Monaca, Moglie, Serva, Cortigiana

Nun, Wife, Servant, Courtisan.

In light of the recent International Women’s day on the 8th of March I thought I would write about women in Italy.

A little fact sharing:

-post WWII Italian women finally got the right to vote, (over 50 years after NZ), and two years later in 1948 Italian women were granted equality.

This picture is actually Spanish women voting in the 1020s, 20 years before Italian women.

spanish women voting

-women’s representation in parliament is currently 1/3 of all seats, (not unusual anywhere);

-they have one of the lowest employment rates in the EU;

-few senior management roles in Italy are held by women;

-there are unequal standards and expectations of employees, (e.g. women sometimes get fired for being pregnant),

-and sexual and domestic abuse are still quite prevalent.

Until 1981 the criminal code still provided for honor killings.

The title of this post is a portion of a book by Sara F. Matthews-Grieco and Sabina Brevaglieri, eds. Monaca Moglie Serva Cortigiana: Vita e immagine delle donne tra Rinascimento e Controriforma. 2001. Florence. For a link to an english review



Some famous and important Italian women are listed below from both historical and more contemporary times. I have chosen these women simply because they stood out for me. I have put a few words against them in an attempt at briefly conveying their achievements but of course no one’s life can be distilled down into a few words so forgive me. (of course Wiki has played a big role in helping me here).

Important Italian Women.


St Clare of Assisi, (July 16, 1194 – August 11, 1253). Formed the Order of Poor Ladies around the year 1200.

St Catherine of Siena, (March 25, 1347  – April 29, 1380). A patron Saint of Italy, worked tirelessly to bring the papacy back to Rome from France.

st catherine of siena


Matilda of Tuscany (1046 – 24 July 1115). A powerful feudal ruler with military accomplishments.


Lucrezia Tornabuoni (22 June 1427 – 25 March 1482). A writer of poems and plays and influential political adviser married to Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.

Lucrezia Borgia (18 April 1480 – 24 June 1519). The daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Remembered more for real or imagined treachery, intrigue and sexual exploits including incest than for her achievements.

lucrezia borgia

Catherine de’ Medici (13 April 1519 – 5 January 1589). Italian noblewoman who was Queen of France from 1547 until 1559, as the wife of King Henry II. Remembered for excessive persecution of the Huguenots.


Eleonora Anna Maria Felice de Fonseca Pimentel (13 January 1752 – 20 August 1799). Poet and revolutionary in the Neapolitan revolution.

Virginia Elena Raggi (18 July 1978 – current). Lawyer and politician, the current Mayor of Rome.

virginia raggi


-Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, (5 June 1646 – 26 July 1684). Philosopher; the first woman to receive an academic degree, and the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D. degree. She was also a sciblis in music which means she mastered almost the entire body of knowledge.

-Maria Gaetana Agnesi (16 May 1718 – 9 January 1799) Mathematician, philosopher, theologian and humanitarian. She set up a hospital in her home in the last decades of her life.

-Maria Tecla Artemisia Montessori (August 31, 1870 – May 6, 1952). A physician and educator. Her educational methods are still in use today.

maria montessori

-Cesarina Monti, (August 16, 1871 – January 25, 1937). Scientist, biologist, physiologist, and zoologist limnologa. She was the first woman to obtain a university chair in the Kingdom of Italy in 1907.

-Rita Levi-Montalcini, (22 April 1909 – 30 December 2012). Nobel laureate in neurobiology in 1986.  She lived to the age of 103, the oldest Nobel laureate to do so.

Isn’t this a beautiful picture of Rita.

rita montalcini

-Fabiola Gianotti (October 29, 1960 – current). Particle physicist. First woman to be the director general of CERN.

fabiola gianotti

-Samantha Cristoforetti (26 April 1977 – current) Astronaut, air force pilot and engineer. She holds the records for the longest single space flight by a woman (199 days 16 hours) and for a European. She is also the first Italian woman in space. She is the one that made the first espresso coffee in space, (of course).



-Vittoria Colonna (April 1492 – 25 February 1547). Marchioness of Pescara and poet. She was friends with Michelangelo Buonarotti with whom she exchanged verse.

vittoria colonna

-Isabella di Morra (1520–1545/1546). Poet forced to live in isolation. She produced a body of work which wasn’t known in her short lifetime. She was murdered by family for a suspected affair. Considered to be among the most powerful and original poets of her time.


-Veronica Franco (1546–1591). Poet and Courtesan in Venice. She is a fascinating woman in that she had a good education and had considerable literary and artistic accomplishments however to support herself and her offspring she did what she did well. She founded a charity for courtesans and their children eventually dying in poverty.


