Arcangela Tarabotti (Elena Cassandra Tarabotti) (1604-1652) was the most radical female writer of her generation, a witty and outspoken polemicist who openly denounced the oppression of women in seventeenth-century society. Consigned to the Benedictine convent of Sant’Anna as a young girl, Tarabotti spent her life enclosed within its walls – a product of forced monachization, the perpetual enclosure of women who did not have a religious vocation. Despite her enclosure, Tarabotti forged relationships with men and women throughout Italy (her rich intellectual network stretched well into northern Europe) and published five literary works – an astonishing feat for a cloistered nun: the more so, given the controversial content of most of her works.
In her early manuscripts, titled Convent Hell and Paternal Tyranny, Tarabotti decries fathers, church officials, and the ragion di stato complicit in forced monachization, positioning herself as political theorist and protofeminist as well as polemicist. Even her first published work, Paradiso monacale (Convent Paradise, 1643), which offers an ostensibly positive portrait of the convent, praises religious life only if freely chosen and emphasizes the central tenet of free will.
In other works, Tarabotti’s political and feminist thought extend beyond the cloister to launch a more general defense of women’s right to education and autonomy. She skillfully responded to attacks against female luxury in her Antisatira (Antisatire, 1644), instead satirizing male vanity; and refuted the shocking claim – perhaps made in jest – that women were less rational than men, Che le donne siano della spetie degli uomini (1651). In her Lettere familiari e di complimento (Letters Familiar and Formal, 1650), she showcased the wide range of her literary, political, and personal connections and vigorously defended her literary reputation. The Lagrime d’Arcangela Tarabotti per la morte dell’Illustriss. signora Regina Donati (Tears of Arcangela Tarabotti Upon the Death of the Most Illustrious Signora Regina Donati), a brief memorial work appended to the Lettere, offered Tarabotti the opportunity to eulogize her convent sister and dear friend as a true – not forced – nun. Initially praised and then quickly condemned by many of her contemporaries for her sharp tone and controversial arguments, Tarabotti and her work went largely ignored until the twentieth century. A resurgence in interest in Tarabotti as a writer, protofeminist, and political theorist has led to increasing focus on her by scholars across disciplines.
For a number of years now I've had the great good fortune to collaborate on editing and translating Tarabotti's works together with my collaborator Lynn Lara Westwater, of the George Washington University. Currently, we are preparing to embark on a new collaborative project dedicated to the study of Tarabotti's devotional works Convent Paradise and Tears.