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Required and optional readings

2016 Essay Questions and Readings

Women of the Renaissance. Choose one of three topics

Essay Topic I: Women of the Renaissance: The Renaissance Virtuosa

Although Burckhardt’s bold assertions about the emergence of a new model of individualistic selfhood in the Italian Renaissance have been endlessly debated by scholars, a simpler and less contentious point has largely escaped notice. Whether or not it saw the birth of a new ‘Renaissance Man,’ the Italian Renaissance quite indisputably saw the birth of a new model of woman … The figure of the creative woman, the virtuosa, is one of the Italian Renaissance’s most clearly documentable cultural novelties, and one of this period’s most potent anticipations of modernity.

V. Cox, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance, Ch. 6

“Even if not many women in the past have achieved excellence and fame, that is only because, for various causes, they have not turned their energies to great and lofty pursuits. The gold that lies buried in the mines is still gold, and, when it is mined and polished, it shines as brightly as any other gold. If when a daughter was born, her father were to set her to the same tasks as his son, the girl would not prove inferior to her brother in any high and glorious enterprise, whether she were placed alongside him in battle or put to learn some liberal art.”

Moderata Fonte, The Romance of Floridoro (1581)

Examine women’s creative contribution to the Italian Renaissance, focusing your attention on one or more of the following figures:

  • Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547): poet, intellectual and religious reformer, famous for her friendship with Michelangelo
  • Gaspara Stampa(1523-1554): singer, musician, and poet, author of one of the great poetic narratives of the joys and torments of love
  • Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625): the first woman to achieve fame as a painter, famous for her striking self-portraits and paintings of her family
  • Moderata Fonte (1555-92): one of the earliest feminist writers, author of the witty and provocative dialogue The Worth of Women
  • Isabella Andreini (1562-1604): poet, dramatist, actress, and co-director of a theater company; one of the great prototypes for the modern diva
  • Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656): one of the first fully professional female artists, famed for her dramatic, sometimes violent, narrative paintings.

Make sure to discuss both the life and works of the figures you have chosen and the the historical context within they were working.

Mandatory Reading for Topic I:
  • Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Part Three, The Revival
  • of Antiquity, the Humanists pp. 1-4
  • Darren Staff, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding, Introduction: pp. 3-13, pp. 1-9
  • J.H. Plumb, The Italian Renaissance, Dawn of the Renaissance, pp. 6-19, pp. 5-10
  • V. Cox, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance, Chapter 1, pp. 1-18
  • V. Cox, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance, Chapter 6, esp. pp. 20-44
Optional Readings for Topic I:
  • V. Cox (ed.), Lyric Poetry by Women of the Italian Renaissance, Introduction and selections from Vittoria Colonna, Gaspara Stampa, and Isabella Andreini
  • M. Fonte, The Worth of Women, ed. V. Cox (Chicago 1997) pp. 43-83, 119- 149, 183-237.
  • R. Henke, Performance and Literature in the Commedia dell’Arte (Cambridge 2002), pp. 85-105
  • P. Tinagli, Women in Renaissance Art (Manchester 1997), pp. 11-15
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Essay Topic II: Women of the Renaissance: Women and Power

“The first lady of the world.”

Niccolò da Correggio of Isabella d’Este

“Isabella [d’Este] aimed to possess influence and fame without arousing opposition in an age antagonistic to unambiguously dominant women, even consorts. Thus she employed conscious self-fashioning and careful image management to direct her position within the restrictions placed on the Italian Renaissance noblewoman … For the seigniorial families [i.e. the ruling families of Italy], the private and public were inextricably merged, and Isabella’s image projection was an activity with political aims, in pursuit of power. She was held in high authority, partly because she was a privileged consort in a position to manipulate her situation, but also because she decided to make use of her status to exploit the opportunities available to her to maximum advantage.”

S. Cockram, Isabella d’Este and Francesco Gonzaga

Analyze the role and relationship to power of one or more of the following figures:

  • Lucrezia Tornabuoni de’ Medici (1427-82): mother of the famous Lorenzo de’ Medici (“Lorenzo the Magnificent”), Lucrezia Tornabuoni exercised a notable amount of behind-the-scenes power and was also a significant poet and cultural figure.
  • Caterina Sforza (1463-1509): countess of Forlì through marriage, once she was widowed, the forceful and enterprising Caterina Sforza continued to rule her husband’s city and to direct its defenses until she was deposed and captured by Cesare Borgia in 1500.
  • Isabella d’Este (1474-1539): daughter of the most famous power couple of late fifteenth-century Italy and marchioness of Mantua by marriage; the prototypical Renaissance female ruler, famed for her inspired patronage of art and culture, as well as her diplomatic shrewdness.
  • Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589): born into the famous Medici family of Florence; niece to a pope, and queen of France; one of the most powerful women in Europe in the sixteenth century, together with Elizabeth I of England.

