This presidential address was delivered at the 137th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in San Francisco, California, on January 5, 2024.

Conversations with the Dead

On December 10, 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli composed what has become the most famous letter from the Italian Renaissance. He was writing to his friend Francesco Vettori, the Florentine ambassador in Rome, from his suburban farm outside Florence, far from the gossip, intrigue, and tussles over policy that had been his food for so long. After the execution of the pseudo-prophet Girolamo Savonarola some fifteen years before, Machiavelli had thrived in the lion’s den of Florentine politics as an undersecretary and virtuoso diplomat, but Medici family mediocrities purged him in 1512 in their violent takeover of the Florentine Republic. An ardent republican, Machiavelli was as skeptical of religious fanatics like Savonarola as he was of the self-aggrandizing bankers and parvenue aristocrats like the Medici who sought to rule his city. When his name appeared on a list of anti-Medici conspirators, he was arrested, tortured, and exiled. In the famous letter, he sought to retain the favor of his friend, ever mindful that Vettori had the pull to make it possible for the job-seeking former secretary “to leave my country home,” as Machiavelli put it, “and say: ‘Here I am.’”1 Until that happened he was stuck catching thrushes to feed his family, trying to scrape together a living by selling timber from a woodlot, and entertaining himself for the afternoon by playing cards in a tavern with an innkeeper, butcher, miller, and two bakers. He was caught, as he put it, “among these lice” and “my feeling of being ill-treated by Fate.”2

When evening comes, I return to my home, and I go into my study; and on the threshold, I take off my everyday clothes, which are covered with mud and mire, and I put on regal and curial robes; and dressed in a more appropriate manner I enter into the ancient courts of ancient men and am welcomed by them kindly, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born; and there I am not ashamed to speak to them, to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they, in their humanity (humanità), answer me; and for four hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer fear poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death: I become completely part of them.2

Machiavelli alerted his friend to what would become the most elegant yet failed job application in history, that little book called The Prince. He hoped the book would spur “these Medici lords … to make use of me, even if they start me off by rolling stones.”3

In the letter, Machiavelli evoked the Renaissance trope of conversing with the dead ancients. It was the same metaphor Francesco Petrarch conjured when he wrote a nasty letter to the Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, who had been dead for 1,388 years, because Cicero failed to live up to his own advice about political ethics. Petrarch wrote as if he expected a reply, complete with a description of his location in terms Cicero might understand. As Anthony Grafton showed in his American Historical Association presidential address about Francis Daniel Pastorius, the erudite German émigré to colonial Pennsylvania, the trope persisted among the learned for centuries.4 Embedded in the metaphor of a conversation with the dead, however, is more than an artifact of what would become the Republic of Letters, which imagined a literary discussion with the classical masters who wrote in Greek and Latin. It implies a fundamental historical method: as Machiavelli wrote, “I am not ashamed to speak to them, to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they, in their humanity, answer me.”2 More than the modern historians’ commonplace that we seek to bring the past back to life for our readers and students, conversations with the dead imagine a give and take—questions from us, answers from them—pursued in an imaginative space carefully controlled by the documents until we, as Machiavelli wrote, become completely part of them. I want to propose that such an imaginative space begets a certain kind of historical method that demands we ask the right questions of our dead interlocutors in the hopes of learning the right answers. Much of the historical and theoretical literature from the Renaissance appeared as carefully crafted dialogues or open-ended rhetorical discussions among the living, imagined persons, and, often, the dead. Modern historians, however, would risk professional suicide by following the dialogic form, leaving all the possible arguments without resolution. We must decide what we think the dead meant despite the differences in language, time, and culture that separate us.

What is the method? Conversations with the dead require a special time and place much like a ritual. Machiavelli’s evening leisure in his private study became “the ancient courts of ancient men” who welcomed him kindly to “taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born.”2 The result of the conversation was a certain understanding. It was an engagement with the humanità of the long dead. For Machiavelli, at least, the conversation resulted in catharsis and the purgation of stress: “for four hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer fear poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death: I become completely part of them.”2 His understanding becomes, to put it in modern terms, the identification between historians and their subjects. I must admit that I, along with many of my colleagues in Italian history, tend to identify with Machiavelli because he understood the dilemmas of his time better than anyone else, because his lucid prose makes his world come alive, and because his commitment to republican virtue over princely tyranny suits our modern biases. Sitting in my study reading my documents seems akin to his taste, as he put it, for the “food” for which he was born.

Identification, however, is risky. By becoming part of someone else we may achieve understanding but lose the capacity for judgment and lose the very advantage of distance that historians have long claimed makes our judgments better than those who came before us, the morning news, or the latest political rant. As Jill Lepore discovered while stroking a lock of Noah Webster’s hair kept in an envelope at Amherst College Library, “finding out and writing about people, living or dead, is tricky work. It is necessary to balance intimacy with distance while at the same time being inquisitive to the point of invasiveness.”5

There is also the danger of what might be called the “mirror effect,” or seeing oneself in the documents rather than the distant, distinct, different past. Mirror, mirror, in my documents, which of my ideas is the fairest of all? As a historian, I have had the ambition to pursue “dead history,” a realm truly of the dead not a reflection of me or my concerns, but that ambition harbors an illusion. The inhabitants of the historical past are often reflections in a distorted mirror of the present—a fun-house mirror even of myself. In Dead Certainties, Simon Schama faced up to, “the habitually insoluble quandary of the historian: how to live in two worlds at once; how to take the broken, mutilated remains of something or someone from the ‘enemy lines’ of the documented past and restore it to life or give it a decent interment in our own time and place.”6 Despite the dangers of identification or the mirror effect, presiding over a conversation with the dead can be the source of the greatest pleasure in our craft. It is in those occasional moments of enlightenment, even purgation, when I think the dead have answered my questions and I understand their responses.

In this address, I want to restore a bit of life to the past by recounting four kinds of conversations with the dead. These people lived in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries in Italy. Italy, of course, did not yet exist as a country, and the Tuscan tongue had not yet established itself as the lingua franca of the peninsula. The first conversation is with a marginally literate family of Sienese peasants who lived on the borders of the urban Renaissance with its intense emphasis on literacy and writing of all sorts. They spoke Tuscan-Italian even if they could not write it. The second conversation is with a group of thoroughly illiterate peasants who lived in the backwater region of Friuli far from the urban Renaissance of Siena and who have communicated to me through the records of their annual payments in kind to their landlords or, more often, their failure to pay their contracted rents and through their ritualized violence in moments of insurrection. Their language was one of action—of submission or protest—and as speakers of Friulano, the Tuscan-Italian of Siena was utterly foreign. The third conversation is with an involuntary nun, Suor Arcangela Tarabotti, who lived in seventeenth-century Venice and who wrote in Venetian-Italian with the intensity of a woman imprisoned by the circumstances of her life. She failed to find much sympathy or many readers in her lifetime. In the past few decades, however, her works have been adopted into the feminist canon. The fourth is with her even more radical contemporary in Venice, Ferrante Pallavicino, a restless friar who, writing in the more universal Italian, became the most popular satirist of his age. He was an ardent critic of the clerical establishment and perhaps an unbeliever who paid the price for offending the powerful religious with his life.

