PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
News and Notes
PNR266 Now Available
The latest issue of PN Review is now available to read online. read more
Most Read... Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
M. Wynn ThomasThe Other Side of the Hedge
(PN Review 239)
Jamie OsbornIn conversation with Sasha Dugdale
(PN Review 240)
Drew MilneTom Raworth’s Writing ‘present past improved’: Tom Raworth’s Writing
(PN Review 236)
Next Issue Stav Poleg Running Between Languages Jeffrey Meyers on Mr W.H. (Auden) Miles Burrows The Critic as Cleaning Lady Timothy Ades translates Brecht, Karen Leeder translates Ulrike Almut Sandig
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
PN Review New Issue
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.

Chasing Women Jane Stevenson

For the last ten years, I have been working on a book on women writing in Latin. Since the received opinion is that they didn't, I have had to go and look for the evidence, a process which gradually turned into an Odyssey around Europe, visiting archives and libraries, and raking out evidence of women's participation in the culture of their times. Latin is important: before the eighteenth century, anyone who did not read Latin was a second-class citizen in the republic of letters. Therefore to assume that women never used Latin is to assume that all women were marginalised and disempowered relative to all men, and asking, 'but what if they weren't?' is a question with some far-reaching implications.

The answer has turned out to be that throughout the Latin-using world, from the Renaissance onwards, a minority of women did in fact write Latin and study learned authors, and by and large, they did so as acknowledged exceptions, with a subaltern but recognised place within the intellectual life of their respective places of origin. So very few women published a book in Latin, either prose or verse, that those who did are seen as monstrous exceptions. This is not the case; but the evidence which lets me say this so confidently is not easy to find. The evidence for the existence of learned ladies of the European past is mostly in forms such as elegies, answers, congratulatory verses, and letters, and is concentrated in books which were produced for local consumption, or by antiquaries. Hence its invisibility in more recent times. It is absolutely normal for a book of the sixteenth or seventeenth century to include a dozen or more Latin poems addressed to the learned author, and not unknown for one of these authors to turn out to be female, but few are the libraries that would list all the authors of such verses. An electronic search therefore doesn't turn up women's names.

However, apart from books, there was also the question of inscriptions. Whatever the sexual politics of setting pen to paper, society has on the whole been behind the principle that women should love their husbands, and that grieving widows were entitled to say so. Thus everywhere that my partner and I have gone, we have chucked the relevant Pevsner, Shell Guide, Rough Guide or Guide Bleu into the back of the car, and whenever time has permitted, we have checked out old churches. For instance, we were driving through the secretive, unvisited Cumbria which lies north of the Lake District, a place of ground-hugging buildings with small windows, tucked into folds in the land, which I was researching for a novel. Half-way down a plunging single-track road, we saw a sign pointing to 'St Mary's Church' and turned off to look for it. It turned out to be a small grey structure surrounded by fields in the middle of nowhere, built to serve a community which, apart from the church itself and a couple of farms, appears no longer to exist. Rather surprisingly, the building was open, though completely empty, and in its barnlike interior, I found a single monument, a massive affair with blocky, provincial raised-sunk lettering; which had a Latin poem on it. And written vertically, in a spare few inches, was the legend, 'Per me, A.D., uxor' - 'by me, Anne Denton (as a bit of work in the Cumbrian record office told me the next day), his wife'. There was another good moment in the dim interior of St Bartholomew the Less, the tiny, ancient church which somehow survives within the tentacular embrace of Bart's Hospital in London: a reticent inscription in plain Roman capitals, about the size of a shoebox, the work of a grieving widow called Jocosa Hone.

The inscriptions search has gone on around, about, and through everything else which has gone on in our lives. But, turning to the world of books, it was clear from the start that the place where I would have to begin was the memory-palace of European civilisation, the Biblioteca Apostolica in the Vatican. Beyond any reasonable challenge, this is the greatest library in the world, but it is also an intensely strange place in which to work, especially if you are a woman. Its library card is the only such which doubles as a passport. You have to show it to the tall, gun-toting blond in a uniform designed by Michelangelo who guards the dusty Porto Santa Anna, and he scrutinises it with care before he will let you in.

Being inside the Vatican itself feels a bit like entering a high-security prison. The main structure, four clifflike walls of dun-coloured stone, is built round a bleak quadrangle and pierced by an archway: the blank rows of windows stare down at a fountain basin which looks as if it has never in living memory been filled with water. If a car emerges through the arch, it is wise to flatten yourself against the wall; anybody privileged to park in this inner sanctum is a Vatican apparatchik of such vertiginous grandeur that ordinary rules of conduct have ceased to apply to him. In any case, being knocked down by a Cardinal probably carries a plenary indulgence so stupendous as to leave one with no moral grounds for complaint. The Vatican City is also the biggest men's club in the world, a place where it is made unselfconsciously clear by every nuance of its inhabitants' body-language that to be female is to be both peculiar and negligible. It was therefore a very odd place to be looking for women, a joke which I never attempted to share with anyone within its sacred portals.

