Versions of a Feminine Voice: The Compiuta Donzella di Firenze

I have just had an article on the Compiuta Donzella di Firenze, the first woman to whom any poetry is ascribed in the Italian tradition, published with Italian Studies, the journal of the Society for Italian studies. Apart from the obvious researcher-joy of getting a piece through peer-review and out into the world (though I feel duty-bound to note that I have no horror stories of reviewer 2, all three of my readers were constructive and helpful in their comments), I’m particularly excited about this article for a few reasons.

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A ‘Donzella Compiuta’ (4th from left) in Francesco da Barberino’s Documenti d’Amore

First, this project marks the start of a new direction of travel in my research, in which I focus on representations of feminine voices and female characters (I get into the particularities of that terminology a bit in the article, though it’s something I’ll gladly admit that I’m still grappling with, from a theoretical standpoint). These two categories include texts written by women and men, though the distinction between these authors is not straightforwardly one of authenticity versus inauthenticity. If anything, part of this work is allow the possibility of ‘inauthentic’ feminine voices into the works of early female writers in Italy, which have (especially in the case of the Compiuta Donzella, the first named-albeit pseudonymously-female poet of the Italian tradition) been reduced to simplistic, anachronistically post-romantic expressions of biography or true feeling by much past scholarship (though not in recent work by Justin Steinberg and Katherine Travers and some others). Those reductive readings of the Compiuta Donzella’s poetry were fuelled by a veiled misogyny, which could not allow a female author the same freedom of rhetorical flourish and artifice as a male writer. Something I counter in this article.

My second cause for excitement is that the Compiuta Donzella’s work is truly intriguing, rhetorically deft, and incisively ironic, poking fun at masculine literary tropes of suffering a the whims of an unresponsive beloved, by contrasting them with the social depredations suffered by women at the time. The wry critiques of her poetic and social context are part of what made me so keen to write about the Compiuta Donzella, and I really enjoy her poetry, a pleasure I hope comes across in the article. (I’ll be putting up some translations of the sonnets on thie blog soon so that any non-Italian speakers can get more of a sense of how the Compiuta Donzella’s poetry plays out, even if I can’t hope to muster her rhetorical fluency in translation). To see the Compiuta Donzella’s poems in their original manuscript, go to the Vatican’s digitized manuscript collection and view them on folios 129v and 170r of the Vatican Canzoniere (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. Lat. 3793).

Last, but by no means least, Italian Studies has published a number of articles that have been really important to my research, so it’s really satisfying to see my work alongside that scholarship. And Here I want to repeat how positive the experience of publishing with them has been. The anonymous reviewers were constructive and helpful in their comments, even where critical, and the article is much stronger of their reviews, for which I’m really thankful (this has largely, if not entirely, been true of my experience of peer-reviewers over all, which speaks volumes of the kindness of (voluntary) academic strangers).

Here’s the abstract, so you know what you’re letting yourself in for, and I hope you enjoy reading it!

This article offers a detailed reading of the surviving sonnets of the poet known as the Compiuta Donzella di Firenze, paying particular attention to her performance of a feminine subject and critical engagement with common lyric tropes. A lack of biographical information about the Compiuta Donzella, the first woman to whom literary texts in the Italian vernacular are attributed, has led to speculation over her identity and ‘authenticity’, or to biographical readings of her texts. Acknowledging the same sorts of playful, ironic, and performative lyric subject and content in the Compiuta Donzella’s work that are commonly ascribed to other lyric voices allows us to appreciate the technical and thematic artifice in her sonnets. Comparative close readings of her surviving texts and some responses to them (by Guittone d’Arezzo, Maestro Rinuccino or Guido Guinizzelli, and an anonymous poet) provides a broader perspective on her work as engaged in active dialogue with the lyric context of thirteenth-century Italy.


Women on the Verge, University of Manchester

Fascinating call for papers on “the concept of femininity and gender representations, which are socially, geographically and culturally embedded. Furthermore, it focuses on the re-appreciation of women as creative and professional figures within the literary environment and the cultural marketplace (artists, authors, publishers, editors, translators and so forth).”


The University of Manchester, 16th June 2017 We are proud to announce Women on the Verge: Transformations in Literature, Gender and Society, the first of a planned series of one-day conferences aim…

Source: Call for Papers

Gender-Flipping Dante: what a meme tells us about gamers and poets

This article on the importance of the gender-flipping meme* may seem a little off my stated topics, but gender-flipping, or at least, a gendered role-reversal represents the main problem I have Dante’s Inferno as reinterpreted by Visceral Games.
I have no qualms at all with it becoming a video game, in fact, I think that Dante’s level based hell has been crying out to become a game since games have had level. Sure, there are some problems of interpretation – how do you turn what is essentially a contemplative (if unsettling and potentially terrifying) guided tour through the underworld into something with engaging game play?

The answer? Dante fights his way through the various monsters and reinterpreted damned souls to get to Satan, the ultimate end boss. Obviously, huge liberties have been taken in this department (I don’t remember anything in the text about demon babies), but even this doesn’t send me rushing for the smelling salts, as it seems to be the logical transition from the textual to the game idiom, a sort of media translation.

If I’m happy with all of that, though, what am I griping about? In a word, Beatrice.

Beatrice, Dante’s beloved (in the chaste, courtly sense) and later the agent of his salvation (as she becomes a Christ-like presence in the poet’s life, an intercessor for his sins). I use the term agent intentionally, because if there’s one thing Beatrice doesn’t lack, it’s agency. Yes, she conforms to certain tropes of idealised and inherently patriarchal representation of women in literature, but she doesn’t lack power. And I’m not just talking about the power to grant or deny love (and/or sex).

Beatrice’s power stems from the fact that, after her death, when Dante has gone astray (his ‘diritta via era smarrita’, the straight path was temporarily lost), she takes pity on her earthly admirer and intervenes to save him from himself and from damnation. Virgil, may be Dante’s guide in hell, but don’t forget who sent him:

‘”Set out, and with your polished words

and whatever else is needed for his safety,

go to his aid, that I may be consoled.

I who bid you go am Beatrice.”‘

(Inferno II, 67-70, translation by Robert and Jean Hollander)

In the poem Beatrice is a major player, but in the video game she is reduced to supporting cast. In the Divine Comedy she is instrumental in saving the wayward Dante from his failings, in the game she is the one who has to be rescued. Let’s just pause on that for a second.
In Dante’s text, the only redeeming force more powerful than Beatrice is God himself.
In Visceral’s game she is little more than damsel in distress.
In the game it is Dante’s responsibility to free Beatrice from hell so she can take up her place in Heaven.

And here we get to the gender flipping; understandably Dante is the battling protagonist, but why must he rescue Beatrice? There’s already a narrative thread in the game whereby Dante is trying to absolve himself of some (fairly fictive) sins by fighting his way to Beatrice and out of the underworld. Surely the plot arc would have made more sense if he battled through his Inferno in order to be reunited with Beatrice beyond the bounds of hell (it might even have left easier space for a sequel, but I’m not sure I want to think about what they’d to Purgatorio). So my problem is this: Why does the female rescuer have to become the rescued? Why does the almost lost Dante have to become the dominant force? Are 21st century gamers really more uncomfortable with the idea of salvation by a woman with agency than a 13th century poet was?

I hope not, but I fear that for some it might be true and that’s why the kind of social mirror provided by the meme where this conversation began is so important.

* taking representations of women and applying them directly to representations of men and vice versa to highlight the sexism of imagery, e.g. the Hawkeye initiative.