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Musings on Three Eminent Italian Women: Gentileschi, Agnesi, and Montessori
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-03-16 09:05:48
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One would never know it from the gaffes and the distasteful jokes on women enunciated by the Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi, the so called “clown of Europe,” but in three different centuries spanning the 17th, 18th , 19th , as well as the first half of the 20th century there lived three eminent Italian women who convincingly disproved the erroneous chauvinistic assumption that there are certain fields of human endeavor which are best left to men. In chronological order they are Artemisia Gentileschi, a painter (1593–1653), Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) a mathematician, philosopher and theologian, and Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an educator. They all achieved an impressive international reputation in their respective fields. A brief overview of each of those women’s extraordinary achievements leads to some unavoidable reflections which will be enunciated throughout and at the end of this article. I should mention that the historical data and documentation was mostly gathered from the Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian early Baroque painter, today considered one of the most accomplished painters in the generation influenced by Caravaggio. In an era when women painters were not easily accepted by the artistic community, she was the first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence. She was one of the first female artists to paint historical and religious paintings, at a time when such heroic themes were considered beyond a woman's reach. A research paper of Roberto Longhi, an important Italian critic, dated 1916, named Gentileschi padre e figlia (Gentileschi father and daughter) described Artemisia as "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing and other fundamentals". That’s quite a tribute and coming from a man to boot.

Here is how Wikipedia Encyclopedia records Artemisia’s enduring fame and legacy: “Although there were other female painters in the Baroque, there is something in the art and the biography of Artemisia Gentileschi that makes her especially fascinating, which explains the continued interest in her life and work. The first writer who produced a novel around the figure of Artemisia was Anna Banti, wife of Roberto Longhi. Her first draft of the manuscript, dated 1944, was lost during the war. Three years later she started again with the book, to be called Artemisia, writing in a much different form. Banti's book is written in an ‘open diary’ form, in which she maintains a dialogue with Artemisia, trying to understand why she finds her so fascinating. More than 50 years later, in 1999, the French writer Alexandra Lapierre became fascinated by Artemisia and wrote a novel about her, derived from scrupulous study of the painter and the historical context of her work. The novel seeks to understand the relation between Artemisia the woman and Artemisia the painter, and ends with describing as “leitmotiv” the relation between her and her father, composed of both love insufficiently expressed, and a latent professional rivalry. The 1997 film Artemisia, directed by Agnes Merlet and starring Valentina Cervi, was loosely based on this painter's life, but inaccurately portrayed the relationship between Tassi and Artemisia as a passionate affair rather than as rape. The novel The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland, published in 2002, positions itself in the wave of the popularity of the feminist account of Artemisia Gentileschi.”

Maria Gaetani Agnesi was a distinguished 18th century mathematician, philosopher of language and theologian, the author of a widely read treatise on calculus which appeared in Milan in 1748. Agnesi is credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus. She was an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Bologna. According to Dirk Jan Struik, Agnesi is "the first important woman mathematician since Hypatia in the fifth century A.D. Her most valuable work in mathematics was the Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana, a work of great merit, which was published at Milan in 1748 and is regarded as the best introduction extant to the works of Euler. The first volume treats of the analysis of finite quantities and the second of the analysis of infinitesimals. In 1750, on the illness of her father, she was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV to the chair of mathematics and natural theology at Bologna. She was the second woman to be appointed professor at a university. After the death of her father in 1752 she carried out a long-cherished purpose by giving herself to the study of theology, and especially of the Fathers and devoted herself to the poor, homeless, and sick. After holding for some years the office of directress of the Hospice Trivulzio for Blue Nuns at Milan, she herself joined the sisterhood, and in this austere order ended her days.

What remains intriguing about Agnesi is that the scientific and Catholic dimensions of Agnesi’s life were not incompatible in her life and in fact makes one suspect that the supposed incompatibility is only in the mind of the Church’s secular detractors who continue insisting that religion per se is a sign of backwardness. To the contrary, all the way back in the 18th century we find space in Italy not only for a Catholic intellectual but for a woman too. That phenomenon ought to give some pause to the so called “enlightened” intellectuals of Europe who think that religion and science are mutually exclusive.

Agnesi’s Cielo Mistico (Mystical Sky) offers a clue to the solution of this alleged puzzle of her personality. She declares there that for her mystical contemplation did not in any way imply a rejection of the power of the intellect. The latter was for her merely the first stage of a process. She declares that “enlightening clarity” must give way to “burning clarity” as cognition gives way to love. In other words, between those two faculties there is cooperation rather than opposition. Indeed, that is certainly in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. As strange as it may seem to the modern enlightened mind-set, modern scientific insights can be promoted within rather than in opposition to the Catholic system of knowledge. Thus it is possible that mathematical analysis can become a tool, rather than an impediment, to the spiritual life of a believing Catholic.

Maria Montessori (August 1870–1952) was born in Chiaravalle, Italy. At the age of thirteen she attended an all-boy technical school in preparation for her dreams of becoming an engineer. She was the first woman in Italy to graduate from the University of Rome La Sapienza Medical School, becoming the first female doctor in Italy. She was a member of the University's Psychiatric Clinic and became intrigued with trying to educate the mentally challenged which society considered "uneducatable."