The Apostolica happens behind a small and inconspicuous door to the left. Unlike a national library or a great American library, it is not the raison d'être of the building it inhabits, or anywhere near it, so it is somewhat less impressive on initial approach than a town archive in the remote provinces. A narrow stair is concealed behind a statue of a third-century Pope, and this winds up and up around the housing of an ancient, off-limits lift. Somewhere on the upward progress there is usually an abandoned mop and bucket. Vistors to the Vatican museums find themselves trudging through mystifying miles and miles of stairs and corridors - the actual reason for this is that they are passing under and over the library, which is sandwiched between two floors of the collection. However, after this curiously unimpressive approach, grandeur sets in when you finally emerge into the reading-rooms. These are a series of cavernous spaces lined to the ceiling with vellum-spined books, and frescoed with naked putti who are staggering about their fictive sky laden with enormous brown calfskin folios. Long, bench-like wooden tables march down the centre of the room.

The experience of working there is very unlike that of being in any other great library. Rather than being the property of a state or a university, it is the Pope's private collection, despite its colossal size and value, and one is there as his guest. He can, and sometimes does, send an aide over for something he wants to consult; there are special little cards which you sometimes find stuck in a gap, saying that the book you were looking for has been removed to su santità 's private apartments. Moreover, Vatican social custom distinguishes sharply between the hierarchy and everyone else, so all of the library's elaborate rules can safely be ignored by senior clerics. I have seen with my own eyes an ancient Jesuit taking notes on a ninth-century manuscript using a old-fashioned fountain-pen, like a Cuban cigar charged with very black ink. If you happen to be the Pope, there is nothing to stop you taking out whatever you like and drawing in the margins. Perhaps they do.

Even if you are a mere academic, the staff will sometimes bend the rules for you if you have friends in high places, and so the path of wisdom is to take the most senior cleric known to you out to lunch as soon as possible after arriving in Rome, and subsequently, to take a post-prandial stroll up and down the reading room with him. This will be marked down and remembered. Other forms of hierarchy, academic or social, mean nothing in the Apostolica. Harvard and Oxford cut no ice; whatever kind of Grand Panjandrum you might be, if you aren't wearing black and a Roman collar, you can have three books in the morning, and two in the afternoon, no fetching after noon. The librarians themselves are working-class Romans, none of whom have a word of any language other than Italian. They know nothing about books and care less, though they can be quite genial; there is a sort of rooftop cortile beyond the catalogue room, where at any given time, half of them can be found hanging out, smoking and gossiping with the cleaning ladies, the proprietrixes of the abandoned impedimenta which you probably fell over on your way up.

You work at the long wooden tables; in theory, you have a designated place you are supposed to stay in, as you do in the manuscripts room in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, but as with much else about the Vatican, there is a certain amount of disjunction between theory and practice, and you can sit wherever you consider to be convenient. There is no air-conditioning, but the tall windows onto the arid quadrangle are opened if it all gets too much. Sometimes a pigeon blunders in and lollops confused among the putti while people stand on chairs and flap notebooks at it; I have not as yet opened an incunable to find a long white splash across page three, but I'm sure it happens. The concept of the 'rare book' in the Vatican has a meaning all of its own. Books that any other library would keep in a locked stack are on open access in the reading-room. The oldest book which I personally pulled off an open shelf had been printed in 1580.

There are many good reasons for being there. It is a classicist's heaven, among other things: there are two fifth-century manuscripts of Virgil in the entire world, and both of them are in the Apostolica. It is also, ironically, the greatest Protestant library there is, because after the Catholics won the Battle of the White Mountain in 1622, the Palatine library in Heidelberg was scientifically looted as legitimate spoils of war, and sent to the Pope in thousands of wooden barrels, padded with straw. In fact, due in part to sheer antiquity, and also to the eccentricities of the humanist popes of the Renaissance, the collection has some of just about everything. But the particular reason why it is, in my sense of the word, the ultimate place to chase women, is that the Catholic church is also, as Protestants sometimes like say, the Church of Italy. Thus the doings of Italian noble families have always been a subject of intense interest: in each generation, almost all such have sent a son or two into the Church and surplus daughters to the more prestigious convents. And moreover, since the invention of printing, memorial booklets, epithalamia, celebrations of canonisation, profession, or cathedration, together with collections of verses by members of local Accademie, have poured from Italian presses. These little productions of the day are absolutely classic locations for Latin writing by women.

