There was a time, centuries after the fall of Rome, when northern Italy blossomed with the rediscovery of ancient culture. Perspective returned to painting, form to sculpture, and new artists expanded upon the ancient techniques. These times saw the rise of the printing press and the spreading of literacy. The new age brought political turmoil and religious revolution through the Protestant Reformation. The works of figures such as Copernicus and Galileo shaped science into a semblance of its modern form. Through the cracks of feudal Europe, the modern era broke soil.
We call this period the Renaissance.
The richness of the Italian Renaissance renders the era a wonderful setting for a tale. But for my forthcoming novel, Rosaria of Venice, I was not satisfied with a period piece. My favorite type of fiction is science fiction, so the Renaissance in which the characters of Rosaria of Venice live is not the Renaissance of our past. In fact, the Renaissance of the novel and its protagonist—Rosaria Adalberto—can be more accurately described as a Renaissance of our future.
The novel begins in 1491 AD. Venice is a center of culture and innovation, as it was in our history. But in this alternate universe, it is also at the heart of an industrial revolution. Coal plants supplant water mills, steam boats sail the Adriatic in the place of galleys, and the great artisans of the time run not workshops, but factories. The promise of electrical power hangs in the ether, and Rosaria Adalberto dedicates her life to discovering the principles of electromagnetism.
As a daughter of Venetian nobility, her station permits her to conduct her research despite the disregard of society for polymaths of her sex. Her life’s work falls into danger, however, when her home and laboratory burns to cinders in a fire—the fruits of her research consumed by flame. The bargain she eventually makes to rebuild her lab, and to complete her research, only places her in further danger. At stake is her own life—and the lives of her dearest comrades—at the hands of a conspiracy with dark designs for this new age. This, the first volume of the Renaissance of Rosaria Adalberto, represents her first brush with that cabal.
The genre of alternate history permits great artistic license, but that license is not total. In order to write a science-fictional Renaissance, it was essential for me to learn some of the actual history of our Renaissance. Knowing actual history permits a writer to make informed decisions when building a new timeline. Even if a steam-powered Renaissance is remarkable, shaping its events as if they were the natural course of history allows us to tell such absurd little tales with startling conviction.
So before writing Rosaria of Venice, I had an abundance of homework: the political circumstances of Venice in the Renaissance, the progression of the actual Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the changes brought about by Columbus’s contact with the New World, and so on. I still have much to learn. But one subject I made certain to examine was the lot of women in the 15th century: a topic that, with a female protagonist, I could not afford to neglect.
In the 21st century, the notion of a woman as equal to her male peers is not so revolutionary. While reactionaries dig in their heels at the thought, and the media at large has a shoddy track record of doing justice to its female characters, the notion is common, and has persisted for decades. When readers meet Rosaria—a polymath who prefers men’s clothing and is skilled with a blade—they won’t find the notion scandalous. Were she a real person living today, you might read about her in a magazine.
Indeed, such a woman might feature in three magazines: a scientific journal, a feminist publication, and perhaps, depending upon her identity, an LGBT periodical. A woman who did such things in the Renaissance might have been immortalized in song—but only if she was written about at all.
There were Renaissance women, of course. Caterina Sforza comes to mind. She was born of the illegitimate union of Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Lucrezia Landriani, and when her father ascended to the Duchy of Milan, she and her siblings accompanied him to court. There, tutors instructed her in the humanist tradition, granting an education to match that of any male noble. From her father’s mother, she acquired a respect for the arts of war and government. (Wikipedia, 2013)
Caterina’s early mentors prepared her well for her later life. In adulthood, she successfully navigated the cloak-and-dagger politics of 15th-century Italy, eventually establishing herself as the Countess of Forlì. Her mastery of politics, efficient management of her state, and fierce defense of her realm in war against Venice earned her the name of Il Tigre, or the Tiger of Forlì. Her personal life was well-rounded with the pursuits of dancing, hunting, and alchemy. (Wikipedia, 2013).
But Sforza was an exception to a dismal rule. The tiger of Forli’s legendary stature was made possible only by her fortunate birth into power and station But even amongst nobles, few indeed were the women who even approached her in power, skill, or even independence. The society of Renaissance Italy relegated women to an aesthetic—even decorative—role.
Historian Joan Kelley describes these circumstances with poignancy in her essay “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” To illustrate her case, she references a handbook for nobility written by Baldassare Castiglione, who writes that "In a Lady who lives at court a certain pleasing affability is becoming above all else, whereby she will be able to entertain graciously every kind of man.”
By Kelley’s estimation, most women of Renaissance nobility accepted their inferior station. To exemplify her point, she deconstructs the image of “Elisabetta Gonzaga, the idealized duchess of Castiglione's Courtier,” who, according to Kelley:
“came close in real life to [Castiglione’s] normative portrayal of her type. Riding and skill in weaponry had, in fact, no significance for her. […] Her letters express none of the sense of freedom and daring Caterina Sforza and Beatrice d'Este experienced in riding and the hunt. Altogether, she lacks spirit. Her correspondence shows her to be as docile in adulthood as her early teachers trained her to be.”
Noblewomen of the Renaissance could expect their greatest responsibilities to amount to the commission of works of art for their husbands’ estates, as was the case with Elisabetta Gonzaga. (Kelley, 1977) The artists who received their patronage imbued their sculpture and paintings with the life that should have been lived by the women who granted them the opportunity.
Ironically, while Renaissance men propelled themselves forward in the new social order, women were divested of much of the power they held in Medieval times, according to Kelley. The practice of courtly love allowed for a localized reversal of roles in feudal society: the demands of war often left queens, duchesses and countesses in command during their husbands’ absence. The leverage this granted them allowed noblewomen to shape some conventions to their own needs. (Kelley, 1977)
The Renaissance of Rosaria Adalberto, though more advanced than ours in technology, is not so advanced culturally. Like Sforza, Rosaria is an unusual individual in her time. She is made even more unusual by her dedication to science, and her lack of interest in society or politics. As an extraordinary person laboring under the weight of a deformed culture, her own dissonance on the matter of sex inevitably colors her exploits and adventures.
But why choose such a world for Rosaria? Why not create a more egalitarian reality for our beleaguered protagonist? The truth of the matter is that we are never born into a just world. The threat of tyranny and injustice will always exist in some form. Our only hope is to develop the courage to confront these challenges and build the better world we deserve. Fiction can show us the way, much as mythology did in a more ancient time.
Besides, it is not as if the modern West has seen a complete feminist victory. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that American women still only make 77 cents to the dollar as recently as the year 2010, and while the pay gap is less within professions, research by the American Association of University Women indicate that a woman could expect to be paid 7% less than a man working the same job. (Dugas, 2012, USA Today)
Moreover, the objectification of women in advertising and media is thoroughly documented and persistent, Senators who fancy themselves experts try to regulate anatomy they don’t possess, while pockets of misogyny fester and explode in the gaming subculture, and self-styled Men’s Rights Activists lash out against the liberties of women. Sexism dies hard. Given the circumstances, we could use a few more women cast as heroes.
Of course, there’s a question of whether a straight, white, bearded man can effectively write a female protagonist. I’ll leave that question up to my readers, but I fail to why that shouldn't be the case. I don’t believe men and women are the least bit different, once you strip away all the nonsense we’re led to believe about ourselves. At the core, everyone is only human. That is how I strive to portray all of my characters. Rosaria is no exception, and I look forward to revealing the tale of her adventures.
More on my research for Rosaria of Venice will be coming down the pipeline. Stay tuned, and spread the word!
Did Women Have a Renaissance? by Joan Kelley, 1977