November 2020 – Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing and the Desire for In-person Contact

Adriana (Guarro) Romero for the SSEMWG Blog

“In-person contact is like a drug,” I texted my brother after a successful socially distanced dinner with my parents in late April. It was the first time I had seen anyone besides my husband since California instated a stay-at-home order in mid-March to curb the spread of COVID-19. My husband and I brought over a pizza, and in the middle of the long driveway leading up to my parents’ townhouse, we set up chairs ten feet apart from each other, wore masks, and talked for two hours. Although we had previously communicated with my parents over a dozen times through phone calls and Zoom, no virtual communication could satisfy what I (and everyone else) had been craving for months—live social interaction.

On the drive home, I drifted into thought and began to think about the dissertation I had recently completed on women’s friendship in Renaissance Italy, a topic often overlooked in scholarship due to the androcentric discourse that has overwhelmed philosophies and ideas about friendship since the classical period. Whereas the thought of my dissertation had caused me stress during the last months of writing—usually a shameful reminder that I hadn’t been working on it enough—this time was different. I felt reenergized and connected to its contents in a real, tangible way. In particular, I was struck anew by one of the discoveries I had made while examining the correspondence between Elisabetta Gonzaga (1471–1526), duchess of Urbino, and Isabella d’Este (1474–1539), marchesa of Mantua—close friends who prioritized live social interaction. When researching Renaissance women’s letter writing as a grad student, I quickly learned that early modern women had a keen awareness of the intimacy that could be re-created through correspondence in order to bridge geographical and temporal gaps between friends and family. Though it seems obvious in hindsight, I did not immediately realize that letters could only bridge those gaps for so long. As Elisabetta and Isabella’s exchanges attest, a longing for in-person social interaction was a constant in their correspondence. And I believe they expressed and returned intimacy by implementing language in their correspondence that encouraged and even accelerated future meetups. Nearly five hundred years later amid a pandemic, I personally related to their yearning for face-to-face interaction and their desire to find ways to advance it.

In contrast to Elisabetta Gonzaga, Isabella d’Este has been a household name since the Italian Renaissance. Today, historians continue to pore over Isabella’s letters to trace her ambitious activities as an art collector, patron, and consort. Though Elisabetta’s correspondence remains largely unexamined, many people are familiar with her fictional persona as the model courtly lady in Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier (1528). Isabella and Elisabetta were each responsible for establishing their respective courts of Mantua and Urbino as prestigious cultural centers, hosting and patronizing notable artists, writers, and intellectuals such as Mario Equicola, Andrea Mantegna, and Pietro Bembo. Like many noblewomen of the time, Elisabetta and Isabella were also avid letter writers. Their epistolary record forms part of a larger corpus of women’s writing in early modern Italy that, as Judith Bryce writes, “provided the principal vehicle in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for women’s introduction into the world of written communication.”[1] In contrast to letters curated for publication—such as humanist letters or vernacular letterbooks like those of Pietro Aretino—their missives were directed to single addressees and existed first and foremost as a means of communication between sender and recipient. Aristocratic Renaissance women were trained in letter writing, using it as a means to gather and report news, conduct administrative business, and, most importantly, keep in contact with family, friends, and allies. Over the course of their lives, Elisabetta and Isabella exchanged hundreds of letters from 1490—the year Isabella married Elisabetta’s brother Francesco I Gonzaga—to 1526, the year of Elisabetta’s death. The state archive in Mantua houses a large corpus of their correspondence totaling 670 missives; of these, 482 letters were written by Elisabetta and 188 by Isabella.[2] Isabella’s letters survive mostly in the form of copialettere (bound copy books) and Elisabetta’s as originals, since they were incoming mail. Through original archival research and analysis, my dissertation and present research considers how these two Renaissance princesses used letter writing as a crucial communicative tool to express and reciprocate intimacy, especially during the early years of their friendship.[3]

Isabella and Elisabetta first met in 1488 when, en route to Urbino, Elisabetta stopped in Ferrara, Isabella’s hometown, to celebrate her upcoming marriage to Guidobaldo da Montefeltro. Their true friendship began two years later when Isabella arrived at the court of Mantua. Their warm exchanges from this period show that the two women grew close quickly; beyond their familial tie as sisters-in-law, they became dear friends. At the time, both women were transitioning into their new homes in Mantua and Urbino: Isabella was coping with feelings of homesickness for Ferrara, and Elisabetta likewise had trouble adjusting to Urbino.[4] They looked to each other for support during this difficult period, planning occasions to meet in order to spend quality time together. For instance, their exchanges from the end of 1492 to the spring of 1493 illustrate their numerous attempts to see each other. In 1492, Elisabetta was to come to Mantua for an extended period of time, but ill health prevented her from traveling that year. Frustration about being apart builds in their correspondence. On 15 January 1493, Isabella wrote the following to Elisabetta after hearing that the duchess was too sick to come to Mantua for Carnival:

I received your letter, which informed me that your departure has been postponed due to your stomach illness which requires you to seek treatment at the baths in Poreta. The displeasure I felt upon hearing this news, and with respect to Your Ladyship who feels badly . . . is extremely great . . . Now I don’t know what could induce me to have fun this carnival, since I am sure that all the things we would have done because you were coming have gone to the wind. The time that I would have spent with you in happiness and solace will now be spent in solitude, leaving me in my studiolo to grieve your adverse state.[5]

To express her disappointment, Isabella paints an image of herself as distressed and alone in her study.[6] While she opens the letter by acknowledging Elisabetta’s illness, she then uses guilt-ridden language to express the effect that the duchess’s absence has on her. This tactic may seem melodramatic—drawing attention to Isabella and not to Elisabetta who is sick—but it more so illustrates the human desire to be near close friends and family in addition to the isolation and utter disappointment felt when that was not possible.

Four months later, Elisabetta and Isabella tried to meet again. In early May, the doge of Venice invited Isabella to celebrate the city’s extravagant festivities in honor of Ascension Day, including a maritime ceremony where the city marries the sea. Isabella wrote to Elisabetta in awe of all the wonderful things she saw and of the warm hospitality she received as the wife of Venice’s army captain general.[7] On 18 May, Elisabetta replied, writing that she was happy Isabella’s trip was going well, but that she also wished to be in her friend’s company: “I often find myself between two great desires: on the one hand, I would like to continue to hear that you find yourself in triumph, happiness, and with worthy honors, and on the other, I would like to continue to enjoy your sweet conversation. I also hope that you will return so that our conversation can be whole again, without which I confess I do not know how to take pleasure in anything.”[8] Elisabetta sent another letter on 23 May, reiterating her desire to see Isabella:

It is with great pleasure that I have heard that Your Ladyship has departed [from Venice] to return to the place where I expect you with great desire. I will not give thanks to you nor to the notices you are sending me every hour, instead I will only engage in encouraging you to come back as quickly as possible because without you it doesn’t seem that I know how to live, and I desire you with so much zeal that I cannot wait until I may embrace you again. And even though it makes me happy to hear about these honors and pleasures that have been shown to you, I am still unsettled by the great desire I have to see you, so I will not write anything else other than to tell you to hasten your return for our mutual satisfaction.[9]

In the first letter, Elisabetta evokes a classical and humanist ideal of perfect friendship that the friend is representative of the self’s other half in order to convey that she misses conversing with Isabella. In contrast, she adopts an urgent, impatient tone to communicate her desire to see and embrace Isabella in her second missive. Elisabetta’s hyperbolic language is likely not a fully genuine reflection of her inner-most sentiments; after all, unpublished letters, like their published counterparts, were also carefully crafted with a specific goal or intention in mind. Her hyperbolic rhetoric therefore functions as a tool to not only underscore her desire to see Isabella but also to promote physically seeing each her. Her tactic worked. In a letter also dated 23 May, Isabella replied to the duchess with an invitation to take a girls’ trip to Porto Mantovano, a town just outside Mantua where Isabella had a summer palace:

I am thinking of arriving at our palazzo in Porto on Sunday by way of Castiglione Mantovano and staying there. I pray Your Ladyship consider coming there too that day, or even earlier if you like. Then we can savor that fresh air together; and we will enjoy ourselves by telling each other all that has happened to us while we have been apart.[10]

In this way, Isabella provides a solution to their joint wish to see each other, clearly illustrating how letters worked to advance in-person contact. She notes that they will be able to properly catch up, perhaps hinting at the idea that stories and experiences are best shared by mouth rather than penned in a letter. Luckily for the two friends, Elisabetta was able to accept Isabella’s invitation, and the women spent the following six weeks together in Porto, reading, singing, and enjoying the comfort of each other’s presence.[11]

As I re-read these letters, the women’s mutual dependence on and longing for in-person contact became even more apparent to me. Repeatedly, they mention what is gained through face-to-face interaction: physical affection (e.g., embraces), shared experiences, and most importantly, lively conversation. All of this, of course, demonstrates that while Renaissance gender norms positioned friendship as masculine, the cultural reality did not match that ideal. By unveiling the female experience of friendship, Elisabetta and Isabella’s exchanges therefore offer a more complete portrait of early modern bonds. While we live in notably different times and circumstances, I often think about how their desire to be with each other, and the imbedded implication that letter writing could not solely sustain their friendship, mirror our current need for human interaction in the age of Coronavirus. I think we all agree that Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms temporarily help minimize the effects of social isolation. But as Elisabetta and Isabella’s missives teach us, communication tools—whether they be letters, text messages, or Zoom meetings—will never replace the intimacy created when we are together. If anything, these tools only heighten our awareness of their own insufficiency and consequently increase our desire for in-person contact.

