Olympia Morata – a Proto-Feminist?

           A simple Google search of “Olympia Morata” and “feminist” yields 6,530 results. Some call her “a forgotten, feminist voice” or “a feminist in Renaissance Italy.” These definitions would have puzzled her. She was highly esteemed in her day, but for different reasons.


A Child Prodigy

            We don’t know much about Olympia’s early days, but we can imagine her surrounded by books and scrolls. Her father Fulvio raised her in the love and knowledge of the classics. With the constancy of today’s Baby Einstein enthusiasts, he taught her Latin and Greek and spent hours to practice the perfect enunciation. At age 13, she had enough mastery of these skills to give eloquent speeches in Latin before an audience of scholars.

            It was then that the duke and duchess of Este invited her to live in their court. Her official title was tutor and companion for their oldest daughter, 7-year-old Anna. She was also a sign of prestige. Italian courts competed in obtaining the best artists and scholars. A child scholar was impressing. A female child scholar was a sight to be seen.

            Nobles and intellectuals came from other cities to see her. Even Pope Paul III attended with pleasure her production of a comedy by Roman playwright Terence, starring the Este children. She basked in her patron’s praises as much as she did in her father’s. "It’s wonderful to know I have won the approval of the great and unconquered Duke Ercole II," she told Fulvio. She had found her vocation, and devoted her full energies to improve it.


Fall From Favor

            Eventually, child prodigies grow up, and their uniqueness starts to fade. In 1548, 22-year old Olympia was dismissed from court. The official explanation was that Anna, then 17, had moved to France to marry Duke Francis of Guise. There might have been other reasons. Her letters suggest that the door was closed to her whole family, because of the "hatred and slanders of certain evil people."

            In any case, she was faced with a dilemma many child prodigies still face today. What to do if your life, which has been steered in one single direction, takes a sudden and radical turn? Olympia had no practical knowledge that could help her widowed mother and four younger siblings, nor the typical dowry and work skills which were necessary to attract a husband.

            Her faith was also at a low ebb. Her father had raised her with the Lutheran and Calvinist beliefs that had trickled down to Italy and were still spreading freely at that time, but religion had occupied a small part of her scholarly life. In her letters, she mentions some doubts. For example, she had often wondered if, before addressing God in prayer, “we ought to know whether he has elected us from time eternal.”[1] After all, why would God give anything to someone he has destined to hell?

            She had also read enough of the Roman poet Lucretius to question God’s involvement in the affairs of men. “I had fallen, you see, into the error of thinking that everything happened by chance and of believing ‘that there was no God who cared for mortal things.’”[2]

            Her dismissal from court jolted her back into reality and helped her to reorder her priorities. “Even as I was exalted to the skies by everyone’s praise, I realized that I lacked all learning and that I was ignorant.”[3] With the support of her friend Lavinia della Rovere, who had faithfully stood by her side, she devoted herself to the study of Scriptures and to an urgent cause – a campaign for the freedom of Protestant Fanino Fanini, the first case of death penalty conviction for religious reasons in the relatively tolerant duchy of Ferrara. Her efforts were eventually frustrated, but Fanini’s faith left an indelible mark on her life.

            As for her youthful doubts, a careful study of the Scriptures helped her to understand she had been putting the cart before the horse. Instead of waiting to know whether we are elected by God before we call on him in prayer, she said, “let us first, as He ordered, implore mercy from Him, and when we have done this, we shall know for sure that we are in the number of the elect.”[4]


Love and Exile

            Olympia must have had some apprehensions about marriage. After all, she had seen her share of hurt and disappointed wives, including her friend Lavinia. Providentially, however, she found the perfect husband – Andreas Grunthler, a medical doctor from Germany who had come to Ferrara to study. She might have met him earlier at court. In any case, in was a union of hearts and minds, as they both deeply loved each other, shared the same Protestant faith, and enjoyed literary studies. They were married in the winter of 1549-1550.

            By this time, life in Italy had become dangerous ground for Protestants, who had been officially declared “anathema” by the Council of Trent. The only safe option was leaving the country.

            Germany, Andreas’s homeland, was the obvious choice, but was not free of political and religious problems. Soon the two found themselves in the throes of the devastating Margrave War, suffering from famine and pestilence in a besieged city. After a narrow escape, they reached Heidelberg in 1554, where Andreas was offered a professorship in medicine, while Olympia tutored students in Greek. Her health, however, was irreparably ruined. From her description of her symptoms, it seems as though she had tuberculosis. She died on October 26, 1555, short of her twenty-ninth birthday.


A Feminist?

            Besides other works, Olympia produced a large number of poems in Greek – mostly renditions of the Psalms. As odd as this pursuit might seem while protestant reformers were promoting the translation of Scriptures in the languages of the people, her production was greatly appreciated. There was in fact a large number of educated men and women who spoke Latin and Greek with greater ease than other languages and loved the opportunity to sing those Greek Psalms with like-minded believers from other countries. There were a few Latin renditions of the Psalms, but Olympia was the first poet to produce one in Greek.

             Her translation was excellent and worth of every praise it received, betraying a deep understanding of both Greek classics and Scriptures. Sadly, most of her works were lost in the destruction of the war. In Italy, they were on the list of forbidden books.  

            Do these accomplishments make her a feminist? It’s true that she obtained equal status with men in the literary field, but she didn’t have to fight to achieve it. It was given to her naturally because of her talents. For this reason, and because of the rarity of this subject in her works, I don’t see her as a significant representative of the 15th-16th-century Querelle de Femmes, a concerted effort to counteract widespread misogynist conceptions.

            As a matter of fact, she readily refused some of the distinctions she was offered, including Elector Frederick II’s invitation to teach Greek at the University of Heidelberg. The nature and extent of this appointment has been often debated. If it meant an actual chair, she would have been the first woman in history to receive such an honor. It’s possible that Frederick simply invited her to lecture, as a few women had done before. In any case, it was an extraordinary recognition.

            Her refusal was not surprising, given her poor state of health, but it’s also an indication that this type of acknowledgement was not her life’s goal. She had in fact already refused the elector’s repeated invitations to teach at his court. In that case, the reason was her acquired antipathy for court-life. In her words, going back to a ruler’s court would have represented – rather than a promotion – a huge leap backwards, “from the finish line back to the starting gate.”[5]

            The finish line – not earthly recognitions - had been her overarching aim for most of her adult life, as evident in her last written words, “I long to fade away, so great is my confidence in Christ, and to be with Him in whom my life thrives.”[6]

            If the simple employment of her talents in parity with men makes her a feminist, her efforts to use them for God's glory and the welfare of others, in submission to Scriptures, and without competition, self-assertion, or revenge, might be the best feminism of all.


[1] Parker, Holt N., ed., The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic, University of Chicago Press, 2003, p. 118.

[2] Ibid. p. 101.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 197.

[6] Carr, Simonetta, Weight of a Flame, The Passion of Olympia Morata, P&R, 2011, p. 207 (poem translated from the original Greek by Chris Stevens).


Simonetta Carr