According to sixteenth-century writer Moderata Fonte, the untapped potential of women to contribute to the liberal arts was “buried gold.” Exploring the work of...

According to sixteenth-century writer Moderata Fonte, the untapped potential of women to contribute to the liberal arts was “buried gold.” Exploring the work of Fonte and that of many other incredible women, Meredith K. Ray‘s new book explores women’s contributions to the landscape of scientific culture in early modern Italy from about 1500 to 1623. Women in this period were engaging with science in the home, at court, in vernacular literature, in academies, in salons, and in letters, and Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Harvard University Press, 2015) looks both at women’s practical engagements with science and with their literary engagements with natural philosophy.

Ch. 1 brings us to the Romagna, and to the formidable Caterina Sforza’s experiments with alchemical recipes as compiled in a manuscript that exists today in only a single manuscript copy. Both recipes and secrets were forms of currency in this context, and Ch. 2 looks at the vogue for printed “books of secrets” in sixteenth century Italy. This chapter pays special attention to the influential Secrets of Alexis of Piedmont (1555) and the Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese, while also exploring the influence of books of secrets on other early modern literary genres including vernacular treatises, dialogues, and letter collections. Ch. 3 look at the literature of debate over women, or querelle des femmes that flourished in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, looking particularly closely at the intertwining discourses about women and science in Moderata Fonte’s writing of chivalric romance and dialogue, and in Lucrezia Marinella’s epic poetry and pastoral writing. Ch. 4 moves us to Padua and Rome, where women had begun, by the early seventeenth century, to participate in scientific discourse in more formal ways. Here, Ray looks closely at Camilla Erculiani’s letters on natural philosophy (1584) that defended women’s aptitude for science, and at her networking with scientific communities in Poland and her eventual questioning by the Inquisition. The chapter then turns to Margherita Sarrocchi’s work, her epic poem Scanderbeide, and her fascinating relationship with Galileo. It is a fascinating book that will be of interest to readers eager to learn more about the history of science, literature, and/or women in early modernity. If you listen closely to the interview, you’ll also hear me comparing Caterina Sforza to Doritos. Enjoy!

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