My first two conversations with the dead are the most difficult to sustain because these dead souls can barely answer the questions I want to ask, not because they want for Machiavelli’s prized humanity but because they lacked full literacy. Yet their thoughts, deeds, sufferings, and loves form the most fertile soil of history. I want to converse with the peasants who lived for the most part without books, paper, and ink, but who inhabited the fringes of the first great urbanized literate culture in Europe. The late Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia threw down the gauntlet. For the peasants, “history does not exist … [but] What about my father? What about your father? And the rumbling of their empty bellies, the voice of their hunger? Do you believe this will be heard in history? That there will be a historian with an ear keen enough to hear?”7 I have wanted to be that historian, but it is hard to do. Nevertheless, the ubiquity of written records in Italy makes it possible, even indirectly, to hear the voices of the peasants who faced the travails of weather and the market. The task for the historian is to work out a method for hearing those voices. Carlo Ginzburg has famously pointed the way by reading the transcriptions of Inquisition trials of those peasants whose beliefs did not conform to the canons of Catholicity. His most noted example, the Friulan miller Menocchio, read texts in a kind of literal fashion that blanketed his own peasant culture over what he read. He got in trouble not for any writings but for his inability to keep his mouth shut about his cosmological speculations. His ramblings before the Inquisitors offer a rich insight into the weird and wonderful culture of the peasants who flourished on the margins of literate society.8

In a different direction from Ginzburg’s, my initial questions have tended toward the mundane details of farm life and the challenges created by the forces external to the farm—those of exploitative lords, pillaging soldiers, and changing labor conditions, such as the transition from serfdom to leasing land and sharecropping. The medievalist from the University of Siena, Duccio Balestracci, has made my first conversation possible through his transcription and publication of two parchment-bound farming diaries kept by generations of a peasant family who lived in the environs of Siena in central Tuscany in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They could not write themselves but asked others to make notations in the diaries for them. The diaries, in fact, are written in the hands of thirty different people. The most diligent diarist of the family, Benedetto del Massarizia, worked his own fields but rented and share-cropped others, making him both a freeholder and a sharecropper. Most of what he wrote concerned small transactions: “Benedetto di Cristofano Palmieri … exchanged with us 1 heifer for an old ox, and he owes us a heifer, and we agreed that we would pay him twenty-one lire in addition for the heifer … .”9 My historical training has led me to take a dim view of sharecropping as an exploitative agricultural system that did not allow peasants to accumulate the rewards of their labor, but in our historical conversation del Massarizia disagreed with me. He was a crafty businessman who entered into sharecropping (mezzadria) contracts for the modest income they produced as a hedge to protect the plots he owned outright from creditors. For del Massarizia sharecropping was a kind of income insurance. If rampaging soldiers or bad weather destroyed his crops, he would then owe to a landlord only half of what he could salvage rather than the full loan due to the moneylenders upon whom he had to rely between planting and harvest for his own freehold. With an elderly mother, five boys and two girls to feed, del Massarizia saw advantages to sharecropping: “Since I want to support them, it is best for me to remain a sharecropper, for on my own land I cannot support myself.”10 He also harvested wheat and other grains, made wine, pressed olives, sold wood, pastured pigs, and fueled his most lucrative investment, a lime kiln. To use modern jargon, he diversified his portfolio. He was a subaltern whose diary constituted a weapon of the weak, but this enterprising farmer managed to keep his creditors at bay. It was a close-run race from destitution. His brother left an impoverished widow unable to provide their daughter with a dowry. Within two generations, all of del Massarizia’s toil and worry came to naught as his progeny lost it all.11

Although debts and taxes burdened him they could be hedged or negotiated, especially during his lifetime when persistent labor shortages gave him an advantage. But his gnawing fear of starvation and soldiers was a fear he shared with other peasants throughout the peninsula. It was a fear that city dwellers usually escaped since Italian towns stored grain for lean times to prevent bread riots and town walls usually protected them from soldiers except after a prolonged siege or internal betrayal.12

My second conversation is with peasants from the impoverished region of Friuli who faced starvation and the scourge of war between 1509 and 1511. Unlike the landowning and entrepreneurial Benedetto del Massarizia in Siena, they had little choice but to rebel against their aristocratic landlords.13 A little more than a decade before the uprising of 1509, Ottoman raiders had enslaved thousands and stripped the region of food. Then, just before the uprising, war broke out between the Holy Roman Empire and the Republic of Venice, swarming the villages with mercenaries bent on pillage. Lacking the peasant diary that gave me an interlocutor in Siena, I had to resort to the rent rolls (rotuli) of the aristocratic landlords to find faint echoes of the voices of the peasants. The rolls of the Colloredo estate in the tiny village of Sterpo, home to 29 families in 1509, are especially rich and complete. The roll for each year lists the name of every tenant family, what rents were due, and what they managed to deliver to the steward. Unlike in Tuscany, sharecropping was not an option in Friuli. Instead, peasants leased their plots and paid a fixed annual rent in kind that invariably overvalued the productive capacity of the land so that the tenants were chronically behind in their payments.14 Paolo Cammarosano’s equipe of researchers at the University of Trieste found that between 1371 and 1453, for example, only 67 percent of the wheat, 66 percent of the oats, and 59 percent of the millet due to landlords in the region were ever paid.15 Although no longer serfs and technically free to sell their labor to the highest bidder, these permanently indebted tenants survived at the sufferance of the landlord, who could evict them at any time.

To understand more about the peasants’ travails, I sought interlocutors in the archives and asked them my historian’s questions. Their answers were indirect, desperate whisperings of suffering in the otherwise silent records. The closest I can come to a real conversation with these dead has been imaginary, “generating not proofs, but historical possibilities,” to borrow the words of Natalie Zemon Davis.16 Chronic indebtedness in Sterpo became acute when rents came due in July 1509. Barely one in ten of the Colloredo tenants paid a full rent and about two-thirds paid nothing at all. The peasants’ muffled voices appear in terse notes in the steward’s hand: “agreed that he need not pay,” “he owes past rents,” “he owes for the last years,” “he owes all the past rents,” “she owes,” “they owe.”17

At a tense moment when the local peasant militia of Sterpo was drilling on the village green, they seized an opportunity, charged across the castle bridge, and pillaged and burned the castle. As the rent-roll from four years later put it, “the castle, mills, and houses that were in that place were ruined at the time that the nobles were persecuted by the peasants.”18 The loudest cry from the peasants of Sterpo, however, emerges from the silences in the subsequent records. After 1509 the peasant families of Sterpo began to disappear: 29 in 1509, 13 in 1510, and only 6 by 1513. More than three-quarters of the tenants vanished. What happened? Were the rebels driven off the land? Did many starve? Did plundering soldiers deliver the coup de grâce? I do not know. There is a clue from the peasant parliament, which promulgated in November 1509 Eleven Articles on behalf of all the villages of Friuli and put into words what may have motivated the Sterpo rebels. The articles are all about economic grievances. They lacked, however, the religious language inspired by Martin Luther that gave the German Peasants Revolt of 1525 a revolutionary substance based on the doctrine of the freedom of all Christians.19 In Friuli the little Sterpo revolt prompted a broader conflagration just two years later, producing a conversation through violence. Facing the limits of a conversation with the dead, I hear the clamor of the protest and imagine the suffering, but little else.

