Italian Letter Writing & Laura Cereta

Over the years I’ve gathered examples of letters written in period. Perhaps you will find this information helpful when composing a letter of recommendation, commendation, or other correspondence (especially in persona).

Let’s start with a solid resource. In Principles of Letter Writing or Rationes Dictandi (Ars dictandi) translated by James Murphy it states:

“There are, in fact, five parts of a letter: the Salutation (salutation), the Securing of Good-will (capitation benevolientiae), the Narration (narratio), the Petition (petitio), and the Conclusion (conclusion).”

Letter writing manuals, like Principles of Letter Writing by Hugo of Bolgona and Lawrence of Aquilegia’s treatise, The Practice and Exercise of Letter Writing, led to the humanistic approach to letters with these parts (also see Elianora Mathewes, Yours Whilst Life Swayeth in Mine Inward Parts, CA 112 Summer 2001):

  • Salutation and Solicitation of Good-will. Where you establish the relative positions of yourself and the recipient on the social scale, one is humble – the other honorable, Hugo says to stress the good character and renown of the recipient). Hugo advises that “we should devise our letters in such a way that whenever the humility of the sender or the merits of the recipient are advanced at large in the salutation, we should either begin the rest of the letter immediately with the narration or with the petition, or we should point out our own goodwill rather briefly and modestly” (securing of good will VI).
  • Body, narrative and petition. The narration contains the important subject matter. It should be succinct and straightforward.
  • Closing. Give wishes for the health and well-being of the recipient with a religious overture.


Examples of salutations and phrases from The Courtier (Ejemplo da Il Cortigiano)

Al Reverendo et Illustre Signore Don Michael di Silva (To the Reverend and Illustrious Lord Don Michael di Silva).

Abbondantissima d’ogni cosa che fa me stieri per lo vivere humano (Great abundance of everything needful for human life).

Con attrocissimi dolori (With grevious pain).

Serrenissimi Re di Napoli (Their Serene Highnesses of Naples).

Nobilissimi & valorosi gentilhuomini (Very noble and valiant gentlemen).

Nobile commercio (noble fellowship).

Chiaramente dimostrava quanto giudicio circa quelle haves?re; onde nelle giostre, ne I torniamenti, nel cavalcare, nel maneggiare tutte le forti di arme; medisimamente nelle feste, ne I giochi, nelle musiche, in somma in tutti fli esercitij convenient a nobili Cavalieri (He clearly showed his judgement in those matters; wherefore in jousts and tournaments, in riding, in the handling of every sort of weapon, as well as in pastimes, games, music, – in short, in all the exercises proper to noble cavaliers).

Con le quail si haveva liberalissimi & honestissimo commercio…parlare, federe, scherzare, e ridere con gli parea (With whom there was intercourse most free and honorable…talk, sit, jest, and laugh with whom he pleased).

M. Federico, Messer Gonzaga (Messer Federico, Messer Gonzaga).

La Signora Duchessa volse pur che la Signora Emilia cominciasse I giuochi (The Lady Duchess desired that Lady Emilia begin the games).


Other Examples  

To My Lady, The Most Reverend and Divinely Favored Deaconess Olympias, I John, Bishop, Send Greeting In the Lord… Pray say many kind words from me to all your blessed household. May you continue in good health and Spirits, most revered and divinely favored lady. – 4th C Constantinople (in Latin

To My Lord, The Most Reverend And Divinely Beloved Bishop Innocent, John Sends Greeting In The Lord…  Fore thee well always, and pray for me, most honored and holy master. – 4th C Constantinople (in Latin

Conrad, by the grace of God, august king of the Romans, to venerable Wibald, abbot of Corvey, his most kind greeting. … Because we know that you especially desire to hear from us and to learn the state of our prosperity, we think it fitting to first tell you of this. … In brief therefore, God willing, we shall return to you. We render to you the gratitude which you deserve for your care of our son and for the very great fidelity which you have shown to us, And with the full intention of worthily rewarding your services, we ask you to continue the same. –12th C Germany (Conrad II to the Abbot of Corvey)

