Many creative individuals have set forth innovative approaches to the vital process of education. Here we identify some of Italian Heritage.
Laura Cereta (1469-1499)
Widely considered a humanist and a feminist, Laura Cereta was a strong advocate for the right to education, especially for women. She believed women should have more social value, and marriage should not be an obstacle or the eventual goal. Cereta’s philosophical theories were dispersed through private letters written to friends, but intended for public view; to a circle of intellectuals; and through her correspondence with noblewomen including Queen Isabella of Spain and Beatrice d’Este, Duchess of Milan.
Cereta was born in Brescia, region of Lombardia. The oldest of six children, she was the daughter of a successful attorney and magistrate, and with an ancestral Brescian heritage claimed on her mother’s side. When she was seven, her father sent her to a convent where she learned reading, writing, and Latin. It’s also noted that she had insomnia and learned embroidery; and stitching – along with her studies – filled many sleepless nights. Cereta returned home when she was nine, but stayed for only a few months and then went back to the convent, where she lived until she was eleven. Some sources mention an incompatible relationship with her mother as a reason for Cereta’s return to the convent.
At home, Cereta took care of her younger siblings and studied Greek, mathematics, science, and philosophy with her father’s direction. She married at fifteen, but in less then two years was widowed when her husband died from an illness related to the plague. During the marriage, she wrote letters describing her relationship with her husband and her objections to the demands of what was expected of a wife by her husband, within the couple’s social circle, and by societal norms. In a letter written in 1485, Cereta defends a woman’s right to an education, and questions why a woman isn’t given the same liberties as a man.
After her husband’s death and in mourning, Cereta continued to write about marriage – the letters becoming consolation for her loss – and her letters provide an autobiographical account of her life along with her strong views of a woman’s stature in society. In her position as a widow, Cereta found more time for her studies. Her knowledge of Latin and Greek classics supplied the foundation for her beliefs in the strengths of women, and it equipped her for writing about the history of these women. Comparing their lives to those of her contemporaries, she commends the intellect of women, yet notes that with many women, their vanity surpasses their interest in gaining knowledge. With knowledge, Cereta asserts, and with other abilities attributed only to an educated woman, her life would be far superior to what she has already experienced.
Cereta wrote until shortly after her father died in 1488. As with other learned women, she often participated in debates and received skepticism about her work: some claim her letters were written by her father; others accused her of plagiarism and criticize her for self publishing her work. Her collection of letters, Epistolae familieares – almost 90, all written by the time she turned twenty – were published in 1488, and include a letter she wrote to Cardinal Ascanio Maria Sforza, seeking his patronage. His support is undetermined, as are accounts of Cereta lecturing on philosophy at the University of Padua.
Today, with a significant interest in accomplished women and their historical contributions to society, Laura Cereta is recognized for her writings on women’s rights in the late fifteenth century; but her letters focus on an intrinsic source: not only a woman’s right to an education, but also a woman’s right to desire an education. In one of her translated letters she writes, “For knowledge is not given as a gift but by study.”
Written by Janice Therese Mancuso
Laura Cereta: Collected Letters of a Renaissance Feminist (The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe) 1st Edition by Diana Robin
Here are some other relevant websites:
Laura Cereta: Italian Humanist
Italian Women Writers: Laura Cereta
Introduction to Letter Written to Cardinal Ascanio Sforza
“One Freedom to All Human Beings”: Laura Cereta, Fifteenth-Century Women’s Champion
The Textual Tradition
Maria Montessori (1870-1952)
The Montessori Method of teaching is known around the world, yet many do not associate the teaching method with an Italian woman who first studied engineering and then went to medical school graduating in 1896; the first female doctor in Italy. Worldwide, she was acclaimed for her method of teaching children. From the 1914 article “The Montessori Devices,” published in The New Student’s Reference Work: “Teaching by the Montessori system begins with devices most directly related to the child’s daily life – as those for teaching the lacing of shoes and the buttoning of dresses. Thus the occupations of home and school constantly review, supplement and emphasis each other.”
Not too far from the Adriatic Coast in central Italy, the town of Chiaravalle – in the region of Marche – celebrates the life of Maria Montessori. The house where she was born has become a center “for promoting Montessori work and thought;” and the town is preparing for the 150th anniversary of her birth. In 1965, the town dedicated her birthplace with a plaque noting the “distinguished pedagogist, creator of wise educational methods.”
Montessori moved to Florence in 1873, when her father – a civil service official in finance – was transferred; and moved to Rome two years later with another reassignment. Montessori was close to both of her parents; and especially encouraged by her mother, who was the great-niece of Antonio Stoppani, a priest and geology professor, often cited as the father of Italian geology, and the author of Il Bel Paese.
In Rome, Montessori received a standard grade school education, and then chose to attend a technical school for a career in engineering – an untraditional vocation for women in the late nineteenth century. Upon graduating, she decided to change her profession to the field of medicine, but was discouraged and her application for acceptance to attend medical school was denied. Determined to pursue her goal, Montessori enrolled in the University of Rome, taking courses in natural sciences and other topics required to earn a degree that enabled her to continue her education in the medical field.
After graduating with a medical degree in 1896, Montessori was invited to speak, as a representative of Italy, at the International Congress for Women’s Rights held in Berlin. She worked in the psychiatric clinic at the University and in observing mentally challenged children, she developed procedures for teaching children as they relate to their environment. In supporting her work in education, Montessori studied pedagogy and addressed conferences on educational reform. Her teaching methods were gaining more attention: becoming known as the Montessori Method that could be applied to teaching all school-aged children.
In 1901, Montessori began to focus more on education. She wrote reports and articles, continued to conduct research, and was appointed lecturer at the University of Rome’s Pedagogic School. In 1907, she was asked to develop a program for children of low-income working parents, and opened Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House). Her observations of the children led her to further define the teaching techniques she had established and became the foundation for her book about the Montessori Method.
Within two years, Casa dei Bambini opened in several other locations, and Montessori began directing training courses for teachers; and within three years, schools based on her teaching methods were opening in countries around the world. In 1912, the English version of her book was published and she traveled to America in 1913, lecturing throughout the states and at Carnegie Hall to full-capacity crowds. She returned to America in 1915, overseeing the glass classroom at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, but faced criticism of her teaching methods that affected the expansion of Montessori schools.
Montessori lived in Barcelona during World War I, and continued to travel and write books to promote her work. She returned to Italy, but conflicts with the Italian government during World War II caused Montessori to move to Amsterdam. (Italy and Germany closed all the Montessori schools.) She then traveled to India, staying for seven years. After the war, she continued to travel and conduct training courses. She died in the Netherlands and is buried in Noordwijk.
Several countries have issued banknotes and coins honoring Maria Montessori; the latest in Italy for the 150th anniversary of her birth. Montessori was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950, and 1951. Interest in the Montessori Method of teaching had a resurgence in the early 1960s in the United States; and today, about 4,500 schools are in the United States and around 20,000 Montessori schools are located throughout the world. However, the Montessori name is not protected by trademark and the quality and method of education can vary widely.
Written by Janice Therese Mancuso