Moderata Fonte (1555–1592) is the pen name of Modesta Pozzo, an Italian writer of the 16th century who is best known for authoring The Worth of Women, a book critical of male dominance over women in society. Written as a dialogue among seven women who “speak freely on whatever subject they pleased,” Fonte's book is considered an early feminist work. It is also one of the most original publications by a woman addressing the topic of women in the “early modern” or Renaissance era.
Pozzo's parents, Girolamo and Marietta, were part of the elite professional class of the Venice city-state, whose members had money and privilege but were not allowed to hold political office. Political matters were under the control of the ruling class, a tight-knit circle of old and noble families. The Pozzos had applied to be accepted into the ruling class (or cittadini originale), given Marietta's noble ancestors, without success. Pozzo was nonetheless bequeathed prospects for a comfortable life, within the limits placed on women: no schooling, except in the home, and the probability of marriage and childrearing beginning at a young age. Only men owned property, and they also received dowries, or marriage payment, from their prospective wife's family as a condition of marriage. Patriarchy, or the privilege of men, prevailed at all levels of Venetian society; women were mostly to stay hidden in the home.
Venice in the 16th century was a republic ruled by a Doge, or princely leader elected by a council of nobles. Wealth from trade enriched its upper classes, whose members patronized artists and musicians and sponsored public events both religious and secular. The management of wealth, including inheritance, was governed by bureaucracy and the courts. When Pozzo's parents died of the plague a year after her birth, the care of their children was given to her maternal grandmother. The fact that the Pozzos's money and possessions were subject to a lengthy court process following their deaths may be why the children did not join their grandparents earlier. Although Pozzo returned to her grandmother's house, her assets remained tied up for decades, possibly delaying her ability to marry well into her 20s.
Although women did not have access to formal education at the time, Modesta Pozzo managed to get the early modern equivalent of home-schooling. During her stay at the convent, she became known for her precocious personality and amazing memory. She possessed near-perfect recall and could recite entire lectures after hearing them only once. The nuns would show her off to visitors, having her recite entire passages of scripture or entire sermons from memory. When a portly priest, impressed by her performance, remarked that Pozzo must be “a spirit without a body,” the perceptive girl replied that he must be a body without a spirit!
After returning home to her grandparents at age nine, Pozzo's step-grandfather encouraged her habit of reading, offering her the run of his extensive library, and he began teaching her to write. She would also waylay her brother on his way home from school and press him to share the day's lessons in Latin and other subjects. It was not a full education, but with her wit and intelligence, she made the best of it. Soon Pozzo was writing poetry and stories of her own.
As she grew up and read more widely, Pozzo likely encountered the work of women writers of previous generations. Sparked by the humanist movement of the previous centuries, a growing amount of proto-feminist literature had been produced, partly in response to critiques of women by men. The humanist movement focused on a return to the way Romans and Greeks thought and wrote about life, which was concerned with how people actually lived, rather than how scriptures said they should live. Men of this tradition wrote and debated each other on philosophies of living and the proper roles for people in society. Several argued about the role of women: some thought they were only good for producing babies, while others argued for their general inclusion in society. Women's voices were largely silent, however, except for a few who wrote on the virtues of women.
Pozzo's writings followed and expanded on this tradition, couching her opinions in the voices of fictional characters. Females in her poetic romances reveal abusive behavior by men, complain about inheritance practices, and appreciate the support of friends in the face of unfairness. While several of her works are in forms typical to female authors of the day, such as devotional poetry and chivalric romance, she would also claim territory staked by male authors: For her major work she employed the classic, typically male format of a dialogue among characters who tell stories and espouse diverse points of view. In this work, the seven characters she created were all women.
A huge break for Pozzo came in her early 20s, when she was invited to live with her newly married childhood friend Saracena Saraceni and Saracena's husband, Niccolo Doglioni, an uncle of Pozzo's by marriage. Doglioni, now her guardian, was connected to the literary elite of Venice, and he encouraged Pozzo to polish her writing for publication. She finished several projects and decided to publish some anonymously, and others under a pen name, a witty play on her own name. “Modesta Pozzo” means “modest well,” so Pozzo chose as her pen name “Moderata Fonte,” or “well-regulated fountain.”
