Women in the Italian Book Trade: forgotten owners and producers of Italian books
By Erika Delbecque, on 23 August 2021
This guest blog post was written by Sara D’Amico, who spent six months volunteering at UCL Special Collections as part of the Liberating the Collections project
We might think that women were not allowed to participate in skilled crafts: for instance, the art of book binding was foreign to them until the nineteenth century. But women have always been involved in the book trade. However, many of them have remained in the shadows and their contribution has not been acknowledged for centuries. The Liberating the Collections project aims to fix this and give the women who are represented in the rare book collections at UCL Special Collections the recognition they deserve. As a volunteer in the LTC project, I have conducted a focused search among the Castiglione and Dante Collections, to allow the women involved in the Italian book trade to come to the fore. What follows is only a brief overview of some of the most interesting people involved in the making and keeping of Italian books.
Luchina Ravani (active ca. 1532-1541)Financial considerations often forced a printer’s widow to take over the business, as the death of a husband plunged many widows into poverty. These women would often work until their sons came of age, but in the case of Luchina Ravani, she apparently continued working even after her son took over. The State Archive in Venice holds two documents stating that Luchina was free to run “a suo conto la stamperia.” This indicates that the widow held an important position in the business and possibily had some kind of agency in deciding what to print, like the beautiful Libro del cortegiano in the Castiglione Collection. However, despite her active role, her name is never explicitly mentioned on any edition. Only her son’s name, Vittore, appears on the titlepages or the colophons, followed by a simple and anonimous “& Co.” The reasons behind this choice remain unknown, but they do raise the question: how many other women’s works are hidden behind a man’s name?
Sofia Giacomelli (1779-1819)Book history has neglected women engravers. Wood engraving was, for almost two centuries, the most common means of illustrating printed work. This art was not usually practised by women until the rise of the Arts and Crafts movement, and yet some of them, because of their incredible talent, managed to excel in this field almost half a century prior. Geneviève Sophie Giacomelli was one of them.
Also known as Sophie Janinet and Madame Chomel, Sofia was a popular singer and an accomplished graphic artist: she even exhibited her work at the Paris Salon in 1799 and in 1800. Art magazines from all over Europe praised her work in illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divina Commedia. The Journal des arts, des sciences, et de littérature reviewed her Milton collection in 1813: “The collection of the twelve figures of Madame Giacomelli is one of the most agreeable productions that engraving has offered us for a long time. We live in a century when women have won the most distinguished rank in literature: it is enough to look at this work to discover that the field of the arts is not foreign to them either.” But most importantly, Sofia didn’t stop working on her engravings after her marriage in 1802 with musician Joseph Giacomelli, who introduced her in the world of music and singing. She was, first and foremost, an artist.
Caroline Morris (dead after 1870)
Caroline Morris was not an occasional book owner: together with her husband she formed a library of about 9,000 volumes, making her a book collector on all counts. In the nineteenth century it was not common for a woman to collect that many books and it was even less common for a woman with no titles and significant richness to do so. James Morris, Caroline’s husband, was a Professor of Languages in the Royal College of Mauritius and the UCL Calendar (1870-71) seems to suggest that he was the owner of this extensive and valuable library: apparently, he bequeathed it to his wife for the duration of her lifetime, and after her death to the College. And yet, the illustrated bookplates that can be found in the books clearly say: “Jacobus et Carolina Morris”.As is often the case for women book owners, virtually no biographical information about Caroline is available. However, the UCL archives hold some of the Morris’s correspondence. The letters, together with the bookplates, were invaluable in proving that Caroline must have had an active role in the making of the Morris Library. Not only that, the letters from scholars like Francis William Newman and J. M. Peebles prove that she was also a reader and they help shine a light on Caroline’s interests in a great variety of subjects: from botany to music to women’s rights.
There are many women like Luchina, Sofia and Caroline who contributed to the making and preserving of some of the finest rare books in the UCL Special Collections. Their names are often overshadowed by those of their husbands but the LTC Project is finally giving them a new voice. While there is still room for more research, these first results are an indication of how many valuable resources are hidden within the UCL Special Collections and how much they can contribute to the study of the Italian book trade’s history.
Michelle Levy, ‘Do Women Have a Book History?’, in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 53, No. 3 (2014), pp. 296-317.
Deborah Parker, ‘Women in the Book Trade in Italy, 1475-1620’, in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3 (1996), pp. 509-541.
Patricia Jeffe, Women Engravers, 1990.
Stephen S. Stratton, Woman in Relation to Musical Art, in Proceedings of the Musical Association, 9th Sess. (1882-1883), pp. 115-146.