From the violent but mostly inarticulate cries of peasants, I move ahead a century and pass to the baggy verbiage of two seventeenth-century literary rebels. Whereas peasant rebels lacked access to the literary world, most seventeenth-century Italian intellectuals, inhibited by the surveillance of the Holy Office and Habsburg hegemony almost everywhere on the peninsula except for Venice, lacked the capacity for rebellious let alone revolutionary action. As the great seventeenth-century Venetian polemicist and political theorist Paolo Sarpi put it, “When valiant men write, it is a sign that they cannot act.”20 Venetian women and men wrote with a passionate logorrhea during the seventeenth century, none more so than two intellectuals. Suor Arcangela Tarabotti and Ferrante Pallavicino were both encumbered by religious vows, which they did their best to ignore. For them and other contemporary literary figures, Venice offered an island of intellectual freedom where, as one literary scholar has put it, “words were not separate from facts,” even as rhetorical conventions, self-censorship, and the necessary circumlocutions for publication often tugged words away from facts.21

Conversing with peasants relies on social reconstruction. Conversing with intellectuals relies on literary analysis. Penetrating the round-about prose of late Renaissance and Baroque writers who had to insinuate rather than declare meaning presents a different kind of challenge from reconstructing the lives, feelings, and thoughts of the illiterate from agricultural records. In both cases, keeping the conversation with the dead going leaves us perhaps “doomed to be forever hailing someone,” as Simon Schama put it, “who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.”22 As historians we cannot help but try. Natalie Zemon Davis said about microhistory: “the stubborn search for direct evidence is the historian’s heartbeat. Gaps in the evidence can be left open as mysteries to ponder or can be filled with well-grounded speculation, but the desire to tell a good story is always in exchange with the hunger to know.”23

The microhistorical impulse to tell a good story is not the same as conversing with the dead. Microhistory demands context about persons, places, and times. Conversations with the dead are much less and much more. They are about capturing—perhaps only in a metaphoric way—those few moments of understanding among people when we appreciate what and who the other was. Although the conversations I am rehearsing are no more than metaphors, historians often think through metaphors. We write about “revolutions,” a metaphor borrowed from astronomy as in the dramatic intellectual challenge initiated by Nicolaus Copernicus’s book, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), or about “crises,” a metaphor borrowed from medicine. One of the problems is that our historical conversation partners would not understand our questions, even as we ardently try to understand their answers.24

Born in 1604 to an upper middle-class (cittadino) family in Venice, Elena Cassandra Tarabotti, known to us by the name she acquired with her monastic vows, Suor Arcangela Tarabotti, suffered the fate of many young women in the seventeenth century when she was confined to a convent at age thirteen.25 With a pronounced limp that her father believed made her unmarriageable and with five sisters in need of dowries, Tarabotti found herself abandoned by her own family. She had little contact with them in later life, stating they had “imprisoned” her (her characterization) in Convent Hell, the title of her first book.26 A reluctant inmate, she was not afraid to reveal her feelings. Her most dangerous thoughts were unpublishable during her lifetime and her Convent Hell did not find print until 1990. (The edition I consulted was privately printed in Italian in Monee, Illinois of all places in 2021.)27 Her major polemic, Paternal Tyranny, was also unpublishable during her lifetime, appearing two years after her death from a Protestant publisher under a suitably nonthreatening title, Naiveté Betrayed [Simplicità ingannata] (Leiden, 1654), with the authorial pseudonym Galerana Baratotti, an anagram of Arcangela Tarabotti.

Tarabotti’s cris de cuor was both personal and theoretical. She lamented the fate of young Venetian girls whose fathers “do not offer the most beautiful and virtuous brides to Jesus but the most repellant and deformed, and if in their family there are daughters who are lame, hunchbacked and crippled or idiotic by natural deficiencies rather than by any fault of their own, they are condemned to prison for the rest of their lives.”28 Abandoned daughters found themselves in “convents [that] take the place of a ship’s bilge, where [fathers] cast all their filthy refuse and then boast of having offered up a sacrifice—even to the point of adorning the brows of illegitimate daughters, often born of adulterous liaisons, with holy veils.”29 Fathers and brothers, not wanting to empty their coffers and deprive themselves of their comforts, allowed only one daughter at home and condemned the rest to the “intricate labyrinth enclosing them.”30 The women were forced “to dwell in life-long prisons” where the memory of those things lost was a constant torment.31 The men were blind and deaf to the nuns’ laments as the seasons and years went by. They were buried before they were dead.

In Convent Hell, she described the lugubrious celebration of her own vows in which she prostrated herself on the floor, tasting the cold stone with her mouth while a black cloth was thrown over her head. She felt she was attending her own funeral, which she was symbolically. To her the ceremony was a tragedy played by emblematic characters: fraud, pretense, hypocrisy, deceit, and betrayal. Of all the ceremonial sacrifices required of the new inmate, none seemed as deeply hurtful to her womanhood as the one that took place after her vows when her head was shaved of the thick tresses she had enjoyed since childhood. Tarabotti went on, “Omnis homo mendax” [all men are liars]. “All men lie on every occasion, but when they assassinate a girl with these miseries, they lie and betray her more than ever.”32 They promise her magnificent and sumptuous furnishings for her cell, all that is beautiful and gracious from home, saying, “all this will be yours.”32 But these are false promises, and no one loves a liar. Not only must cloistered women give up matrimony but also, they are deprived of all the pleasures of fine clothing, jewelry, and all the things that delight the eye and stimulate the spirit. The waters of memory flow, but the young girls cannot taste a single drop for the remainder for their lives. Indoctrinated with a thousand lies, they can never go beyond the convent walls because fathers say it is not honorable for a daughter to go roaming about. The fathers say a small garden is as fine as a grand villa, making everything in the world look the same. Mothers go along with this farce, utterly failing to recognize the disproportionate effect of imprisonment in comparison to the risks that freedom threatened to their daughters’ honor.

