Laura Cereta

Laura Cereta was a Renaissance feminist and humanist. Living from 1469 to 1499 she published private letters that detail her thoughts and opinions of the life of women, their rights to education, and the slavery of women in marriage.

Early in her life, Laura Cereta was sent to a convent for her education where she learned reading, writing, embroidery (which is used as an example in many of her arguments) and the rudiments of Latin. She mentions in her autobiography a trouble with insomnia, and instead of sleep she would study late into the night. She went home again for a brief stay with her family, but returned to the convent to continue her education in Latin before coming home for good. Sometime between 1484-85 she was married to Pietro Serina, a Venice merchant. The marriage only lasted a year. It is believed that Pietro Serina died of the plague and Laura was left a widow. After her husband's death she became even more studious and published her only book, a collection of letters in 1488. Six months after publication her father, who was a major figure in Laura’s life, died, leaving her with little support. Though she was temporarily hailed as a genius, her work soon came under heavy criticism and she never published again.

Nevertheless, Laura Cereta’s contribution to early feminism is important as an example of the women who let their voices be heard in the fight for equality.

Below is a section of a letter Laura Cereta wrote to Bibolo Semproni in which she gives many examples of learned women throughout history:

“Lesbian Sappho serenaded the stony heart of her lover with tearful poems, sounds I might have thought came from Orpheus’ lyre or the plectrum of Phoebus. Soon the Greek tongue of Leontium, full of the Muses, emerged, and she, who had made herself agreeable with the liveliness of her writing, dared to make a bitter attack on the divine words of Theophrastus. Nor would I omit her Proba, noted both for her exceptional tongue and her knowledge; for she wove together and composed histories of the Old Testament with fragments from Homer and Virgil.

The majesty of the Roman state deemed worthy a little Greek woman, Semiramis, for she spoke her mind about the laws in a court of law and about kings in the senate. Pregnant with virtue, Rome bore Sempronia, who, forceful in her eloquent poetry, spoke in public assemblies and filled the minds of her audiences with persuasive orations. Hortensia, the daughter of Hortensius, and also an orator, was celebrated at a public meeting with equal elegance. Her grace of speech was so great the she persuaded the triumvirs, albeit with the tears of a loyal mother, to absolve the women of Rome from having to pay the debt levied against them. Add also Cornificia, the sister of the poet Cornificius, whose devotion to literature bore such a fruit that she was said to have been nurtured on the milk of the Castalian Muses and who wrote epigrams in which every phrase was graced with Heliconian flowers. I will not mention here Cicero’s daughter Tulliola or Terentia or Cornelia, Roman women who reached the pinnacle of fame for their learning; and accompanying them in the shimmering light of silence will be Nicolosa of Bologna, Isotta of Verona, and Cassandra of Venice.

All history is full of such examples. My point is that your mouth has grown foul because you keep it sealed so that no arguments can come out of it that might enable you to admit that nature imparts one freedom to all human beings equally—to learn.”1

1 Laura Cereta, Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist, transcribed, translated, and edited by Diana Robin. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1997. pp.77-78.