|Laura Cereta’s “portrait,”
from the 1640 edition of her work
We know that the Italian humanist Laura Cereta was born in September of 1469 and that she died in 1499, just thirty years old. But I am using the date of one of her letters written to the scholar Giovanni Olivieri (her brothers’ teacher) as the reason for today’s post–it’s not a significant letter, but it’ll do as a reason for writing today.
Like her predecessor Isotta Nogarola
, Laura Cereta is an extraordinarily well educated Italian humanist.* Born in Brescia, Cereta was the daughter of Silvestro Cereto, who was a lawyer and a magistrate in Brescia. Her mother was Veronica di Leno, a member of an old Brescian family–we know little about her, and in Cereta’s surviving correspondence, only one letter to her mother is included.
We know when Cereta was born only because she gives that information in a letter–“I was born in the fourth month before the coming of the seventieth year in the century one thousand four-hundred of our Savior.” (She also says that she was named for a laurel tree growing in the family’s “burgeoning garden.”)
Cereta was sent first to a convent to be educated; she tells us that she was seven years old, and that the woman who taught her there was “highly esteemed both for her counsel and sanctity.” She was “entrusted” to this nun “whose learning, habits, and discipline I, who was to be educated, intently absorbed.”
This esteemed woman taught Cereta embroidery–a useful remedy for her “nights of insomnia.” After two years, when Cereta was nine, she left the convent and returned home. Her father, she says, was “fearful” that she might “slip into indolent habits,” but she did not–as she writes, she “immersed” herself “night and day . . . in long vigils of study.”
At home, she learned Latin and Greek from her father, studied Seneca and Cicero, “attended lectures on mathematics,” and “devoured the mellifluous-voiced prophets of the Old Testament and figures from the New Testament.”
But at age fifteen or sixteen, she was married to a young merchant from Venice, Pietro Serina; a handful of letters written to him, from 1485, survive. The marriage is not without its stresses–in one letter, dated 22 July 1485, the young Cereta writes that her husband seems to “pick arguments” with her whether she is silent, as a wife should be, or speaks when she feels “impelled to.” “Apparently neither option is permitted,” she observes tartly.
And yet, Cereta is not silent. In fact, in a letter from 13 August 1485, she says exactly what she thinks when her husband says that she does not love him:
Do you want me to believe that you expect me to comb my hair in a stylish fashion for your homecoming? Or to feign adoring looks with a painted face? Let women without means, who worry and have no confidence in their own virtue, flutter their eyelashes and play games to gain favor with their husbands. This is the admiration of a fox and the birdlime of deceitful birdhunting. I don’t want to have to buy you at such a price.
Within a year, however, Serina was dead. Cereta did not marry again.