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The Prodigious Muse

Women's Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy

In her award-winning, critically acclaimed Women’s Writing in Italy, 1400–1650, Virginia Cox chronicles the history of women writers in early modern Italy—who they were, what they wrote, where they fit in society, and how their status changed during this period. In this book, Cox examines more closely one particular moment in this history, in many ways the most remarkable for the richness and range of women’s literary output.

A widespread critical notion sees Italian women’s writing as a phenomenon specific to the peculiar literary environment of the mid-sixteenth century, and most scholars assume that a reactionary movement such as the Counter-Reformation was unlikely to spur its development. Cox argues otherwise, showing that women’s writing flourished in the period following 1560, reaching beyond the customary "feminine" genres of lyric, poetry, and letters to experiment with pastoral drama, chivalric romance, tragedy, and epic. There were few widely practiced genres in this eclectic phase of Italian literature to which women did not turn their hand.

Organized by genre, and including translations of all excerpts from primary texts, this comprehensive and engaging volume provides students and scholars with an invaluable resource as interest in these exceptional writers grows. In addition to familiar, secular works by authors such as Isabella Andreini, Moderata Fonte, and Lucrezia Marinella, Cox also discusses important writings that have largely escaped critical interest, including Fonte’s and Marinella’s vivid religious narratives, an unfinished Amazonian epic by Maddalena Salvetti, and the startlingly fresh autobiographical lyrics of Francesca Turina Bufalini.

Juxtaposing religious and secular writings by women and tracing their relationship to the male-authored literature of the period, often surprisingly affirmative in its attitudes toward women, Cox reveals a new and provocative vision of the Italian Counter-Reformation as a period far less uniformly repressive of women than is commonly assumed.

About the Author

Virginia Cox is a professor of Italian at New York University, author of Women's Writing in Italy, 1400–1650, also published by Johns Hopkins, and The Renaissance Dialogue: Literary Dialogue in Its Social and Political Contexts, Castiglione to Galileo, and coeditor of The Rhetoric of Cicero in Its Medieval and Early Renaissance Commentary Tradition.


A sunburst of light on a 'forest' of women, long darkly clouded by cliches of Counter-Reformation misogyny. With impeccable investigative skills Cox has discovered a New World, recounting its marvels in a panoramic network of more than 100 authors. Her prodigious scholarship brings a paradigm shift to Italian literary history.

- Victoria Kirkham, University of Pennsylvania


This is a worthy sequel to Cox's last book, full of little-studied literature, some of it completely new.

- Choice

Highly recommended to all, offering new faces and new facts, even a new tone in female authors suffering in an age of misogyny.

- Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance

An important contribution to a field about which too little is now written.

- Kathleen Olive - Parergon

To list the many literary discoveries of this book would be an impresa difficult even for the many guerriere of the Counter-Reformation, let alone for a reviewer constricted by space... astonishing research.

- Laura Giannetti - Sixteenth Century Journal

As Cox stresses, the religious literature of this period has, like that of women, been comprehensively neglected for far too long.

- Jane Everson - Times Literary Supplement

Such a wide-ranging and thoughtful book makes an impressive contribution to what is a lively and developing field, and will surely encourage further research on the complexities of women's writing in these particular decades in Italy and beyond.

- Clare Copeland - Journal of Ecclesiastical History

Building on her encyclopedic Women’s Writing in Italy, 1400–1650 (2008), Virginia Cox’s latest monograph, The Prodigious Muse, continues to emphasize the depth and breadth of early modern Italian women’s writing.... The Prodigious Muse amply sustains its argument that understanding early modern women’s writing requires assimilating the full range of authors and genres at play in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries

- Sarah Gwyneth Ross - Journal of Modern History

After the acclaimed Women's Writing in Italy 1450-1650, in which Virginia Cox offered a crucial critical overview of the phenomenon of Renaissance women writers, she now develops the most critically innovative section of her previous work with this important, intriguing, impressive, beautifully written, and comprehensive new book. The Prodigious Muse -- which implies in its title the variety, ambition, originality, and exceptionality of women's creativity of the period -- is the result of a huge amount of research that opens the way to a new perspective on late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century literature and culture, not only contributing to studies of women but also offering a new view of the history of Counter-Reformation politics and culture. The book is fascinating reading for those who want to learn more on the subject. It proposes a stimulating and well-documented new approach, offering important sources of information to those who work on Counter-Reformation literature and history, as well as on women's writing.

- Eleanora Carinci - Catholic Historical Review
Johns Hopkins University Press
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Lyric Poetry by Women of the Italian Renaissance

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Women's Writing in Italy, 1400–1650

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