The Civic Virtue of Women in Quattrocento Florence

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Contrada, Christine
The Graduate School, Stony Brook University: Stony Brook, NY.
Fifteenth century Florence has long been viewed as the epicenter of Renaissance civilization and a cradle of civic humanism. This dissertation seeks to challenge the argument that the cardinal virtues, as described by humanists like Leonardo Bruni and Matteo Palmieri, were models of behavior that only men adhered to. Elite men and women alike embraced the same civic ideals of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Although they were not feminists advocating for social changes, women like Alessandra Strozzi, Margherita Datini, and Lucrezia Tornabuoni had a great deal of opportunity to actively support their own interests and the interests of their kin within popular cultural models of civic virtue. This, in turn, earned these women much praise at the time. By exploring interpretations of each virtue and illustrating case studies of merchant and aristocratic women's activities, this dissertation points to a larger Florentine culture that set forth the path to a virtuous life for both men and women. This path challenges the historiographical clich that Florence, because of its patriarchal culture, was a particularly difficult place to be a woman. While highlighting the uniqueness of women's experiences, this dissertation argues that oppression was more reflective of a woman's economic position than of her sex. New interpretations of letters, prescriptive literature, and wills reveal the ways in which the humanist cultural climate affected both men and women. Seen in this light, the active engagement of both sexes in Renaissance humanist culture emerges on a larger historical canvas.