Femininity in the Marketplace: The Ideal Woman in Fourteenth-Century Florence

Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora (Florentine, 1444/45-1497), Chaste Women in a Landscape, Probably 1480s, Femininity in the Marketplace: The Ideal Woman in Fourteenth-Century Florence

By Juliann Vitullo

Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol.3 (2008)

Introduction: Mea was of ordinary height, with beautiful blond hair, a very fine figure, and so amiable that she dripped with charm. Her hands were like ivory, and so shapely that they seemed to have been painted by Giotto; they were long and soft, with tapering fingers and long, shapely nails, pink and clear. Her beauty was matched by her talents, for she could do any kind of women’s work with her own hands; she was extremely adept in everything she did. Her speech was refined and pleasing her actions pure and temperate, her words effectual. She was a spirited, frank woman with the mettle of a man [d’animo verile], and abounded in every virtue. She could read and write as well as any man; she sang and danced perfectly and could have served men or women at table as adroitly as any young man used to serving at wedding banquets or similar occasions. She was expert at running a household, without a hint of avariciousness or stinginess. But she made the most of everything, admonishing and guiding her household with good teachings and her own good example, living a joyful, happy life. She wisely set about making all of the various members of her household happy, allaying every trouble, anger, or sadness that she might see in any of them. She handled everything wisely and with benevolence, and as you shall see, she had to deal with her husband’s family, which was large and unruly.

This description of Bartolomea di Pagolo Morelli (1365–1387) was written with great love and respect by her brother, Giovanni, after her death. The wise wife, mother, and household manager he describes was only twenty-two years old. At the beginning of Giovanni’s Ricordi in which he relates the history of his family and the city of Florence, the merchant writer draws the reader into his own narrative by providing vibrant and detailed portraits of the ancestors and contemporaries who helped the family move from the countryside, the Mugello, to the city of Florence, where they were successful enough in the wool industry and financial dealings to become important citizens, even eligible to hold communal offices. Giovanni’s heroic and idealized depictions of his family members’ hard work, devotion, and intelligence are tempered by the descriptions of the constant conflict among his relatives and with other families. Although Giovanni depicts the family as a sacred institution and the most powerful reason to labor as a merchant, he juxtaposes these idealized descriptions with detailed explanations of the everyday tensions and politics of a large family living in a fifteenth-century center of commerce. Since Giovanni attributes both traditionally feminine and unconventionally masculine characteristics to Mea, the passage also expresses a certain tension about gender roles, and relates this anxiety to the development of a merchant class as well.

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