Kathleen Ann González. A Beautiful Woman in Venice

JOANN LOCKTOV
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Books on Venetian history are filled with notable men. But what about the women? The remarkable female artists, intellectuals, writers, poets, and healers? American author, Kathleen Ann González has recently published the second edition of A Beautiful Woman in Venice. The book profiles over 30 formidable women in Venetian history, living from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. Along with their bravery and brilliance, González has captured their incredible compassion and struggles concerning a patriarchal hierarchy, with a meticulous eye to the consequential details of their lives. A Beautiful Woman in Venice explores the economic, political, medical, artistic, familial, sexual, societal, and intellectual circumstances that contributed to the spirit of these exceptional Venetian women.

When was your first trip to Venice and what were your impressions of the city? Did you know on that first visit that the city would become the catalyst for your books?
I first visited Venice in spring of 1996 when I took a group of students to Europe. We spent only one day in Venice, but my first glimpse of the Grand Canal rearranged my interior life. I fell in love with the city. I went back that June for two weeks and was chatted up by a gondolier, which led to my idea to write about them as a group. In 1997 I returned for six weeks to get to know about 40 of the gondoliers, and I was essentially hooked for life. I hoped to get to know them as people and see beyond the stereotypes, to elevate their history and profession, and in the process, I also made some lifelong friends. So, no, on that very first trip I didn’t know I’d be writing about Venice for years to come, but by the second trip I did!

The gondola, that most iconic of Venetian boats, led author Kathleen Gonzalez to learn more about gondoliers and later to explore the life of Venetian Giacomo Casanova.

Your first books about Venetians and their culture concerned the infamous men. Gondoliers were the focus of Free Gondola Ride in 2003, and a literal map to Casanova’s exploits was featured in Seductive Venice: In Casanova’s Footsteps in 2012. Men were ostensibly abandoned in A Beautiful Woman in Venice. What happened in your life to change your focus and inspire your fascination with this eclectic group of remarkable women?
Riding along in gondolas and hearing the gondoliers point out Casanova’s houses piqued my curiosity to know more about the real person, Giacomo Casanova, who was born in and spent his formative years in Venice. I haven’t abandoned Casanova–I’m currently working on a book of sites he visited in Rome. 

Though, I really did give a big part of my heart away to the women in A Beautiful Woman in Venice. I must give credit for the idea to Vonda Wells, who had read my books and reached out to me with the idea. Reading these women’s stories and trying to honor them with my writing has become a passion of mine. Rather than a change in my life initiating a change in my focus, I’d say that these women inspired me to change, to become more of a champion of women’s stories and place in history, for women who challenge and rebel in loud or quiet ways.

Palazzo Sulam in the Ghetto where Sarra Copia Sulam lived and held her literary salon, bringing together both Jewish and Christian scholars.

There are over 30 Venetian women represented in the book, who lived from the 14th to 19th centuries. Their contributions are vast, spanning literature, translation, academics, music, art, education, crafts, theatre, myth, even politics. What was your criteria for choosing the women that you wrote about?
Initially I looked for women who were born in and lived the majority of their lives in Venice. I also focused on women whose creative output was centered in Venice, who affected its landscape in large or small ways. I also needed enough information to write a substantive chapter; as you can see, in some cases chapters are a collection of numerous women that we know very little about, such as those who founded and funded charitable organizations and convents. Interestingly, I initially rejected Marietta Robusti because I found so little information on her life, and it appeared that she had painted very few pieces; however, more recent scholarship has revealed that much of her work is simply lost, or, like Giulia Lama’s, is misattributed. Additionally, some stories I really wanted to include because they were so fascinating, even though the women left Venice. For example, Elisabetta Caminer Turra departed when pressured by male publishers who felt threatened by her work, and Antonia Padoani Bembo fled the city to escape her abusive husband. I didn’t want these undeserved troubles to preclude their stories from being included in my book. In fact, these are precisely the kinds of voices we need to hear–those that others tried to silence. 

Sculpture of Giustina Rossi, known as “La vecia del morter” because she dropped her mortar on the flag bearer and foiled a rebellion. 

The second edition of A Beautiful Woman in Venice contains three new chapters. You’ve included two fascinating painters, Marietta Robusti and Giulia Lama, as well as a group of four women in the healing arts: Elena Crusichi, Orsetta Garzolo, Teresa Ployant, and Benedetta Fedeli Trevisan. Can you share details of what these women offered to the legacy of Venetian culture and why you felt that their lives should be commemorated in a second edition?
Thank you for including all their names! When we say their names and elevate their stories, we highlight not only them but all the other unnamed women who worked alongside them, or who came before them, who taught them, and perhaps whose stories are lost. 

