Lucrezia Marinella (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


Lucrezia Marinella was born in Venice in 1571, and lived there until
her death in 1653. Her father, Giovanni Marinelli, was a physician,
and the author of a number of medical treatises, two of which
concerned women. He encouraged her intellectual interests, and allowed
her access to biological and medical works, as well as works of
philosophy (natural and moral) and literature. She was thus able to
obtain a good education. Marinella composed works in a number of
different genres, including lyric and narrative poetry, and devotional
literature, but her skill as a philosophical polemicist demonstrated
direct knowledge of the classical literary tradition and training in
rhetoric and dialectic, all of which were unusual among women at the
time (Panizza and Wood 2000, 65). Marinella’s first published
work appeared in 1595; her most important work, the treatise entitled
The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of
(hereafter The Nobility) was published in Venice in
1600, revised and expanded in 1601, and reprinted in 1620. She
continued writing and publishing until her death.

Marinella married another physician, Girolomo Vacca, relatively late
in life. In the sixteenth century political and economic conditions in
Venice, and their impact on marriage opportunities, gave women more
liberty, which may have favored feminist polemics (see Cox 1995). In
that context, Marinella’s late marriage may have afforded her
greater opportunities for education and a measure of independence.
There is some evidence that she was accepted as part of a group of
intellectuals who formed the second Venetian academy, and that the
academy supported and encouraged the expression of her feminist ideas
(Kolsky 2001, 976). Marinella was commissioned to write The
, either by Lucio Scarano, to whom it is dedicated (also
a physician, and a philosopher) or by its publisher, Giovanni Battista
Ciotti (Kolsky 2001, 975; Ross 2009, 291). It was intended as a
response to a treatise by Giuseppe Passi, I donneschi
(The Defects of Women). The commission attests
both to the reputation Marinella enjoyed as an intellectual, and to
the support she received from a wider circle.

In the sixteenth century the Italian vernacular increasingly replaced
Latin as the language appropriate to a broad range of topics and
genres (Panizza and Wood 2000, 65, 195), so Marinella was not
eccentric in her choice of the vernacular (her father also wrote in
Italian, and had publicly urged others to do so). The choice did,
nonetheless, mean that her treatise in defense of women was available
to more people, especially women. In her own time she was renowned as
learned and eloquent, and she acquired a reputation as a rigorous
scholar and a skillful philosopher; this was certainly in part due to
the merits of her published work, but the respect she
enjoyed—very unusual for a feminist—may have had something
to do with the seclusion of her life and a reputation for sexual

Although many of Marinella’s works, especially the long poem
L’Enrico, overo Bisantio acquistato (1635), include
philosophical themes, The Nobility stands as her most
important, and perhaps her only uncontestable, contribution to
philosophy. It is a contribution to a debate about the nature and the
merits of women, which had its origin in The Book of the City of
(1405) by Christine de Pizan (an argument for the moral
superiority of her sex) written in response to The Romance of the
(~1275) by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, in which
women were vilified. Polemical works arguing that men were superior to
women, or that women were superior to men, had proliferated in
subsequent centuries, in French, Italian, Latin, German, Spanish and
English. Such treatises generally relied on some combination of
argument (usually drawn from ancient sources), examples, and citations
from scripture and from literary or philosophical authorities.

The Nobility appeared when the debate had been running for
two hundred years. Marinella was responding directly to the treatise
by Giuseppe Passi, I donneschi diffetti (The Defects of
), published in 1599 in Venice and Milan, and so the
structure and methodology of The Nobility mirror those of
The Defects of Women (Kolsky 2001, 974). Passi had cited a
variety of ancient and medieval authorities, many of whom cite
Aristotle as the source of their arguments, which may explain
Marinella’s particular concern both to use and to discredit
Aristotle; at any rate, she takes Passi to be a contemporary
representative of a misogynist tradition beginning with Aristotle and
extending forward through Boccaccio. The Defects of Women
stands as an extreme example of the genre of attacks on women, with
Passi claiming that women are covered from head to toe in vices and
defects (Passi 1599, 240). The argument of the treatise begins with
the claim that the female is imperfect, created only as a
‘necessary evil’. The imperfection of women is
fundamentally that they are especially subject to passion (8). The
heat of women’s bodies is both the source and the sign of her
subjection to passion (29). Because women are in thrall to their
passions, they may not, strictly speaking, be rational animals (216).
This possibility is suggested and legitimized by Aristotle’s
assertion that the deliberative faculty of women has no authority
(215). Passi satirizes intellectual women (278–9), and comes
close to suggesting that women are a different species from men,
insisting that women should be treated like animals because both women
and animals lack reason and virtue (Malpezzi Price and Ristaino 2008,
108). The Defects of Women treatise is remarkable for its
virulence, but in no way original in substance.

