid figure of the devil, and the others mentioned?
Be, therefore, Most Serene Grand Duke, the altar of your grace [for] the recovery of my wits and the coolness of my speech.
Da l’odio de le donne i nostri ingegni
Sotto i tuoi regi allori, o Sol toscano,
Si ricovrino a l’ombra e spenti siano
Nel mar de le tue grazie i loro sdegni.
(From the hatred of women our minds
Under your royal laurels, o Tuscan Sun,
Recover in the shade and extinguished in
The sea of your grace is their disdain)
But maybe with excess I will have dared to begin that to which my base pen flies in those Heights that are owed more reverence than praise. I am silent, then, Signor Buoninsegni, leaving you among the agonizing reproaches of your own conscience for having offended the truth, making you aware that women innocent and good, conscious to themselves of their own merit, have no esteem of others’ lying concepts, invalid, with the blackness of your inks, staining the most pure white of the most glorious feminine merit, since
Nube, che col favor di fieri venti
Al sol fa velo e ’l mondo discolora,
Non toglie al sole i raggi suoi lucenti,
Né perde il pregio suo, benché talora
Noiosi esprima e mal temprati accenti
Tocca da rozza man, cetra canora.
(Clouds, that by the favor of fierce winds
The sun doth veil and the world discolor,
Do not detract from the sun shining its rays,
Nor does the singing harp lose its value, although sometimes
It expresses annoying and ill-tempered accents
When struck by an unskilled hand).
The mutual appreciation of the two antagonists
Buoninsegni, following the publication of the Antisatire, showed a sincere appreciation for the nun. In 1650, when he read, at the Academy of the Filomati of Siena, his Satire on the foolishness of men, he wanted to pay homage to Tarabotti, presenting himself, through the verses of his new poem, as a defeated man in the diatribe against the fairer sex by virtue of one that has vindicated all women:
Or non occorre più: state pur chete,
che fatte ha le vendette una per tutte.
(Now it no longer occurs: though staying quiet,
Vengeance is acomplished, one for all)
Tirabotti was no less: in the Notes to the Reader in Antisatira she praised the qualities of her opponent, whom she called a “gentiluomo prudentissimo” ("most prudent gentleman") and deserving of his “degnissime condizioni” ("most worthy placements").
A fight, to the sound of the Tarot, without winners or losers (7).
1 - Venezia, Giacomo Sarzina, 1638.
2 - Among the most famous classical works of the genre include the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, The Golden Ass of Lucian, the Fragmenta ... Satyrarum Menipparum of Varro, while in the 16th century the Satyra Menippaea, Somnium. Lusus in nostri aevi Criticos (1581) by Justus Lipsius.
3 - Venezia, Francesco Valvasense, 1644
4 - The verses reported by Buoninsegni were taken by him from the Orlando Furioso of Ludovico Ariosto, XXVIII 1-2. In this way, Ariosto introduced the misogynistic novella Fiammetta to absolve himselfs of blame by attributing the writing of the poem to other authors. In the course of the Satire, Buoninsegni will also use lines from the works of Martial and Ovid, as well as from an anonymous woman poet.
5 - Most likely the "poeta giovievole" is Buoninsegni himself.
6 - The explanation of this passage is derived from the essay by Elissa Weaver (ed.), Satira e Antisatira, Salerno Editrice, Roma, 1998, which also has the complete texts of the two poems.
7 - The complee text of Satira and Antisatira are available online al the link: