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"She deserves very much to be remembered"

I was reading Boccaccio's Famous Women* tonight (the way one does - especially when editing footnotes), and was struck by his description of a probably Roman poet named Cornificia whom "ancient testimony shows that she deserves very much to be remembered". Boccaccio continues:
During Octavian's reign, Cornificia radiated such poetical learning that she seemed to have been nourished not by the milk of Italy but by the Castalian spring, and to have been just as celebrated as her brother Cornificius, a renowned poet of the same period. She was not satisfied with having, thanks to her splendid talent, merely a way with words. I think that the sacred Muses inspired her to use her learned pen in the composition of verses worthy of Helicon.

For those who read Christine de Pizan scholars with undue haste,** Boccaccio was not purely misogynistic in his discussion of famous women. Again, apropos of Cornificia, he writes, "If women are willing to apply themselves to study, they share with men the ability to do everything that makes men famous."***

She was known to Boccaccio by way of Jerome's praise of some of her epigrams. Unfortunately for Boccaccio's hopes to the contrary, she has very much been forgotten. It would have helped had any of her poetry survived to his time or ours.

* Giovanni Boccaccio. Famous Women. Virginia Brown, ed. I Tatti Renaissance Library. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001). Quotations taken from pp. 352-5.
** Hasty readers of Christine scholarship sometimes assert firstly that Boccaccio's work was purely misogynistic (he discusses both virtuous and vicious women), and secondly that he deals only with women from antiquity (primarily, yes, but he wraps up with a handful of medievals, culminating in the virtuous and intelligent Joanna, Queen of Naples, a contemporary of his.
*** Admittedly, he says this after several snarky sentences on how many women slothfully believe themselves only useful for having offspring.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 6th, 2006 12:57 am (UTC)
I liked this entry! I also really like that edition ...

I've become a cynic, probably because I study Lydgate: I have a (probably somewhat flippant, but anyhow) notion that exemplarity takes precedence over biography in this kind of 'proto-encyclopedia,' starting with Boccaccio himself. That is, women are always shown to have exemplary womanly traits, whether they're more idle/sensual (Dido) or industrious/virtuous (Lucretia, Virginia). Even if they're virtuous, they're still types, if you take my drift, and types are--well, I think that their depiction is a more misogynistic move than depiction of real women. (Even as I take your point about Christine scholarship. And why do even some critics think that this literature could be simply misogynistic? These are such complex cultures we're talking about.)

Cornificia in particular might partially have been interesting (though admittedly more to Lydgate than to Boccaccio) because she shows 'manliness'--poeticizing being a manly trait. The female 'princes' in De Casibus and tradition in particular tend to be 'like' men or 'parodic' men (these would be the bad female princes). This is another (IMO) very hard question of this encyclopedic genre: I think that people who engage with the whole Boccaccian 'proto-enyclopedic' output critically are very brave :-/

The "snarky sentences" on womanly idleness may relate to the portrayal of women as iconographically idle, btw. I'm finding an idlenesse/bisynesse [=industry] polarity to be very important to interpreting Lydgate's reformulation of De casibus. Lucretia is an important figure for this because she's industrious (she spins) and is somewhat masculine in presentation. I couldn't swear to it in this connection, but I think it's interesting.

Btw--I always wonder too if the Latin content of DMC is affected by its being ostensibly written for a woman. The Latin's not (I'd argue) very hard if you compared it to the other two Boccaccian encyclopedias. Not that I have a copy in front of me to prove matters ... somebody recalled it ... thank you for making me quasi-think for ten seconds. I have to go back now to my customary idle pursuits ;) ...
Jan. 6th, 2006 12:41 pm (UTC)
If Boccaccio's work is a proto-encyclopedia, what does that make Isidore's?

The "snarky sentences" on womanly idleness may relate to the portrayal of women as iconographically idle, btw.

I'm pondering your use of the word "iconographically" here. Did you mean symbolically? Abstractly, according to type? For all the evil women included in DMC, none of them can really be fundamentally accused of slothfulness in the modern sense, for all B. does so. They're in the collection in the first place because they have major accomplishments. My favorite major accomplishment of the moment from it is Semiramis' purported invention of the chastity belt. Then again, perhaps I need to read up on just what slothfulness actually means in the medieval sense, since clearly it's possible to be very productive (literally! children! inventions!) while still being slothful.

Of course they're types - Boccaccio (and Christine too) are all about types. Sure, they focus on different selections of types (Christine's are all virtuous), but it's all about exemplarity. I wonder how much of a modern conception it is to look for an emphasis on individuality when defining virtue (and saintliness) and vice in anyone is about matching them to exempla.

Obviously, we moderns are far too sophisticated to ever class people by types.

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( 2 comments — Leave a comment )