Tarabotti’s lament rose above the personal to a political critique of “reason of state” based on the insight that the injustices inflicted on girls and women were a structural feature of “the defense, preservation, and expansion of the State.”33 With her characteristic irony, she proposed a solution many decades before Jonathan Swift’s modest proposal about selling poor Irish children as food for the rich.34 Instead of imprisoning girls, she suggested, boys should be killed at birth, allowing only one surviving male per family, a lesser tragedy than burying girls alive. In assigning blame, she addressed Venice, that “Most Serene Queen” herself:

You grant unconditional freedom to those of all nations, even to those [that is the Jews] who killed the Holy Son of your Most Holy Patroness. From the very beginning of building your city in these lagoons, eminence sprang forth from the depths where Paternal Tyranny, hidden under the majesty of your Senators’ robes, finally planted a seat in the Ducal Palace and dominated the entire city like vassals in the footsteps of princes …. The most noble lords have embraced this monster from Hell, paternal tyranny. My words are in no way intended to besmirch religion, but instead to rail against the fathers and relatives who violently put their daughters in coffins … . I don’t want to beg you to believe my sincerity, since in any case, for one who has lost her liberty, there is nothing more to lose.35

Nourished by her personal sense of betrayal and her double alienation from her family and the larger society of Venice, Tarabotti analyzed patriarchy in historical, legal, and structural terms. The Roman law principle of patria potestas granted the patriarch of the family the power of life and death over his offspring and members of his household. Until his death, he alone owned all the property in the family. He alone could determine who his children married, and he alone must be obeyed by all in his household, including his spouse.36 With the requirement of consent by both parties for a canonical marriage, however, the Church provided a theoretical alternative to the paternal absolutism of Roman law, creating conflicting marital codes that pitted the authority of fathers against the freedom of the Christian, which made possible many Romeo and Juliet elopements. To prevent family anarchy, therefore, fathers felt obliged to maintain strict surveillance of their daughters and to lock up the unmarried ones at home or in a convent. Although Venice did not ground its legal codes in Roman law, it followed the social strictures of upper-class Italian society and systematically linked family structures with the authority of the state. With its habits of wasting the fertility of its daughters, to borrow from Jutta Gisela Sperling’s analysis, Venice went further than other states in the Catholic world by confining unprecedented numbers of young women in convents. By the time Tarabotti took her vows, perhaps a third to a half of middle- and upper-class Venetian women had been confined to convents, leaving many frustrated young women with good reasons for behaving badly.37 By the middle of the seventeenth century, these structural trends, magnified by dowry inflation and a rigid insistence on maintaining the genetic purity of the ruling class by legally prohibiting marriages outside of the nobility, vastly reduced the number of potential marriages to the point that Venetian nobles began to commit demographic suicide. Running out of noble males to fill the offices of the republic and empire, the Senate sold memberships in the nobility to provincial aristocrats, putting the lie to the principle that a republic of virtue could only be sustained by the genes of the ruling class. Although Tarabotti’s father was not noble, his decisions for her life mirrored the broader social trends of Venetian society.38 As she put it, fathers want their daughters out of the house with as little damage to their purse as possible.39

These fathers, she wrote, are “tyrants from Hell, monsters of nature, Christians in name, and devils in deeds.”40 How is it possible, she asked, to be so cruel as to torture the bodies of your daughters to the point that they are in danger of losing their very souls as well as their freedom? Rather than imprisonment in a cloister, it would have been better had the day of their births been the day of their deaths. Tarabotti’s understandable tirades often dissolved into repetitive fury, but what made her so unusual was her ability to transmute that fury into an analysis of the sad social state of young women in Catholic Italy. These two early works, Convent Hell and Paternal Tyranny, I take it, represent the “true” Tarabotti with whom I want to converse. When she failed to publish either book her ambitions to be a published writer took over and she softened her rhetoric. Convent Paradise, which she wrote after her first two books but published in her lifetime, granted her a modicum of literary fame because she abandoned polemic to praise those nuns who, in contrast to herself, had a true calling. She did not give up her youthful autobiographical condemnation of forced monachization but refocused it by defending voluntary nuns.

Keeping with my conceit of a conversation with Sister Arcangela, I imagine talking with her through the bars separating all visitors from the nuns in the chaperoned place of the parlatorio, the hall where nuns could meet family, friends, and outsiders, such as a historian from the future. Tarabotti was known for her defense of women’s fashions, and in protest of the strict regulations for the cut of a nun’s habit, she argued that female luxury is moral. Women have a duty, in fact, to embellish their own vanity.41 Outside the convent, Venetian women were fashion setters notorious for exposing their flesh, including even going topless to the casinos and opera while maintaining anonymity by wearing a mask. The nuns tried to keep up by abandoning the obligatory woolen underwear for silk and lace and, most dangerously, for wearing low-necked habits that revealed too much. After a visit to another convent, the elderly Patriarch noticed. He ordered “that neither the breast nor any other body part should be exposed.”42

Sister Arcangela would have arrived at the parlatorio grate elegantly turned out in her black Benedictine habit. As a keen observer of Venetian couture, which set the standard for the rest of Europe, she certainly knew the latest fashions and used the parlatorio to see and be seen. The parlatorio was, moreover, vital for Tarabotti’s aspirations to become a published writer. It was here that she exchanged books with other writers, listened to critiques of her drafts, and, as her reputation grew, met prominent intellectual patrons who could act as go-betweens with publishers. The parlatorio became for her a place of tension where she was perpetually reminded of what she was missing in the outside world and a place of moral support where she conversed with influential women and men who took her ideas seriously and helped her publish books less shocking than her unpublished first two.

The closest the historian might come to a conversation with the dead is the letter, as Petrarch suggested in his epistles to the Ancients.43 After Tarabotti published the Antisatira, one of her screeds against misogyny, male critics argued no woman was capable of writing so well. In response, she published a collection of her letters as evidence of her erudition. The letter form establishes what seems on the surface a private conversation between writer and recipient, a written version of a conversation. Tarabotti’s letter book is, like those of her contemporaries, a crafted means for establishing her place in what would later be called the Republic of Letters and she took advantage of the epistolary collection to breach the convent’s walls.44 In one of her letters, she asked for help in finding a book entitled the Soul of Zeno, the supposed biography of the late Renier Zeno (1575?–1647), the Venetian senator notorious for his criticisms of the Holy See and Roman Curia. But the book never existed. Rumors that such a book had been privately printed were likely an attempt to misdirect the gaze of the religious authorities to censor the book, or perhaps it was just a joke at their expense. She searched ardently for the unfindable book because, as she wrote, “I am curious to speak with the souls of dead men, for, to tell the truth, one hears nothing but lies from the living.”45 Like Petrarch and Machiavelli before her, conversations with the dead offered candor. For Petrarch it was fidelity to good Latin and ethical principles, for Machiavelli realistic political models, and for Tarabotti alternatives to the prevarications of male-dominated Catholic Venetian society.