Delving into the stories of the artists Giulia Lama and Marietta Robusti revealed two more sides of Venetian art. I had already written about Rosalba Carriera, the famed pastel artist. Marietta, though also a sought-after portraitist, also represented the kind of contributions by so many bottega artists, usually men, who toiled behind the scenes in a master’s workshop. Giulia Lama, on the other hand, worked on large scale paintings in situ, which had been exclusively the realm of men. Both women were trailblazers, and in fact, both apparently drew from male nude models, which was unheard of anywhere as far as I know. They prove that women could flourish when they forged their way into these fields, and their works adorn the walls of Venetian churches.

The healers, however, didn’t leave any sort of visible mark on the city such as a painting or edifice, but they certainly were invaluable in the citizens’ health and wellbeing. Though there were some male doctors, it was predominantly the women who served in the healing arts. Without them, Venetians literally might not have survived or thrived. Teresa Ployant and Benedetta Fedeli Trivisan also left behind teachings, an obstetric instruction manual, and a birthing chair as the legacy of their knowledge to be used by women who followed. They specifically strove to improve women’s lives. I wanted to include stories that uncover as many aspects of Venetian life as possible, and these additions broaden that scope.

There are exceptional “firsts” in the book: champion rower Maria Boscola among the world’s first women athletes, Giustina Renier Michiel, the first translator of Shakespeare into Italian, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to earn a university degree, and Giustiniana Wynne, credited as penning the first modern novel by an Italian woman. These women exhibited astonishing courage, creativity, and perseverance while living in a patriarchal society that did not encourage their pursuits. How are these and all the fascinating lives of the Venetian women in your book relevant to us today? What can we learn from them?
Add to your list Marietta Barovier who invented a bead that became international currency; or Hermonia Vivarini who patented her glass pitcher; or Modesta Pozzo who wrote a chivalric romance with a female warrior and the first naval battle penned by a woman; or Barbara Strozzi who composed more pieces of music than any other baroque composer; or Rosalba Carriera who was one of the greatest influencers of the rococo movement.

In a male-dominated world that tried to narrowly define women–as wives or nuns or prostitutes–the beautiful women in Venice present us with a different model. Their actions and courage offer an early starting place for us, and by knowing their stories, we can stand that much taller. We can be inspired to be more, and we can envision an even greater future.

The women I write about were the first to do so many things, but someone must be the first, so why not you? Why not me? They were proto-feminists because the world hadn’t yet created the concept of feminism. Who knows what will come after us, here in the twenty-first century?

 

A detail from the ceiling of Palazzo Benzon where Marina Querini Benzon hosted her literary salon. Lord Byron was often a guest. 

Veronica Franca, Sarra Copia Sulam, Caterina Dolfin Tron, and Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi all hosted literary salons. Although they changed in tenor from the 14th to 18th centuries, they remained a critical way for women to distinguish themselves as learned polymaths, virtuoso musical performers, erudite thinkers, and elegant poets. If you could host a salon with guests from your book, who would you choose and what would you discuss?
What an enticing question! I would love to meet all of the but there are a few who I would especially like to chat with. Every time I think of Elena Cornaro Piscopia and her goal to earn a university degree, my heart is filled with both pride and horror at what she had to endure; but rather than dwelling on that, I’d want to know what she thought women’s roles in education should be. She broke into the closed world of the university, and what would she believe we must do to empower other women to go beyond the boundaries set for them? Where did she find the resilience within herself to accomplish all she did?

I would also love to see how the courtesans Veronica Franca and Angela del Moro would participate in a literary salon. Veronica was an accomplished poet, and Angela was very familiar with the world of painting. I’d like to discuss with them their thoughts on the arts, as insiders, but also their thoughts on sex work. Did they find or create any personal power in their roles as courtesans? How would they define feminism as a unifying force? Why do they think men were so threatened by their presence in the male-dominated world? What is their advice to women about owning their bodies and their futures?

Finally, Marina Querini Benzon sounds like the most fun to hang out with, and she might have some steaming polenta or a cup of punch to share while she laughed and danced through the evening. Or we could take a gondola ride together and sing the song about her, “La Biondina in Gondola.” What would she say was the secret to a happy life? 

A detail from the ceiling of Palazzo Benzon where Marina Querini Benzon hosted her literary salon. Lord Byron was often a guest. 

LINKS

Kathleen Ann González A Beautiful Woman in Venice [top photo] is available in English on Amazon internationally.

US Amazon
UK Amazon
Italy Amazon
Canada Amazon
Australia Amazon

All photography by Kathleen Ann González

Kathleen Ann González. A Beautiful Woman in Venice ultima modifica: 2023-10-11T16:56:55+02:00 da JOANN LOCKTOV
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