Actresses and their Literary Networks: Reshaping the Cultural Scene in Early Modern Italy



Professional actresses were among the few women to build wide literary networks and play an active cultural role in early modern Italy. Yet moralists commonly labelled them as ‘weavers of infernal webs’, ‘violators of spectator’s chastity’, or ‘prostitutes’, colouring critical perceptions for centuries and eclipsing their cultural achievements. This project examines the ways in which six prominent actresses in the professional theatre (now known as commedia dell’arte) breached the Italian cultural establishment and revolutionised it. Drawing on literary and theatre studies, and social and gender history, my proposed project charts the connections that these performers made with over one hundred literati across almost a century (1560s-1630s), unearths traces of the performances through which actresses earned recognition from literati, and assesses how the relationships between actresses and literati changed the cultural panorama of early modern Italy. By bringing to light the cultural agency of professional actresses, this original project furthers the ongoing reshaping of the vision of the Italian Counter-Reformation as a flourishing period for women’s cultural achievements.