[1] Judith Bryce, “Introduction,” in Letters to Her Sons (1447–1470) (Toronto: Iter Academic Press, 2016), 3. For more on women’s unpublished letters during the early modern period see Adriana Chemello, ed., Alla lettera. Teorie e pratiche epistolari dai Greci al Novecento (Milan: Angelo Guerini, 1998); Karen Cherewatuk and Ulrike Weithaus, eds., Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993); James Daybell, ed., Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1400–1700 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001); Maria Luisa Doglio, L’arte delle lettere. Idea e pratica della scrittura epistolare tra Quattro e Seicento (Bologna: Il Mulino, 2000).

[2] The imbalance in their correspondence can be attributed to various factors including the fact that a substantial amount of Isabella’s correspondence was not copied, leaving part of her epistolary production unaccounted for; other letters they exchanged may be spread out among archives outside of Mantua.

[3] To my knowledge, there is only one other extensive study that looks at Elisabetta and Isabella’s friendship. However, the study in question, Alessandro Luzio and Rodolfo Renier, Mantova e Urbino, Isabella d’Este ed Elisabetta Gonzaga nelle relazioni famigliari e nelle vicende politiche (Rome: Arnaldo Forni, 1893), is dated and provides a historical sketch of their relationship without engaging in close textual analysis of their letters.

[4] See Elisabetta’s letters to Francesco that detail her longing for Mantua as described in Luzio and Renier, 47. Regarding Isabella’s homesickness in the early years of her marriage, see Carolyn James, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Dynastic Politics and Motherhood in the Letters of Eleonora of Aragon and Her Daughters,” Women’s History Review 24, no. 4 (2015): 536.

[5] 15 January 1493, Mantua, busta 2991, libro 3, carte 2v–3r, Archivio Gonzaga (AG), Archivio di Stato di Mantova (ASMn), IDEA. Transcriptions and translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

[6] Isabella’s studiolo acted as a space where she could confront her passions, and in this letter, she states she will do just that. See Stephen J. Campbell, The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este (New Haven: Yale, 2004), 59–86.

[7] See Isabella’s detailed account of her visit to Venice in Isabella d’Este, Isabella d’Este: Selected Letters, ed. and trans. Deanna Shemek (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2017), 57–58.

[8] 18 May 1493, Mantua, b. 1066, c. 358, AG, ASMn.

[9] 23 May 1493, Mantua, b. 1066, c. 360, AG, ASMn.

[10] d’Este, Isabella d’Este: Selected Letters, 58–59.

[11] Julia Cartwright, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, 1474–1539: A Study of the Renaissance, vol. 1 (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1903), 102.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Anderson, Penelope. Friendship’s Shadows: Women’s Friendship and the Politics of Betrayal in England, 1640–1705. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Couchman, Jane, and Ann Crabb. “Introduction: Form and Persuasion in Women’s Letters, 1400–1700.” In Women’s Letters Across Europe, 1400–1700, 3–18. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005.

Daybell, James, ed. Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1400–1700. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Este, Isabella d’. Isabella d’Este: Selected Letters. Edited and translated by Deanna Shemek. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Press, 2017.

Guarro [Romero], Adriana. “Ties That Bind: Women and Friendship in Early Modern Italy.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2020.

Herbert, Amanda E. Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

IDEA  Letter/e, IDEA: Isabella d’Este Archive, accessed September 7, 2020, http://idealetters.web.unc.edu/letters-platform/.

Legault, Marianne. Female Intimacies in Seventeenth-Century French Literature. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012.

Lochman, Daniel T., Maritere López, and Lorna Hutson, eds. Discourses and Representations of Friendship in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700. New York: Routledge, 2011.

McCue Gill, Amyrose, and Sarah Rolfe Prodan, eds. Friendship and Sociability in Premodern Europe: Contexts, Concepts, and Expressions. Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2014.

Moran, Megan. “Female Letter Writing and the Preservation of Family Memory in Early Modern Italy.” Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6 (Fall 2011): 195–201.

Najemy, John M. Between Friends: Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513–1515. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Shemek, Deanna. “In Continuous Expectation: Isabella d’Este’s Epistolary Desire.” In Phaethon’s Children: The Este Court and Its Culture in Early Modern Ferrara. Edited by Deanna Shemek and Dennis Looney, 269–300. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Press, 2005.

About the Author

Adriana (Guarro) Romero received her PhD in Italian studies from UCLA in 2020. Her research focuses on friendship in Renaissance Italy, early modern and modern Italian women writers, literary history, and the relationship between gender and genre. Putting her humanist skills to work, she recently started a new position as an Associate Fact Checker at Spotify for a division of their non-fiction and story-driven podcasts. Email: aguarro@ucla.edu

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