Nogarola, Isotta

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Isotta Nogarola

Verona, Italy
Verona, Italy

Writer, scholar

"Therefore, it appears that Adam's sin was greater than Eve's."

Isotta Nogarola.

The Italian writer Isotta Nogarola is considered the first woman to become a major figure in the humanist movement. Humanism began in Florence, Italy, in the mid-1300s among scholars who promoted the study of the literary masterpieces of ancient Greece and Rome. They believed that this body of learning, called studia humanitatis (humanistic studies), could bring about a cultural rebirth, or renaissance. They also studied the Bible (the Christian holy book) and the works of early Christian thinkers. Humanists had faith in the human potential for great achievements, an idea that was entirely new for the time. They are credited with starting the Renaissance, which spread throughout Italy and northern Europe in the fifteenth century. Nogarola was an active participant in humanist circles. She produced a number of works and conducted extensive correspondence with the important thinkers of her day. She is most famous for "On the Equal and Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam," in which she asserted that Eve (the first woman on Earth, according to biblical tradition) should not bear the responsibility for committing original sin (the concept that all humans are born with a sinful nature).

Retreats to "book-lined cell"

Isotta Nogarola was born into a literary family in Verona, Italy. She received a humanist education along with her older sister Ginevra. While they were teenagers both girls won the attention of northern Italian humanists and courtiers (members of the court). With these learned men they exchanged books and letters that showed their classical training and lively intelligence. In 1438 Ginevra married and ceased her involvement in the discussions of humanist ideas. Isotta continued to participate until 1441, when she became discouraged by attacks on her character. Historians believe these attacks came from men who did not approve of learned women. Isotta Nogarola withdrew from humanist circles to join her mother in her brother's house. She lived, as she put it, in a "book-lined cell" where, like medieval holy women, she continued her studies in solitude.

Nogarola's works fall into two groups, before and after her retirement. In the earlier period, from about 1434 to 1441, she composed an extensive letterbook. It contained her own letters to humanist friends and relatives along with some of their responses. These letters demonstrate Nogarola's knowledge of early Christian and classical authors, as well as her awareness of current political events and the historical tradition of heroic women. The letters also show that she had close relationships with the intellectual and political leaders of northern Italy. Many of the people who corresponded with Nogarola showered her with praise, suggesting that her exceptional achievements were widely known.

The chorus of praise from learned correspondents continued in the second, longer period of Nogarola's life, from about 1441 to 1466. She received tributes from such eminent figures as Ermolao Barbaro the Elder, the bishop (district church official) of Verona. Of special interest are letters from top humanists in Venice, Lauro Quirini and Ludovico Foscarini. Quirini's letter outlined a program of study that urged Nogarola to reach beyond literature written in Latin to read philosophical works in the original Greek. Quirini argued that philosophy (the search for an understanding of reality through speculation) is superior to rhetoric (the art of effective speaking and writing). He suggested that a learned woman had the capacity to master the difficulties of philosophy.

Writes famous dialogue

Perhaps the most famous of Nogarola's letter exchanges was with Foscarini, a Venetian statesman and governor of Verona. In 1451 Nogarola composed a dialogue (written work in the form of a conversation) titled "On the Equal and

Cassandra Fedele

Cassandra Fedele (1465–1558) was an important Italian woman humanist in the generation after Isotta Nogarola. Although Fedele was active in humanist circles and was one of the most acclaimed women of the time, she accepted the traditional view of women. She believed in the "natural" inferiority of the female sex, and she routinely presented herself as being less important than men. Fedele was born in Venice and received a classical education through the efforts of her father, Angelo Fedele. When Cassandra was a young teenager Angelo represented her as a child prodigy (an exceptionally talented young person). She delivered orations, or formal speeches, standing before the assembled faculty at the University of Padua, the Venetian Senate, and the doge (duke of Venice) himself.

