Tarabotti, Arcangela (1604–1652)

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Tarabotti, Arcangela (1604–1652)

Venetian Benedictine nun and writer known for her controversial pamphlets concerning the conditions of women. Name variations: (lay name) Elena Cassandra Tarabotti; (religious name) Suor or Sor (sister) Arcangela; (pseudonyms) Galerana Barcitotti and Galerana Baratotti (both involve acronyms of her name combined with puns of symbolic meaning: in Italian, galera ["prison"] and bara ["coffin"]). Pronunciation: Ark-AN-gel-a Tar-ra-BOT-ti. Born Elena Cassandra Tarabotti in Venice on February 24, 1604; died in Venice at the Sant'Anna in Castello monastery on February 28, 1652, age 48; daughter of Stefano Bernardino Tarabotti (a minor aristocrat) and Maria (Cadena) Tarabotti; never married; no children.

Became an educanda (boarder) in Sant'Anna monastery (1617); took the veil without vocation (September 8, 1620); made her religious profession (1623); five works published (1643–52).

Selected works:

Il paradiso monacale (The Monastic Paradise, 1643), L'antisatira in risposta al "Lusso donnesco" satira menippea di Francesco Buoninsegni (The Antisatire answering "Womanish luxury," Menippean Satire by Francesco Buoninsegni, 1644, 2nd ed., 1646), Lettere familiari e di complimento (Informal and Greeting Letters, 1650), Che le donne siano della spezie degli uomini, difesa delle donne (Are Women of the same Species as Men? A Defence of Women, 1651, published in London, 1994); (posthumous works) La semplicità ingannata (Simplicity Tricked, 1654, formally placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1660), Inferno monacale (Monastic Hell, published in Turin, 1990); La tirannia paterna (Paternal Tyranny, first version of La semplicità ingannata, lost); (lost or planned works [only mentioned by Tarabotti; there is no historical evidence of their existence]): Il purgatorio delle mal maritate (Purgatory of Unhappily Married Women), Le contemplazioni dell'anima amante (Contemplating the Loving Soul), La via lasciata del Cielo (The Lost Way to Heaven), La luce monacale (Monastic Luminance).

In a remote part of Venice on September 8, 1620, at the poor and unadorned church of Sant'Anna in Castello monastery, 16-year-old Elena Cassandra Tarabotti assumed the brown cowl of the Benedictine order and submitted to the cutting of her hair by the mother superior, thus becoming Suor Arcangela. She knew she was leaving the outside world forever, because a ruling at the Council of Trent in 1563 had made all nuns subject to the papal law of strict enclosure. What she could not know was that within a relatively few years she would become widely known outside the convent walls with her writings on the condition of women. It is impossible to say if Tarabotti's destiny as a writer would have been the same had she married. Against the often-maintained theory that writing was once possible for women only within nunneries, there were two contemporaries of Tarabotti in the city of Venice, Lucrezia Marinelli (1571–1653) and Sara Coppia Sullam (1590–1641), who were wives as well as authors of published treatises and novels. What we can say about Tarabotti is that her feelings about monastic life inspired the kind of deep analysis that only direct experience could give. And because her concerns remained separate from religious issues, her writings were generally outside the religious control of her spiritual father or confessor, as compared to the manipulations that sometimes affected the works of female saints. Her works are informed both by the particularity of her experience as an enclosed nun and by the similarity of women's limited experiences within society, a condition she bitterly denounced.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Republic of the Serenissima, which included Venice, was still the leading maritime power of the Eastern Mediterranean and the most independent state on the Italian peninsula. Venice was a metropolis of 140,000 inhabitants, known around the world for its spice trade, golden thread fabrics, publishing houses and banks, and had been Europe's bridge to Eastern culture for centuries. Although its mainland possessions were stable, and the ruling patriciate had extended its dominions, estates, and investments, an era of decay had begun to set in. The terrible plague of 1630 killed almost a third of the population of Venice (the population of all Italy was shrunk from 13.3 million to 11.5 million), and its colonies, from the island of Cyprus to the shores of the Adriatic Sea, were being menaced by the Turks. The economic and commercial center of Europe was in fact slowly shifting to the Atlantic seaboard, and under the yoke of the gloomy Roman Catholic Church of the Counter Reformation, which was growing steadily in influence and control, Italy was ceding the role in culture, the arts and the sciences that had been its glory during the Renaissance.

