The Silent Duchess

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The Silent Duchess

by Dacia Maraini


A historical novel set in eighteenth-century Sicily; published in Italian (as La lunga vita di Marianna Ucria) in 1990, in English in 1992.


Raped by her uncle, who becomes her husband, Duchess Marianna Ucria loses not only her memory of the violence but also her voice; without speaking, she manages to recover it over the course of the novel.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Dacia Maraini (b. 1936) has helped spearhead a multifaceted quest for a new female literature that has characterized Italian culture since the early 1960s. The eldest daughter of Tuscan ethnologist Fosco Maraini and Sicilian painter Topazia Alliata, Dacia was born in Florence, Italy, but spent nine years of her childhood (1938–47) in Japan. Her anti-Fascist parents relocated there for her father’s anthropological research and to escape Fascist oppression. When Japan sided with Germany and Italy in World War II, Maraini’s parents refused to pledge allegiance to the Fascist government in Italy, as requested by the Japanese authorities, so from 1943 to 1946 the whole family’s was interned in a Japanese concentration camp. In interviews, in her poetry collection Devour Me, Too (Mangiand pure, 1978) and, most recently, in the memoir The Ship to Kobe (La nave per Kobe, 2001), Maraini depicts the trauma of war, imprisonment, and deprivation. She experienced a second, subtler loss of freedom when her family’s returned to her mother’s native region of Sicily. At the age of 18, emerging from these experiences both “dumb” and “paralyzed,” she moved to Rome, where she found part-time work as a journalist and studied literature (Maraini in Sumeli Weinberg, p. 68). In 1962 she married the painter Lucio Pozzi but divorced him four years later after losing an unborn son. Maraini continued to move in literary circles during this time, meeting such significant Italian authors as Alberto Moravia, who became her life partner for a decade (see Moravia’s The Conformist, also in WLAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Meanwhile, Maraini added to her body of work, which she has divided into three phases: 1) anti-conventional, disturbingly realistic novels (La vacanza [1962; The Holiday]); 2) overtly feminist works of the 1970s and 1980s (the novel Donna in guerra [1975; Women at War] and the theater piece Dialogo di una prostituta con un suo cliente [1978; Dialogue between a Prostitute and Her Patron]); and 3) works that situate women in history and in the literary canon (The Silent Duchess and the detective novel Voci [1995; Voices]). Through all three phases, Maraini attempts to recover women’s identity by amplifying their muted voices. In The Silent Duchess she broadcasts the voice of a mutilated woman in eighteenth-century Sicily, making her story part of the movement for women’s liberation two centuries later, in Maraini’s own day.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Eighteenth-century Sicily

A bridge between the European and African continents and a divider between the eastern and western Mediterranean regions, Sicily sits at a strategic position that has made it a coveted crossroads. It became subject to domination by a striking array of foreign powers and cultures. Always the most salient trait of Sicilian history, the island’s changing status is wryly represented in The Silent Duchess by a display of foreign flags that the widow Marianna Ucria discovers in her mansion’s basement, an array of alternatives kept on hand to welcome the ever-new invader.

Timeline of Sicilian History
3000 b.c.e .The Sicans arrive from the Iberian Peninsula
700 b.c.e. Greek colonization
210 b.c.e. .Sicily under Roman rule
493 c.e. .Invasion of the Goths
535 Domination of the Byzantines
827 Arrival of the Arabs; Arab rule begins in 903
1060 Beginning of the Norman Conquest
1130 Sicily becomes a Norman possession with the rest of southern Italy, known as The Kingdom of Sicily
1266 Charles of Anjou takes over rule of Sicily
1282 The Sicilian Vespers uprising against misrule by French leader Charles of Anjou; failed attempt to form an autonomous state
1302 Spanish (Aragonese) rule
1503 Sicily is ruled directly by the Spanish (Charles V)
1713 Sicily becomes a possession of Savoy
1720 Savoy trades Sicily for Sardinia; Sicily passes to Austria
1734 Sicily falls under Spanish rule again, under the Bourbons
1816 Sicily is reunited with southern Italy to form the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies under the Spanish Bourbons
1820–48 Sicilians participate in the revolts leading to the unification of Italy (Risorgimento)
1860 Sicilians play a crucial role in the success of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s “Expedition of the Thousand” to liberate Sicily; Sicily joins the Kingdom of Italy (officially declared March 17, 1861)
1946 Sicily becomes an autonomous region of the Italian Republic; like four other Italian border regions, Sicily is granted special status that gives it political autonomy in certain matters

