27 May The First Book Written Exclusively About Women
Giovanni Boccaccio, De Mulieribus Claris
Printed by Matthias Apiarius in Bern 1539
No, these aren’t biographies in the modern sense. Giovanni Boccaccio, who probably remains the most widely read humanist writer to this day, wrote this book about famous women, not for the purpose of recounting the stories of a few individuals, but rather to provide the educated classes of his time with a wealth of ‘exampla’. The rhetoric of that time understood an ‘exemplum’ to be an example given to illustrate an argument. So, for instance, if you wanted to argue that women are loyal and devoted, you could look in Boccaccio’s book and find evidence to support your claim, as well as evidence that women are treacherous and selfish.
Modern feminists would struggle to credit Boccaccio’s book as a step forward for the women’s movement. But it was: this was the first time a humanist had ever considered women worthy of a book. Nonetheless, we won’t attempt to deny that Boccaccio’s biographies were otherwise in keeping with the times.
Boccaccio and Women
In a society where written communication was firmly in the hands of the Church, accurately portraying the ‘nature’ of women is rather a difficult task. How could a monk, who, owing to his vows, is hardly in any position to comfortably connect with the world of women, be expected to provide an impartial account of what women are like? And so emerges the inevitable dichotomy between the Madonna and the whore, between the maternal figure and the seductress: black and white without any grey areas.
But in humanism, the middle classes reclaimed books and writing for themselves. A few humanists were also clerics, but most of them came from a world in which men and women, though not equal, at least coexisted.
Women played many roles in Giovanni Boccaccio’s life; for example, he knew them as members of his household, queens, patrons and lovers. His mother had died early, but, despite his illegitimate birth, he was allowed to grow up in his father’s household. During his training to become a merchant, Boccaccio travelled to Naples and gained access to the court of King Robert of Anjou.
This King was also occasionally known as ‘Robert the Wise’, an epithet given to him by historians, poets and artists because of his extensive support. Boccaccio fell into this illustrious circle. He met Francesco Petrarca and fell in love with the King’s daughter (also illegitimate), to whom he dedicated a series of poems, referring to her as ‘Fiammetta’, which earned him renown among the intellectuals of Italy.
In 1340, Boccaccio returned to Florence. From his detailed descriptions in ‘The Decameron’, we can assume that he enjoyed life to the full. His women aren’t just vapid, one-dimensional clones, but distinct, living people with independent will, some of whom become very shrewd and know how to assert themselves in a world of men.
Around the same time, Boccaccio was helping to translate the works of Homer and Euripides from Greek to Latin, during which process, of course, he would also have become acquainted with the content of these Greek dramas. Compare the bland saints of scholasticism with Medea, Iphigenia, or the heroic women of Troy, and you’ll soon see how Boccaccio came to the realisation that women are worth writing about.
A Bestseller of the Early Modern Period
The first version of Boccaccio’s book about famous women was probably written between 1361 and 1362. He dedicated it to his friend Andrea Acciaioli, a countess who lived in Florence. The relatively thin booklet was soon circulating throughout Europe in various copies and translations. It was a favourite work among educated people everywhere, a conclusion we can draw from the mere fact that more than 100 manuscripts, i.e. handwritten versions, have survived to this day – and that’s not including all the early prints.
Boccaccio himself kept revising the text until shortly before his death. Researchers now know of nine different versions written by him.
Boccaccio’s book about women contains 106 biographies, which are made remarkable by the simple fact that they barely feature biblical figures, with no saints included whatsoever. Boccaccio’s collection may open with Eve, but it doesn’t mention Judith, Salome or Mary; it doesn’t even feature famous saints such as Catherine of Alexandria or Mary Magdalene.
Instead, we find the stories of Sempronia, daughter of the Gracchi, Julia, daughter of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Faustina the Younger and Zenobia, not forgetting Irene, empress of Byzantium, as well as “Popess” Joan. This line-up of prominent figures goes right up to Boccaccio’s time, ending with Joanna I of Naples (1326/7-1382). He probably only included the latter because he’d been invited to the court of Naples in 1362 and wanted to flatter the queen.
But there’s one thing Boccaccio certainly wasn’t doing, namely, compiling his stories as a kind of encyclopaedia. He wanted to provide examples of different types of behaviour. For instance, Penelope, Dido, Artemisia and Porcia represented different forms of love and loyalty, while Venus, Clytemnestra, Helena and Faustina represented desire; the stories of Polyxena, Cassandra and Thisbe presented examples of destiny, and the power of destiny, while other women represented foolishness, prudence, generosity, belief in miracles and more.
The Survival of a Bestseller
What makes Boccaccio’s book so exceedingly important is the impact it had on the art of the centuries that followed. It didn’t just inspire the first truly feminist work, ‘The Book of the City of Ladies’, published by Christine de Pizan in 1405. Boccaccio’s stories became common property, perfect for when you wanted to bring a personal touch to a room with moralistic stories.
Hardly anybody knew the story of Cleopatra, who, following the death of her ‘beloved’ Marcus Antonius, let a venomous snake bite her in a small, lonely chamber, from the original version. Most people knew it from Boccaccio’s depiction and the moralistic interpretation attached to it.
If you were to make a list of the top 50 most frequently depicted non-biblical women of the Renaissance and Baroque period, you would definitely find all of them among the 106 figures selected by Boccaccio.
The Bern Edition of 1539
Our copy of Boccaccio’s book about famous women was published in 1539, in the printing house of Matthias Apiarius in Bern. It contains illustrations in varying degrees of opulence, depending on the price paid, the woodcuts for which were produced by a great artist succeeding Hans Holbein the Younger. Some art historians identify this artist as illustrator Jakob Kallenberg.
Other Things You Might Be Interested In
If you want to see the book for yourself, you can access it at e-rara.ch. If the server is ‘overloaded’, as it almost always is, try the same link another two or three times – it will usually work at some point after that.
The best encyclopaedia entry we’ve found in our research is not on Wikipedia, but on the ‘Reallexikon zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte’ (‘Encyclopedia of German Art History’).
In this video, archivists from the National Library of France present a famous, richly illustrated manuscript of this book (in French).
If you’d like an overall picture of Boccaccio’s view of women, there’s an extensive research paper on this subject available online.
We purchased this book in Auction 147 by Hartung & Hartung on 5 May 2020.