On the whole, Pozzo's works were well received. Several of her lighthearted dialogues were performed as short plays for the Doge on religious feast days, making her well-known and respected. Her poems were also included in a collectively authored volume of verse produced in honor of the king of Poland. These kinds of books, dedicated to various noble figures, were popular and important at the time.
The Worth of Women turns the tables on the classically male dialogue, in which masculine characters converse about women while women characters are nowhere to be seen or heard. In Pozzo's world, it is the men who are elsewhere, invisible, and silent. The Worth of Women is a fictional account of seven women of Venice who get together regularly in a private, walled garden to chat about events of the day, share recipes, and talk about women's place in the world. The talk is lively, witty, and sharp. These ladies love their city, Venice, which they consider the best, most free, and most interesting place to live, but they have no patience for patriarchy. While Venice has many great people of virtue, they say, the status of women could be improved. The fact that the seven are said to have to “steal away” from their usual lives to meet suggests the cloistered nature of women's lives at the time. The conversation largely concerns the good and bad qualities of men, although Posso's characters also display their knowledge of the sciences and arts. They demonstrate what they argue: that women are equal to men in things that matter.
At age 27, which was then very late for a woman to marry, Pozzo married Filippo Di'Zorzi, a man her uncle had introduced. Three years her junior, Di'Zorzi was the water manager of Venice, which was, given the growing population of the canal-filled city, a very important position. The couple was very happily married, and she turned her attention to the household and raising their family. Di’Zorzi clearly thought Posso to be someone special; after a year and half of marriage, he returned to her the large dowry granted to him when they wed, an inheritance from her late father. No small sum, the dowry included four houses and 15 fields. He noted in the records that he admired and loved her and wanted her to enjoy them. He also deeply appreciated how well she managed the household and admired and supported her writing. Pozzo published a few items as a married lady and, busy as she was, made slow but steady progress on completing The Worth of Women.
Unfortunately, Pozzo would not live to see her major work published, dying the day after its completion. Over the next few years her husband and two of her children also died, leaving two surviving children orphaned. The Worth of Women might never have been published but for the appearance in 1599 of a nastily critical treatise “on the defects of women” by a male author, Giuseppe Passi. Passi's treatise seems to have sparked the interest of a Venetian publisher, Giambattista Ciotti, who decided to publish Pozzo's work and also commissioned a response to Passi by one of Pozzo's female contemporaries, Lucrezia Marinella. Marinella's took a formal argumentative approach to counter Passi's criticisms, while The Worth of Women made its argument more creatively and, perhaps, more convincingly. Included in Pozzo's book was a biography of the author by her uncle, Niccolo Doglioni, which was written the year after her death. It also included a dedicatory letter by the late author's now-fifteen-year-old daughter Cecilia and two sonnets (short poems) authored by her son Pietro.
Both in her day and after her death, Pozzo was publicly appreciated as a fine poet and remarkable woman. Even 30 years later, her literary reputation was alive, extolled at length as part of another fictional dialogue (authored by a man) on the virtues of women. Pozzo's poems appeared in various collections over the next few centuries, but her longer works were not republished until the 20th century. Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, views of her work were decidedly mixed. Some praised her wifely devotion while passing off her poetry as “not bad,” while others thought her pen name was bizarre, her praise of women a sure sign of frustrated spinsterhood and deep hostility toward men, and her masterpiece merely amusing and full of gossip.
With the rise of feminist scholarship in the late 20th century, critics and historians have studied Pozzo's body of work in depth and in historical context, and praised its originality and importance. New Italian editions and English translations have introduced her literary alter ego Moderata Fonte to modern scholars and other interested readers.
Fonte, Moderata (pen name of Modesta Pozzo), The Worth of Women: Wherein Is Clearly Revealed Their Nobility and Superiority to Men, edited and translated by Virginia Cox, University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Price, Paola Malpezzi, Moderata Fonte: Women and Life in Sixteenth-Century Venice, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015.
Monstrous Regiment of Women website, http://www.monstrousregimentofwomen.com/ (November 2, 2015), Sharon L. Jansen, “Moderata Fonte and a Paradise for Women.”
University of Chicago Italian Women Writers Library website, https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/ (September 26, 2016), Virginia Cox, “Fonte, Moderata (1555–1592).”❑