Despite all the changes, there was a stubborn stability to life on the island. Regardless of how many rulers came and went, Sicily’s social structure remained obstinately fixed.

Sicilian upper-class society

The Sicilian aristocracy consisted of a small group of feudal landlords who owned large estates bequeathed to the first male descendent of the family’s. There was also a small wealthy middle class of merchants and artisans who lived in the main cities. But mostly the population consisted of poor peasants who toiled in the fields to feed themselves and sustain the opulent lifestyles of their landlords.

Sicily fell behind the times economically as well as socially. Northern Europe addressed the social and economic distress following the Thirty Years War (1618–48) with more efficient agricultural methods. In Piedmont (in northern Italy), enlightened rulers followed suit and tried to improve the taxation system too. But the landlords in Sicily resisted change. Many built sumptuous mansions in the country and held lavish celebrations or sallied forth in fashionable hunting parties. Rather than investing in old estates, the landlords bought new ones, becoming absentee owners who themselves lived in the city of Palermo to partake in the glamorous social life of the viceroy’s court there. In the eighteenth century, more and more noblemen transferred the administration of their country estates to a mediator, or gabellotto, who paid the rent in advance to the distant landowner and often dealt brutally with the rural workers.

The Silent Duchess features a duke whose traits epitomize those of the Sicilian aristocracy—traits that are seen to be at the root of the island’s decline: resignation, disillusionment, attachment to their class privileges, and denial of the social and economic changes in the rest of Europe that were subtly infiltrating their backward world. One of the most effective means of preserving the status quo was the Tribunal of the Inquisition. Organized to prevent deviation from the teachings of the Catholic Church, it allowed the conservative Sicilian aristocracy to collaborate with the Catholic Church and with the Spanish administration.

Aristocratic women in eighteenth-century Sicily

The silent duchess of the novel’s title, Marianna Ucria, belongs to the class of aristocratic women of the eighteenth century. Generally speaking, European noblewomen of that time had limited access to education and new ideas. At best, in Roman Catholic areas such as Sicily, wealthy girls attended convent boarding schools, which charged costly tuitions. The aim was to educate good Christian mothers. Whether through home schooling or through the cloister, religious instruction, needlework, sewing, and, in the most fortunate cases, music, heavily outweighed the acquisition of reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. The development of intellectual independence and critical thinking would have been counter-productive to the societal status quo. It might have prevented women from accomplishing the only social mission they were allowed to fulfill—strengthening families’ financial and social status through marriage and child-bearing. To avoid fragmenting the large family’s estate into small parcels distributed among an aristocrat’s children, only the first male heir inherited the estate, a practice known as “primogeniture.” Female heirs were at a particular disadvantage. When the family’s was able to provide them with a generous dowry, they were often forced to marry noblemen who represented a good match in terms of wealth and possessions. Weddings within the same family’s—as between the novel’s Marianna and her uncle—were no exception. The eighteenth-century aristocracy regarded marriage as a contract to consolidate the families’ wealth and prestige. After the marriage, aristocratic women served to enhance the social role of the family’s: first they procreated male heirs; second they played an important part in the sumptuous celebrations that punctuated the aristocracy’s social life at that time. It was for this reason that many were educated in music. Only one alternative existed for aristocratic women who wanted to escape marriage, or whose families could not afford a dowry—life in a convent. Feeling alienated from their bodies and emotions, women “often reacted to their reduced lives by becoming sick or dependent, or by taking


