Italian lifestyle and fashion: Move Over Emily Post. These Italian women writers had etiquette buttoned up in the late 19th century

Nov 17, 2018 420

Etiquette seems negotiable these days, a nice-to-have when the occasion warrants but few people can cite the rules of conduct for any given situation with accuracy. Of course, there are the gaffes that make headlines, most of which could be avoided by consulting guides or just using common sense: Remember when Trump walked in front of, not slightly behind, the Queen of England on his visit to Windsor Castle last July? Social media had a heyday with the etiquette blunder. 

In moments of need, Americans pull out a copy of the rules of etiquette written by the grande dame of American manners, Emily Post, who published the first edition of her book, Etiquette, now in its 19th edition, in 1922. But if you were a female member of Italy’s rising middle class toward the end of the 19th century, living in one of the country’s urban centers, basically from Rome up, your go-to books on the rules of conduct would have likely been La gente per bene (People in polite society, 1877) by La Marchesa Colombi and Saper vivere, norme di buone creanze (Knowing how to live: Norms for good manners, 1901) by Matilde Serao. 

Their books of conduct would have guided you through the main stages of your life: as a marriageable young woman, a proper signora, and then widowhood, addressing all events and stops along the way. That might have included how to act when you are introduced to a suitor, how to plan a wedding, how to entertain, what to wear when you are in mourning, how to get ready for a trip and how to act when you get there. 

Both women were prolific authors and journalists; their popular codes of conduct were just one one aspect of their contributions to Italian women’s literature. Over the course of their careers they wrote columns for women, also read by men, for the leading newspapers of the day, started journals of their own, and wrote novels. 

Unfortunately, their names and bodies of work were largely forgotten with the rise of fascism. The writers were rediscovered in the 1970s when Italian feminism came onto the national stage and noted Italian author Natalia Ginsburg pointed first to the talents of La Marchesa Colombi and her novel Un matrimonio in provincia (A small-town marriage, 1885), which led to its republication in 1973, and then to the contributions of Serao, noting her keen observation, vivid language, and ability to engage her readers. 

Conduct matters

Books with rules of road are always needed in times of change or conflict. That was the case when Renaissance writer Baldassare Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier (1528), which codified manners at the court of Urbino. The book became the model for courtly manners in Italy and beyond. Castiglione was followed by Giovanni Della Casa who wrote Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior (1558), which became the international standard-bearer for books of conduct. (In Italian, etiquette is generally called galateo and books of conduct, galatei.) Both La Marchesa Colombi and Serao defer to Della Casa’s galateo in the introductions to their books of conduct, saying their modern-day versions could never live up to Della Casa’s work. 

Yet the galatei of La Marchesa Colombi and Matilde Serao had an important distinction: The authors were women writing for women (though not exclusively) at a time when most conduct books were still written by men for women. They understood the prescriptive life women were expected to lead in their almost exclusive role as the center of home and family. They gave women a primer to get them through the day-to-day, employing a fresh and approachable voice, not sermon-like, tinged with playfulness and irony. Their conduct books were well-organized and useful, telling women when it was appropriate to receive guests. how and with whom to be seen in public, how to make it through the precisely orchestrated fidanzamento (engagement) process. 

In Serao’s Saper vivere, the author (born in 1856 to a Greek mother and Neapolitan father in Greece, and raised and educated in Naples; she died 1927) says in her introduction that the purpose of her book is not to teach her readers the good manners they should have learned at their mother’s knee, but rather to coach them in the rules of the fine art of living, helping them to avoid the types of egregious errors that could cost them dearly.

The tone of the books is delightfully wry, especially La gente per bene by La Marchesa Colombi, who was in reality Maria Antonietta Torriani, (1840-1920), born in Novara (Piemonte), an elementary school teacher at first -- with no ties to nobility! Torriani had chosen her pen name from a popular satirical play of the period, Paolo Ferrari’s La Satira e Parini. In the beginning of La gente per bene, she tells her readers that she is the 143-year-old wife of the character Il Marchese Colombi, from the Ferrari play. Posing as this “ancient” character gives the writer the ability to distance herself somewhat from the current social conventions and mores of the time and to describe them from a position of wisdom. La gente per bene, like Saper vivere, was based on the concept of women’s modesty, pudore in Italian, and of behaving properly and well, all of which were highly valued in 19th century Italy. 

Running through La gente per bene in particular is the message of respecting your elders, including not upstaging your mother in public if your education exceeds hers, being self-assured as you consider your marriage prospects, and an entertaining entry on how to behave when you are a guest yourself-- as in not trying to take control of your host’s social calendar and change it to your own liking, and not commandeering your hosts resources -- from tutors, to servants, to the dining room.  

A new Italy needed guidance after the Unification 

The challenges of a newly unified Italy made the need for these codes of conduct all the more compelling. By 1870 a rising middle class was expanding its influence but still trying to establish a true class identity. Literacy rates in Italy remained abysmally low, especially in the rural south, stymying the country’s ability to advance. It was believed that education was the answer to the country’s recovery, and, most importantly, that education would create a strong. moral national identity. More periodicals were being printed to cater to a larger reading public, predominantly in the northern cities. Codes and other guides were seen as a way to offer direction and practical advice to an audience eager for instruction in the ways of modernity.

Women writers such as La Marchesa Colombi and Serao were part of this quest for modernity and began to emerge and raise their profiles in late 19th century Italy once literacy rates increased.

Mainstream publications were dominated by men, but the women’s voices were heard in columns such as La Marchesa Colombi’s monthly Lettera aperta alle signore (Open letter to the women) in Italy’s first national newspaper, Il Corriere della sera, which her husband had founded in 1876. The column addressed a female audience and talked about current events and fashion and other events of interest to women, including widening access to education for girls. Serao’s column in a national daily newspaper, Corriere di Roma, which she had founded with her husband Edoardo Scarfoglio, addressed a predominately female middle-class readership in a newspaper aimed at male readership.

Both women wrote for women’s journals during the period following unification up until the onset of fascism. They also frequently contributed to literary and cultural journals, as well as to journals for women, for example Il Corriere delle dame, a Milan journal founded by a woman as far back as 1804, as well as to others such as Museo di famiglia and Il Giornale delle donne, and surprisingly, some of the emancipationist journals of the day -- though both authors were not overt emancipationists. It was an interesting time for women journalists who were establishing their voices and expressing their concerns and interests to an increasingly literate Italian readership.

We are fortunate that the voices and legacies of La Marchesa Colombi and Matilde Serao were rediscovered. How else would we appreciate and be amused by the finer points of etiquette of late 19th century Italy, of which we still find vestiges in our day, and the good advice that keeps us gaffe-free and out of the headlines.


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