Count Stephen to Adele, his sweetest and most amiable wife, to his dear children, and to all his vassals of all ranks – – his greeting and blessing… These which I write to you, are only a few things, dearest, of the many which we have done, and because I am not able to tell you, dearest, what is in my mind, I charge you to do right, to carefully watch over your land, to do your duty as you ought to your children and your vassals. You will certainly see me just as soon as I possibly return to you. Farewell. –11th C France from a husband on Crusade

Frederic, by the grace of God, the august emperor of the Romans, king of Jerusalem and Sicily, to his well-beloved friend Henry, king of the English, health and sincere affection. … Given at the holy city of Jerusalem, on the seventeenth day of the month of March, in the year of our Lord, one thousand two hundred and twenty-nine. – 13th C Germany (Frederic to Henry III)

To the great and most victorious lord, Lord Can Grande della Scala, Vicar General of the Principate of the Holy roman Emperor in the town of Verona and the municipality of Vicenza, his most devoted Dante Alighieri, Florentine in birth but not in manners, whishes him a happy life through long years, as well as a continuous increase in his glorious reputation… And since, the principle or the Prime being found, i.e. God, there is nothing more to be sought, since he is the Alpha and Omega, that is, the beginning and the end, as the vision of John calls him, this treatise is ended with God himself, who is blessed throughout the ages. –14th C Italian (From Dante to Cangrande)  

Dante Alighieri, a Florentine undeservedly in exile, to the most iniquitous Florentines within the city. … Written on the thirty-first day of March (pridie Kalendas Apriles) on the confines of Tuscany from beneth the springs of Arno, in the first year of the most ausipicious passage of the Emperor Henry into Italy. –14th C Italian

To the right high and mighty Prince and my right good and gracious lord, my lord the Duke of Norfolk. Meekly beseecheth your highness your poor and true continual servant and orator John Paston the younger that it might please your good grace to call on-to your most discreet and notable remembrance that lateward…  And we shall pray to God for the preservation of your most noble estate. – 15th C England

To Benedictus Arsagus, Laura Cereta sends greetings. … Farewell. Viii Calends. Aug. – 15th C Italy 

To Pier Sodeini, Gonfalonier of the Republic of Florence. Magnificent Lord. After humble reverence and due commendations, etc, It may be that your Magnificence will be surprised by my rashness and your customary wisdom, in that I should so absurdly bestir myself to write your Magnificence the present letter; knowing as I do that your Magnificence is continually employed in high councils and affairs concerning the good government of this sublime Republic. And will hold me not only presumptuous, but also idlymeddlesome in setting myself to write things, neither suitable to your station, nor entertaining, and written in barbarous style, and outside of every canon of polite literature: but my confidence which I have in your virtues and in the truth of my writing, which are things that are not found written neither by the ancients nor by modern writers, as your Magnificence will in the sequel perceive, makes me bold. …  such is what befell me, most noteworthy, in this my first voyage. – 15th C Italy (Vespucci)

To the right worshipful and my very good lady and cousin Dame Elizabeth Brews. …Right worshipful and my chief lady and cousin, as heartily as I can I recommend me to you. Madam, liketh you to understand that the chief cause of my writing to you at this season is this. … Madam, I beseech you that I may be recommended by this bill to my cousin your husband, and to my cousin Margery, to whom I supposed to have given another name ere this time, Written at Mawteby on Saint Barnaby’s Day. By your Margaret Paston. – 15th C England (Margaret Paston to her cousin Elizabeth Brews)


Laura Cereta to Bibulus Sempronius: Defense of the Liberal Instruction of Women 

As the final example I have a letter of defense. Laura Cereta wrote all the letters she published between July 1485 and March 1488, that is, when she was between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. The central event in her life during these years of letter-writing was her marriage to Pietro Serina, a local Brescian businessman, when she was fifteen. They had been married for only eighteen months when he died from the plague. Her letters are almost equally divided between those written before and those after his death. His death, and her reaction to it, provide one of the surest bases for dating her letters.

As mentioned in the introduction to the preceding selection, Cereta recovered her spirits after her husband’s death by immersing herself ever more deeply in her literary studies. These efforts, in turn, brought forth critics, both male and female, who, jealous of her accomplishments, belittled her work. Two principal charges were brought against her: that a woman could not be learned and that her father had written her letters for her. She turned against her critics with a ferocity at least equal to theirs. One of her surviving letters is an invective against’ two males whom she had known since childhood. But here we find, addressed to a man, as reasoned and thorough a defense of learned women as was penned during the Quattrocento. The letter is particularly interesting for its suggestion that the correspondent was disguising his contempt for women in singling out Cereta for praise.