In 1478, in response to a request from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Pope Sixtus IV instituted the Inquisition, which aimed to root out Catholic converts who secretly practiced Judaism, or, later, Islam. Operating in Sicily from 1487 to the late 1700s, the Tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition erased its minority populations. All Jews were expelled by the mid-1700s. The King of Spain himself appointed the Inquisitors who, in turn, selected their collaborators from among the local noblemen. These “lay familiars” received legal and financial privileges for preserving religious and political orthodoxy. Apparently many of them exploited their role for selfish purposes. The trial summaries suggest that in Sicily “the Holy Office was frequently manipulated by local residents in order to revenge themselves on private enemies, and that perjured testimony to the Inquisition was far more common here than in Spain” (Monter, p. 182). Sicilians did not suffer such conduct without protest—the uprisings of 1511 and 1526 were prompted in large part by hatred for the court’s familiars, but they continued to wield power.

Records suggest that in Sicily the Inquisition had to deal especially with public morality. The tribunal found that blasphemy, witchcraft, heterosexual and homosexual sodomy were practiced here with a “creativity” ascribed to the multicultural history of the island. The ultimate goal of the Holy Office was to quash freethinking by eliminating any deviation in religious behavior, scientific thought, or sexual practices. While the last victim burned at the stake in Sicily, Antonio Canzoneri, died in 1732, the tribunal continued to exercise tight control until 1782. At this point, a so-called man of the Enlightenment, the marquis Domenico Caracciolo, became viceroy of Sicily and finally saw to it that the Inquisition was suppressed and abolished by royal order. Most resistance before then was no doubt very secret and private, of the kind exhibited by Marianna Ucria in the novel.

drugs. To facilitate the smooth working of the patriarchal system, women were [furthermore] socialized to imprison other women” (Brooke in Marotti and Brooke, p. 194). That is, older women conditioned their daughters and nieces to accept their limits and obediently step into the prescribed roles. In the novel, all these elements surface in the problematic relationships between the Duchess Marianna Ucria and her mother, her daughters, and her servants.

According to the historian Denis Mack Smith, in spite of the general backwardness of Sicilian society, the eighteenth century witnessed a slight opening of Sicilian culture to the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that celebrated reason and the power of the individual to improve the human condition. There were heralds of the new philosophy in nearby Naples and others brought their enthusiasm to Sicily from overseas—for example, the German poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The presence of such cultivated foreigners, along with private tutors and family’s librarians from Tuscany, England, and France, and the efforts of a few Sicilian and Neapolitan reformers began to shake the heretofore impenetrable religious and political establishment. Despite the severe penalties that still threatened in 1769, the traveler Patrick Brydone found in family’s libraries several English and French books and translations of works by Arthur Young, Alexander Pope, David Hume, John Locke, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Montesquieu. In the novel, the silent duchess is induced by her reading of Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature to reconsider her whole life. Such ideas were perhaps more earthshaking in Sicily than almost anywhere else. Especially here the eighteenth century can be seen as “a moment of rupture, due to the emerging of new philosophical attitudes that bring about historical change” (Marotti in Blumenfeld, p. 167).

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel begins with a journey that takes the seven-year-old, deaf-mute Marianna Ucria and her beloved father, Duke Signoretto Ucria, from the country town of Bagheria to Palermo, Sicily’s capital city. Duke Signoretto is on his way to perform his duties as a lay familiar; he will be preparing the young victim of an Inquisition trial, a 13-year-old bandit, for death by hanging on the main square of Palermo. The duke will force his daughter to witness the hanging, a spectacle that amounts to a cathartic ritual and a warning to the public. After the cruel sight of the bandit’s agony on the gallows, the duke urges Marianna to speak. The duke knows his daughter’s silence to be the result of a violent trauma she herself has suffered and he hopes to restore her voice through a similarly traumatic experience. However, his hopes are dashed. Little Marianna not only has no voice; she has no memory of the violence done to her.

