Sixteenth -century lesbian philosophy? Lucrezia Marinella and desire between women

Venice, 1600: a book called The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men is published. It’s by Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653), the educated daughter of a physician. She’s written before – her first work was published in 1595 – and she’ll carry on writing into the 1640s, but it’s The Nobility and Excellence of Women that she’ll largely be remembered for, and it’s her most clearly identifiable philosophical work.

As suggested by the title, Marinella’s project is to demonstrate, not just that male denigration of women is wrong because women are equal to men, but that women are in fact morally superior to men. In the third chapter of the book, “Of the Nature and Essence of the Female Sex”, she wields the relationship between soul and body in support of her argument. She begins with the claim that:

Women, like men, consist of two parts. One, the origin and cause of all noble deeds, is referred to by everyone as the soul. The other is the transitory and mortal body, which is obedient to the commands of the soul, just as the soul is dependent on the body. (Marinella 1999, 55)

She goes on to argue that it is “not impossible that within the same species there should be souls that are from birth nobler and more excellent than others” (55). She then relates the beauty of the body to the beauty of the soul, this being the key stage in her argument that “the souls of women possess an excellence which men’s do not” (56). For Marinella, the “nobility of the soul can be judged from the excellence of the body – which is ornamented with the same character and beauty as the soul” (57).

So, souls are unequal, and we can infer information about the goodness and perfection of a person’s soul from their bodily beauty. You can probably see where Marinella’s argument might be going now. And indeed, she writes:

The greater nobility and worthiness of a woman’s body is shown by its delicacy, its complexion, and its temperate nature, as well by its beauty, which is a grace or splendour proceeding from the soul as well as from the body. ( 57)

Marinella’s argument in this chapter is very explicitly that we can tell women’s souls are superior to men’s because women are more beautiful than men. She goes further than this, however: women’s beauty compels men to love them, while women feel no compulsion to love men back.

That women’s pleasing qualities and lovely, delicate faces force and oblige men to fall in love with them against their wills is very clear. To affirm this appears to me an easy undertaking, because beauty is by nature lovable, or truly worthy of love, […] Man needs to love beautiful things, and what more beautiful thing adorns the world than woman? Nothing in truth, as is admitted by all those opposed to us, who affirm that women’s lovely faces shine with the grace and splendor of paradise and that they are forced to love them for this beauty, while women are not forced to love men, because that which is less beautiful, or ugly, is not by nature worthy of being loved. (62-3)

A key point to note here is that, while Marinella refers explicitly only to men’s love of women, her clear statement is that women’s beauty is by its very nature lovable.

Now, let’s turn quickly to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s article on Marinella, which discusses this chapter. In response to the lines above, which argue that men are forced to desire women because of their beauty, while men’s ugliness debars women from truly loving them, Marguerite Deslauriers states that “Marinella is claiming that sexual desire is so foreign to women (at least to most women) that they are incapable of lascivious sentiments or acts”.

When I first read that, I found it pretty jarring. To see why, take another passage from Marinella:

I believe that through my reasoning I have clearly demonstrated that the beauty of a lovely face, accompanied by a graceful appearance, guides every man to the knowledge of his maker. What a gift and what a dowry these women have, and in what abundance, that with their beauty they can raise men’s minds to God! Who could ever praise you enough, rich treasure of the world? I confess that if I spoke as many languages as there are leaves on the trees in the laughing springtime, or grains of sand in sterile and infertile Libya, I could never begin to sing your praises sufficiently. Not only does your beauty raise cold minds to God, but it renders even the most crude and obstinate heart humble and meek. (Marinella 1999, 66-67)

To me, reading Marinella’s eloquent praises of women’s beauty, her emphasis on women’s desirability and lovableness, coupled with her statement about men’s ugliness and lack of desirability, the natural conclusion isn’t that women lack desire. While she falls short of saying so explicitly, her focus on the inherent desirability of women’s beauty, and their capacity to lead minds towards God, opens up the possibility of women desiring other women’s beauty. After all – if women’s beauty is intrinsically lovable, and makes men fall in love, what bars it from having the same effect on other women?

Thus it can be said that beauty in a woman is a marvellous spectacle and a miracle worthy of respect, though it is never fully honored and respected by men. (62)

Deslauriers interprets this chapter as Marinella arguing that women don’t experience desire. To interpret the chapter this way requires an implicit premise. The argument must run something like this:

  1. Marinella believes that men are too ugly to be desirable by women
  2. [Implicit premise] Women do not desire other women
  3. Conclusion: Marinella believes that women do not desire

Deslaurier’s interpretation of Marinella’s argument actually rests on the erasure of lesbian experiences of desire. Now, there are obviously all sorts of problems with assigning modern sexual identities and experiences to historical figures, and I wouldn’t want to go so far as to claim “Lucrezia Marinella was a lesbian”, for instance. But I do think that there’s a sense in which it’s meaningful to interpret The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men through the lens of lesbian philosophy: Marinella is arguing, as a woman, both that men are inherently unworthy of being desired, and that women, conversely, are inherently desirable. Although she says that women “love our male admirers a little” (63) out of their “courteous and benign natures” (63), her eloquent and poetic praise of women’s beauty seems to me to speak to a world in which women naturally desire and love other women.

Notes: this post comes with the massive caveats that a) I have only read Marinella’s text in translation, and only this one text, b) her time period is a little before that which I’m most familiar with, so I’m not totally au fait with the social and philosophical context, and c) I’m also not very up to date with literature on historical sexualities, etc. Any comments, suggestions or criticism are very welcome!

Bibliography:

Deslauriers, Marguerite, “Lucrezia Marinella”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/lucrezia-marinella/&gt;

Marinella, L. & Panizza, L., 1999. The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men A. Dunhill, ed., Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

 

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