Massimi, Petronilla Paolini (1663–1726)

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Massimi, Petronilla Paolini (1663–1726)

Early 18th-century Italian poet and writer, an admired member of the Arcadian Academy, whose work is noted for its sharp defense of women and anticipation of gender theory . Name variations: Fidalma Partenide (as member of the Arcadia Academy). Pronunciation: Pet-ro-KNEE-la Pay-o-LEE-nee Mah-SEE-mee; Fee-DAHL-ma Pahr-tuh-NEE-dee. Born Petronilla Paolini in Tagliacozzo, Abruzzo, in 1663; died in 1726; daughter of the Baron Francesco Paolini (owner of Marsica) and Silvia Argoli (a noblewoman); married, at age ten, the Marquis Francesco Massimi; after the death of one of her sons, entered the Conventof the Holy Spirit, and began the writing that led to her acceptance into the Arcadian Academy.

Selected works:

Non disdire alla Donna gli esercizi letterari e cavallereschi (no date); Oratorio per la morte del Redentore (Vienna, 1697); La corona poetica rinterzata in lode di Clemente XI (Rome, 1701); Canzoni epitalamiche (Siena, 1704); Le Muse in gala (Perugia, 1704); I giuochi olimpici (Rome, 1705); "Note sul Simposio di Platone," in Prose delgi Arcadi (Tome III).

A decade after the death of Petronilla Paolini Massimi, Monsignor Pietrantonio Corsignani set down a few details of her sad life in a biographical note tinged with affection and regret, relating much of what is known about the noblewoman who was:

the only survivor of her father, and rich of means, married in Rome the Marquis Francesco Massimi, Roman patrician, then Lord of St. Angel Castle, and relative of the Pope Clemente X, in the time when she was being educated in the Convent of the Holy Spirit. She was a lady of great knowledge and deep sufferance; with which she bore many passions and restlessnesses of soul; and she had indeed a very high spirit and intellect; so that she spoke of Literature, Philosophy, and other Sciences with so much frankness and solid learning, that she excited admiration in any man of letters who listened to her. She was held in great esteem by the virtuous men and, among the members of the Arcadian Academy, she had a high position under the name of Fidalma Partenide: she was a famous poet and composed Italian verses of good savour.

In the lifetime of this "lady of great knowledge and deep sufferance," Monsignor Corsignani was her most discerning literary critic, and at her death he was author of the epigraph inscribed on her grave at the church of the Teresian nuns at St. Egidio, in Trastevere. A second contemporary, G.M. Crescimbini, has provided a few other biographical details, so that we know the young Petronilla was orphaned, while still a small child, by the murder of her father, Baron Francesco Paolini, in an ambush. His wife was a noblewoman, Silvia Argoli , who fled with their daughter to Rome, where the two took refuge at the court of Pope Clement X. The murder of the baron remained unpunished, however, and under the little girl made "rich of means" by her father's death became a pawn in the political alliances of the papal court. She received an excellent education during the time she spent at the boarding school of the Convent of the Holy Spirit, but at the age of ten Petronilla was removed from the convent and married to a nephew of Clement, Francesco Massimi, a rough, callous soldier with the title of marquis.

Confined to what she called the "closed horror" of her husband's St. Angel Castle, she endured her marriage to a taciturn and possessive man who aroused in her no feelings except a dutiful respect for the sacrament binding them together, and perhaps a pity for his meanness, which she bore with patience and detachment. The number of children she had is not known, but it was the death of one of her sons that effectively ended the marriage. She was then allowed to return to the Convent of the Holy Spirit, where she wrote the works for which she is known.

Lyrical, lucid, and at times pitilessly analytical, the poetry of Petronilla Paolini Massimi was written according to the strict rules of classicism that prevailed in the Arcadian poetry of the time, with its roots in the works of the Latins and Greeks. Her style left no room for the kind of sorrowful self-indulgence that might be expected in one who had endured her life. The pain of past experience never led to passivity, but to reaffirmations of strength, and to vigorously high ethics. For this attitude of ripening boldness and will, she was dubbed the "leopardian Arcadian" by Thovez. The steadiness and strength of Massimi are implicitly affirmed in the name she was given at birth, Petronilla, meaning "little stone." The name with which she presented herself before the Arcadian Academy, Fidalma Partenide, carries a more subtle yet eloquent metaphor of her poetical work, with its expression of purity of feeling, faith to moral principles, and indomitable will.

In one extended lyric, addressed to a friend, Massimi encourages him to face the difficulties of a bleak existence by reviewing the circumstance of her own life—the childhood marked by her father's murder, the greed of relatives and isolation endured by her and her mother, the girlhood denied her by the forced marriage—all tinged with incomprehension and coercion, and the feel of a long, dark confinement. Even the haven of the cloister in maturity is seen as merely a truce: she is far from her sons, whom she sees as stolen away from her custody by the dry partiality of the law and their father's despotical will, and mourning, with a sense of guilt, the death of one son, until the poet comes finally to desire her own death—to invoke it, even, in order to recover that nearness to the lost son, at least in heaven. But as the work continues, the poet flees indignantly from the temptation to commit suicide, finding an inner coherence in the divine commandment not to kill and in that categorical imperative which represents, for her, an exquisite human ethic. When the laws of men fail in their support of her, she takes comfort in the divine justice of Mary the Virgin , the "high queen" of heaven, who lightens her sorrow through mercy.

Abstracting and extrapolating on the vicissitudes of her highly privileged but unhappy experience, Massimi arrived at a more general, even universal, description of the feminine condition. To modern-day feminist scholars, her works are remarkable for their conscious expression of a gender-oriented point of view; a pattern of thought that is neither neuter, nor oriented toward ratification by the unequivocally male culture of her time, but containing original reflections and feelings of what she has experienced, analyzed, lived and suffered on her own. The originality of her work lies in Massimi's setting herself as a critical conscience, a feminine voice speaking on behalf of her gender about suffering that otherwise went unexpressed.