Seven years after the hanging of the young brigand, Marianna attends a traditional Sicilian puppet show that culminates with the execution of the protagonist. This time she faints. When she regains her senses, in her parents’ bedroom, Marianna’s mother informs her that she has to marry her uncle, Pietro Ucria di Campo Spagnolo. Marianna’s written protests go unheeded. Her mother, herself a victim of the patriarchal society, had decided long ago to escape into the artificial paradise of opium and laudanum, and cannot change Marianna’s fate. On the contrary, she urges her daughter to accept marriage as a contract that strengthens the family’s’s wealth. Marianna thus becomes the 13-year-old wife of the elderly, melancholic, eccentric uncle who abused her when she was a child. His abuse, though she has no memory of it, is in fact the violence that prompted her to lose her voice.

The third-person narrative proceeds chronologically but is constantly interrupted by flashbacks, flash-forwards, interior monologues, and dreams. The action resumes four years later, when Marianna, pregnant with her third child, is supervising the building of the new family’s mansion in the country. “And now,” wonders the narrator, “who is going to break the news to the Duke that it is another girl? … If it was a peasant woman the child would be given a little spoonful of poisoned water” (Maraini, The Silent Duchess, p. 36). At age 19, after bringing into life three girls, Marianna finally fulfills the expectations of her husband, family’s, and society by giving birth to her first son and her husband’s male heir. Among the gifts that follow, she values especially one from her father: a precious writing outfit made of silver, gold, glass, and leather, complete with pen, notebook, and a small portable table that can hang from two gold chains attached to her belt.

This sophisticated present initiates continuous improvement in Marianna’s writing and reading skills, which distinguish her from the other aristocratic women of her time. Her husband, a traditional nobleman, respects Marianna’s intellectual needs without understanding them; “[f]or him, his wife is the child of a new century, incomprehensible” (The Silent Duchess, p. 49). In fact, however, the silent duchess is between centuries, a reflection of the old and the new. For instance, she does not object to receiving a human as a gift when her father brings her as a present a 12-year-old girl, the daughter of a man sentenced to death by the Inquisition, hoping Marianna will take better care of her than a convent for orphans would. Marianna goes on to make of this girl, Fila, a faithful servant and later her travel companion. In time Marianna gives birth to a fifth child, a son named Signoretto, whom she openly prefers to her other children. A warm, physical bond unites them, until Signoretto dies at the age of four from smallpox. Another few years pass before Marianna realizes she has given up her body to her children: “She has put into motherhood both her flesh and her feelings, adapting them, restricting them, renouncing them. … But how can one live without a body, as she has done for the past thirty years, without ending up mummified?” (The Silent Duchess, p. 80). After these nocturnal reflections, Marianna refuses for the first time to be intimate with her husband. Shortly thereafter, she refuses for the first time to appear in Palermo for an autoda-fé, or the burning at the stake of heretics condemned by the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition. A nun and a friar have been accused of heresy and have not repented of their alleged sins.

Marianna’s maturation continues. A man she identifies simply as Grass, a British cosmopolitan friend of her son Mariano, has left her a handwritten copy of David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature. Grass’s dedication reads: “To her who does not speak—may she accept with her generous mind a few thoughts that are close to me” (The Silent Duchess, p. 95). Marianna pours over Hume’s musings on human nature, knowledge, truth, and religion. His experimental approach to all aspects of human existence inspires in him skepticism toward philosophic and religious dogmatism and profound tolerance of differences. Both skepticism and tolerance challenge Marianna’s conservative education: “We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” Hume’s conclusion is “the exact opposite to what she has been taught” (The Silent Duchess, p. 95).

