Diane Robin's translation of Laura Cereta's letters is a major contribution to the study of early modern women writers, Quattrocentro humanism, and Renaissance letter-writing. This edition deserves a warm reception from both general readers and specialists. The letters, widely circulated in Italy in the fifteenth century, have never appeared in translation; their only other appearance in print was an edition of 1640. Their publication in English feels long overdue; the letters are a fascinating combination of humanist thought and concerns peculiar to women.
Cereta's letters are varied both in theme and content. They range from negotiations about her father's troubled business to deft literary set pieces. A portrait emerges of a woman with a burning ambition for literary achievement and fame, and strong devotion to learning. She stays up all night to study--and laments the paucity of time she has to devote to the learning she so ardently loves: her treasured otium. Cereta, with her passionately literary mind, wrote with a densely allusive style marked by her knowledge of the classics. Her letters are a pleasure to read because of their supple and original use of humanist themes, and the wry and surprising glimpses of her character that they provide. For instance, her early widowhood at sixteen years of age provides her with the opportunity to poignantly consider the pain of loss.
Diana Robin's painstakingly researched and elegant introduction and notes help readers get a clearer understanding of the tradition in which Cereta was working, as well as the ways in which she diverged from the tradition both formally and thematically. Robin's contextualization of the letters is both helpful and unobtrusive, adding to the picture we gain of Cereta's artistic achievement. Her choice to open the collection with an autobiographical letter to Narzisia Olympica gives a reader a sense of the life and character of the writer that some of the humanist exercises in this collection do not provide. Robin's decision to place Cereta's letters in a different order than Cereta's own manuscript ordering works well, especially since she explains the reasons for her ordering, and describes where the letters fall in the original collection.
The editors of this series are to be commended for placing early female thinkers within their intellectual tradition. The series introduction, written by Margaret King and Albert Rabin, is clear enough to provide a real framework for the general reader (although it can seem somewhat simplistic for the specialist in women's history). Cereta is clearly part of a proto-feminist continuum. Robin highlights connections to other late medieval and Renaissance proto-feminist thinkers, most notably Christine de Pisan. She is in constant dialogue with the vision of women in classical works, and with the negative vision of women in Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus. In brief, Robin's edition of Laura Cereta's letters is a gift to historians of women's lives and those intrigued by their achievements.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.