There were precedents for many of Marinella’s claims and
arguments in The Nobility, perhaps as early as Christine de
Pizan (although there is no evidence that Marinella had read
Pizan—see Ross 2009, 326 (n.6)), but certainly in the work of
Henricus Agrippus, De nobilitate et praecellentia foeminei
(On the Nobility and Excellence of the Feminine
), published in Latin in 1529 and translated soon after into
Italian (in 1549 by Alessandro Piccolomini), and the treatise Il
(The Courtier) (1528) by Baldassare
Castiglione. Agrippa drew an analogy between the subjection of women
and political tyranny, and this may have paved the way for
Marinella’s political approach to the issue of women’s
nature. Castiglione, using the form of the dialogue, offers a
refutation of certain Aristotelian claims about the imperfection of
women (through the voice of Giuliano de’ Medici), and an
exposition of Neoplatonic love theory as popularized by Marsilio
Ficino (through the voice of Pietro Bembo). Marinella also draws on
the work of Leone Ebreo, the Dialoghi d’amore (1535),
in which love is a cosmic force infusing all of creation, and the love
between men and women, and not only between men, is recognized as a
route to divinity. Another important source for Marinella’s
treatise is the dialogue by Lodovico Domenichi entitled La
nobiltà delle donne
(The Nobility of Women),
published in Venice in 1549. This work features characters who voice
opinions from both sides of the debate about women; it includes
arguments for the superior physiology of women that Marinella revises
and elaborates in her treatise. While she drew on these works
extensively, her argument marks a philosophical advance because it is
detailed, systematic, and cogent. Although The Nobility was
published in the same year that Moderata Fonte’s dialogue
(Il merito delle donne) defending women, was published,
Il merito had been written some years before. Marinella makes
several references to Fonte, but none to Il merito. It is
impossible to know how well acquainted she was with Fonte’s
work, or what she thought of it. (For a discussion of
Marinella’s knowledge of Fonte’s work see Kolsky 2001,

In The Nobility Marinella argues that there is a feminine
nature that is different from, and superior to, masculine nature. It
was a commonplace that a person was called to a certain office in life
by God; the nobility of a person was a function of that office and how
well one carried out its duties. “Questions of virtue thus
inevitably allude to a social hierarchy that was generally accepted as
a reflection of the hierarchy of creation, an order in nature or
of nature, instituted not fortuitously but providentially,
and therefore not subject to alteration by human beings,”
(Jordan 1990, 21). In this intellectual context, arguing that women
were superior in nature to men was a way of arguing that the office in
life that women were intended by God to fulfill was itself better.

Marinella’s central claim in The Nobility is,
“…that the female sex is nobler and more excellent than
the male,” (1601b, 39). More precisely, she says that she will
show “…that they [women] surpass men in the nobility of
their names, causes, nature, operations and the things men say about
them,” (41). That names might indicate something about the
things to which they refer was a commonplace of the Renaissance, with
origins in the interpretation of Plato’s Cratylus. The
causes of a phenomenon were similarly taken to indicate something
important of the phenomenon itself—better causes producing
better effects. The “nature” of woman Marinella shows to
be, on the one hand, a nature shared with men and, on the other, a
distinct nature; as the formal cause of a substance, the nature
determines the worth of that substance. The “operations”
of women are the things they are able to do insofar as they are
ensouled beings rather than inanimate objects. Since Marinella argues
that women have better souls than men, she takes as evidence for this
the superior merit of the activities that they perform with the soul.
Finally, Marinella’s objective to demonstrate that men
themselves make evident the superiority of women (by means of
“the things they say about women”) represents her most
important strategy: to take the evidence usually adduced by men to
demonstrate the inferiority of women, and reveal through
interpretation that in fact it demonstrates the superiority of

The Nobility is divided into two parts, the first of which
demonstrates the nobility and excellence of women, the second of which
sets out the defects and failings of men. Both the respects in which
she claims superiority for women and the contrast she draws between
the excellences of women and the vices of men are standard in the
contributions to the querelle des femmes that take the side
of women. What is unusual with Marinella is the learning, the
sophistication, and the systematic and cogent development of the
arguments. Unlike most pro-woman authors, she makes no concessions to
the convention of masculine excellence, asserting the superiority of
women in all respects. The argument for women’s superiority is
largely set out in the first part of the treatise. But the second
part, on the defects of men, is not incidental to the central claim
that women are nobler. Marinella details the defects of men, and in
particular their evil motives, in order to support her positive
argument for women’s nobility, by demonstrating that the motives
men have for denigrating women are ignoble, stem from defects of
nature, and are thus evidence of the inferiority of men. So the
defects of men are introduced not only so that women might appear more
excellent in comparison, but also, and more importantly, to show that
the deficiencies attributed to women by men are more properly the
deficiencies of male nature, and that those very deficiencies are
responsible for the fallacious claims about women made by some men
(Aristotle and Passi in particular). So Marinella offers an
explanation for the misogynist claims to which she is responding, and
that explanation supports her claim that women are better than men in
certain precise respects.

