Renaissance Woman, by Gaia Servadio

Plucky poets and prostitutes, but eccentric prose
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The Independent Culture

In her trawl through history in search of the Renaissance woman, Gaia Servadio has chosen to concentrate on prominent figures and to broaden her subject beyond Italy. The book is simultaneously wide-ranging and confined, as only the highly educated left any evidence behind. Sketches of Elizabeth I, the French poet Louise Labé, Vittoria Colonna and other notable Italian women, are mixed into a historical pot pourri.

In her trawl through history in search of the Renaissance woman, Gaia Servadio has chosen to concentrate on prominent figures and to broaden her subject beyond Italy. The book is simultaneously wide-ranging and confined, as only the highly educated left any evidence behind. Sketches of Elizabeth I, the French poet Louise Labé, Vittoria Colonna and other notable Italian women, are mixed into a historical pot pourri.

An aristocrat who questioned the moral laxity of the Catholic Church, and was sympathetic to the Reformation, Vittoria Colonna was at the centre of Renaissance cultural life, one of its foremost poets. She fell in love with Michelangelo, and their letters to each other make fascinating reading - evidence of a passionate, though platonic, relationship between the ageing, homosexual artist and the middle-aged marchesa.

Another female poet had a more difficult time. As the daughter of a prostitute with no choice but to follow her mother's profession, Tullia d'Aragona ran a flourishing salon in Rome until she made the mistake of sleeping with a rich German, and was ostracised by her regular customers. She moved to Siena, Venice and Florence, her life becoming more circumscribed with the rise of the Counter-Reformation.

Formerly allowed to mingle with society as "honest courtesans", those who plied that trade were now forced to wear a yellow veil. Tullia appealed to Duke Cosimo de' Medici, who scribbled a note: "Reprieve her, since she is a poet." But age, along with the rise of the Counter-Reformation, caught up with her and she died, Traviata-like, in poverty, in an inn run by her former maid.

Servadio's thesis is that the Renaissance, which she dates from the invention of the printing press in the 1450s to the mid-16th-century point when Counter-Reformation and Inquisition made it dangerous to hold enlightened views, was largely influenced by women. By becoming more learned, thanks to the spread of printed books, they were able to express opinions. It could even be argued that the Renaissance, a "feminine" movement, sprang from the new, higher status of women.

The strength of her argument is lessened by errors and unsupported assertions. Statements such as that Elizabeth I "almost certainly slept with all her men; she was sexy and knew she was barren" are weakened by numerous mistakes. The caption below Mantegna's fresco of Ludovico Gonzaga, painted around 1470, fast-forwards the date to 1527. Isabella d'Este is referred to by her married name of Gonzaga. We have a Duchess of Este, rather than Ferrara, and a Marquis of Gonzaga, instead of Mantua.

More painful, though, is the eccentric prose. On the English love of theatre: "Spectacle was also the people, the way they dressed, what they said and Elizabeth enjoyed looking at them, unseen." One wonders whether there is an editor at IB Tauris, as it seems incredible that such obvious errors should go through on the nod.

Clare Colvin's novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by Arrow, £6.99

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