Renaissance scholar, writer, and feminist Laura Cereta (1469–1499) wrote letters throughout her short adult life, the contents of which formed the basis of feminism that surfaced during the Enlightenment of the 18th century.
Education Began at Convent, Continued at Home
Cereta was born to noble parents in Brescia, Italy, in 1469. She was the eldest of six children born to Veronica di Leno and Silvestro Cereta and, by her own account, the favorite child, even in comparison to her three younger brothers (a noteworthy occurrence in a male-oriented society). She claimed to have been named for a laurel tree in her family's garden that had withstood the severe blows of a violent storm. She was a sickly child and suffered from insomnia. Her father, a member of Brescia's governing elite and a humanist, staunchly supported his daughter's scholarship during a time when it was rare for a woman to be educated and the status of women was a hotly disputed topic.
At the age of seven, Cereta went to live among nuns in a convent, where she learned to read, write, and embroider, as well as learning the basics of Latin. She became increasingly devoted to a contemplative life characterized by humility and humble obedience to God. After two years Cereta was brought home, where, according to a letter she wrote later in life, she felt constricted by her mother's model of femininity (and, typical for the time, the attendant lack of education). Her father apparently sensed her boredom and unhappiness, and within months he returned her to the convent to continue her instruction in Latin (and, presumably, Greek). She was summoned home again at age 11 to help care for her younger siblings, and at the age of 12 she assumed the task of running the household. Her lifelong thirst for knowledge endured, and she studied religion, mathematics, physical sciences, and astrology under her father's capable tutelage. She attended lectures when possible and usually worked late at night reading the ancient authors after her family members had gone to bed.
Scholarship Unimpeded by Marriage, Strengthened in Widowhood
From an early age, Cereta was involved in public debates, orations, and argumentation. This was not unusual for learned women of the time. The focus of this philosophizing was primarily ethics, rather than epistemology (the study of the nature of knowledge) or metaphysics (the study of the fundamental nature of being and reality), as was also standard for her time. She exalted learning as characteristically human and desired to seek truth. Her intellectual pursuits were also driven by a longing for immortality that circulation of her work would eventually bring to her.
When she was 15 years old, Cereta married Pietro Serina, a merchant who owned a shop in Venice and shared her love of learning. While not absent of conflict, the marriage seems to have been a happy one. Cereta began to meet and correspond with local humanist scholars who also studied, imitated, and adapted classical sources. She was widowed after only 18 months of marriage when Serina died of a form of plague. The loss of her husband deeply wounded her. Her contacts with scholars increased after her husband's death, particularly through her correspondence, and it is presumed that the bulk of Cereta's writing—letters, orations, and essays written in Latin—were penned sometime during this period.
Rather than remarry or enter a convent, Cereta overcame her profound grief by becoming more devoted scholar. Being childless and widowed in her youth left her ample opportunity to pursue an intellectual course without the burdens of child-rearing and running a household. She was fortunate to have the respectability and social position of one who had married, without the responsibilities of the union. Her correspondence suggests that she had regular meetings with groups of scholars in Chiari and Brescia and conducted readings from her "disputations," a popular form of essay at the time. She was temporarily recognized as a leading intellectual, but was harshly criticized when she tried to support herself by publishing her compositions. A manuscript of Cereta's letters (including a parody of a funeral oration, on the death of an ass, written in a classical style), Epistolae Familiares, circulated in Verona, Venice, and Brescia in 1488 under the patronage of Cardinal Maria Ascanius Sforza. Her father, who was her strongest supporter, died six months after her volume was disseminated. The combination of his passing and attacks on her work by women and men alike conspired to keep Cereta from publishing again.
Letters Laid Groundwork for Feminism of the Enlightenment
A passionate feminist, Cereta's letters (mostly to family and local professionals) are generally secular and explore many enduring feminist issues, including marital oppression, a woman's right to higher education, and the contributions made by women to history, politics, culture, and intellectual life. She staunchly defends womanhood and pleads with women to better their lives through bettering themselves. She routinely exhorts women to forsake materialism and seek joy in the development of their character—their virtue, their honor, and their minds.