Marinella draws on both Platonist and Aristotelian accounts of
causation, interpreted through ancient, medieval, and Renaissance
commentators (she cites Plotinus, Lombard, Ebreo, and Ficino), when
she argues that women are superior to men with respect to the causes
that have generated them. Aristotle had posited four kinds of cause:
material, formal, efficient, and final. In the case of an unqualified
change, such as the generation of a substance (e.g., a person or a
squirrel), the causes can be understood as follows: the material cause
is the stuff out of which the substance is made, which remains as a
constituent of the substance; the formal cause is the principle of
organization that bestows on the individual substance both its form
and its function, making it a member of a natural kind, with the
characteristic properties and behaviors of that kind; the efficient
cause initiates the process of generation; the final cause is the aim
or end point of the process, which will often be in effect the same as
the formal cause, because the aim of a process of generation is the
mature and perfected form and function of the substance. Consider the
example of the generation of an individual belonging to a natural
kind, the squirrel (a natural substance). The material cause of the
squirrel is the flesh, bone, blood, etc. from which the squirrel is
constituted; the formal cause of the squirrel is its shape and
function; the efficient cause of the squirrel is the male parent of
that squirrel (because, on Aristotle’s view it is the male
parent that initiates the process of generation of offspring); and the
final cause is to be a mature squirrel and carry out the functions of
a squirrel (whatever those may prove to be).

Marinella, following this tradition, distinguishes the
“efficient or productive cause” from the material cause in
the production of every creature, among which she includes woman, and
man. On her view, all created things (for example, all angels,
heavenly bodies, people, elements—earth, water, fire and
air—and animals) ultimately have the same productive or
efficient cause, namely God. With respect to the efficient cause,
then, created things differ not at all. But there are distinctions in
worth among created kinds (and also among individuals, insofar as the
causes of two individuals of the same kind might differ), and these
distinctions are a function of the differences in the ideas of God,
whom Marinella compares to an architect or painter, who effects the
production of buildings or art-works through the formulation of an
idea or plan. The ideas are the formal causes, which, as we have seen,
are the principles of organization that bestow on the individual
substance both its form and its function; these produce the different
kinds of creatures, and the differences among individuals within a
kind. On this account, then, God’s creative process resembles
the production of artifacts: in the same way that the painter will
have better and worse ideas (in the sense that the ideas for the
paintings will be ideas of better and worse things), so too God will
have ideas of better and worse things that he brings into being: what
God creates is not of uniform value. (The conception of
‘ideas’ here, while clearly Platonic in origin, parallels
Aristotelian formal causes.)

In describing the important differences among ideas in the mind of
God, and hence among formal causes, Marinella adverts in particular to
the different purposes that different kinds are to serve:

That same courteous hand created angels, heavens, men, and the rude,
dull earth, all in varying degrees of perfection….It is the
creator who decides which things are of less value and which are
worthier, and more particularly, which have a less noble purpose and
which a more remarkable one. (Marinella 1601b, 52 (references to
Marinella are all to 1601b))

That is, while God as the productive cause of every created thing is
one and the same, the formal causes—the ideas in the mind of
God—will be different, and of different value. Moreover, the
ends to which the productive cause, God, intended to put each creature
are different, and so the final causes responsible for the creation of
different creatures will also be different. Marinella does not
immediately conclude that women are superior to men; rather she
concludes that it is possible:

Different degrees of perfection can be found, therefore…in
everything in the world…If this is the case…why should
not woman be nobler than man and have a rarer and more excellent
purpose than he, as indeed can be manifestly understood from her
nature? (1601b, 53)

In other words, if (i) the ideas of created kinds in God’s mind
differ with respect to the intrinsic worth of the kind and with
respect to the purpose of the kind, and if (ii) God’s idea of
woman was different from God’s idea of man and so women have a
different divinely determined purpose from that of men—then
(iii) it is possible that women are nobler than men.

Women and men might then be different with respect to the idea and
purpose (the formal and final causes) in the mind of God, but they are
not different with respect to the efficient cause that brings them
into being—God himself. Marinella’s discussion of the
fourth kind of cause, the material cause, forms an important part of
her argument, in which she makes a number of distinct points about the
body as material cause of the ensouled being. She believes women are
better than men with respect to the material cause, first citing an
argument made by Christine de Pizan and restated by Agrippa: because
woman was created from the rib of man, and man was already an ensouled
being, and hence a living being, the material cause of woman is better
than that of man, who was made from earth, which is lifeless
This argument depends on the implicit premise that ensouled beings
are superior to inanimate beings, but that was a view of the hierarchy
of being current since antiquity, and so one that Marinella believes
herself entitled to use. This is only the first demonstration of the
superiority of women’s bodies to men; Marinella has quite a lot
to add on the subject of the material or bodily superiority of women
(discussed in
Section 5 below),
insofar as that superiority is a sign or mark of a better soul.

To demonstrate that women are superior in nature to men, Marinella has
to establish that it is possible for members of the same species to
have souls that are the same in kind and yet different in merit. She
acknowledges the widely accepted view that a species form is the same
in every individual:

…if we speak as philosophers, we will say that man’s soul
is equally noble to woman’s because both are of the same species
and therefore of the same nature and substance, (1601b, 55);


…if we wished to apply the common reasoning, we would say that
women’s souls are equal to men’s. (1601b, 57)

She is adverting here to Moderata Fonte and again to Agrippa, who had
begun his Proclamation by claiming that God

has attributed to both man and woman an identical soul, which sexual
difference does not at all affect…Thus, there is no preeminence
of nobility of one sex over the other by reason of the nature of the
soul; rather, inwardly free, each is equal in dignity, (Agrippa 1529,

she likely also has in mind Castiglione, who wrote

the male will not be more perfect than the female as regards their
formal substance, because the one and the other are included under the
species man, and that in which the one differs from the other is an
accident and is not of the essence. (Castiglione 1528, 214)