Your essay should include an analysis of the historical circumstances in which the figure(s) discussed were operating and the constraints under which the consorts of Renaissance rulers operated. Your working definition of power should be broad enough to embrace both hard and soft power (i.e. both the direct exercise of political authority, and the more indirect power constituted by cultural influence and personal reputation.)

Mandatory Readings for Topic II:
  • Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Part Three, The Revival 
  • of Antiquity, the Humanists pp. 1-4
  • Darren Staff, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding, Introduction: pp. 3-13, pp. 1-9
  • J.H. Plumb, The Italian Renaissance, Dawn of the Renaissance, pp. 6-19, pp. 5-10
  • V. Cox, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance, Chapter 1, pp. 1-18
  • V. Cox, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance, Chapter 6, pp. 1-20
  • N. Tomas, The Medici Women: Gender and Power in Renaissance Florence (Aldershot 
  • 2003), pp. 1-6
Optional Readings for Topic II:
  • S. Cockram, ‘Epistolary Masks: Self-Presentation and Dissimulation in the Letters of 
  • Isabella d’Este”, Italian Studies, 64/1 (Spring 2009), 20-37
  • J. De Vries, “Caterina Sforza’s Portrait Medals: Power, Gender, and Representation in 
  • the Italian Renaissance Court,” Women’s Art Journal, 24/1 (2003), pp. 23-28
  • L. Tornabuoni, Sacred Narratives, ed. Jane Tylus (Chicago, 2001), pp. 28-38
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Essay Topic III: The Women of the American "Renaissance" of the post Revolutionary Period and their Affinities with the Women of the Italian Renaissance

“We all have our own life to pursue, our own kind of dream to be weaving, and we all have the power to make wishes come true, as long as we keep believing.”

Louisa May Alcott

The American “Renaissance” is a term often applied to the literary works of writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. However, growing scholarly work also identifies this as a period characterized by movements for reform, democratization, inclusion of the marginalized, and individualism. Moreover, emerging scholarly work around this topic is coming to include the efforts and achievements of American women from the time period.

Identify one or more female figure(s) of the American "Renaissance" of the nineteenth century and explain how this woman (or these women) exhibited affinities, if any, to Italian Renaissance female figure(s) suggested in Topic I and/or Topic II. Below are list of suggested American “Renaissance” women figures to consider, however, you may identify other women whose qualities and achievements are comparable with a Renaissance woman.

  • Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) A social reformer who worked in particular to reform in the treatment of the mentally ill. Ms. Dix lobbied Congress to legislate reform resulting in the construction of state run hospitals for the mentally ill.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) An abolitionist who exposed the horrors of slavery through her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Popular story has it that when she met President Abraham Lincoln he said to her “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this war.”
  • Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) A writer best known for authoring the novel Little Women, a work which examined social norms and gender roles of the time. Raised by parents who participated in the intellectual Transcendentalist movement of the early nineteenth century, she came to know other American “Renaissance” writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau.
  • Violet Oakley (1874-1961) An artist who embodied the late nineteenth century ideal of the “New Woman,” a woman educated, modern, and ambitious to pursue goals beyond marriage and mothership. Ms. Oakley’s works address the revival of Renaissance themes popular of the time.
Mandatory Readings for Topic III:
  • Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Part Three, The Revival 
  • of Antiquity, the Humanists pp. 1-4
  • Darren Staff, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding, Introduction: pp. 3-13, pp. 1-9
  • J.H. Plumb, The Italian Renaissance, Dawn of the Renaissance, pp. 6-19, pp. 5-10
  • V. Cox, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance, Chapter 1, pp. 1-18
  • V. Cox, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance, Chapter 6, esp. pp. 20-44
Optional Readings for Topic III:
  • Sharon M Harris, “ Whose Renaissance?: Women Writers in the Era of the American 
  • Renaissance,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 49, no.190-192 (2003): pp 59-80
  • Patricia Likos Ricci, “Violet Oakley: American Renaissance Woman,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126, no. 2 (2002): pp. 217-248.
  • John Matteson, “Little Woman,” National Endowment for the Arts30, no.6 (2009): 
  • accessed October 27, 2015, http://www.neh.gov/humanities/2009/novemberdecember/feature/little-woman.
  • Manon S. Parry, “Dorothea Dix (1802-1887),” American Journal of Public Health 96, 
  • no.4 (2006): 624-625
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