In some ways, Tarabotti's life was affected by these circumstances as much as it was by the fact that she was a woman. To begin with, though contemporaries described her as fair (no portrait has come down to us), she was born a cripple, making it more than usually difficult—and costly—for her to acquire a husband. From the 14th to the 19th centuries, brides everywhere in Europe were expected to bring a substantial dowry, proportional to the status and wealth of their families, to a marriage. Elena Cassandra was the second child and the eldest of six girls, and no father in Venice would have been rich enough to provide weddings for six daughters. It is not clear if this large and barely well-off family belonged to the "citizens class," a sort of secondary patriciate whose ancestors had lived in Venice for centuries. Her father Stefano Bernardino Tarabotti, a "man expert in sea matters," may have been a shipowner and was certainly the owner of the family apartment. Probably, he was not as bad a person as his second child seems to have thought, since he did manage to arrange for the marriages of two of her younger sisters, Lorenzina Tarabotti (Pighetti) and Innocenza Tarabotti . The three remaining Tarabotti girls went unmarried, however, an unusual fate among patrician and upper-class daughters, who generally entered a convent if they did not marry. After their mother Maria Cadena Tarabotti 's death, the Tarabotti "spinsters" were at the mercy of their brothers, and one of them, Caterina Tarabotti , a painter who had studied under the well-known Padovanino, did finally enter the Sant'Anna in Castello as a pensionnaire, long after her sister Elena's death.

Little is known about the early education of Elena Tarabotti or her sisters. If her older brother had a tutor, she may have had the opportunity to follow his lessons; this was often a girl's way to education. In her later literary works, Tarabotti declared that she was self-taught: "I know nothing for I came to live within the cloister at the age of 11, without having had the benefit of learning." Unlike the intellectual offerings of male monasteries, nunneries educated their charges in few skills beyond embroidery and reading (because, as nuns, they were required to read their prayers), a little Latin from the Religious Officio, and no writing. The elementary handwriting of Tarabotti's surviving letters is one indication of her educational limitations.

The record is unclear as to when Elena entered the Sant'Anna cloister as an educanda (boarder), either in 1615, as she later wrote, or 1617, according to the registries of the nunnery. It was not uncommon for girls first to enter a nunnery to be educated, and then to be persuaded by family necessity to stay there. In 1620, after Stefano had made a payment of 1,000 ducats to the Sant'Anna monastery as his daughter's spiritual dowry, she took her religious vows on the same day as her best friend, Suor Regina Donà dalle Rose . (At the time of Regina's death 30 years later, in 1650, Tarabotti would publish a moving "Compianto," describing the friendship shared by the two women up to 1645.) Tarabotti remained a novice, or probationary member of the religious community, until 1623, when she made her solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but she would never become an abbess or assume a position of leadership. Profession of vows usually occurred only one year after taking the veil, so the delay may have indicated bad health, lack of religious conviction, or even active resistance. As long as she remained a novice, it was still possible for Tarabotti to avoid the cloister. Although she left no record openly declaring that she had been forced by her parents into the monastic life, her writings include many allusions that indicate she disliked being a nun.

In the ensuing years, Tarabotti was seriously ill, and for a time it was feared she would not live. She remained in weakened health, and suffered throughout her life from a "tightness in her chest." This may have been tuberculosis, since she died younger than did most nuns. In her "Soliloquio a Dio" (Soliloquy to God), a sort of autobiography that she published as a preface to her first book, The Monastic Paradise, she recounts her life from the year 1620, describing a period of worldly interests, in which she knew "neither the excellence of religion, nor the obligation of a real nun," and committed "mental adulteries against God" which she explained as occurring because "in donning monastic dress, I did not respond to the voices of the Holy Spirit with the ardor I was supposed to." It is hard to reconstruct the facts of Tarabotti's life during this period: the archives offer no documentary evidence of any religious infraction or real scandal in the years 1620–30. Contemporaries like Father Angelico Aprosio describe her as a capricious, fashionable and elegant nun, following a practice typical among Venetian nuns, by which, according to Tarabotti, "at least a third of them are forced to enter the cloister." In her "Soliloquio," she also describes her conversion, due, in her words, to the visit made by the patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Cornaro, to Sant'Anna. From that date, in 1633, she describes herself as correct in her religion.

