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Laura Cereta’s In asinarium funus oratio

Quinn Radziszewski Griffin

Recognized as one of only a handful of female humanists, Laura Cereta of Brescia (1469-1499) produced during her short life a collection of letters and one rather fantastic Latin dialogue entitled In asinarium funus oratio, “On the Funeral of a Donkey.” In this dialogue, Cereta herself appears as an interlocutor, consoling the titular donkey’s acquaintances with a blend of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy while alluding to elements of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.

Building on the works of Diana Robin (1997), Albert Rabil (1981 and 1983) and Margaret King (1983), my paper explores the reception of Seneca, Apuleius and the traditions of Epicurus in Cereta’s dialogue. In particular, I consider how Cereta’s readings of ancient philosophical texts facilitate the creation of an authoritative female voice within a philosophical dialogue, a genre usually dominated by male voices.

My paper argues that Cereta’s Dialogue simultaneously participates in and satirizes the literary trends of the Humanist movement—dialogue, oration, eulogy, and consolation—by juxtaposing the ambiguous and sometimes humorous figure of the donkey with the conventions of these genres. As shown by Ordine (1984 and 1987), the donkey embodies the coincidentia oppositorum, the coincidence of opposites, a concept with which Cereta herself was familiar. As a female humanist and scholar she was a contradiction, earning both praise and criticism for her exceptionality.

Faced with this difficulty, Cereta constructed a dialogue in which she, as interlocutor, could participate on an equal footing with a male audience, and demonstrate that she was fluent in the genres and texts of the Humanists. The figure of the donkey and the circumstances of his funeral allow Cereta to console (and sometimes challenge) her male audience with Senecan rhetorical devices and references to the Academics, Peripatetics and Stoics, while interjecting learned commentary on such topics as the immortality of animal souls, the donkey’s role in Roman religion, literature, and culture, and its usefulness in medicine and cosmetics.

While these elements of the text assert Cereta’s erudition in several fields, the absurdity of the setting and subject matter make for an overall tone of irreverence and melodrama, allowing Cereta to poke fun at herself, her fellow interlocutors and the very genres in which she is writing. Thus, with the figure of the donkey in the background, Cereta’s authorial voice comes to embody the same coincidentia oppositorum of the donkey. She is learned yet naive, feminine yet virile, both a participant and an outsider relative to the Humanist movement.

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Neo-Latin Texts in a World Context: Current Research

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