Her letters became a forum, in the words of her modern editors, for “self-promotion, self-positioning, and self-defense—this last being of particular significance to her given the continual criticism she faced.”46 Writing to the French ambassador whose daughters she had tutored, Tarabotti mocked her critics:

If these men take offense, it matters little to me; he who stings must be stung and he who damages another’s reputation deserves to have his honor pierced. These captious intellects quibble too much with me, and they have no regard for the fact that I am a woman and that I profess no knowledge, since I came to live in these cloisters when I was eleven years old [sic] without ever having basked in the light of learning, as I testify in all of my writing … . Let then say what they will; we will let them chatter … .47

Subject to strict censorship by the abbess, letter exchanges involving nuns required outside help to evade convent restrictions. Her most important link to the outside world became her patron, the influential Giovan Francesco Loredan, who wrote a preface to Convent Paradise and was the dedicatee of her letter collection. Her brother-in-law, Giacomo Pighetti, probably introduced her to Loredan, the founder of the libertine, anti-clerical Academy of the Unknowns of which Pighetti was also a member. In their writings, the Unknowns anticipated my thesis about conversations. Their intellectual style consisted of oral presentations followed by debate, which they called “conversations.” The historian Gino Benzoni ungenerously satirized them as “garrulous cicadas gathered in the academies. There they recited, with great precision, their blatherings. And then they published them.”48 His criticism does not do justice to their novelty and anticipation of modern semiotic theory and oddly echoes the Catholic enemies of the Unknowns who deployed the pejorative label “libertines” to describe them.

Figure 1.Ex ignoto notus (“The known from the unknown”), emblem of the Academy of the Unknowns. The engraving depicts the Nile River flowing from its then unknown source to its well-known delta. From Girolamo Brusoni, Jacopo Gaddi or Giovanni Francesco Loredan (?), Le Glorie degl’ Incogniti (Venice, 1647), facing page 1. Photo courtesy of the Newberry Library.

Figure 1.Ex ignoto notus (“The known from the unknown”), emblem of the Academy of the Unknowns. The engraving depicts the Nile River flowing from its then unknown source to its well-known delta. From Girolamo Brusoni, Jacopo Gaddi or Giovanni Francesco Loredan (?), Le Glorie degl’ Incogniti (Venice, 1647), facing page 1. Photo courtesy of the Newberry Library.

Tarabotti’s connection to Loredan and the Unknowns made her career as a writer. Of her 256 published letters, seventy were to members of the Unknowns, but her relationship with the all-male Unknowns was fraught. The Unknowns thrived on iconoclastic debate, often at the expense of women, and some members adopted a libertine stance toward sexual mores. Despite their fascination with the non-conformist nun, some of her so-called friends in the Unknowns taunted her and ridiculed her defense of women.49 Even her patron Loredan often disappointed her.

Although the Academy of the Unknowns painted itself with more than a tinge of anti-clerical non-conformity, that did not disqualify it as a powerful cultural institution that represented the dominant strain of thought among the Venetian ruling class during the first half of the seventeenth century. As defenders of Venice, the members of the Unknowns engaged in an intense publishing campaign against Rome and the Barberini papacy. The Unknowns, “far from being considered a collection of bizarre spirits without a following,” in the words of Mario Infelise, “came instead to represent comprehensively the ideology of the majority of the Republic’s ruling class.”50 Taking advantage of the ambiguity about what was legal in Venetian publishing, during the 1630s and 1640s the Unknowns and their allies among printers and booksellers published what had been inconceivable in earlier periods, relying on false places and dates of publication and the protection of powerful nobles such as Loredan.

Among the Unknowns was my final interlocutor, Ferrante Pallavicino, who served as Loredan’s private secretary and who depended on the older man’s financial help and protection. Pallavicino readily embraced Loreden’s political program that treated the Barberini papacy and the Habsburg monarchy as the banes of Venice’s republican liberties and toleration of free thought.51 Both Tarabotti and Pallavicino depended on the patronage of Loredan and the Unknowns, both evinced an abiding hostility toward the forces of oppression in their time, and both were members of religious orders. But in other respects they differed dramatically, not the least in their attitudes about gender—Tarabotti the proto-feminist and Pallavicino the arch-misogynist. They were near exact contemporaries. Tarabotti lived from 1604 to 1652, and Pallavicino from 1615 to 1644. They lived in the same city and both were notable literary figures, but I have no evidence they ever met. I doubt that Tarabotti would have invited the notorious libertine into the convent of Sant’Anna. Nevertheless, they certainly knew about each other’s works, and in her writings Tarabotti attempted to refute Pallavicino’s misogyny. Abandoned by family and friends, the nun Tarabotti wrote books and letters seething with a sense of personal betrayal. Irascible, irresponsible, and irreverent, the friar Pallavicino wrote books seething with personal mutiny against his Church.

An engaging writer, Pallavicino published a remarkable twenty-six books between 1635 and 1640. They were extraordinarily popular not just in Italy but also in Protestant circles abroad where they were available in English, French, German, and Swedish. Born in Parma to an old but down-on-its luck aristocratic family who had ceded authority over their territories during the previous generation, Pallavicino followed the usual pattern for dislodged Italian aristocrats by finding a living in the Church, in his case as a Lateranensi canon. Pallavicino took vows at age sixteen before he had the chance to taste—as one of his admirer’s put it—the carnal delights of liberty and the pleasures of the world.52 His order seems to have been unusually lax. While still a teenage novice, he took leave from his prayers and studies to visit the houses of the order in France. Instead of a religious pilgrimage, he scampered off to the loose morals of Venice, took up with a woman, and wrote disingenuous letters to his superior describing the sights of France that he never saw. He dabbled in a few courses at Venice’s university in Padua where he wrote a flattering panegyric of the liberties of the republic, which put him under the protection of the Venetian Senate, thereby enabling him to engage in his intellectual crusade against the three pillars of the Counter Reformation: the Society of Jesus, the Habsburg monarchy, and the Barberini papacy. After he returned from Padua to Venice, he enjoyed comfortable lodgings in the monastery of his order, which now houses the art galleries of the Accademia di Belle Arti, spent a few hours writing each morning, and cavorted with prostitutes in the evenings.

Echoing the Unknowns’ Socratic and conversational methods, Pallavicino’s writing style provided the ideal cover for his extreme views. The Unknowns valued word play, indeterminacy, and, especially, the idea that language is dynamic. But that dynamism can be lost in the fixed text of a printed page. To compensate, the Unknowns, like many writers in Renaissance Italy, fashioned their texts as dialogues.53 Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632) adopted the dialogic ploy to argue for Copernicanism, but in his case it did not work. The book led to his arrest, trial before the Roman Inquisition, and permanent house arrest. Writing was a dangerous pursuit in Counter Reformation Italy, as Pallavicino would discover.

