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women, writing, art, morality, Italy


Offering advice on a range of topics from the quotidian to the extraordinary, from superstition to scientific, fifteenth-century conduct manuals appealed to readers of all Italian social classes. This essay focuses specifically on manuals which prescribe behaviors for women, and investigates the reception of these precepts and the extent to which these notions informed and transformed women’s lives. Specifically, I examine one piece of advice which recurs throughout instructional literature during this time: the prescribed notion that women should remain far removed from their household windows for the sake of their honor, reputation and chastity. Widely read manuals, such as Alberti’s Della Famiglia and Barbaro’s Trattati delle donne, promulgated windows as literal “windows of opportunity” to further vice, lust, adultery, vanity and profligacy. Furthermore, these concerns are addressed in texts beyond the realm of the prudent, instructional literature; the theme recurs as metaphor for deviancy in contemporary fiction and portraiture. Boccaccio’s Decameron, for example, features several tales in which women carry out affairs by way of their bedroom windows. Within the genre of portrait painting, both Fra Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli painted interior scenes which featured women positioned at windows. The synthesis of these seemingly disparate sources reveals a complicated moral climate that undoubtedly had decisive consequences for Italian women during the fifteenth century.