She agrees that women have the same rational souls as men, and belong
to the same species, but denies that it follows from this that their
souls are no nobler than the souls of men. That is, she argues, on the
basis of the theory of causation that she set out, that

it is not impossible that within the same species there should be
souls that are from birth nobler and more excellent than
others…I say that women’s souls were created nobler than
men’s. (1601b, 55)

Marinella quite explicitly rejects, then, the idea that men and women
must be equal in nobility because they belong to the same species; but
she also anticipates the objection that because the species essence,
the rational faculty of soul, is the same in every individual person,
we might expect that men and women would be equal in worth. It
follows, and again she recognizes this, that she must assert that the
form of a species is not without diversity, and so she explicitly
argues for variations in the idea or form or soul of the human
species. “Women’s souls can, therefore, be nobler and more
prized in their creation than men’s,” (1601b, 57). In
light of what she has said about ideas in the mind of God as
productive causes of created beings, this must mean: the idea of woman
(or perhaps the ideas of individual women) in the mind of God is an
idea of something with a nobler and better purpose, with the result
that the creature produced is nobler and more excellent. This is
consistent with the claim that men and women have the same rational
souls, if we allow that the human soul is constituted by something
more than the faculty of reason, and so two human (and hence rational)
souls might be put to different purposes. Marinella seeks to show that
the purposes to which a rational soul is put will depend, at least in
part, on the desires of the rational agent.

The question she confronts is, then, if men and women have souls that
make them the same in species—the same in rational
capacity—how can women be superior to men? Marinella’s
answer depends on distinctions in the faculties of soul, and in
particular on a distinction between the rational part and the desiring
part, in which moral virtues are located. She aims to show that women
are morally superior to men, and that this causes them to be
“even better than men at learning the same arts and
sciences,” (1601b, 83). That is, her argument is that the moral
superiority of women has an impact on their rational faculties, which
causes them to be intellectually superior (better at the same arts and
sciences) although they are created with the same rational faculty.
The argument depends ultimately on Marinella’s views about the
causal role of bodily temperature on the soul’s functions, and
about the moral status of the actions that issue from the soul’s
functioning, views that will be elaborated in the following section.
But Marinella produces a variety of kinds of evidence that, with
respect to the moral virtues, and especially with respect to the
control of the passions, women are superior. First, she claims that
women are superior to men with respect to a variety of individual
moral and intellectual virtues, and provides evidence in the form of
examples of excellent women who manifest these virtues (“It is a
fact known to everyone that women are continent and temperate, for we
never see or read about them getting drunk or spending all day in
taverns, as dissolute men do, nor do they give themselves
unrestrainedly to other pleasures,” (1601b, 94).) Second, she
points out that since men, whatever they might say about
women, treat women with signs of honor, and since “nobody honors
another person unless they know that the person has some gift or
quality that is superior to his own” (1601b, 69), we should
conclude that men themselves recognize the superiority of women. But,
as we will see in the next section, she ultimately traces the moral
superiority of women, which is responsible for their intellectual
superiority, to differences in men’s and women’s

Marinella clearly suggests, then, that both deliberative and
speculative reason are exercised more effectively by women because of
the moral advantages of their sex. Granting that women and men have
the same rational faculties of soul, if women are morally superior to
men, they will also thereby attain intellectual superiority, making
them better at learning the same arts and sciences. Although the souls
of women are “still nobler” than those of men with respect
in particular to the moral faculty, that nobility will have an impact
on the rational faculty with the result that women are better than men
intellectually and not only morally.

So while Marinella asserts (on the authority of Aristotle and
scripture) that we can know the souls of men and women to be forms of
the same species, rational souls, and equal in that respect, she also
insists that this fundamental sameness allows nonetheless for
distinctions in merit. Women’s souls are superior to those of
men, because the moral character of women makes their faculty of
desire, and ultimately also their faculty of reason, better than
men’s. The superiority of women’s desires she traces to
their temperate physiology, and she takes the proof of the superiority
of their souls to be manifested in the beauty of their bodies.

Although the souls of men and women are identical with respect to the
rational faculty, Marinella claims that women have better souls than
men because (i) they have better desires which in turn (ii) affect the
capacity for reason, effectively rendering women better able to access
and act on their reason, so that (iii) women behave better—and
in particular, they behave with more moderation. She also argues that
the female body offers evidence of the superiority of women’s
souls, both as a cause and as an effect, despite the equality of
rational capacity enjoyed by men and women.

She adopts the common distinction between body and soul:

Women, like men, consist of two parts. One, the origin and cause of
all noble deeds, is referred to by everyone as the soul. The other is
the transitory and mortal body. (1601b, 55)

The soul, on her view, commands the body (or ought to); at the same
time, it is dependent on the body for its operations (55). That is,
the operations of the soul—including desires, thoughts,
decisions, and actions—require the body. Because the soul relies
on the body for its operations, the body manifests or expresses the
character of the soul and its faculties, in a variety of ways.

