The Worth of Women

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Moderata Fonte was praised during her lifetime as a “young maiden, and honored citizen of this city (Venice), being very knowledgeable, especially in Poetry.” Moderate Fonte is the pen name chosen by the sixteenth-century Venetian writer Modesta Pozzo. She had written a number of sonnets, short plays, and an epic poem before writing a treatise on the superiority of women. The Worth of Women was written in the latter years of Fonte’s life and was published posthumously in 1600. The Worth of Women belongs to the genre that became popular in sixteenth-century Europe which argues that women are equal or superior to men, which was contrary to popular opinion in this period of time. Much of what is known about Moderata Fonte’s life and works comes from the biography Vita (Life), written by her uncle and one-time guardian, Niccolo Doglioni. The biography was published in preface to Fonte’s The Worth of Women in 1600 and gives a vivid description of Fonte’s life. Fonte was born in Venice in 1555 into the citizen’s class which occupied the middle class of Venetian society, between the nobles and the lower class. In Vita, Doglioni considered the aspect of class in Venetian identity is important to understand Fonte’s life because of its determination of the social attitudes, behavior, and lifestyle of its members. Before she was a year old, both of Fonte’s parents died of the plague and she was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, Cecelia di Mazzi, and her second husband, Prosperi Saraceni. Until the age of nine, she received elementary education at the convent of Santa Marta and then returned to her grandmother’s home. On her return, she benefited from the books and learnings of Saraceni, who willingly shared his knowledge with the girl and she became more interested in literature. In her early twenties Cecelia and Prosperi’s daughter, Saracena Saraceni, married Niccolo Doglioni. Doglioni invited Fonte to live with him and his wife and he assumed the role of mentor of her studies. Fonte was married in 1583 at the age of twenty seven to a lawyer and government employee, Filippo Zorzi. Although being married this late in a women’s life was uncommon, it allowed her the leisure to devote herself to writing at a time when most women of her background were occupied with children and the governance of their husband’s household. The closeness in age between Fonte and her husband may have also allowed for a more equal relationship between the two than was normally the case in this period of time. Fonte’s death appears to be a result of complications after the birth of her fourth child in 1592. Doglioni admiringly records her excellence as a wife and mother and her commitment to feminine tasks over her writing. These final years of Fonte’s life were most likely dedicated to writing The Worth of Women and it appears that her marriage offered a supportive environment for her writing. Fonte’s interest in language can be seen in her choice of a pen name. The pseudonym that Modesta Pozzo chose for her self reproduces her given name by slightly, but significantly, changing the imagery suggested in the two last names. She kept the symbolism of water that was implicit in her family name Pozzo, “well”, and turns the immobility of “well” to the dynamic and free jet of a “fountain”, Fonte. Considering that the defense and advocacy of women are dominant themes in her different works, this change from “well” to “fountain” may represent her rejection of women’s traditional role of being passive in favor of a more active and creative image. The use of a pseudonym was uncommon among women writers in sixteenth-century Italy and may be because of the situation of republican Venice and her status and an unmarried female. From the 1590s, Lucrezia Marinella is the first instance of the phenomenon of unmarried women publishing under their own name, possibly emboldened by the precedent of Fonte’s semi-public literary career. The...
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