The correspondent is unknown to us from other sources and may well be fictitious. “Bibulus,” which we have not found elsewhere among the names of this period, means “drunkard.” No other letter is addressed to such a correspondent. In a future post I will include the text of a letter written in defense of intelligent women to another woman (SMH).

This translation is based on the Latin text in Tomasini, Laurae Ceretae epistolae, pp. 187-95:


MY EARS ARE WEARIED BY YOUR CARPING. YOU brashly and publicly not merely wonder but indeed lament that I am said to possess as fine a mind as nature ever bestowed upon the most learned man. You seem to think that so learned a woman has scarcely before been seen in the world. You are wrong on both counts, Sempronius, and have dearly strayed from the path of truth and disseminate falsehood. I agree that you should be grieved; indeed, you should be ashamed, for you have ceased to be a living man, but have become an animated stone; having rejected the studies which make men wise, you rot in torpid leisure. Not nature but your own soul has betrayed you, deserting virtue for the easy path of sin.

You pretend to admire me as a female prodigy, but there lurks sugared deceit in your adulation. You wait perpetually in ambush to entrap my lovely sex, and overcome by your hatred seek to trample me underfoot and dash me to the earth. It is a crafty ploy, but only a low and vulgar mind would think to halt Medusa with honey.’ You would better have crept up on a mole than on a wolf. For a mole with its dark vision can see nothing around it, while a wolf’s eyes glow in the dark. For the wise person sees by [force of] mind, and anticipating what lies ahead, proceeds by the light of reason. For by foreknowledge the thinker scatters with knowing feet the evils which litter her path.

I would have been silent, believe me, if that savage old enmity of yours had attacked me alone. For the light of Phoebus cannot be befouled even in the mud. But I cannot tolerate your having attacked my entire sex. For this reason my thirsty soul seeks revenge, my sleeping pen is aroused to literary struggle, raging anger stirs mental passions long chained by silence. With just cause I am moved to demonstrate how great a reputation for learning and virtue women have won by their inborn excellence, manifested in every age as knowledge, the [purveyor] of honor. Certain, indeed; and legitimate is our possession of this inheritance, come to us from a long eternity of ages past.

[To begin], we read how Sabba of Ethiopia, her heart imbued with divine power, solved the prophetic mysteries of the Egyptian Salomon.’ And the earliest writers said that Amalthea, gifted in foretelling the future, sang her prophecies around the banks of Lake Avernus, not far from Baiae. A sibyl worthy of the pagan gods, she sold books of oracles to Priscus Tarquinius. The Babylonian prophetess Eriphila, her divine mind penetrating the distant future, described the fall and burning of Troy, the fortunes of the Roman Empire, and the coming birth of Christ. Nicostrata also, the mother of Evander, learned both in prophecy and letters, possessed such great genius that with sixteen symbols she first taught the Latins the art of writing. The fame of Inachian Isis will also remain eternal who, an Argive goddess, taught her alphabet to the Egyptians! Zenobia of Egypt was so nobly learned, not only in Egyptian, but also in Greek and Latin, that she wrote histories of strange and exotic places. Manto of Thebes, daughter of Tiresias, although not learned, was skilled in the arts of divination from the remains of sacrificed animals or the behavior of fire and other such Chaldaean techniques. [Examining] the fire’s flames the bird’s flight, the entrails and innards of animals, she spoke with spirits and foretold future events! What was the source of the great wisdom of the Tritonian Athena by which she taught so many arts to the Athenians, if not the secret writings, admired by all, of the philosopher Apollo? The Greek women Philiasia and Lasthenia, splendors of learning, excite me, who often tripped up, with tricky sophistries, Plato’s clever disciples Sappho of Lesbos sang to her stone-hearted lover doleful verses, echoes, I believe, of Orpheus’ lyre or Apollo’s lute. Later, Leontia’s Greek and poetic tongue dared sharply to attack, with a lively and admired style, the eloquence of Theophrastus I should not omit Proba, remarkable for her excellent command of both Greek and Latin and who, imitating Homer and Virgil, retold the stories from the Old Testament. The majesty of Rome exalted the Greek Semiamira, [invited] to lecture in the Senate on laws and kings. u Pregnant with virtue, Rome also gave birth to Sempronia, who imposingly delivered before an assembly a fluent poem and swayed the minds of her hearers with her convincing oratory. Celebrated with equal and endless praise for her eloquence was Hortensia, daughter of Hortensius, an oratrix of such power that, weeping womanly and virtuous tears, she persuaded the Triumvirs not to retaliate against women.” Let me add Cornificia, sister of the poet Cornificius, to whose love of letters so many skills were added that she was said to have been nourished by waters from the Castalian spring; she wrote epigrams always sweet with Heliconian flowers. I shall quickly pass by Tulliola, daughter of Cicero, Terentia, and Cornelia, all Roman women who attained the heights of knowledge. I shall also omit Nicolosa [Sanuto] of Bologna, Isotta Nogarola and Cassandra Fedele of our own day. All of history is full of these examples. Thus your nasty words are refuted by these arguments, which compel you to concede that nature imparts equally to all the same freedom to learn.

