Monday, August 28, 2017

Olympia Morata – a Proto-Feminist?

Her dismissal from court jolted her back into reality and helped her to reorder her priorities. “Even as I was exalted to the skies by everyone’s praise, I realized that I lacked all learning and that I was ignorant.”[3] With the support of her friend Lavinia della Rovere, who had faithfully stood by her side, she devoted herself to the study of Scriptures and to an urgent cause – a campaign for the freedom of Protestant Fanino Fanini, the first case of death penalty conviction for religious reasons in the relatively tolerant duchy of Ferrara. Her efforts were eventually frustrated, but Fanini’s faith left an indelible mark on her life.


A simple Google search of “Olympia Morata” and “feminist” yields 6,530 results. Some call her “a forgotten, feminist voice” or “a feminist in Renaissance Italy.” These definitions would have puzzled her. She was highly esteemed in her day, but for different reasons.

A Child Prodigy

We don’t know much about Olympia’s early days, but we can imagine her surrounded by books and scrolls. Her father Fulvio raised her in the love and knowledge of the classics. With the constancy of today’s Baby Einstein enthusiasts, he taught her Latin and Greek and spent hours to practice the perfect enunciation. At age 13, she had enough mastery of these skills to give eloquent speeches in Latin before an audience of scholars.

It was then that the duke and duchess of Este invited her to live in their court. Her official title was tutor and companion for their oldest daughter, 7-year-old Anna. She was also a sign of prestige. Italian courts competed in obtaining the best artists and scholars. A child scholar was impressing. A female child scholar was a sight to be seen.

Nobles and intellectuals came from other cities to see her. Even Pope Paul III attended with pleasure her production of a comedy by Roman playwright Terence, starring the Este children. She basked in her patron’s praises as much as she did in her father’s. “It’s wonderful to know I have won the approval of the great and unconquered Duke Ercole II,” she told Fulvio. She had found her vocation, and devoted her full energies to improve it.

Fall From Favor

Eventually, child prodigies grow up, and their uniqueness starts to fade. In 1548, 22-year old Olympia was dismissed from court. The official explanation was that Anna, then 17, had moved to France to marry Duke Francis of Guise. There might have been other reasons. Her letters suggest that the door was closed to her whole family, because of the “hatred and slanders of certain evil people.”

In any case, she was faced with a dilemma many child prodigies still face today. What to do if your life, which has been steered in one single direction, takes a sudden and radical turn? Olympia had no practical knowledge that could help her widowed mother and four younger siblings, nor the typical dowry and work skills which were necessary to attract a husband.

Her faith was also at a low ebb. Her father had raised her with the Lutheran and Calvinist beliefs that had trickled down to Italy and were still spreading freely at that time, but religion had occupied a small part of her scholarly life. In her letters, she mentions some doubts. For example, she had often wondered if, before addressing God in prayer, “we ought to know whether he has elected us from time eternal.”[1] After all, why would God give anything to someone he has destined to hell?

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