After becoming acquainted with Hume’s philosophy, Marianna expands her readings. In addition to the classics she finds in the family’s library, she orders an increasing number of modern foreign texts, including Milton’s Paradise Lost as well as history and philosophy books. Marianna learns French and English, and fills her solitude with the rich imaginary life that those books nurture. One night she discovers that Fila has a younger brother, Saro, whom she has been hiding in fear of the duchess’s reaction. What follows shows that her fears were groundless. The duchess and duke accept Saro as a servant. Not only is he very attractive; he is also a gifted young man with intellectual and practical abilities. Quickly he learns the good manners of aristocratic education, and acquires writing and reading skills in order to communicate with the duchess. One day, after the duke’s death, Saro declares his love for her with a handwritten note: “I LOVE YOU” (The Silent Duchess, p. 153). The widowed duchess tries to resist the reciprocal attraction.


A Scottish philosopher and historian, David Hume (1711–76) gained familiarity with Italy by studying the classics, Latin poetry, and vernacular Italian. His philosophical writings (e.g., A Treatise of Human Nature [1739–40] and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding ([1748]) argue that the existence of the external world cannot be proven. Hume insists on the primacy of experience, arguing that one cannot go beyond it to determine original causes. All we have are our perceptions, which consist of impressions and ideas that spring from these impressions. Everything is grounded in these perceptions, including habits and customs, which are the products of repeated experiences. From experiences come our beliefs (which determine our moral decisions) and the idea of personal identity (the result of a succession of impressions, emotions, memories, and anticipations). Previous thinkers taught that the passions are irrational, animalistic elements threatening to overwhelm the rational self. In contrast, Hume regarded the passions as vital, legitimate parts of human nature, which he, of course, linked to human perceptions. His view, and its defiance of past views, helps explain his famous statement, cited in the novel, “Reason is and ought to be the slave of passions” (Hume in The Silent Duchess, p. 95).

Through her self-education, Marianna acquires a newly liberal outlook with regard to social and private issues. She becomes involved in the administration of her rural estates, seeks to establish some kind of social justice and human respect toward the underprivileged, and shows fresh understanding for the emotional needs of her daughters. To avoid being tempted by her attraction to him, she even provides Saro with a spouse of his age and social class, visiting her brother, an abbot in Palermo, to find the bride. The meeting between the two represents the second turning point in Marianna’s maturation. Marianna’s muteness has heightened her other senses, in particular her ability to read other people’s thoughts, an aptitude that allows her to validate her obscure, dreamlike recollections of a remote past when she did have a voice. At the end of the meeting with her brother, Marianna writes him a message asking if she had ever talked in her childhood. Despite his peremptory denial, Marianna penetrates his memories:

One evening they heard screams to make the flesh creep and Marianna with her legs all bloodstained being dragged away between their father and Raffaele Cuffa. Strange the absence of the women… yes… Uncle Pietro… had assaulted her and left her half-dead…. And then, afterwards, yes, afterwards, when Marianna was healed it was realized that she could no longer speak as if zap, he had cut out her tongue.

(The Silent Duchess, pp. 186–87)

From this, Marianna comes to know what happened to her, and to realize that her own father knew, accepted, and even helped perpetuate the violence against her when he forced her as a young girl to marry her uncle.

Fila, meanwhile, has become fiercely jealous of Saro, his wife Peppinedda, and their newborn son. One night, possessed by madness, she stabs the three of them while asleep. The baby dies, Peppinedda goes home to her family’s to heal, and Fila is rushed to a mental hospital. While Marianna tends Saro’s deep wounds, she finally accepts her desire and her body:

How she came to find herself undressed beside Saro’s naked body Marianna was unable to say. She knows it was very simple and that she felt no shame. She knows they were in each other’s arms like two friendly bodies in harmony and that welcoming him inside her was like finding once more a part of her own body she had believed lost for ever.