When feminist philosophers first considered the question of sexual
difference in the Renaissance, they were writing in response to
overtly misogynistic claims (in Marinella’s case, the claims of
Passi), which centred on the physical, moral and intellectual failings
of women. One question feminists then had to face was whether to
concede the facts, and dispute the explanation, or to dispute the
facts. The question was whether it was better (i) to concede that
women might appear to be inferior to men in a variety of ways (to be,
for example, more foolish or more focused on frivolous pursuits) but
to dispute that nature made them such or (ii) to dispute that women
were more foolish, morally weak, or physically incapable in fact.
Marinella by and large adopts the second strategy, arguing that women
in fact display in their behavior not ignorance, unreason, vanity or
flightiness, but on the contrary all the moral excellences that their
detractors accuse them of lacking. At the same time, she does believe
that men have suppressed the abilities and limited the opportunities
of women, particularly with respect to intellectual endeavours, and
that is a reason to expect that women might not be able to speak for
themselves—their souls cannot express themselves directly
(Marinella 1601b, 80; Malpezzi Price and Ristaino 2008, 116). The
suppression of women’s abilities, and the concrete suppression
of their speech, justifies in Marinella’s view moving to
consider the evidence of women’s bodies in order to understand
their souls, and to argue for the superiority of women on that basis.
Because the soul of a person operates through the body, the body
manifests certain characteristics of the soul, and so stands to offer
evidence of the character of the soul.

Marinella intends then to demonstrate the superiority of women’s
souls through the superiority of their bodies. She appeals to two
physical indications of the greater nobility of women’s souls:
(i) the moderate temperature of the female body, and (ii) their bodily
beauty. Consider her claim that “the greater nobility and
worthiness of a woman’s body is shown by its delicacy, its
complexion, and its temperate nature, as well as by its beauty,”
(1601b, 57). She believes the delicacy and complexion peculiar to
women’s bodies are caused by the more moderate temperature of
the body, so—despite this list—there are only two
fundamental differences in the bodies of men and women, temperature
and beauty.

5.1 Temperature

Temperature, on Marinella’s view, is the physical cause (the
material cause) of the superiority of women’s souls:

it is necessary that I should clarify to some extent the nature of the
body, because nearly all of its virtues and defects depend on its
temperature, so that reason, even though it is master, is frequently
dazzled and blinded by the senses. (1601b, 77)

The right, moderate, temperature, will ensure that reason is not
blinded by the senses, and hence will allow reason to retain control
over desire; and moderate temperature is, on Marinella’s
account, most often found in women. The philosophical foundation for
the claim that the temperature of women’s bodies is a sign of
their virtue is an interpretation of Aristotle’s natural
philosophy. (It is possible that she also had Galen in mind.)
Marinella claims that the lower temperature of women’s bodies
causes them to have superior moral virtues, and in this she is
original; Castiglione had argued that women were more temperate
physiologically, but he did not draw the connection to moral
temperance so explicitly (see Castiglione 1528, 219). Marinella
reports that Aristotle says that women are “Less hot than men
and therefore more imperfect and less noble,” (130). She agrees
with Aristotle that relative to men women are cooler in temperature,
but she disagrees that women are cold in absolute terms. She then
develops an argument that demonstrates, in part by pointing out
discrepancies in Aristotle’s own account of the effects of heat
and cold on certain soul functions, that the relative coolness of the
female is a moral, and ultimately an intellectual, advantage.

Aristotle believed that the fundamental difference between male and
female animals was a different capacity to concoct excess blood in the
body into semen through a process that involved the transmission of
heat to the blood; ultimately this difference was caused by a
difference in heat, or the capacity to transmit heat, in the hearts of
males and females (Marinella cites History of Animals IX, but
there is considerable evidence for this view in the Generation of
as well; see, for example GA IV. 1 766a31–6). That
is, the distinction between male and female animals resides in their
heart, which is the source of natural heat, such that women are less
capable of producing vital heat.

Aristotle consistently says that animals that are more intelligent
have the “purest” blood; and more generally, he asserts
that the quality of blood affects the intelligence and temperament of
animals (see, e.g., Generation of Animals 2.6
744a28–32, Parts of Animals 2.4 650b19–25,
651a12–16). Moreover, Aristotle suggests that these differences
in blood occur not only across animal species, but also between the
sexes in a species. His claim is that hot, thin, pure blood is best,
because such blood correlates both with courage (manliness) and with
practical wisdom (Parts of Animals II. 2 748a2–14). The
implication is clearly that those animals that benefit from hot, thin,
pure blood are superior both with respect to deliberative reasoning
and with respect to the moral virtue of courage. So men, in virtue of
their body temperature, have an advantage, both intellectual and
moral, over women.