Keeping a poker face for controversial ideas became a parlor game for the Unknowns, who employed pseudonyms and complex metaphors. Hiding the truth through calculated dissimulation from the poisonous eyes of the ecclesiastical authorities followed an ancient axiom that poetry must protect the truth from the vulgar, who would not understand it. Michel de Montaigne argued that the truth must be placed “at the back of the shop” (à l’arrière-boutique), and the motto of the Unknowns, “the known from the unknown” (ex ignoto notus), echoed the same idea.54 The emblem of the Unknowns found on the frontispiece of many of their books showed the river Nile because its origins were then unknown to Europeans. Pallavicino was himself explicit about keeping the truth secret, even as he did his best to promote his own version of the truth in his satirical books.55

More than any other seventeenth-century writer, Pallavicino represented the extremes to which anti-papal rhetoric and religious skepticism could reach in the Catholic world. Without money of his own, he survived on the income from his extremely popular books and by working as Loredan’s private secretary. His novellas, histories, and essays were in such demand in the late 1630s that they sold at a high mark-up. An eager public awaited each of his new books to see what outrageous things Pallavicino would write about the Barberini pope Urban VIII, his cardinal nephews, or the Jesuits.56

By his own account Pallavicino was a satirist, not a theologian or a philosopher, but satirists since Desiderius Erasmus have probably altered public opinions more quickly and more broadly than the serious thinkers. The question that arises from Pallavicino’s satire is exactly what form of religious skepticism it represents. His books depicting the Roman Church as unredeemable included The Rhetoric of Whores, which lampoons the Society of Jesus in the manner of Pietro Aretino by having an older prostitute give lessons to a neophyte that are paraphrases of passages from the rhetorical manual read in Jesuit schools.57 In The Celestial Divorce, Jesus asks God the Father for permission to divorce his bride the Roman Church because of her intolerable adulteries.58 The Baccinata condemned the Barberini papacy, called upon the European princes to attack Rome, depose Pope Urban VIII, and organize a General Council.59 Pallavicino’s argument was a practical appeal to the conciliar tradition within the Church, but the new council should be strictly subordinated to the princes of Europe to punish a vicious, corrupt pope, a harkening back to the imperial position during Investiture Controversy of the eleventh century. In his heavy-handed satire, Pallavicino managed to slip in a deeply subversive idea: the Church should be subject to the secular powers, which would be better guardians of morality than the popes. It was a complete rejection of the core principles of the papal monarchy that was, of course, a Protestant idea embraced most clearly by the Lutherans and Anglicans.

Pallavicino’s highly personalized satires of high church officials were his undoing. A secret agent working for the pope’s nephew convinced Pallavicino that no less a personage than Cardinal Richelieu wanted to employ him as an official historian and invited him to France. Pallavicino followed his betrayer right to the gates of papal Avignon where he was ambushed, imprisoned, tried, and convicted for lèse majesté. The papal authorities ordered his head chopped off and his body dumped in an unconsecrated grave. He was twenty-eight. His capital crime was not heresy but his refusal to acknowledge the pope’s universal sovereign power, the very claim that had enraged Pallavicino and his Venetian friends the most. Of that crime he was certainly guilty. How was the savvy rebel, who fooled his monastic superior and ingratiated himself in the highest circles of the Venetian aristocracy, so gullible?

I am not the first to have imagined a conversation with the dead Ferrante Pallavicino. He was such a remarkable personality and his death so threatening to others who prized intellectual freedom that soon after his execution someone published, The Soul of Ferrante Pallavicino (L’Anima di Ferrante Pallavicino), the most virulent attack on the Catholic Church to come from the circle of the Unknowns and probably anyone who was not a Protestant. The conceit of the book is exactly the theme of this article—that the soul of the deceased Ferrante Pallavicino returned to earth one evening to carry on a conversation with an old friend named Henrico. The book was published anonymously with a false place of publication and is dated 1643, the year before Pallavicino was executed, certainly all an attempt to obscure its true origins.60 There are clues that the author was Loredan himself, who had once used the pseudonym Henrico Giblet, and thus the book may be an imaginary dialogue between the living Loredan and his deceased young friend.61

In their dialogue, Ferrante and Henrico feed off each other’s skepticism, progressively making ever-more radical attacks on Christianity as might happen in a real conversation between two like-minded friends who egg each other on. They talk about how the scandals of the Curia have encouraged infidels and heretics to see the Christian religion as superstition. It has become so bad that Pallavicino’s soul in Heaven reports that not a single pope has been saved since Sixtus V, the reform-minded pope who loathed the Jesuits and limited the size of the College of Cardinals but who died in 1590 more than a half century before. That placed the intervening eight popes in Hell.

The Soul of Ferrante Pallavicino navigates beyond the Unknowns’ usual satire to enter theologically treacherous shoals. Henrico asks Ferrante how it is that souls, which are without bodies, can be subjected to physical penalties after death such as the torments of purgatory and hell so often described in sermons, depicted in paintings, and central to Catholic theology in disputes with Protestants. After all, it was precisely the non-Biblical doctrine of purgatory that prompted Martin Luther to pen his 95 theses against indulgences.62 To render souls capable of feeling physical pain, they must have organs. But if, after death, souls can feel pain without bodies, then there was no need for God to have given them bodies in the first place. Henrico posits that the only solution to this logical problem is to reject the belief in suffering souls after death and to accept that the only real punishment after death is the deprivation of divine grace. Pallavicino’s soul in Heaven, however, disagrees with Henrico’s assertion of the power of grace. Many theologians have argued as has Henrico, says Ferrante, but his own experience with execution leads him to report that bodily death is much worse than the deprivation of salvation, a belief contrary to all Christian thought. Without life one does not have the capacity to comprehend the state of glory God grants through grace. In other words, the recently deceased Pallavicino claims, we value salvation only because we value life. We only imagine salvation because we do not want to lose life.

Pallavicino and Henrico move on to discuss the last judgment. Pallavicino argues that to condemn many souls to eternal punishment would be to contradict God’s mercy. They both agree that all souls in possession of reason, the divine gift that distinguishes humanity from animals, would be saved. If only a few were saved, then the incarnation of the word would be useless and without infinite value. Infinite mercy would not leave room for anyone to be damned unless they lost their humanity through the absence of reason. “And it is very true and constant that men do not sin with the intention of offending God but to satisfy their appetites; they are not made less guilty by punishment, which is incompatible with the infinite mercy of God.”63 The satisfaction of bodily desires was a persistent theme in Pallavicino’s life and writings. Despite the evident truth about divine mercy, Pallavicino says, the Christian religion instills fear, “indeed even the fear of a madman.” The only solution, therefore, is to recognize that “men have the ability to establish laws over God” (“gli Huomini abbiano facoltà di componere Leggi sopra Dio.”)64 That is a radical claim. If humans can impose laws on God, then what is God? Does God have any influence, let alone power over human events? Pushed further, would there be any reason for there to be a God except, as the deists claim, as the Prime Mover of the Universe? In other books, Loredan even questions the creation, which makes him, in the possible guise of Pallavicino, more an atheist than a deist. Whoever authored the book, however, was no Voltaire. The intellectual framework of The Soul of Ferrante Pallavicino follows the model of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (1321), a visit between the living Dante and the dead soul Virgil, rather than the possibilities opened by the New World or the New Science. The Soul of Ferrante Pallavicino is a prime example of the possibilities of unbelief without the accoutrements of modernity.

