Research Seminar: "From Surface to Symptom and Back Again: Reading Isabella d’Este’s Correspondence" - Deanna Shemek (UC Santa Cruz)

The Italian Research Seminar


Deanna Shemek (UC Santa Cruz) – “From Surface to Symptom and Back Again: Reading Isabella d’Este’s Correspondence”


Examining Isabella’s d’Este’s correspondence as both documentary evidence and textual performance, Deanna Shemek also explores the early modern letter as a technology: a tool and a medium for investigating, persuading, and reporting, but also for the circulation and confirmation of the writer’s persona within the many speech acts letters are designed to perform. Beyond the historical information they contain, letters like those of Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), marchesa of Mantua, inform us about early modern communicative networks, about the routine tropes of epistolary exchange, about relations between the cultures of orality and literacy, and about correspondence as a medium for personal contact, political agency, news-gathering, and self-construction. Two example letters from 1503 will offer vivid illustration of how letters served early modern rulers in tasks of surveillance, governing, and reportage.

Deanna Shemek is Professor Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is author of Ladies Errant: Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy (1998). She has co-edited Phaethon’s Children: The Este Court and its Culture in Early Modern Ferrara (2005) and Writing Relations: American Scholars in Italian Archives (2008); and co-translated Adriana Cavarero, Stately Bodies: Literature, Philosophy, and the Question of Gender (2002). Author of essays on Ariosto, Aretino, Boccaccio, and a number of Renaissance women poets, she is also editor and translator of Isabella d’Este. Selected Letters (2017), a collection of 830 letters selected from a manuscript archive of over 16,000. She co-directs an online project for study of the Italian Renaissance, IDEA: Isabella d’Este Archive ( Her lecture draws from her book-in-progress on Isabella d’Este as a Renaissance correspondent.



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