In discussing this complex and baroque author, it is important to differentiate between the historical facts and the deliberately constructed autobiography that Tarabotti often used in her works to give a credible image of herself. According to Benedetto Croce, Emilio Zanette and, lately, Letizia Panizza , who follow only Tarabotti's own declarations, the nun had an early period of rebellion during which she wrote her pamphlets Monastic Hell and Paternal Tyranny (which were too compromising to be published during her lifetime), denouncing why and how girls became unwilling nuns; following her conversion, she wrote The Monastic Paradise.

Reality seems to have been different: chronological proofs and textual analysis have led to modern consideration that her conversion (according to Conti Odorosio, Medioli and Gambier) was merely strategic. By this interpretation, Tarabotti, at age 39, probably decided to publish one of the works she had written, and chose the most decent and politically acceptable among her manuscripts to appear first in order to pave the way for the publication of others. Unfortunately, we have no reasonable hypothesis regarding the origins and growth of her literary vocation up to that time, nor of the financial help she received in getting her works published, and so this scenario remains speculation. It is impossible to be certain about the identity of Tarabotti's first literary effort, for we know that Paternal Tyranny later became Simplicity Tricked, and it is probable that she reworked various essays at different times of her life.

You can only lose if you have lost liberty.

—Arcangela Tarabotti

Tarabotti was very aware, moreover, that some of her works were not publishable because they were "against the political, not the Catholic way of life." The themes she treated in her first public book, The Monastic Paradise (which she dedicated to Cardinal Cornaro), published in 1643, are exactly the same as those treated in The Monastic Hell: both state insistently that "voluntary inhabitants" consider "a convent Heaven," whereas "forced nuns feel all the pains of Hell in this life." Although she never tried to publish Monastic Hell, it seems that she allowed it to circulate as a manuscript, certainly after 1643 but probably before, which means it may well have been written before Paradise. Women are at the constant center of Tarabotti's examination, an unusual circumstance in those times; in all her pamphlets and essays, the political, social and economical condition of women are the only matters in which she shows concern. In 1644, the year after she printed her Paradise, Tarabotti published the Antisatire (written between 1638–44), in response to a contemporary controversy, defending women against the accusations of the Sienese writer Francesco Buoninsegni in his Satire (1638), who described women as vain and interested only in clothing. Tarabotti, in turn, accused men of being as fashionable as women and with less reason. In her last essay, in response to another literary controversy, Tarabotti claims that women are no less rational than men, providing refutation through the use of Biblical examples and quotations, according to the customary literary canon. According to Panizza, her Difesa delle donne (1652) was written between 1650 and 1652 but had to be published in an outlawed edition because the argument was too close to heresy.

Tarabotti dedicated two of her published works and one manuscript to the monastic condition of women. Her lucidity in analyzing the widespread phenomenon of the unwilling nun is amazing: all the data she provides are historically confirmed. Moreover, because she personally experienced the cloistered life, she provides an unexpurgated picture of the interactions of the sisters, the quality of their housing and meals, and the suffering and joys of enclosure. As Tarabotti points out in both Monastic Hell and Simplicity Tricked—titles that eloquently state her point of view—the destiny of upper- and middle-class girls depended upon their fathers' wealth and generosity. (Lower-class girls could work to build up their own dowries.) In Venice, it was common among nobles and merchants to choose to marry off only their younger rather than their elder daughters, thereby delaying the expenditure of dowries as long as possible. The "surplus" girls were forced to enter the cloister. The latter destiny was the cheaper one, as Tarabotti notes: a nun's spiritual dowry was only 1,000 ducats, according to the strict laws of the Republic, while the dowry a bride brought to her groom ranged from 7,000 to 40,000 ducats. Finally, the Venetian nobility, the Serenissima State and the Church, pursuing a precise policy of keeping the local nobility and privileged class limited in size, ignored the Republic's laws restraining the amount of marital dowries, allowing the price to be driven up (and the rate of marriages therefore driven down). Tarabotti denounced them: "You prefer to sacrifice your daughters to the Reason of State, for, if all girls would marry, the nobility would grow too large and it would become impoverished by paying so many dowries." Only reasonable dowries, less ambitious weddings and the division of the patrimony in equal portions among both sons and daughters would change the situation. Moreover, Tarabotti recognized women's enforced ignorance as an instrument of men's oppression: "In prejudice of women, [you keep them] purposely from studying, for, when they need it, they do not know nor are they able to defend themselves." She claimed the right for women to study, even at the university level.