Montessori was convinced that “Scientific observation has established that education is not what the teacher gives; education is a natural process spontaneously carried out by the human individual, and is acquired not by listening to words but by experiences upon the environment. The task of the teacher becomes that of preparing a series of motives of cultural activity, spread over a specially prepared environment, and then refraining from obtrusive interference. Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done, as servants help the master. Doing so, they will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul and to the rising of a New Man who will not be a victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society”

Because of her success with children, she was asked to start a school for children in a housing project in Rome, which opened on January 6, 1907, and which she called "Casa dei Bambini" or Children's House. Children's House was a child care center in an apartment building in the poor neighborhood of Rome. She was focused on teaching the students ways to develop their own skills at a pace they set, which was a principle Montessori called "spontaneous self-development". A wide variety of special equipment of increasing complexity is used to help direct the interests of the child and hasten development. When a child is ready to learn new and more difficult tasks, the teacher guides the child’s first endeavors in order to avoid wasted effort and the learning of wrong habits; otherwise the child learns alone. The Montessori method of teaching has enabled children to learn to read and write much more quickly and with greater facility than has otherwise been possible. The method concentrates on quality rather than quantity. The success of this school sparked the opening of many more, and a worldwide interest in Montessori's methods of education.

Montessori, like Agnesi, was a pious Catholic. Her life too, as an Italian, a European and a Catholic, confirms that to be a believer is not ipso facto incompatible with being at the edge of the latest and most modern methods of education. This brings us back to Habermas’ insights into the re-emergence of religion in public life in Europe as examined a few days ago. That phenomenon was not anticipated. But then again, we live in very interesting times when few events can be fully anticipated and those who think themselves at the edge of modernity may suddenly discover that they are behind the curve.

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AP2009-03-17 15:57:20
"A research paper of Roberto Longhi, an important Italian critic, dated 1916, named Gentileschi padre e figlia (Gentileschi father and daughter) described Artemisia as "the only woman in Italy who ever knew about painting, coloring, doughing and other fundamentals". That’s quite a tribute and coming from a man to boot."

I just have this to say: if Longhi wrote such thing in 1916, that's not a tribute: he was even more chauvinistic than you may think. Although Gentileschi was one of the most genial Italian female painters ever, he ignored everybody else, including La Tintoretta, Lavinia Fontana, Sofonisba Anguissola and her five other painter sisters, the great engraver Mantovana, Diana Ghisi, Barbara Longhi, Properzia de Rossi, Sirani, Garzoni, Giovanna Fratellini, Teresa del Po, Galizia, Rosalba Carriera, etc. - just like most mainstream Art History manuals still do! Actually, not only in Italy but throughout Europe there were women engravers, painters and sculptors making quality work during the same period or even before. It's quite an injustice to affirm that "she was the only one who knew how to paint", or not even how to paint: "the only one who knew the fundamentals" - oh please!

Emanuel Paparella2009-03-17 17:59:34
Indeed, Ms. Pereira, there were other female painters in Italy and you forgot at least two important ones: Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) commissioned by Pope Clement VIII, Fede Galizia (1578-1630). But the point of the article was not to mention all the female painters of the time. The point is mentioned in bold letters and obviously it was missed or ignored. I am afraid that you need to re-read the article a bit more carefully and aerenically, with no animus (no pun intended), no chip on the shoulders against any and all male critics and no ideological agenda. Then it may begin to dawn on you that those three chosen were mere exemplary women chosen as a tribute to all women who contributed to culture and civilization in Europe and elsewhere as well. Moreover, the fact remains that Agnesi was the second woman in Italy to be appointed to a University chair at Bologna to boot, the first university in Europe, and Montessori the first woman doctor in Italy. Were there others that were also worthy and competent? No doubt. But that was not the point of the article either.

Emanuel Paparella2009-03-17 20:15:02
P.S. The off-hand way in which Roberto Longhi's assessment is dismissed leads one to suspect that you don't have the foggiest whom he might be as an art critic. The link below may prove useful.


AP2009-03-18 02:36:04
If you read my post, Mr. Paparella, it seems like I didn't forget them at all! :D

AP2009-03-18 03:05:22
My criticism was very specific, and I thought it was clear that its target was a detail in your article plus the astonishing sentence written by Longhi (the detail I criticized in your article was to consider such sentence as a tribute, which I really don't think it was, deep down).

"Then it may begin to dawn on you that those three chosen were mere exemplary women chosen as a tribute to all women who contributed to culture and civilization in Europe and elsewhere as well."
1. One thing is to choose, the other is to ignore the others or discredit them like Longhi did - can Sofonisba and Lucia Anguissola or Carriera be ignored or discarded? - is there any maximum quote for the number of women to be mentioned, between one and three?
2. Why don't you go and choose only Raphael or Caravaggio as a tribute to all the others, including Leonardo and Canaletto? Same criteria...

ps - whether Bologna was or was not the first University in Europe is arguable, as its charter was only given in 1158, and other old Universities in Europe had also "Studios" similar to the ones Bologna had before that date.

AP2009-03-18 03:16:47
ps2 - No, Mr. Paparella, it just means that I'm not afraid of expressing my opinion on the subject matter, independently of ANY idiocies that "THE authorities" may say. Now tell me, wasn't he part of the status quo formed by those who wrote and helped to write the mainstream Art History manuals, and defined art to the layman (or helped to separate it from him), a definition made to fit their own misconceptions and prejudices? - what's the surprise if he used to think like that? - his work would prove it well. That doesn't mean I have to agree with the chauvinistic foolishness he wrote - he was even more responsible because of his position as a specialist, and that foolishness came out of his mouth anyway...

Emanuel Paparella2009-03-18 21:47:24
After this exchange, Ms. Pereira, one is left wandering: would it have been more more acceptable if the objectionable statement in question had been proffered by a woman? Would an attack have been mounted even if Longhi had not been mentioned? Would Anna Karenina have been a better novel if authored by a woman? Because if that is the case, then such is literally a gratuitous argumentum ad hominem. Indeed, we are all entitled to our opinion but to inveign against authority by proceeding to set oneself up as an authority simply because of one's gender is an irony of the first order, to say the least.

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