In an epistle entitled "Curse against the Ornamentation of Women," she denounces women who find more interest in jewelry, cosmetics, and attire than in enriching their minds. Many of the topics that surface in Cereta's work are associated with the Enlightenment's early feminist critics, such as Ann Finch (1661–1720), Anna Barbauld (1743–1825), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797), Joanna Baillie (1762–1851), and Germaine de Stael (1766–1817). These include the attempt to rebuild and redefine the idea of gender; the establishment of women's writing in mainstream genres and venues once open to only men; women's mutual support of women and the notion of a women's community; housework as an obstacle to women's literary ambitions; and employment of the salon culture (or the convent, in Cereta's time) to span the public and private spheres so often prohibited to women. Cereta's work helped lay the groundwork for the 16th century's call for substantial institutional change in the economic, social, and legal status of women.
Cereta's letters also discuss war, death, fate, chance, malice, the importance of living an active life, the happiness brought by self-control, and contemporary political problems. She provides a detailed picture of the private experience of an early modern woman, delineating such personal concerns as her challenging relationships with her husband and her mother. Some of the epistles served as a forum for her mourning following the death of her husband, and Cereta claimed that through the process of mourning (and, presumably, the act of writing about it) she came to know herself better.
Despite her original ideas, Cereta's letters, especially those focused on classical themes, are completely grounded in the humanism of her time and of her predecessors. She was familiar with the ancient Roman authors at the center of the humanist school's curriculum—such as Cicero, Rome's greatest orator, the poet Virgil, and second-century authors Apuleius and Pliny—but she was also influenced by the early humanist classics scholars Petrarch, Salutati, and Valla.
Used Male-Dominated Format to Express Feminist Sentiments
It is significant that Cereta elected to demonstrate her intellect and to present feminist issues by participating in the predominantly male tradition of epistolography (letter-writing). The letter was not only a means of exchanging information, but a vital way to establish intellectual and social position. Unlike most women of her day, Cereta had the social contacts to participate. In fact, she even attempted to develop a friendship with the most famous female scholar in Italy at the time, Cassandra Fedele, but her efforts were unsuccessful. Still, she seems to have sustained numerous intellectual friendships with other women, including suora Veneranda, the abbess at Chiari (a prestigious boarding school attended by her brothers); the nun Nazaria Olympica; and Cereta's sister suora Deodata de Leno.
It is believed that Cereta was a philosophy teacher at the University of Padua for seven years. She is said to have felt isolated as a woman scholar. She considered her studies to have suffered from both a lack of time and the harassment of those who envied her intellect. Near the end of her life she was pressured to forsake scholarship and join a religious order. It is unclear whether she did so. She died prematurely in 1499, at the age of 30 in Brescia, Italy. She was buried at Brescia's Church of San Domenico. In a 1505 history of Brescia called Chronica de rebus Brixianorum, M. Helius Capriolus describes a great throng of mourners who were present at her funeral. Her complete letters were first published in English in 1997. No writings from the last years of her life (1489–1499) survive.
Cereta, Laura, Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist, Diana Robin, ed., 1997.
Commire, Anne, ed. Women in World History, Yorkin Publishers, 2001.
"Laura Cereta," www.pinn.net/sunshine/march99/cereta3.html (December 20, 2003).
Cereta, Laura (1469–1499)
Cereta, Laura (1469–1499)
Renaissance author, humanist, and feminist. Born in Brescia, the eldest child of a noble family, Cereta was given the excellent education and tutoring that was usually offered only to sons. She spent much of her youth in a convent, where she learned Latin and Greek and made a study of the ancient writers Cicero, Virgil, and Pliny. She returned home at the age of eleven and began the study of mathematics and science with her father. Married to a merchant at the age of fifteen, she carried on her studies and her correspondences with scholars and writers from her new home in Venice. After the death of her husband from the plague, she devoted herself completely to the writing of letters, essays, and speeches, and also gave public readings of her essays. She may have also won an appointment as a professor of philosophy at the University of Padua. In 1488, she boldly defied convention by circulating a collection of her letters under the title of Epistolae Familiares. These letters had been sent to friends and acquaintances; they covered the topics of women's rights and social position, the institution of marriage, the right of women to an education, and women's political ability and their attainments as artists. She criticized the institutions of marriage and housekeeping as stultifying and condemned women's predilection for jewelry, fine dress, and cosmetics. She was roundly criticized for presuming to be the equal of men in intellectual ability, however, and after the Epistolae Familiares ceased trying to circulate her works. Her interest in overcoming social barriers to women in the field of education and scholarship laid the groundwork for the more widely published feminist writing after the Renaissance.