Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Jeanette Fregulia: "Letters to Her Sons"

Jeanette M. Fregulia

Book Review

Alessandra Macinghi Strozzi, Letters to Her Sons (1447-1470). Edited by Judith Bryce. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, Vol. 46, ITER Academic Press & Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Toronto, Canada & Tempe, Arizona, 2016), 294 + xvi pp. ISBN: 9780866985482

1> With this first complete English translation of the seventy-three letters penned by Alessandra Strozzi (c. 1406-1471), editor and translator Judith Bryce provides more than just a much-anticipated contribution to the study of women’s writing in the early modern era. With this collection, Bryce also opens a window into the daily lives of women. Alessandra Strozzi, a widow from the city’s mercantile patriciate, may be considered exceptional. To be sure, she grew up in a prosperous family. More importantly, she received an education that made possible her membership in a small but diverse group of female writers in early modernity that included Margherita Datini (1360-1423), who left behind over two hundred letters to her husband, the famed merchant Francesco Datini, as well as a contemporary of Alessandra, Lucrezia Tournabuoni (1427-1482). That she was literate also meant that Alessandra could write for herself all that she wished to convey about her life in Florence to her sons, living far away in cities such as Barcelona, Bruges, and Naples. A careful reading of Alessandra’s correspondence, offered with clarity, precision, and heart, also opens a window into the personal world of women who could not write for themselves, or whose writings have since been lost to time, making Bryce’s work not just a contribution to the study of women’s literary practices but also to the history of women more generally, giving a voice to the shared fears, joys, and trails that filled their daily lives. Perhaps the best example of this is Alessandra’s reply to the news that her youngest son, Matteo, had died while living with his brothers Filippo and Lorenzo in Naples. Writing of “the sorrow and anguish I felt on the death of my sweet young son,” (85) a death that would grieve Alessandra for the rest of her life.

2> Married while still in her teens to Matteo Strozzi, son of one of Florence’s leading mercantile families, Alessandra’s time as a wife would prove short, only thirteen years, ending in sadness. The first challenge came in 1434, when her husband Matteo was exiled to Pesaro, a town along Italy’s Adriatic coast, by Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464), founder of the Medici political dynasty. A short time after her husband’s departure from Florence, Alessandra took the couple’s seven children and joined him in exile. Less than a year after their arrival, a bout of plague struck Pesaro, taking the lives of her husband and three of their children, leaving Alessandra, who was again pregnant, a widow. Following this loss of her husband, Alessandra and her surviving children returned to Florence. Without a father, Alessandra looked to her late husband’s cousins to help her two surviving oldest sons, Filippo and Lorenzo, make their fortunes. The brothers would be joined later, much to Alessandra’s dismay, by their youngest brother, Matteo, the child with who Alessandra was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death (11).

3> Making an important contribution to the series, The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe, this translation of Alessandra Strozzi’s personal correspondence invites a broad readership of students and scholars, from those seeking a deeper understanding of the epistolary practices of women in fifteenth century Italy, to anyone curious about familial relations, particularly between mother and sons, as there is no surviving evidence of Alessandra ever having written to her daughters. This does not necessarily mean that Alessandra was not close to her daughters Caterina and Alessandra, as indeed it is likely that she was. Not only did both girls live in Florence after their marriages, but it was their mother who played an important role in ensuring that her daughters married within their family’s social network. News of the marriage of eldest is the very first letter of Alessandra’s letters, dated 24 August 1447, in which she writes to her son Filippo, then living in Naples that “our Caterina” was wed to Marco Parenti, a “well-to-do” silk merchant (29). This is not the only mention of the daughters, and suggests not only Alessandra’s presence in their lives but also her wish that her sons be kept informed about the lives of their sisters. Throughout the letters, readers will also find evidence of the trials of widowhood and the sadness of a mother whose sons live far away, information about the social, economic, and political world of fifteenth century Italy, including the relaying of important news, such as the death of Cosimo de’ Medici, a part of Letter 36 in September 1464, and the arrival of yet another recurrence of the plague in March 1463, (see letter 28).

4> Far more than just a series of letters, Judith Bryce embraces the challenges of translation, and while her own work is based primarily on the original 1877 Italian publication of the letters edited by Cesare Guasti (still available both online and in print), Bryce brings her own fresh new translation of a woman speaking for herself, as the majority of the letters she wrote herself. The best examples of Alessandra’s voice include notes on illness, in which she despairs also of “really getting old,” (letter 2, 34), to her ongoing quest to find a suitable wife for her eldest son Filippo, who seems in no hurry to leaved bachelorhood behind, as evidenced in Letter 52. In this letter, Alessandra extols merits, and perhaps for the sake of honesty also hints at the less desirable qualities, of Caterina Tanagli, described by Alessandra as “attractive and has a good figure” While Alessandra continues that Caterina’s “face is not one of those very beautiful ones (it) isn’t out of keeping with the rest of her; and she’ll turn out beautiful” (177). This same letter reveals more than just Alessandra’s desire to see her son married, it also suggests that there was more to consider in a match than dowry, although Caterina’s reported one-thousand florin dowry hardly made her a pauper. Alessandra seems to be equally concerned with the prospective bride’s appearance, illustrating that during the Renaissance marriage was not, necessarily, exclusively about economic, political, and/or social gain.

5> In addition to arranging marriages, mourning death, and passing along information about the happenings in the city of Florence, Alessandra’s letters reveal that she managed some her own financial matters, including contemplating selling some land she owned to afford the tax on it (80). In this same letter, number 16, we find in Alessandra more than just a doting mother, but also one capable of chastising. Indeed, she begins this letter of 27 July 1459 to Filippo in Naples with her dismay that he had not replied to her previous letter “as quickly as I would have liked” (80).

6> For all that Alessandra Strozzi was out of the ordinary in terms of her abilities to read, write, and likely to complete simple math, she was also very much a woman of fifteenth century Florence who looked mostly to her sons, and at times her son-in-law, Marco Parenti, married to her daughter Caterina for assistance with financial and family matters. Tempting as it might be to dismiss Alessandra’s important for feminist scholarship, specifically because she wrote exclusively to her sons, this would unfortunate. When thinking about Alessandra’s place in history, it is important to keep in mind that neither women nor men can be understood outside of the historic context in which they lived. Despite some legal rights, including most importantly remittance of their dowry upon widowhood, women did not have the same standing as men under the law. This does not mean, however, that women such as Alessandra were powerless. As the letters reveal, she arranged marriages for her daughters, and eventually her two surviving sons, and she assisted some of the business transactions of Filippo and Lorenzo as they were not in Florence. Thus, readers of her correspondence should be mindful of the need to keep in mind the limitations that Alessandra’s fifteenth century world placed upon her, and the gendered perspectives that would have informed her writing.

7> On one final note, I would call attention to the extensive notes that Bryce provides with each letter. These can be helpful in understanding the larger context, or gaining additional information, without interfering with the letters themselves. Students and scholars will find within the letters great insights into the lives of women, familial relations, and complexities of life in fifteenth century Florence. Bryce must be commended for making Alessandra and her world accessible to those who do not read Italian, allowing Alessandra Strozzi to be heard on her own terms.

Jeanette M. Fregulia is Associate Professor of History at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. She holds an MA in Middle East Studies from the University of London and a PhD in Renaissance History from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research interests center on women, commerce, and trade in early modern Italy and the Mediterranean.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern
Literature and Culture,
Volume Ten (2017): Artefacts

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