But Aristotle’s views on the effects of temperature on the
blood, and through the blood on the soul’s faculties, present
certain challenges of interpretation: in the same passage of the
Parts of Animals just cited, Aristotle says first that cold,
thin blood is best for intelligence, and then that hot, thin blood is
best. Marinella exploits this ambiguity, elaborating on
Castiglione’s point that women are, in themselves, temperate
rather than cold (see Castiglione 1528, 219). She agrees that women
are colder, and embraces the notion that cold blood is intelligent
blood. But she goes further than Castiglione in asserting that hot
blood is associated with intemperate passions, and deduces the
superiority of women with respect to intelligence, temperance, and
general virtue or nobility. She says,

I now believe that Aristotle did not consider the workings of heat
with a mature mind, nor what it signifies to be more or less hot, nor
what good and bad effects derive from this. (1601b, 130)

She links here maturity with femininity, and femininity with relative
coldness of temperature, thus extending the claim that cold blood
supports greater intelligence to the claim that cold blood supports
superior moral strength, by claiming that cooler blood encourages
temperance with respect to pleasure and desire. Passi, and other
opponents of women, accused women of intemperance, lasciviousness, and
inconstancy; Marinella argues in response that the cooler temperature
women enjoy allows them to keep their desires in check so that they
can reason more effectively than men, who are over-heated relative to

The degree of heat in a living body affects directly the specific
character of the operations of the soul, making, for example,
reasoning or desiring more or less principled, or more or less
impulsive. Marinella asserts (citing Plutarch as her authority) that
“heat is an instrument of the soul,” (1601b, 130). That
is, the soul will operate in some instances through the mechanism of
heat; the soul must use the body’s heat as an instrument to
conduct its operations—where those operations are not only
rational activities, but are also the operations of desire and
appetite. Now, since these operations of the soul affect in turn the
actions that a person takes, the effects of body temperature extend
beyond the direct effects on the activities of the soul, to the
choices and actions the person takes, causing them to be virtuous or
vicious. This is borne out by what Marinella says about the relation
between temperate body heat and both moral and intellectual virtues.
“Little and failing heat, as in old people, is powerless for the
soul’s operations,” whereas excessive heat “makes
souls precipitous and unbridled,” (1601b, 130). So insufficient
heat makes the soul’s operations (cognitive and moral)
ineffectual, but excessive heat makes the soul’s operations
unprincipled and impulsive. Now, the effects of insufficient or
excessive heat are deeds, good or bad. Insufficient heat will lead to
inaction, and excessive heat will lead to vicious action.

In response, then, to Passi and Aristotle, Marinella concedes the
empirical point, that women are colder but (i) disputes that women are
colder absolutely (because, as Castiglione pointed out, temperature is
relative, and hence women might be colder than men and yet temperate
‘in themselves’), and (ii) disputes the relation between
heat and nobility, first citing various examples of those who are
hotter than, but not nobler than, some others. She points out that
regional climactic differences historically considered to affect body
temperature exceed and confound sex differences—so African and
Spanish women will be hotter than German men. If, as Marinella’s
opponents believe, greater heat necessarily leads to greater virtue,
then they should concede that African women will be more virtuous than
German men. But those who argue that women are less noble than men
because they have less heat than men, will not allow that men living
in colder climates are less noble than women living in warmer
climates. So they should abandon the general principle that heat
correlates with greater nobility. Moreover, Marinella claims that some
individuals will have had ‘natures’ hotter than Plato and
Aristotle (it is not clear what the evidence for this is, but it is
clear that she supposes there is some independent measure of heat
other than virtue). And she assumes we can all agree that no one has
ever been more virtuous than Plato and Aristotle. So, once again, her
opponents must concede that it is not a universal truth that greater
heat leads to greater virtue. We might expect Marinella, having
disputed the relation between heat and nobility, to abandon any
attempt to argue that women are superior to men in virtue of their
body temperature. But she does not acknowledge an inconsistency in
arguing both that there is no correlation between greater heat and
greater virtue and that women are superior because they are colder. If
one were to object to her argument that men who live in colder
climates ought to be cooler than women who live in warmer climates,
and therefore better than those women, she would reply that those men
had effectively become women:

…if a man performs excellent deeds it is because his nature is
similar to a woman’s, possessing temperate but not excessive
heat, and because his years of virile maturity have tempered the
fervor of that heat he possessed in his youth and made his nature more
feminine so that it operates with greater wisdom and maturity. (1601b,

This suggests also that in those places where women become hotter
because of the climate, they will become worse—but not relative
to men who live in the same climate. If there is a correlation between
lower body temperature and virtue, and one allows that in warmer
climates everyone will have a higher body temperature, but that women
will generally have a lower body temperature than men in the same
climate, then women will be more virtuous than men in any given

Marinella argues, then, that Aristotle was correct to conclude that
women are usually, if not always, cooler than men, but she insists
that women are temperate rather than cold. She then links, causally,
the physical state of a cooler body temperature with a capacity to
execute the soul’s operations with sufficient force, but without
excessive passion: those who are physically temperate are also
psychologically and morally temperate. When men succeed in virtuous
deeds, it will be because they have become more feminine—more
moderate in temperature—often with maturity, which Marinella
assumes brings with it moderation in temperature. If women are
(generally) the right temperature for virtue, and men are (generally)
hotter than women, then clearly men are too hot. Moreover, there is
independent evidence for men’s excessive heat in their actions,
in particular in the intemperance they exhibit and the passionate love
they indulge in. The greater nobility of women’s moral character
allows them to perform more noble intellectual acts, because of the
relation between desire and intellect. A person has a better character
when the faculty of desire submits willingly to the faculty of reason.
And when that is the case, reason is freer to exercise its own
functions, without interference from desire. So the nobler moral
character of women permits their intellects to focus on rational
activities, without the distraction of having to control unbridled or
mistaken desires. This accounts for the greater intellectual ability,
as well as the superior moral character, that Marinella attributes to

