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Laura Mattioli

PhD Research

PhD Research in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures


My thesis examines how ideas of femininity and female space are constructed differently in male- and female-authored utopian texts in Italian literature from 1548 to the early and mid-1600. Exploring Renaissance ideas on natural law and exploiting a combined approach between feminist constructivist theory, spatial theory and utopian studies, I read the literature on ideal worlds as a conflictual site for the affirmation of the role and position of the “feminine” and the female body. Ranging across a variety of texts including traditional utopias, treatises on the querelle des femmes and epic poetry, my research suggests a critical shift in the traditional understanding of utopian literature to make it inclusive of the work of women writers.

The literary utopia, from its classical inception to its expansion as a popular genre in Europe in the early modern period, has largely been accepted by the critic as a male-produced and male-centric genre. The new world — a visionary city of future prosperity, an ideal garden of paradisiacal attributes, an island lost among unknown seas — is a space for male domination, its idea of betterness shaped around the hopes and desires of the male author. The utopian space inevitably turns into a gendered space, where the female subject exists but in the margins, fulfilling a role that gratifies the traditional patriarchal order. The women in the ideal world may be devout wives, voiceless subjects, alluring temptresses; in all cases, the idea of ‘woman’ and the space she occupies is constructed as an expression of the needs, desires and anxieties of the male writer.

Given the traditional association between ideal worlds and masculinity, utopian responses by female writers still represent a largely understudied field. In 16th and 17th century Italy, where the reception of More’s Utopia gave way to a prolific production of works imagining ideal worlds, female-authored utopianism has received virtually no attention. In the Counter-Reformation period, when women’s writing grew in production and generic range, narratives of better worlds — microcosms enclosed or hidden in larger texts — began to emerge. In these texts, women writers re-write conventional places, such as the home and the garden, as spaces of education, female affirmation and community; they respond to to male anxieties about women’s agency by imagining “feminized societies” based on love and friendship. Challenging traditional views on femininity, women use the utopian to reclaim a space for themselves.

Research interests

  • Early modern studies
  • Epic poetry
  • Feminism
  • Utopian studies