A Woman of Letters Takes a Passionate Approach to Life and Literature

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan 19 1996, A47
Notes from Academe: Italy, Carolyn J. Mooney

“A Woman of Letters Takes a Passionate Approach to Life and Literature”

There are more than 400 bridges in Venice, linking small islands that were once worlds unto themselves. During the Renaissance, there were enclaves for noblemen, fishmongers, and nuns; for shipbuilders and Jews and gondoliers. Divided by birth and occupation, Venetians were linked by their bridges. Non-Venetians know only a few by name: There’s the Rialto, its markets still bustling centuries after Shakespeare mentioned it in The Merchant of Venice. Then there’s the Bridge of Sighs, where prisoners on their way to the miserable cells connected to the Doge’s Palace got one last look at a city that can take your breath away.

To get to Lynne Lawner’s favorite bridge, you need to walk through a quiet neighborhood in the city’s San Polo section. Leave the main shopping thoroughfare, walk down a narrow street shaded by a low sun, then another, turn the corner, continue along a canal lined with pale-gold buildings, and there it is-a simple, beige-stucco span called Ponte delle Tette. In Italian, it means “Bridge of the Teats”. It was here that the celebrated courtesans of the Renaissance gathered to display their charms and their cleavage.

Ms. Lawner likes the out-of-the-way places best, the places with an erotic edge. It has been that way for much of her unusual career. An independent scholar who lives in New York when she’s not in Italy or Paris, she takes a scholarly interest in erotic literature. She has chronicled the lives of courtesans in a glossy art book, translated Italian love poetry, written several volumes of poems herself, and published a book of rare and racy—some would say pornographic—Renaissance prints banned by Pope Clement VII in the 16th century. Along the way, she has been a visiting lecturer at several American universities and has held a string of fellowships, including the Fulbright grant that recently brought her to Venice.

But her favorite work may be her own life. “I’m one of the last of the bohemians,” says Ms. Lawner, who has wavy hair, delicate features, and a voice that can be both flirtatious and sharp. “I’ve always been interested in love and eros,” she adds.

She has long felt an affinity with the courtesans she studies, and she sees many parallels between her life and theirs. She doesn’t mean common prostitutes, but the elegant, independent women who cultivated a distinguished clientele, ran their own salons, loved whom they wanted. “The top echelon of the courtesans took up their fate with a lot of energy and guys. I didn’t show them as mere victims of male oppression, although there was some of that, obviously.”

Like the courtesans, Ms. Lawner has had more independence than many women of her generation, she says. Her decision to lead and intellectual life abroad has given her opportunities not available to others. The courtesans lived both at the center and the edge of the society, “and that was true of my own existence.”

Ms. Lawner’s work and life have always been intertwined, she says-whether she was discussing Petrarch in a Roman café, or savoring some passionate romance, or exploring the major libraries of Europe.

Like the courtesans, she has an eye for beauty. She understands the importance of presenting a bella figura—a good face to the world. She knows how to toss a shawl over her shoulders, and appreciates a well-cut sandal. She doesn’t want to be another dowdy academic. No problem there.

Nor does she want to be another face in the crowd. No problem there, either. Upon entering a trattoria here one evening, she creates a small commotion when the owners fail to greet her warmly. After a flurry of gestures and a rapid exchange in Italian, a waiter who knows Ms. Lawner is summoned. Her frown folds into a smile as they chatter in Venetian dialect. Now the evening promises to be as light as the gnocchi, as romantic as the wine. Before long, she is holding court with an elegant young woman at the next table.

“What do you do?” the young woman asks.

“Oh,” Ms. Lawner says with a laugh, “lots of things. Let’s not define ourselves.” Later, she explains: Academics are so specialized today. When she was a doctoral candidate in literature at Columbia University, she felt free to mix art and literature and life.

I am a woman of letters,” she says, giving each word equal emphasis. “There aren’t many of us now.”

After graduating from Wellesley College (her senior thesis was on Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady), Ms. Lawner held a series of fellowships, including a Fulbright. She lived on and off in Rome in the 1960s and 1970s, translating, writing, and mixing with artists and political figures.

She began studying Renaissance women writers, including two poets—Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco—thought to have been courtesans. That led to her book Lives of the Courtesans: Portraits of the Renaissance (Rizzoli, 1987). It weaves together letters and poems by courtesans and their patrons, and artworks depicting them. If she glorified the courtesans, it was to add balance to previous depictions, she says.

During her research, Ms. Lawner came across a set of 16 sexually explicit, 400-year-old prints, accompanied by bawdy sonnets by a Renaissance satirist named Pietro Aretino. Known as I Modi, or “The Postures,” the prints were based on an earlier series of engravings that had been banned by the pope. (He supposedly recognized some of the people depicted)

Ms. Lawner believes that the prints she reproduced-she has never disclosed the owner-are the only ones known to remain. The illustrations and the sonnets, which she translated, were published in 1989 by Northwestern University Press in an unusual book called I Modi. The Sixteen Pleasures: An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance. Four centuries later, the images had not lost their power: Some campus bookstores refused to carry the book.

In a recent twist—Ms. Lawner’s life seems to take many of them—a Knox College professor of English named Robert Hellenga wrote a well-received novel called The Sixteen Pleasures (Soho Press, 1994). The heroine is an American art conservator who, while working in Italy, stumbles upon the erotic prints.

When first asked about the novel, Ms. Lawner says she felt as if her life had been stolen. [L.L.: Hellegna’s tale has little to do with my professional and personal life, which, if I may say so, has been much more adventurous and variegated!] Mr. Hellenga says he already had decided that his heroine would find I Modi, which he knew of because of scholarly references to it, when he learned of Ms. Lawner’s book. He says he knows nothing of her life. “Many women told me they felt I had written about them,” he adds.

Later, Ms. Lawner softens, saying the novel made her laugh. But she says she is still upset that Mr. Hellenga used her own title as his novel’s title.

Now she is working on a book about the commedia dell’arte, known for its masked characters. In a way, she has closed a circle: she went to Italy on a Fulbright grant after college, and recently returned on another.

Venice seems an appropriate setting for Ms. Lawner. Canals reflect a scholar’s thoughts as clearly as they do the faded buildings and bobbing gondolas. Grotesque stone faces give a certain edge to the decadent façades of old palaces. One dark, narrow street leads to another, finally dead-ending in a tiny campo—the Venetian name for piazza. But streets here never really end, they just keep going. A doorway leads to a sottoportego—a vaulted passageway—that leads to an alley that leads to a bigger street that leads to a major avenue. Venice is mysterious, watery web of canals and alleys—a circle that completes itself.

It is early evening as Ms. Lawner ducks inside a tiny wine bar for a sparkling prosecco. She offers a final thought on her work. There’s an Italian expression, she says: “Chi me lo fa fare?” Who’s making me do it? Or, Why do I bother?

Why, then?

“Pure passion.”

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