It is possible to reconstruct some of Tarabotti's relationships and connections through her published Lettere familiari e di complimento (1650). In the absence of a critical edition of this work, however, the same cautions noted for her autobiography also apply. For instance, Duke Ferdinand of Parma, to whom she wrote a long letter, never existed (the duke of that title had a different name), whereas the "Very Illustrious Mr. N" (for Nobody) of some letters is certainly to be identified with her friend Father Angelico Aprosio, who later became an enemy. Despite these qualifications, Tarabotti's letters provide significant information about her literary milieu: among her correspondents were some members of the Venetian libertins érudits' Academy of the Incogniti, including Aprosio, who was a critic and collector of rare books; Giovan Francesco Loredan, a writer, member of the Council of the Ten (one of the highest organs of the Republic), and the powerful patrician to whom she dedicated her Lettere; Girolamo Brusoni, the writer and former friar; and Giovan Francesco Busenello, who was the librettist for Monteverdi.

Tarabotti also met many French travelers who came to visit her at the parlatory of her convent. (Because of an old law against espionage that was still in effect, nunneries were the only place where Venetian patricians could meet foreigners.) Through her friend Ambassador Grémonville, who was in Venice in the years 1645–47, she was introduced to Gabriel Naudé, the secretary of the French prime minister, and even to France's Cardinal Mazarin. Both Loredan and Grémonville can be considered mentors and patrons: Loredan certainly introduced her to the publisher of Antisatire, Valvasense, who was the official "stampatore" of the Incogniti Academy. Grémonville was certainly the French connection and force behind the publication of Simplicity Tricked (1654), although it occurred after both their deaths. According to her published letters (mainly from the last decade of her life), Tarabotti had few contacts with her own family after entering the cloister, and out of the 253 letters in her epistolary, only 2 short communications are addressed to her unmarried sisters. The only relative with whom she remained in touch was the lawyer Giacomo Pighetti, who was a member of the Incogniti and married to her sister Lorenzina; seven of her letters are addressed to him.

The particularly significant missing link involves the question of who and what influences helped to raise Tarabotti from the cultural circumstances of an ordinary nun to the heights of the informed and witty polemicist she became. According to the quotations with which she saturated her essays, she could quote from the Bible (even if, as one detractor noted, most of those quotes came from her Religious Officio). She also knew many poems, perhaps by heart; this also was common among nuns, who avidly sought out the masterpieces of Ariosto, Tasso and Boiardo for entertainment, even if they were prohibited by the Church as too worldly. Since nunneries lacked the libraries filled with illuminated Latin treatises on theology, philosophy and canon law that were preserved by male orders, the cultural level of the nuns was restricted (except in comparison to the rest of world, where illiteracy was the norm). Tarabotti, however, quotes from Latin poets, the fathers of the Church and her contemporaries: undoubtedly, she owned a dictionary of quotations. Moreover, she must have had a close friend who sent her the compromising Incogniti books, or even Machiavelli and Aretino, that are discussed and quoted in her works.

When The Monastic Paradise appeared, it was immediately claimed that the book was not hers; no woman, it was assumed, could be capable of writing of such quality. Tarabotti took pride in her literary labors, which led to her membership in the international Res publica literarum toward the end of her career. That fame was the only comfort in her segregated life; even when she died at age 48 after a 15-day illness, on a cold winter day in 1652, she did not leave the convent. She was buried within the enclosure, a fate, as she often mentioned in her works, that befell all nuns.

Tarabotti's literary renown ended quickly. One century later she was remembered only for her polemical Antisatire, and as a woman writer she was regarded mostly as a curiosity. Today, however, her works are considered an important source on the condition of women's lives in the 17th century, while her personality, polemical style, wit and quick temper—all within the unwanted enclosure of the convent—have begun to make Tarabotti herself the object of historical research.


