Biography, Blog, Women's History

Arcangela Tarabotti, Elena Cassandra: A Feminist Venetian Republic Nun

This entry has been slightly edited. WHN Admin.

Silvia Speranza Geltrude Palandri


Silvia Speranza Geltrude Palandri

Arcangela Tarabotti, Elena Cassandra, was a nun in the Venetian Republic. At that time, Venice was a cultural centre around which gravitated prestigious figures from other parts of Italy and of Europe. However, the atmosphere was still deeply misogynist.

The lash of secular feeling of the Enlightenment endured throughout the seventeenth century. Appeals were still made to the Holy Scriptures and to the Gospels through which women were denied an active role in society beyond that of devoted wife and caring mother. These texts were even used to deny women the possession of a soul.

In this climate, a woman forced to become a nun expressed herself using her wits and her culture, although self-taught, in favour of women.

She stands alongside all the unfortunate women who, like her, were victims of the patriarchal society that wanted to force them to become nuns without vocation.

In her early works Arcangela Tarabotti describes the condition of the poor daughters deceived by their fathers and forced to take refuge in monasteries for their entire lives. It is so that we can read her writings such as the “Betrayed Simplicity”, the “Monastic Hell” or “The Paternal Tyranny”[1] in which she uses the same Bible or Gospel verses to defend women from men’s attack. An especially strong argument is made in her work “Women are no less rational than men”[2]. But if on one hand she denounces the difficulties of everyday life of the involuntary nuns for whom the monastic life can only be a hell, on the other hand she is careful to warn that this is true only for the “forced” nuns and that her works are right to defend “the health of Christianity” and “the zeal of the true divine worship” [3]. Arcangela warns the reader herself “we are talking about the killed and forced from their father’s tyranny, not the suitable by the Holy Spirit, you do not have to scandalize, or Gentle reader “[4] .

Behind the malpractice so widespread in the Venetian era, Sister Arcangela is able to point out that there were only social and economic purposes of “The Serenissima Republic” itself  and also of the Curia that tolerated such malpractice.  Tarabotti’s works will always condemn them both because in her opinion women remain the only victims who “are worthy of apologies, but unworthy are you, as a major cause of their excesses” [5]. She knows in fact herself to be a sinner because her condition of nun is not lived with full mercy because of her lack of vocation. However, Arcangela specifies that “I sinned against the infinite Well, it is true, but never fled from my debt of honour … my lusts stopped on my dresses”[6].

But Tarabotti, albeit from the closed of her monastery, will put her voice at the service of all women, because women were, in the Baroque Century, derided, outraged and criticized by men who however denied them an education: a fundamental tool which Tarabotti believed at the origin of women’s subordination and not only applicable to the forced nuns. She denounced the subordination of all Venetian women.


Arcangela, in her writings, defended women and revealed the conditions of ignorance in which men keep women to mock them “because those vices that they suppose are in women, and that never reigned in female breasts, are instead received by their erroneous consciences: so they talk about vices only because they practice them “[7]. Sister Arcangela was a female presence who was anything but discreet and submissive:  she reported women’s  condition that did not allow them any social ransom. And her voice has arrived until our time and it is still clear, it is against social conditionings that led, and lead, women to become alienated from social participation. The lack of an education prevented women from understanding the reality that surrounded them, for example, not being allowed to work. However, they were unaware of the social conditioning that made women slaves of wishes that did not belong to them [8]. Her message is still so closely based in reality  that we can agree with the writer Buoninsegni, a contemporary and admirer of Sister Arcangela Tarabotti, for whom all women: “you can be sure that has made the revenges one for all!” [9].


Grande Canal Venice

[1] Letizia Panizza, “Paternal Tyranny”, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[2] Letizia Panizza, “Women are no less rational than Men, Arcangela Tarabotti “Che le donne siano della spezie degli uomini” edited with an introductory essay by Letizia Panizza”, (London, Institute of Romance Studies, 1994).

[3] Emilio Zanette, “Suor Arcangela monaca del Seicento veneziano”, (Venezia – Roma, ED.Ist. Collab. Culturale, 1960), pagg. 98,173.

[4] Francesca Medioli, “L’Inferno Monacale di Arcangela Tarabotti”, (Torino, Ed.  Rosenberg&Sellier, 1990), pag. 51.

[5] Francesca Medioli, “L’Inferno Monacale”, pag. 37

[6]  Giuseppe Portigliotti, “Penombre claustrali”, (Milano, ed. Treves, 1930), pag. 263.

[7] A   Marchi, “Il corriero svaligiato con la lettera dalla prigionia, aggiuntavi La Semplicità Ingannata di Suor Arcangela Tarabotti”, (Parma, ed. Università di Parma, 1984), pagg. 133-134.

[8] Silvia Palandri, “L’istruzione femminile nel pensiero di Arcangela Trabotti”, Thesis, mentor Professor Ginevra Conti Odorisio, a.a. 2003-2004.

[9] Elisa Weaver, “Satira e Antisatira. Francesco Buoninsegni e Suor Arcangela Tarabotti”, (Roma, Ed. Salerno, 1998), pag. 26.


Silvia Speranza Geltrude Palandri graduated in “Political Science” on Women’s  Studies with a dissertation on Arcangela Tarabotti : “The female education in Arcangela Tarabotti’s Thought” with Professor Ginevra Conti Odorisio and Professor Fiorenza Taricone at University of Roma Tre in 2005.  She then achieved a  Master  in “International Cooperation, Human Rights and the Conditions of  Women” at the National Research Council, CNR, Rome, Italy in 2007.  Silvia also  worked at the Department of Gender Policy at the Meditarranean Istitute as Researcher and now collaborates with a few periodicals and magazines specializing in Gender Issues. Her blog is at


Images supplied by Silvia Spereanza Geltrude Paladri.

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