5.2 Beauty

The passionate love men experience for women is excited by the beauty
of women, and that beauty is the second of the fundamental differences
Marinella cites between the bodies of women and those of men, as
evidence of the superiority of women’s souls and ultimately of
women themselves. While temperature is a cause of superiority, beauty
is a manifestation of the superior character of the souls of women,
and evidence of the nobility of the idea in the mind of God that is
the form of woman: “…the Idea of women is nobler than
that of men. This can be seen by their beauty and goodness, which is
known to everybody” (1601b, 53). Marinella understands the body
to manifest the character of the soul, so she believes that we can
know that women’s souls are nobler than men’s through
“the effect they [the souls] have and from the beauty of their
bodies,” (55). The beauty is an effect of “a grace or
splendor proceeding from the soul as well as from the body,”
(57). And Marinella states quite explicitly, “The soul…is
the cause and origin of physical beauty,” (58). Taken together,
these assertions suggest that the soul bestows grace or beauty on the
body, and that those qualities then ‘proceed’ from the
body as well as from the soul. If we accept that the soul is the cause
of physical beauty, and we assume that effects resemble causes, then
we can learn something about the character of the soul from the
character of the body. To understand how Marinella conceives of
beauty, and her philosophical purposes in appealing to beauty as
evidence of moral and intellectual superiority, we need to consider
her sources, and also the relation between beauty, heat, and the
virtues of women as she contrasts them with the vices of men. We
should also notice that she claims on the one hand that all women are
beautiful, and that no man is: “I say that compared to women all
men are ugly,” (63); and on the other hand, that she allows that
there are variations in beauty between individual women, and that men
can be more or less beautiful (167).

The philosophical sources for the view that women’s beauty is a
sign of a virtuous soul are interpretations of Plato’s dialogue,
the Symposium. Ficino’s translation of the
Symposium was especially influential at the time Marinella
was writing, and she does refer to it, but she seems to have based
much of her discussion on Leone Ebreo’s Dialoghi
. Two aspects of Platonic theory are pertinent here.
The first is the view that particular beings in this world have the
features they do by means of participation in ideal Forms. So women
are beautiful because they participate in the Form of the Beautiful
Itself; and their beauty is itself a mark or sign of their
participation. “Divine beauty is…the first and principal
cause of women’s beauty,” (1601b, 60). The Platonist
understanding of causation allows that while divine being is the first
and principal cause, there are creaturely causes which mediate the
effects of that first cause, so that the soul of a woman can be the
immediate cause and origin of her physical beauty while divine beauty
is its first cause. Marinella cites Ebreo for the claim that corporeal
beauty is an image of divine beauty, and then argues:

If it [corporeal beauty] came solely from the body, each body would be
beautiful, which it is not. Beauty and majesty of body are, therefore,
born of superior reason. (1601b, 59)

The second aspect of Platonic theory that serves Marinella’s
argument from beauty to the superiority of women is the view that
erotic desire, understood as a response to (and a desire for) beauty,
is an impulse which leads us ultimately to the Form of Good Itself, by
means of particular good things, which are identified with beautiful
things. Agrippa had made a similar argument, which may have influenced
Marinella. He wrote

Since beauty itself is nothing other than the refulgence of the divine
countenance and light which is found in things and shines through a
beautiful body, women—who reflect the divine—were much
more lavishly endowed and furnished with beauty than man (Agrippa
1529, 50),

and adds that “all are dazzled by her beauty and love and
venerate her on many accounts” (51). Marinella reports that
‘Platonists’ say: “External beauty is the image of
divine beauty,” (1601b, 58). She agrees with the poets who say
that beauty is a path that guides us directly to the contemplation of
divine wisdom; and in her own voice asserts that beauty is a golden
chain, that “always raises us toward God, from whom it is
derived,” (64–5). So the fact that men experience desire
for women, because they perceive them as beautiful, is a sign that men
recognize that women are good, and indeed better than men. This is
because we desire to possess the good forever, and we do not desire
what we already have. If, then, men desire women it must be that women
are better than men, and closer to the divine.

Marinella’s own account of beauty is simply this: it is “a
ray of light from the soul that pervades the body in which it finds
itself,” citing Plotinus as the source. She also cites
Ficino’s letters, and a variety of poets, in support of the view
that beauty is a kind of light—or like a ray of light—from
the soul, which is compared to the sun. On this account, then, beauty
does not lie in the symmetry of features, or youth, or indeed in any
material feature of women’s bodies. It is rather an ineffable
aura that pervades womankind. Marinella has support for this view from
Platonist philosophers, and indeed from those who oppose her and yet
allow that “women’s lovely faces shine with the grace and
splendor of paradise” and she uses it to undermine the claim for
superiority of men. If men were in fact superior to women, then it
would be women who desired men, not men who desired women, whereas in

they [men] are forced to love them [women] for this beauty, while
women are not forced to love men, because that which is less
beautiful, or ugly, is not by nature worthy of being loved…They
[men] would not be loved by women were it not for our courteous and
benign natures, to which it seems discourteous not to love our male
admirers a little. (1601b, 63)

Marinella thus appears to assert that women do not desire men, but
experience only a polite reciprocal affection for those men who love
them. This is likely to have been a strategic claim, aimed as a retort
against Passi and other men writing against women, who often accused
women of lasciviousness and promiscuity. Marinella is claiming that
sexual desire is so foreign to women (at least to most women) that
they are incapable of lascivious sentiments or acts.