Pallavicino’s soul, speaking from beyond the grave in the conceit of the book, has taken the Christian promise of divine salvation and turned it on its head. The whole scheme, not just of Church imposed penalties but of the divine judgment itself, contradicts the Christian claims of God’s infinite mercy. Morality does not require religion. Morality does not even require God. Human laws can guarantee morality, as the Venetian Servite friar Paolo Sarpi, who had himself faced a failed assassination attempt by agents of a previous pope, had argued.65 In the book, unbelief became a higher ethical position than belief itself. This, in the end, is the strongest claim of the “people who believe in nothing,” as Gabriel Naudé, the French admirer of the Unknowns, put it.66 In the end, the alleged atheism of Loredan and Pallavicino demonstrates the paradox of atheism—about nothing one can say nothing. Both men still derived their ethics from the Bible.

In this address, I have visited four conversations with the dead, emulating Sister Tarabotti’s desire. As she put it, “I am curious to speak with the souls of dead men, for, to tell the truth, one hears nothing but lies from the living.”67 I approached the dead through quite diverse methods from scratching for tiny clues in the archives to expanded interrogations of the published writings of people who had literary ambitions. Each method yielded very different results. What I know about the Sienese and Friulan peasants is accidental and fragmentary. They had little interest in the future beyond the survival of their children. Their interests lay in the necessities of the farm, family, and the moment. Tarabotti and Pallavicino wanted future attention to their ideas and looked to the printing press to find it, thereby catching my notice from the very distant future.

Following the Oxford English Dictionary, a conceit is “an elaborate, playful, or ingenious artistic device or concept.”68 Does the conceit of a conversation with the dead amount to anything more? Is it a method? If so, what does it achieve? Machiavelli’s letter at the beginning of this article suggested that having a conversation with dead ancients, however imagined, allowed him to glimpse their humanità through what we might call empathy. In his letter, Machiavelli was singularly revealing of his own humanity—his injured merit, financial worries, life reduced to card games with rustics, and dependence on old friends. What I feel most profound is the psychological liberation he found in historical research because it is the kind of liberation I also find in the paper-laden imaginative space of my study. My conversations were not encounters with ghosts who came with a message for the living but engagements with documents that offer access to the words, thoughts, feelings, and actions of those who lived in the past and that might answer my own curiosity about the truths of the dead. I do not consider the method as a form of proof or a demonstration of why one interpretation might be better than another. The dead do not have agency in these conversations, or perhaps only the agency the documents and I grant them. What the dead represent is not so much their place in some historical schema as their individuality or the shared experiences of a small group. A conversation with the dead is not a microhistory or a biography. It is just a conversation.69 The conceit of a conversation helps keep everyone in their proper place. The dead are dead. The living historian has the voice, the agency, and the opportunity to reanimate the dead as an object of empathy and to give them back their humanity. The dead do not serve the present. They serve themselves, their own time, and their own social situation. They are not our servants. Let them rest in peace, not fight our battles for us. Only they can speak the truth about themselves through the evidence they have left. Like Venice’s literary nun, I too want to hear the truths the dead can tell us.

Edward W. Muir is the Clarence L. Ver Steeg Professor in the Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University and the author of Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice; Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta in Renaissance Italy; Ritual in Early Modern Europe; and The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera.