Baratotti, Galerana (Arcangela Tarabotti). La semplicità ingannata. 1st ed. Leida: Gio Sambix (Jean et Daniel Elzevier), 1654, pp. 1–307.

Barcitotti, Galerana (Arcangela Tarabotti). Che le donne siano della spetie degli uomini. Difesa delle donne contro Horatio Plata il traduttor di quei fogli che dicono "Le donne non esser della spetie degli uomini." Norimbergh: Juvan Cherchenberger, 1651 (now Tarabotti, Arcangela, Che le donne siano della spezie degli uomini [Women are no less rational than men]. Edited with an introductory essay by Letizia Panizza. London: Institute of Romance Studies, University of London, 1994).

Chojnacki, Stanley. "Dowries and Kinsmen in Early Renaissance Venice," in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 5. 1975, pp. 571–600.

Conti Odorisio, Ginevra. Donna e societa' nel Seicento. Roma: Bulzoni, 1979.

Croce, Benedetto. Nuovi saggi della letteratura del Seicento. Bari: Laterza, 1931 (particularly Chap. XIII, "Donne letterate nel Seicento").

D.A.T. (Donna Arcangela Tarabotti). Antisatira in risposta al Lusso donnesco, satira menippea di Francesco Buoninsegni. 1st ed. Venezia: Valvasense, 1644.

Gambier, Madile. "Arcangela Tarabotti," in Le stanze ritrovate. Antologia di scrittrici venete dal Quattrocento al Novecento. Venezia: Eidos, 1991, pp. 117–125.

Medioli, Francesca. "L'Inferno monacale" di Arcangela Tarabotti. Torino: Rosenberg e Sellier, 1990.

Molmenti, Pompeo. La storia di Venezia nella vita privata. Bergamo: Istituto arti grafiche, 1908, vol. III.

Tarabotti, Arcangela. Lettere familiari e di complimento. Venezia: Guerigli, 1650.

——. Paradiso monacale libri tre con un "Soliloquio a Dio." Venezia: Oddoni, 1663 (1643).

Zanette, Emilio. Suor Arcangela Tarabotti monaca del Seicento veneziano. Roma-Venezia: Istituto per la collaborazione culturale, 1960.

suggested reading:

Cattaneo, Enrico. "Monacazioni forzate," in Vita e processo di suor Virginia Maria de Leyva monaca di Monza. Edited by Umberto Colombo. Milano: Garzanti, 1985, pp. 145–195.

Davis, James C. A Venetian Family and its Fortune, 1500–1900: The Donà and the Conservation of Their Wealth. Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1975.

Galilei, suor Maria Celeste. Lettere al padre. Edited by Giuliana Morandini. Torino: Editori La Rosa, 1983.

Lane, Frederic C. Venice. A Maritime Republic. Washington, DC: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973 (It. trans. Torino, Einaudi, 1978).

Medioli, Francesca. "Monacations without vocation: a long term phenomenon," in Culture, Society and Women in Renaissance Italy. Edited by Letizia Panizza.

Molho, Anthony. "Tamquam vere mortua. Le professioni religiose femminili nella Firenze del tardo medioevo," in Società e storia. Vol. 43, 1989, pp. 1–44.

Rapp, Richard T. Industry and Economic Decline In Seventeenth Century Venice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Trexler, Richard. "Le célibat à la fin du Moyen Age: les religieuses de Florence," in Annales E.S.C. Vol. 27, 1972, pp. 1329–1350.

Zarri, Gabriella. "Monasteri femminili e città (secoli XV–XVIII)," in Chittolini, Miccoli, Giovanni, eds., Storia d'Italia. Vol. IX, La Chiesa e il potere politico. Torino: Einaudi, 1986, pp. 357–429.


Inferno monacale, in quarto manuscript on paper, pp. 1–124, located in a private collection in Venice.

Documents concerning Sant'Anna in Castello monastery are located in the State Archive of Venice, fondo (not catalogued): Suppressed religious congregations, Sant'Anna in Castello (1207–1804), buste 1–50.

Francesca Medioli , Ph.D., Bologna University, Italy, and author of "L'Inferno monacale" di Arcangela Tarabotti (Torino: Rosenberg e Sellier, 1990)