(The Silent Duchess, p. 210)

While this relationship hinges on a profound, harmonious synthesis of the senses, a different relationship of cultural affinities of the minds unfolds at this point between the 40-year-old duchess and the judge Giacomo Camaleo. Instrumental in saving Fila from execution for the attempted murder of Saro and his young family’s, Camaleo appreciates Marianna’s vast learning. In the last of their intense epistolary exchanges on philosophy and society, Don Camaleo declares: “It is your disability that makes you unique” and proposes marriage (The Silent Duchess, pp. 230–31). However, Marianna has attained a sense of independence and a self-confidence that prevents her from limiting herself either to Saro and their fulfilling communion of the senses, or to judge Camaleo and their harmonious communion of the intellects.

Marianna and Fila, whom the duchess has rescued from the mental hospital, embark on a ship that will take them to Naples. They encounter the Roman excavations of Stabia and Herculaneum, the roughness of the Vesuvius volcano, the danger posed by bandits, and the amiable friendship of a theater company. With the actors, they continue their adventurous journey to Rome. There, Fila will eventually marry the proprietor of the inn where they stay. Marianna, on the other hand, chooses to continue her quest. The novel concludes with an image of her contemplating the Tiber River, with thoughts of “walk[ing] straight into the waters” (The Silent Duchess, p. 234). In the end, though she knows there are no final answers to the fundamental questions of life, “the will to resume her journey is stronger. Marianna fixes her gaze on the gurgling yellow water. She questions her silences. But the only answer she receives is another question. And it is mute” (The Silent Duchess, p. 235).

Journey and silence

The thread that weaves together the chapters of the novel, spanning 40 years of the first half of the eighteenth century, is the protagonist’s journey toward self-discovery and expression that she undertakes in spite of, but also thanks to, her silence. The novel begins with a journey—from Bagheria to Palermo—and ends with an open-ended journey—from Palermo into an uncertain future of life experiences. While the first journey had been set up by Marianna’s father, Duke Signoretto, to make her recover her voice through a violent experience, the last journey results from her decision to continue the process of learning and maturation that has defined her whole life. She defies convention in more than one way: while her first journey is dictated by her father and the conservative, patriarchal society for which he stands, her last journey is one of her own making in the company of her servant Fila. Subverting the societal rules of her day, she interacts with the underprivileged on a more natural and equal basis than before, becoming the protagonist of a novel of formation, or bildungsroman. Marianna’s personal growth parallels a historical transition from the old to the new in Sicily, occurring in tandem with its shift away from feudal aristocratic rule and religious dogmatism to make room for a fledgling middle class and a measure of the skepticism and tolerance endemic to the Enlightenment. Examples of the new order include the suppression of the Inquisition in Sicily in 1782 and a 1789 edict that was designed to increase the number of small farms on the island by bringing new areas under cultivation (in the end, the edict would have no effect at all).

The Silent Duchess is a novel of formation with respect to the time it was written as well as the time it takes place. A militant feminist writer, Maraini chooses the past with the present in mind. Her novel strives to promote the maturation of her society by looking at history through the lens of a female victim of an earlier, patriarchal Sicily; at the same time, it strives to advance the growing cause of Italian feminism in Maraini’s day. She sees in the eighteenth century the beginning of a “process of feminization of society” that is emerging more visibly in her own time (Marotti in Blumenfeld, p. 176).