If women are beautiful and temperate in their bodies, it is because
their souls are better organized than the souls of men; in particular,
it is because their desires are obedient to reason. And men are
susceptible to woman’s beauty because of the intemperate heat of
the male body, which is both produced by the deficiency of the male
soul, and a manifestation of that deficiency:

I wish to go further and show that men are obliged and forced to love
women, and that women are not obliged to love them back, except merely
from courtesy. I also wish to demonstrate that the beauty of women is
the way by which those men who are moderate creatures are able to
raise themselves to the knowledge and contemplation of the divine
essence. (1601b, 62)

So Marinella turns the arguments of men—both the argument that
women are defective and colder, and the argument that women are
defective and weak of will—to her own purposes, demonstrating
that women are better for being cooler, and are less weak of will than
are men, who succumb to the passionate desire for beauty much more
readily than do women.

Marinella demonstrated extraordinary scholarship by the standards of
her day, particularly with respect to the variety of sources she was
able to cite, and with greater accuracy than many of her
contemporaries. Many defenders of women had contented themselves with
responding to vaguely defined opponents; Marinella, by contrast, cited
her authors and their texts with some precision. This indicates both
that she had access to the texts themselves, and not only to reports
on the texts, and also that she understood the scholarly force of
accurately and precisely representing the claims of an author. This is
one aspect of her methodology that serves as a strength, and singles
her out from the crowd of pro-woman writers (see Ross 2009, 289). Her
extensive use of citation served not only to exhibit those claims with
which she was to take issue, but also to allow her to interpret for
her own purposes the claims of authors with whom she disagreed. She
often cites the same author both as an authority in support of her
arguments, and as a target against whom she argues—and the
effect of this is to undermine the authority of that source.

Marinella was then engaged in establishing the unreliability of the
very authorities whose work was supposed to support the inferiority of
women. If Aristotle did not maintain a coherent account of the
relation between temperature and rational capacity, we should not
trust his assessment of the relative merits of men and women.

What is unusual about Marinelli’s historicism is that it
undermines an important and representative authority for
patriarchy, and consequently links historicism to feminism.
She denies the whole category of the authoritative with its implied
opposition, the category of the specious, and substitutes her own
concept of the author—one whose claim to the truth is no more
than contingent. (Jordan 1990, 258)

Marinella’s methodical use of oppositions in the work of a
single author, the most powerful case being that of Aristotle, leaves
room for her to suggest that experience may be a better source of our
knowledge of women, their capacities and natures.

If one effect of Marinella’s marshalling of the evidence for
both sides of the woman question is to undermine the authority of
those authors most frequently cited by her opponents, another effect
is to raise the possibility of a skeptical agenda. Like many pro-woman
authors, Marinella begins by accepting the claim that the rational
souls of men and women are the same, before going on to argue for the
superiority of women. We might wonder why she, and others, were not
content to rest with the claim of equality at the level of the
rational soul. To put the question another way: Did Marinella truly
believe that women are better than men, or did she argue for that
position for other reasons? It is possible that the arguments for
superiority are intended to raise skeptical doubts in the minds of her
audience, doubts which would make them reluctant to decide the
question of superiority between men and women. If it seemed
preposterous to argue that women were superior to men, and yet one
could do so using unimpeachable authorities, then arguments for the
superiority of men over women, constructed on the foundations of those
same authorities, might seem less convincing. So, although many
contemporary and later interpreters assume that The Nobility
is a treatise in support of the superiority of women, there is some
evidence to suggest that Marinella may have argued for the claim of
superiority not so much to establish its truth as to call into
skeptical doubt the truth of the claim of superiority for men made by
her opponents (see O’Neill 2007 for an argument that skepticism
informed the work of another sixteenth century feminist, Marie de

Some evidence that Marinella’s methods are not entirely
transparent lies in her late work, Essortationi alle donne
(Exhortations to women), which on the surface appears to be a
palinode, a rejection of a lifetime dedicated to study and
writing—she specifically urges women not to aspire to a literary
career. Some interpreters have, however, detected in this work
“a residue of defiance combined with the possibility of
unmasking male techniques of domination,” (Kolsky 2001, 984).
Several kinds of evidence point to the possibility that Marinella did
not intend to subvert the claims of The Nobility: her use of
“irony, paradox and contradiction,” together with a
prefatory remark instructing readers to look below the surface of the
text, and the reputation of the printer of the Essortationi
as one who was infamous for publishing “layered
discourses” (Ross 2009, 296–8; Malpezzi Price and Ristaino
2008, 120–55).


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