The symbolic universe of the work is drawn from the literary tradition of Greco-Latin mythology. Although elements are traceable to classics from Ovid and Virgil to Dante and Petrarch, her message is nonetheless an expression of a feminine culture, a creative synthesis of experience oriented and determined by her own sex. Some of the striking originality of her work lies in the attributes of character she allots women.

In the case of her own mother, who seems to have been a woman dominated by the male world, their relationship is outlined in a few quick traits; she is hardly mentioned except for a gleam of piety and nostalgia suggesting denied affections. In contrast to this is the strength of the poet's declared bond with Mary, mother of Jesus and, in the Christian tradition, the redeemer of the feminine gender from Eve's guilt.

Piety itself, as represented by the poet's Mary, ripens beyond the conventions of her day: emerging out of the standard mildness, servitude and passivity in the poetical text are the stronger and more dynamic feelings of indignation, insistence on justice, and untamable pride. In the poems, even piety becomes "blazing," mindful of the Dantesque "upright zeal," giving the measure of a faith strengthened by a striving for justice through vindication of one's rights. Even the convent is not typically characterized for the isolation it offers from the world, but for the chance it offers to restore dignity, and to recover the pattern of life holding qualities of sacredness, dignity, and mutual respect.

Corsignani, who is a precise and reliable biographer on most grounds, misunderstands his subject when it comes to the convent. "God is then wise about new virtuous progresses," he writes in his account of the marquise's return there; "with the narrowness of the place she began to detach her heart from the womanly cares; and with learned application she devoted herself to overcome the heavy pains with the help of the letters." While granting that this noblewoman has good reasons for neglecting the accepted duties of her sex, he wants her isolation in the nunnery to be a beneficial retreat but implies that a devotion to intellectual pursuits is otherwise inadmissible, even inconceivable, for a woman. Massimi, on the contrary, declares, "Do not deny the Lady literary exercises," and explicitly and irrefutably views the convent as her place for restoring the intellectual and moral dignity of women, for seeking the dimension of life marked by respect, affection, and mutual care that had been shared by generations of cloistered women.

For the poet, the cloistered room offers the opportunity for real, practiced and deeply lived experience, in contrast to the secular world of relationships with men and the power they express and represent. The desirability of this setting may be seen partly in the fact that, as a woman of title and means, she could have left the convent for an independent life after her husband's death, but chose to remain within its walls. Massimi's work never demonstrates a biased hostility against men, however. On the contrary, it shows a serenity, and a suspension of judgment, couched in the lost and forever regretted affections toward her father and dead son, allowing her to imagine the best of all possible worlds existing in the celestial spheres, if not here on earth.

In Massimi's second Petrarchan canzone, or pastoral lyric, beginning "When from the dark urns," such themes are deepened. In search of the reasons which stir her woman's soul, she becomes more subtle and acute in her introspective analysis. The bitter vicissitudes of her life keep her deprived of rest, and in the silence of the night she returns to "sorrowful thought" and ponders the misery of her condition. Painful as the experience is, her spirit rises, indomitable, "with virtue armed" and tears kept back, still aimed at the arduous task of turning the weariness of living into lyric. The poem is her instrument of analysis, denouncement and condemnation.

In terms that are almost plain, she points at the "high cause" of her woes and proclaims her strategy. Stirred by the furor of the poet, Massimi will avenge the wrongs suffered by her gender. To poetry she commits the redemption from the misery not only of herself but of the entire "unwar-like sex, "with virtue and the firmness of her soul as her weapon and shield. She invokes Pallas, goddess of wisdom, as her protector, while sacralizing the classical daughter of Jupiter as Christian; the Pallas she describes in quick and effective traits is not borne from the forehead of a heathen god, but conceived in the mind of God. A queen of chastity and of high intellectual virtue, she blends the features of the Olympian deity with the Christian Mary the Virgin.

This bridging interpretation of the poetical traditions of Pallas Athena (as renewed and strengthened by the Arcadian Academy) and the Madonna (more clearly invoked in Massimi's first Petrarchan canzone) is informed by the "soul and divine light" which illuminates the way for the poet. It is the light that allows the poet, as protagonist, to go on praising the sorrow that tests her and deprives her of the delights of love and the charms of society, and it is the light that enables the attainment of her moral aim which is, as she states in a declaration reminiscent of the Roman poet Horace, the poetical fame that will be an everlasting affirmation of women's strength of soul. In a passage pronouncing her act of faith, experience becomes the purifying fire which will allow her cathartic release:

Yes, yes, on this stone
thou grind the weapons and thousands
sparks of glory will burst,
and awaken the fire, where I wish
I could die, phoenix, and overcome oblivion.


Corsignani, P. De viris illustribus Marsorum. Rome, 1712.

Crescimbeni, G.M. Vite degli Arcadi illustri scritte da diversi autori. Rome, 1708.

Croce, B. Fidalma. "Partenide ossia la Marchesa Petronilla Paolini Massimi," in La Letteratura italiana del Settecento. Bari: La terza, 1949.

suggested reading:

Corsignani, P. About the Marsican Royal Palace or topographic-historic memories of various colonies of the Marsi and Valeria. 2 vols. Naples, 1738.

Tozzi, Ileana. Petronilla Paolini Massimi, una donna in Arcadia. Pescara: Nova Italica, 1981.


Prose degli Arcadi.

Rime degli Arcadi. Vols. I, III, VII, IX.

Ileana Tozzi , D. Litt., secondary school teacher in Rieti, Italy, and member of Società Italiana delle Storiche and Deputazione di Storia Patria

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