  1. The letter has been frequently published and translated. I prefer the lively version used in Niccolò Machiavelli, The Portable Machiavelli, ed. and trans. by Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Classics, 1979), 66–71, quote on 67. On the friendship between Machiavelli and Vettori, see John M. Najemy, Between Friends: Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513–1515 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). On the long political legacy of Machiavelli’s republicanism, see Mark Jurdjevic, Guardians of Republicanism: The Valori Family in the Florentine Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) and Jurdjevic, A Great and Wretched City: Promise and Failure in Machiavelli’s Florentine Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). []
  2. Machiavelli, The Portable Machiavelli, 69. [] [] [] [] []
  3. Machiavelli, The Portable Machiavelli, 70. []
  4. Anthony Grafton, “The Republic of Letters in the American Colonies: Francis Daniel Pastorius Makes a Notebook,” American Historical Review 117, no. 1 (2012): 1–39. []
  5. Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” The Journal of American History 88 (2001): 129–44, quote on 129. []
  6. Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (New York: Vintage, 1992), 319. []
  7. Leonardo Sciascia, Il consiglio d’Egitto (Turin: Einaudi, 1963) as quoted in Duccio Balestracci, La zappa e la retorica: Memorie familiari di un contadino Toscano del Quattocento (Florence: Salimbeni, 1984). For the English translation used here, see Duccio Balestracci, The Renaissance in the Fields: Family Memoirs of a Fifteenth-Century Tuscan Peasant, trans. Paolo Squatriti and Betsy Merideth (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1999), vi. []
  8. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980). On the peculiar history of the reception of The Cheese and the Worms see Edward Muir, “Modi diversi di leggere Il formaggio e i vermi,” in Uno storico, un mugnaio, un libro: Carlo Ginzburg, Il formaggio e I vermi, 1976-2002, ed. Aldo Colonnello and Andrea Del Col (Monreale Valcellina: Circolo culturale Menocchio, 2002), 29–34. Ginzburg first explored the method of reading peasant culture through the eye of Inquisition records in The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983). []
  9. Balestracci, The Renaissance in the Fields, 110. []
  10. Balestracci, The Renaissance in the Fields, 47. []
  11. Cf. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) and Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). []
  12. Stephen D. Bowd, Renaissance Mass Murder: Civilians and Soldiers during the Italian Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). []
  13. Edward Muir, Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli during the Renaissance (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 135–51. []
  14. Muir, Mad Blood Stirring, 144–45. []
  15. Paolo Cammarosano, ed., Le campagne friulane nel tardo medioevo: Un’analisi dei registri di censi dei grandi proprietari fondiari (Udine: Casamassima, 1985), 103–107. []
  16. Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press., 1983), viii. See also Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987). []
  17. Muir, Mad Blood Stirring, 145. []
  18. Muir, Mad Blood Stirring, 147. []
  19. Muir, Mad Blood Stirring, 147–51 and Giorgio Politi, Gli statuti impossibili: La rivoluzione tirolese del 1525 e il programma di Michael Gaismair (Torino: Einaudi, 1995). []
  20. Sarpi as quoted in Daria Perocco, “Prose Production in Venice in the Early Seicento,” in Arcangela Tarabotti: A Literary Nun in Baroque Venice, ed. Elissa B. Weaver (Ravenna: Longo Editore, 2006), 73. My translation of the passage differs slightly from Perocco’s. []
  21. Perocco, “Prose Production in Venice in the Early Seicento,” 74. []
  22. Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (New York: Vintage, 1991), 320. []
  23. Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, 89. []
  24. Amy Stanley, Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and her World (New York: Scribner, 2020), 247. []
  25. She variously reported that she took her vows at eleven or thirteen. []
  26. Emilio Zanette, Suor Arcangela Monaca del Seicento Veneziano (Rome-Venice: Istituto per la Collaborazione Culturale, 1960), 3–13. See also Marsha Fazio, Venice, A Discarded Daughter, Arcangela Tarabotti: The Rebel Nun of Baroque Venice (Red Bank, NJ: Newman Springs, 2021). []
  27. Arcangela Tarabotti, L’inferno monacale, without publication information or pagination. The standard critical edition, which was unavailable to me, is edited by Francesca Medioli (Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier, 1990). []
  28. Arcangela Tarabotti, Paternal Tyranny, ed. and trans. Letizia Panizza (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 66. For the critical Italian edition, see Tarabotti, La semplicità ingannata, ed. Simona Bortot (Padua: Il Poligrafo, 2007). []
  29. Tarabotti, Paternal Tyranny, 66. []
  30. Tarabotti, Paternal Tyranny, 67. []
  31. Tarabotti, Paternal Tyranny, 43. []
  32. Tarbotti, L’inferno monacale, unpaginated. [] []
  33. Tarbotti, L’inferno monacale, unpaginated. On the meaning of “reason of state” during that period, see Giovanni Botero, Della ragion di stato: libri dieci: con tre libri delle cause della grandezza e magnificenza delle città (Venice: Gioliti, 1589). []
  34. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland, from Being a Burden on their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (Dublin: S. Harding, 1729). []
  35. Tarabotti, L’inferno monacale, unpaginated. []
  36. Stanley Chojnacki, Women and Men in Renaissance Venice: Twelve Essays on Patrician Society (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000), 153–69. []
  37. Jutta Gisela Sperling, Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999) and Craig Monson, Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010). []
  38. Edward Muir, The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines and Opera (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007). []
  39. Tarabotti, Paternal Tyranny, 116. []
  40. Tarabotti, Paternal Tyranny, 59. []
  41. Arcangela Tarabotti, Antisatire: In Defense of Women, against Francesco Buoninsegni, ed. and trans. Elissa B. Weaver (Toronto: Iter Press, 2020), 29. []
  42. Quoted in Sperling, Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice, 322n31. []
  43. Francesco Petrarca, Petrarch’s Letters to Classical Authors (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2008). []
  44. Arcangela Tarabotti, Letters Familiar and Formal, ed. and trans. Meredith K. Ray and Lynn Lara Westwater (Toronto: Iter Press, 2012), 15–22. []
  45. Tarabotti, Letters Familiar and Formal, 118n186. She reports that her presumed source for the nonexistent book assured her that the book “cannot be found amongst the living and that it was an invention of certain people who said that they had heard that soul wandering around his palazzo.” 252. []
  46. Tarabotti, Letters Familiar and Formal, 17. []
  47. Tarabotti, Letters Familiar and Formal, 152–53. []
  48. Donatella Riposio, Il Laberinto della verità: Aspetti del romanzo libertino del Seicento (Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 1995), 5–8. Quote from Gino Benzoni, “La Vita intellettuale,” in Storia di Venezia dalle origini alla caduta della Serenissima, vol. 7: La Venezia barocca, ed. Gino Benzoni and Gaetano Cozzi (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1997), 850. []
  49. Tarabotti, Letters Familiar and Formal, 23. []
  50. Mario Infelise, “Books and Politics in Arcangela Tarabotti’s Venice,” in Arcangela Tarabotti: A Literary Nun in Baroque Venice, ed. Elissa B. Weaver (Ravenna: Longo Editore, 2006), 62. []
  51. Muir, The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance, 63–107. []
  52. Anonymous, L’Anima di Ferrante Pallavicino (Villafranca: n.p., 1643), 92. []
  53. Muir, The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance, 70. []
  54. Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays, trans. Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958), 177. Cf. John Jeffries Martin, Myths of Renaissance Individualism (Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004), 118. []
  55. Ferrante Pallavicino, Successi del mondo dell’anno MDCXXXVI in Opere scelte di Ferrante Pallavicino (Villafranca: Officina Elzeviriana, 1573). []
  56. Raffaello Urbinati, Ferrante Pallavicino: Il Flagello dei Barberini (Roma: Salerno, 2004). For a bibliography of works by and about Pallavicino see Laura Coci, “Bibliografia di Ferrante Pallavicino,” Studi seicenteschi 24 (1983): 221–306. []
  57. Ferrante Pallavicino, La retorica delle puttane composta conforme li precetti di Cipriano. Dedicata alla università delle cortegiane più celebri in Opere scelte di Ferrante Pallavicino. Pietro Aretino, RagionamentiSei Giornati, ed. R. Marrone (Rome: Newton Compton, 1993). English translation by Raymond Rosenthal, Aretino’s Dialogues (New York: Stein and Day, 1972). The Jesuit textbook was Cipriano Soares, De Arte Rhetorica libri tres. Ex Aristotele, Cicerone & Quinctiliano praecipuè deprompti (Cologne: Maternus Cholinus, 1577). []
  58. Ferrante Pallavicino, Divortio celeste, cagionato dalle dissolutezze della Sposa Romana, et consacrato alla simplicità de’Scropolosi Christiani MDCXXXVI in Opere scelte di Ferrante Pallaavicino. See Muir, The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance, 90–94. []
  59. Ferrante Pallavicino, Baccinata: overo Battarella per le api barberine in occasione della mossa delle armi di N.S. Papa Urbano Ottavo contra Parma … (Nella stamparia di Pasquino a spese di Morforio, 1644). The pseudo-publisher is an obvious joke, typical of the Unknowns, referring to the statue of Pasquino in Rome where Romans attached satirical poems in Roman dialect (“pasquinades”) criticizing the pope. []
  60. Anonymous, L’Anima di Ferrante Pallavicino. []
  61. The attribution to Loredan is speculative, but some library catalogues list him as the author. []
  62. Martin Luther, The Ninety-Five Theses, trans. C. M. and C. H. Jacobs (Eastford, CT: Martino 2018). []
  63. Anonymous, L’Anima di Ferrante Pallavicino, 80. []
  64. Anonymous, L’Anima di Ferrante Pallavicino, 81. Emphasis in quotation is mine. If Loredan were the author, it is worth noting that in another work, L’Adamo (Venice: Guerigli, 1650), he asked whether the death of the soul is implied by Adam’s fall and whether the mortality of the body includes the mortality of the soul. In his view, the death of the soul was the direct consequence of the fall of Adam. L’Adamo has usually attracted scholars’ attention because of its overt misogyny, which Arcangela Tarabotti attacked. I am suggesting that in L’Anima Loredan rejects the immortality of the soul, albeit discreetly and indirectly. []
  65. David Wootton, Paolo Sarpi between Renaissance and Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). []
  66. Naudé is quoted in Giorgio Spini, Ricerca dei libertini: La Teoria dell’impostura delle religioni nel Seicento italiano, rev. ed. (Florence: Nuova Italia, 1983), 6. []
  67. Tarabotti, Letters Familiar and Formal, 118 n186. []
  68. Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 20 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), q.v. “conceit.” []
  69. “And in the method—using stories and people as devices—lies the answer: because microhistorians’ subjects are only devices, they are less likely to fall in love with them, for better or for worse, than are biographers,” Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much,” 144. []