-Moderata Fonte, (1555–1592). Writer and poet of Il merito delle donne (The Worth of Women, 1600) for which she is best known.

-Artemisia Gentileschi (July 8, 1593 – c. 1656).  One of the most accomplished painters following that of Caravaggio at a time when women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community or patrons. She was raped and participated in the prosecution of the rapist which at the time overshadowed her achievements.

One of Artemisia’s works, ‘Judith and her Maidservant’.


-Anna Renzi (c. 1620 – after 1661). Soprano, actor and first diva.

-Anna Morandi Manzolini (21 January 1714 – 9 July 1774). Internationally known anatomist and anatomical wax modeler and lecturer of anatomical design at the University of Bologna.

wax model


-Anna Maria Mozzoni (5 May 1837 – 14 June 1920). Feminist that is commonly held as the founder of the woman’s movement in Italy. One of the roles she is most known for is her pivotal involvement in gaining woman’s suffrage in Italy.


-Alaide Gualberta Beccari (1842 – 1906). Feminist, republican, pacifist, and social reformer, who published the feminist journal Woman during the 1870s and 1880s.


Isabella d’Este (19 May 1474 – 13 February 1539). One of the leading women of the Italian Renaissance as a major cultural and political figure. She was a patron of the arts as well as a leader of fashion.

Donatella Francesca Versace (2 May 1955 – current) Fashion designer and current vice president of the Versace Group, as well as its chief designer.

donatella versace


Giuseppina Vadalà ( 1824 – October 7, 1914). Patriot. The Italian government awarded Vadalà the Silver medal of Military Valour for her part in pro-unification battles during the years 1848–1849 and 1860.


My favourite:

Ilda Boccassini (December 7, 1949 – current) . She is an Italian judge and the deputy prosecutor of the Republic at the Court of Milan. She is instrumental in the fight against organized crime in Italy. She was a close friend of Judge Giovanni Falcone who was murdered in Sicily by the mafia. She has worked on bringing the instigators and perpetrators of Falcone and Borsellino’s deaths to justice. She is involved in the investigations regarding Silvio Berlusconi for crimes such as collusion with the Mafia, child prostitution, extortion, corruption, murder, embezzlement, drug trafficking, money laundering , abuse of office, tax fraud and false accounting.

In December 2011 she was included by the US magazine Foreign policy in 57th place in the list of the personalities in the world in 2011 to have influenced the evolution of world politics and economics.

My understanding is she has made big sacrifices with her husband and children in having to spend long periods away and taking measures to ensure their safety. She doesn’t give interviews being very private and protective. This woman is brave and hardworking and making a difference in the world. Brava Ilda.


There are just so, so, many amazing women.

Historically Italy has been a paternal society with women holding limited public roles so they have not been documented as richly. The duty of women has been as keepers of the home, carers of the family and producers of children. The Catholic church has encouraged this historic women’s role but also imbued a deep reverence for Mary. The role of the church in taking women into religious life, and helping women and families in strife has also embedded these values for a country mired in decades of poverty. Fascism, war and poverty have all played their role in cementing the fate of many women. Previous generations have not had easy lives, some emigrating, some staying put and both suffering for different reasons. The Italian fashion industry and concept of Bella figura (the highly valued art of making a good impression) have both also played their roles in influencing women and their roles in Italy.

I recently read a book about Berlusconi and it timelines his rise and rise through his property development era; his TV and football club ownership; his political career; debauched bunga bunga parties and finally, his current trials and appeals in his attempts to avoid prison time.

My understanding is that he has played an integral part in bringing veline into mainstream acceptance. (If you are unsure what they are,

He has made being ‘young and beautiful’ a helpful criteria for women being in political positions, (and perpetuated other unhelpful behaviour such as tax avoidance).

You might question in what sort of environment this man could have come to such a position of extreme power in politics while at the same time controlling the content of nearly every TV channel in Italy. (Having said that unfathomable people have come to power both before and after in other parts of the world).

Veline flanking a well dressed man. One blonde, one brunette, no speaking, just smiling and doing the right moves, …every girls dream! (These ones are quite a well clothed example, it’s not uncommon to be eating your dinner in front of veline in their bikinis).



Tacitus is famously quoted to have said, “Idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset.” (All this in their ignorance they called civilisation, when it was but a part of their servitude).

He is referring to the time following Roman occupation where the Brits came to wear the toga as they liked the look, and they enjoyed the baths, banquets and Roman building design the Romans brought with them.

He is saying that they were calling all this ‘civilization’, much admiring them but were ignorantly enjoying the trappings of what were in fact aspects of their servitude or slavery.

There are parallels here for modern women, in unintended servitude to this appearance orientated world we find ourselves. I think Italian women currently have a tougher road to hoe here.

fashion victim






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