Sources and literary context

Maraini, along with other Italian women writers (Elsa Morante, Anna Banti, and Mariarosa Cutrufelli, to name a few), attempts through literature “to rewrite woman’s history from a personal and critical point of view” (Lazzaro-Weis in Marotti and Brooke, p. 44). In The Silent Duchess, the story’s deep roots in the historical documentation of eighteenth-century Sicilian culture are crucial to the success of the undertaking. Maraini remarks in several interviews that she spent five years studying and researching the Sicilian past in local archives. While the historical research no doubt inspired realistic details, a personal experience inspired the development of her main character. At the end of her autobiography, Bagheria (1993), Maraini mentions her first encounter with her ancestor Duchess Marianna Ucria. Maraini, on a visit to the family’s’s Villa Valguarnera in Bagheria, eyed a portrait of this mysterious noblewoman that mesmerized her: “She holds a sheet of paper in her hand, for writing was the only way she could express herself: she was called ’the dumb one’” (Maraini, Bagheria, p. 116). Entranced by the enigmatic smile in the portrait, Maraini felt compelled to unveil her ancestor’s story and, at the same time, investigate her own past.

According to Maraini’s autobiography, the evidence suggests that her ancestor had legendary writing skills, which were developed because of her disability. It is furthermore implied that she used these skills to defeat silence and violence. In doing so, she contributed to the formation of a literary female genealogy that harks back to ancient mythology. Maraini revisits several ancient myths (e.g., the myth of Philomela) while rewriting our perception of history through her novel.


“I am turned to stone, gazing at that portrait as if I recognized it from the deepest part of myself, as if I have been waiting for years to find myself face to face with this woman who has been dead for two centuries, and who holds between her fingers a small sheet of paper on which is written some part, lost and unknown, of my Sicilian past.”

(Maraini, Bagheria, p. 119)

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Italian feminism and neo-feminism

The Silent Duchess, a historical novel, fictional autobiography, and bildungsroman, reflects the evolution of the twentieth-century Italian women’s movement from feminism to neo-feminism. In Italy, feminism became a powerful political force in the late 1960s. Women had contributed substantially to the Italian labor market before and during the industrial development from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Yet they experienced “a vast gulf between their contribution to the nation through work and the minimal rights accorded them by the state” (Wood and Farrell in Baranski, p. 143). Not until 1945, for example, were full voting rights extended to Italian women. One crucial reason for this delay was the deep polarization between a strong socialist movement and an increasingly powerful Fascist Party earlier in the century. Fascism, supported by traditional Catholicism, promulgated the patriarchal image of woman, relegating her to the roles of wife and mother whose primary mission was to bear and nurture children for the fatherland. The World War II experience helped displace this image, however. With their active participation in the Resistance movement against Nazism and Fascism, Italian women paved the way for their more official recognition in postwar Italy.

After the birth of the Italian Republic by popular vote in 1946, Italian society was torn between the Christian Democratic Party (which exercised widespread influence through the Catholic Church) and strong Communist and Socialist parties. For the traditional leftist organizations, the fight for women’s rights became secondary to class struggle, and the familiar patriarchal mentality still held sway. The leftists did, however, support women’s rights to equal wages, divorce, and more.


According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2–8c.e.), King Tereus of Thrace (son to Ares, god of war) married Procne and felt in love with her sister Phitomela. He savagely raped the sister, then cut off her tongue and imprisoned her to prevent her from revealing his crime; slyly she exposed him anyway, through her art:

And what shall Philomela do? A guard prevents her flight… speechless lips can give no token of her wrongs. But grief has sharp wits…. She hangs a Thracian web on her loom, and skillfully weaving purple signs on a white background, she thus tells the story of her wrongs.

(Ovid, Book VI, lines 572–78, emphasis added)

The two sisters later avenge themselves by killing Tereus’s son and serving the corpse as a meal to Tereus. Before he can exact his own revenge, all three are transformed into birds, Philomela into the nightingale, the bird with the most beautiful voice (the Greek etymology of her name means “love for singing”).