Only the question of the rarity of outstanding women remains to be addressed. The explanation is clear women have been able by nature to be exceptional, but have chosen lesser goals. For some women are concerned with parting their hair correctly, adorning themselves with lovely dresses, or decorating their fingers with pearls and other gems. Others delight in mouthing carefully composed phrases, indulging in dancing, or managing spoiled puppies. Still others wish to gaze at lavish banquet tables, to rest in sleep, or, standing at mirrors, to smear their lovely faces. But those in whom a deeper integrity yearns for virtue, restrain from the start their youthful souls, reflect on higher things, harden the body with sobriety and trials, and curb their tongues, open their ears, compose their thoughts in wakeful hours, their minds in contemplation, to letters bonded to righteousness. For knowledge is not given as a gift, but [is gained] with diligence. The free mind, not shirking effort, always soars zealously toward the good, and the desire to know grows ever more wide and deep. It is because of no special holiness, therefore, that we [women] are rewarded by God the Giver with the gift of exceptional talent. Nature has generously lavished its gifts upon all people, opening to all the doors of choice through which reason sends envoys to the will, from which they learn and convey its desires. The will must choose to exercise the gift of reason.

[But] where we [women] should be forceful we are [too often] devious; where we should be confident we are insecure. [Even worse], we are content with our condition. But you, a foolish and angry dog, have gone to earth as though frightened by wolves. Victory does not come to those who take flight. Nor does he remain safe who makes peace with the enemy; rather, when pressed, he should arm himself all the more with weapons and courage. How nauseating to see strong men pursue a weakling at bay. Hold on! Does my name alone terrify you? As I am not a barbarian in intellect and do not fight like one, what fear drives you? You flee in vain, for traps craftily-laid rout you out of every hiding place. Do you think that by hiding, a deserter [from the field of battle], you can remain undiscovered? A penitent, do you seek the only path of salvation in flight? [If you do] you should be ashamed.

I have been praised too much; showing your contempt for women, you pretend that I alone am admirable because of the good fortune of my intellect. But I, compared to other women who have won splendid renown, am but a little mousling. You disguise your envy in dissimulation, but cloak yourself in apologetic words in vain. The lie buried, the truth, dear to God, always emerges. You stumble half-blind with envy on a wrongful path that leads you from your manhood, from your duty, from God. Who, do you think, will be surprised, Bibulus, if the stricken heart of an angry girl, whom your mindless scorn has painfully wounded, will after this more violently assault your bitter words? Do you suppose, 0 most contemptible man on earth, that I think myself sprung [like Athena] from the head of Jove? I am a school girl, possessed of the sleeping embers of an ordinary mind. Indeed I am too hurt, and my mind, offended, too swayed by passions, sighs, tormenting itself, conscious of the obligation to defend my sex. For absolutely everything— that which is within us and that which is without —is made weak by association with my sex.

I, therefore, who have always prized virtue, having put my private concerns aside, will polish and weary my pen against chatterboxes swelled with false glory. Trained in the arts, I shall block the paths of ambush. And I shall endeavor, by avenging arms, to sweep away the abusive infamies of noisemakers with which some disreputable and impudent men furiously, violently, and nastily rave against a woman and a republic worthy of reverence. January 13 [1488]

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