Women in Retreat

Benedetta Craveri, translated from the Italian by Joan Sax

Storia delle donne in Occidente: Dal Rinascimento all’età moderna (A History of Women in the West: From the Renaissance to the Modern Era)

edited by Arlette Farge, edited by Natalie Zemon Davis
Plon (To be published by Harvard University Press in 1993), 567 pp., fr 270

Letteratura per il popolo in Francia (1600–1750) (Literature for the French People, 1600–1750)

by Giovanni Dotoli
Schena Editore, 405 pp., 40,000 lire (paper)

Ange ou diablesse: La représentation de la femme au XVIe siècle (Angel or Devil: The Representation of Women in the Sixteenth Century)

by Sara F. Matthews Grieco
Flammarion, 495 pp., fr 170 (paper)

Le travail des apparences: Le corps féminin, XVIIIe–XIXe siècle (The Work of Appearances: The Female Body in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries)

by Philippe Perot
Editions du Seuil, 280 pp., fr 43 (paper)

The first known female nude painting of the Renaissance, a work of 1540 by Jean Cousin, confronts visitors to the Louvre with supreme indifference. Seenin profile, like an ancient cameo, with her gaze fixed on some object invisibleto us, the beautiful young woman lounging on her right side with her body slightly elevated as if on an antique bed seems remote and inaccessible. Her pure white nudity appears to be protected by a veil of mystery. She could be taken forVenus were it not fora scroll hanging in the grotto in the background, on which is written in bold letters, “Eve the first Pandora.” Indeed, if one looks closely, there are no winged putti or bows or quivers of arrows or anything else to associate this splendid body with the fancies of love. The objects around the woman are very disturbing. The twig from an apple tree that she holds inher right hand could appear innocent, but the elbow supporting her raised body rests on a skull and the left arm is encircled by a serpent. Two elegant engraved urns, funeral in appearance, are the sole furnishings of the grotto.

So it is not Aphrodite, but Eve and Pandora who symbolically inhabit this perfect nude. Two cultural traditions, classical and biblical, are joined in Cousin’s painting as a warning to men of the sixteenth century about the snares of feminine beauty: woman is the source of all evil, engendering life but also death, devastation, and sin. Cousin’s painting also suggests, by a specific historical reference, that her cunning is stronger than the chains with which society tries to contain her, and that her powers of seduction are stronger than the prohibitions that attempt to keep her within bounds. Through its formal resemblance to Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze of Diane of Poitiers as the goddess of the hunt, the Eve-Pandora of the Louvre alludes to the most famous and scandalous “femme fatale” of the time, the powerful mistress of the king of France.

This tragic image of the ambiguity of the daughters of Eve raises problems that are central in a number of impressive recent studies of women in history. A History of Women in the West: From the Renaissance to the Modern Era, ably edited by Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge, is the third volume in a series directed by Georges Duby and Michelle Perrot. Women of the Renaissance, a detailed study by the American scholar Margaret L. King, emphasizes the oppressive treatment of women in virtually every aspect of life between 1350 and 1650. Two more specialized studies illuminate specific themes while avoiding abstract theorizing: Sara F. Matthews Grieco’s scholarly iconographic study considers the contradictory angelic and demonic images of women in the sixteenth century, and Giovanni Dotoli deals with the image of women that emerges from the many volumes of the Bibliothèque bleue, a collection written under clerical direction for a popular audience, published in Troyes, and circulated throughout France by booksellers and …

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