At the end of the 1960s, the women’s movement entered a more independent phase in the drive for their liberation. Italy’s political parties were experiencing a crisis at the time, due to a civil rights movement in the country and to the global context of the Vietnam War and the Cold War. These events promoted social awareness, to the advantage of the Italian students’, workers’, and women’s movements. The women formed political and cultural associations that held “consciousness-raising sessions” (sedute di autocoscienza), during which women discussed their daily lives and attitudes toward women’s liberation in Italy. The sessions promoted individual and group-oriented growth. The continental and American feminist movements popularized a relevant motto—“The per sonal is political”—which stressed the importance of women’s claiming more individual space for themselves in the family’s and of their subverting gender roles in private life to attain social justice and political recognition in public life. In this light, Marianna Ucria’s silent defiance in the novel is a political as well as a personal statement, as shown in the progression of her awakening. A short while after she refuses to have sexual relations with her husband, she refuses to attend an auto-da-fe held by the Inquisition in Palermo.

In its first stage (1960s and 1970s), Italian feminism focused on equality in the family’s and society and achieved impressive gains—legalization of divorce in 1970 (confirmed by a referendum in 1974) and of abortion in 1978, along with legislation on equal treatment at work and home. The second stage of Italian feminism, neo-feminism (1980s to the present), has focused on the importance of sexual difference in order to determine women’s separate contributions to all areas of culture. This new focus has given rise to groups such as the Association of Italian Women Historians, founded in 1989, just a year before The Silent Duchess appeared. A central concern of feminist historiography has been the revision of research methods to encompass oral memory and traditions.

The new Italian woman has been depicted by writers as seeking to escape becoming totally enmeshed in pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing. “Her desire is to explore the world, read women’s history, probe her own psychic heights and depths, pursue knowledge and seek self-mastery,” goals with which the eighteenth-century duchess Marianna Ucria could readily identify (Amoia, pp. 85–86).


The Silent Duchess has enjoyed high acclaim since its first Italian edition in 1990. That same year the novel received one of Italy’s most prestigious literary awards, the Campiello Prize. Translated into 15 different languages, Maraini’s novel won praise in the United Kingdom (1992), and then in the United States (1998) as “a story of grace and endurance, not mere survival” (Harrison, p. BR8). Beyond its literary success, Maraini’s novel has been adapted into a celebrated film (Marianna Ucrìa, 1997, directed by Roberto Faenza, starring the deaf-mute French actress Emanuelle Laborit). The focus on a female destiny that is at the same time historical and a-historical, particular and universal, private and political appears to have widespread appeal. Meanwhile, the language—both realistic and lyrical, to give voice to the heightened visual, olfactory, and tactile senses of the mute duchess—has prevented defensive reactions of the kind caused by the more aggressive tone in Maraini’s more overtly feminist novels. In sum, critics in and out of Italy have saluted The Silent Duchess as one of the most intriguing and inspiring female historical, mythical, formation novels in contemporary Italian literature.

—Margherita Heyer-Caput

For More Information

Amoia, Alba. No Mothers We!: Italian Women Writers and Their Revolt Against Maternity. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2000.

Baranski, Zygmunt G., and Rebecca J. West, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Modern Italian Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Blumenfeld, Rodica Diaconescu, and Ada Testaferri, eds. The Pleasure of Writing: Critical Essays on Dacia Maraini. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2000.

Duby, Georges, and Michelle Perrot, eds. A History of Women in the West. Vol. 3. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1993.

Harrison, Kathryn. “The Silence.” Review of The Silent Duchess, by Dacia Maraini. The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1998, BR8.

Mack Smith, Denis. A History of Sicily. New York: Viking, 1968.

Maraini, Dacia. Bagheria. Trans. Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood. London: Peter Owen, 1994.

.—— The Silent Duchess. Trans. Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1998.

Marotti, Maria Ornella, and Gabriella Brooke, eds. Gendering Italian Fiction: Feminist Revisions of Italian History. Madison, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

Monter, William. Frontiers of Heresy: The Spanish Inquisition from the Basque Lands to Sicily. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Charles Martin. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Sumeli Weinberg, Grazia. “An Interview with Dacia Maraini.” Tydskrif vir letterkunde 27, no. 3 (1989): 64–72.

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