Fedele's first book was published when she was twenty-two, and before she reached the age of thirty, lists of her works were featured in encyclopedias of famous men and women. Her main professional achievement was the letters, perhaps thousands of them, that she exchanged with some of the most celebrated men and women of the day. Fedele never held an academic appointment, but she corresponded with Niccolò Leonico Tomei, a scholar at the University of Padua, and she met regularly with prominent humanists at Padua. Fedele came close to accepting an academic appointment with the Spanish monarchs Isabella I and Ferdinand II. For eight years Fedele corresponded with the queen and her representatives, but she canceled her plans in 1495 after the outbreak of the Italian Wars (1494–1559; a conflict between France and Spain over control of Italy).

Fedele married in 1498 and was widowed in 1520. Childless and almost penniless, she shared cramped quarters with her sister's family until 1547, when Pope Paul III responded to her plea for assistance. He secured an appointment for her as prioress (supervisor) at the orphanage of San Domenico di Castello. In 1556 Fedele made her last public appearance when she delivered an oration welcoming the queen of Poland to Venice. Only two of her published writings survive. One is the small volume she wrote as a girl and the other is Casandrae Fidelis epistolae et orationes (Letters and orations of Cassandra Fedele; 1636), which contains 123 letters and 3 orations.

Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam," which was addressed to Foscarini. In the dialogue she explored the question of whether Adam or Eve committed the greater sin in the Garden of Eden. According to the story in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament (the first part of the Bible), Adam and Eve were the first two people on Earth. They lived in the Garden of Eden, and they had no awareness of evil because they had been forbidden by God to eat apples from the tree of knowledge. One day an evil serpent appeared in the tree and tempted Adam and Eve to eat an apple. Eve took a bite and then persuaded Adam to do the same. God later expelled them from the garden for committing the first sin. This story was used by Christian leaders to prove that because of Eve (woman) all humans are born with original sin—that is, sin is a part of human nature at birth—because she had tempted Adam (man) into an awareness of evil.

On the question of who had committed the greater sin, Foscarini took Adam's side, presenting the traditional argument for Eve's guilt. He pointed out that Eve's moral weakness, not the serpent (evil), was the temptation that made Adam surrender to a sinful act. Nogarola defended Eve, saying that Eve was incapable of choosing between good and evil and therefore should not be held accountable. In one part of the letter that is quoted in Her Immaculate Hand: Selected Works By and About the Women Humanists of Quattrocento Italy edited and translated by Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil, Nogarola wrote:

When God created man, from the beginning he created him perfect, and the powers of his soul perfect, and gave him a greater understanding and knowledge of truth as well as a greater depth of wisdom. Thus it was that the Lord led to Adam all the animals of the earth and the birds of heaven, so that Adam could call them by their names. For God said: "Let us make mankind in our image and likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, the cattle, over all the wild animals and every creature that crawls on the earth," making clear his own perfection. But of the women he said: "It is not good that the man is alone; I will make him a helper like himself." And since consolation and joy are required for happiness, and since no one can have solace and joy when alone, it appears that God created woman for man's consolation. For the good spreads itself, and the greater it is the more it shares itself. Therefore, it appears that Adam's sin was greater than Eve's…

At the time Foscarini was considered to be the winner of the argument. Nogarola had admitted that Eve was inferior to Adam in being unable to choose between right and wrong. "On the Equal and Unequal Sin of Eve and Adam" was the first contribution to feminist rethinking of the Adam and Eve story.

Nogarola produced a number of other works during the second period of her writing career. Among them was a study of the early Christian father Saint Jerome (c. 347–419), which she wrote in 1453. Six years later she sent a letter to Pope Pius II (1405–1464; reigned 1458–64), urging him to start a crusade (holy war) against heretics (those who do not adhere to the laws of God and the Catholic Church). Nogarola's last five years were marked by illness. In 1468, two years after her death, the humanist Giovanni Mario Filelfo dedicated a lengthy poem to her brother, in which he celebrated her achievement as a holy woman. He omitted any mention of Isotta Nogarola's intellectual work.

For More Information


King, Margaret L., and Albert Rabil, eds. and trans. Her Immaculate Hand: Selected Works By and About the Women Humanists of Quattrocento Italy. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992.

Web Sites

Sunshine for Women. A Celebration of Women Writers: 1401–1500. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.