One such authoress, Febronia Pannolini, was a sister of the order of St Dominic in the monastery of St Agnes in Bologna, a member of an old-established Bolognese noble family, and a bluestocking. She contributed well-mannered Latin verse to two books: Tempio all' illustrissimo et reverendissimo Signor Cinthio Aldobrandini Cardinale S. Giorgio, Nipote del Sommo Pont efice Clemente Ottavo, Bologna, 1600, and Componimenti poetici volgari, latini e Greci di diversi sopra la s. Imagine della Beata Virgine dipinta a s. Luca, printed in Bologna in 1601. Similarly in Perugia, the death of a local notable in 1643 prompted a memorial volume; and so the father of the local learned lady, a girl called Gironda Cerrini, who was then seventeen, was asked if 'our Sappho' would oblige with an elegy. This she did, and it was duly printed. The result is not recommended reading; my project had more to do with cultural history than with retrieving great verse. Some of what I found was moving and surprising, but much was competent rather than distinguished. In this preliminary act of retrieval, it was the mere fact that the stuff existed which interested me most. For the purposes of this particular book, Gironda Cerrini, who is pretty terrible, and Martha Marchina, who is a poet of real achievement, were equally evidence for women as participants in culture.

These harmless volumes, and many others like them, were of real interest in their immediate context and of little or none beyond it. They have thus been extraordinarily vulnerable to what Pope (in the Dunciad) called 'the martyrdom of jakes and fire'. Without the protection of a great library, books tend to become waste paper. In the eighteenth century, a manuscript written by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, was bought 'among other broken books to putt up Coffee pouder' by a grocer, and recognised by Samuel Woodforde before it was put to use - a less fortunate contemporary, John Warburton, discovered that his cook had fallen into the habit of using his manuscript collection to line her pie-dishes. But the Vatican holds a fantastically rich collection of printed ephemera. Nothing of the kind has been de-accessioned, because Pannolinis, Cerrinis and their like had relatives in the church; they might themselves end their days in the odour of sanctity and become beatae; or at any time, a cardinal-archbishop might need to inform himself about the intellectual life of the Abruzzi. Thus the collection includes dull little volumes without number, many of which have passed through my hands. Surrounded on all sides by some of the most beautiful and valuable books ever produced, I spent day after day leafing through grimy pamphlets. I have wondered sometimes whether anyone but me had opened the thing I was looking at since it left the binder's.

Italy more generally has been an extremely rich hunting-ground. Places as modest as Salò or Rovigo had academies, meeting-places for local intellectuals, from the seventeenth century. They took a certain pride in having a local poetess and/or learned lady, who was generally invited to join them: Gironda Cerrini was a member of the Perugian Accademia di' Virtuosi, while the Sappho of Salò was a lady called Diamante Medaglia Faini (one of the incidental pleasures of this work has been the absolutely extraordinary names of my subjects). By and large - though some survive to this day - a local Accademia kept going into the nineteenth century, but at some point, its premises became the town library. Thus my 'Iter Italicum' was potentially endless. I did what I could. As I travelled between major centres such as Bologna and Florence, wherever possible, I stopped in small towns, and visited a series of more or less pompous buildings with crumbling stucco and painted ceilings to see what was there. Sometimes I found there a typewritten hand-list, the lifetime's hobby of a teacher at the local liceo, or I was shown a set of mahogany boxes filled with slips written in curly eighteenth-century handwriting. Since a purely local chauvinism runs higher in Italy than anywhere else, the librarians were, though a little bewildered, almost invariably delighted to try and help (the one exception being Siena, where the library of the Intronati was inexplicably hostile; however, once everyone was absolutely sure that I was not trying to look at their one famous manuscript, which I believe is Botticelli's illustrations to Dante, but merely trying to find out about Maia Isotta and Laura Battiferri Ammanati, they became courtesy itself). In such places, I have spent long days in shabby, sleepy rooms, leafing through indexes, with the only sound of life bluebottles banging obtusely on the windowpanes, and the faint sussurus of someone talking on the telephone in another room.

One develops a peculiar filtration technique in this sort of work; the eye learns to skid rapidly down the page, ignoring everything but first names - Giovanni, Pietro, Tommaso, Francesco, then bang: a Magdalena or a Giovanna brings it screeching to a halt. Men called Battista were a source of acute irritation, since they always slowed me down, and Luca was another stone of stumbling. All this checking had to be done at frantic speed, since in such places it is very unusual for the staff to be prepared to fetch anything after midday.

Generally, the best I could do was to end up with a handful of 'possibles' and leave them with someone for the next day, and wander out into the sunshine looking for ice-cream and something to drink. Then there were the simple pleasures of a summer evening: the passegiata, a visit to the local church - Italian churches are not as good for verse inscriptions as Northern European ones, but there are other reasons to visit: there is often one very good painting, and perhaps a dead bishop under an altar, in a glass coffin like Sleeping Beauty, his skeleton hands emerging from the folds of a silk cope as thick as cardboard. Sometimes Roman inscriptions are kept in the front of the church; they also have yielded verse by women, but in any case, puzzling them out fills a harmless, antiquarian hour. Then dinner, perhaps whatever was the local speciality unless it sounded offensively weird or involved tripe, and after that, a leisurely return to the hotel to write up my notes. Perhaps the next day would yield something, perhaps it wouldn't. But I travelled hopefully, and not without reward.

This article is taken from PN Review 166, Volume 32 Number 2, November - December 2005.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
Further Reading: - Jane Stevenson More Articles by... (1) Report by... (1)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image