Mario Equicola (†1525) on Gender Difference

Titian, Garden of Love (1518), commissioned by duke Alfonso d'Este under collaboration with Mario Equicola
Titian, Garden of Love (1518), commissioned by duke Alfonso d’Este in collaboration with Mario Equicola

Mario Equicola, the famous Renaissance poet, produced one of the comparatively few treatises on women (De Mulieribus) during the Renaissance. Equicola addresses his treatise to the Lady Margherita Cantelmo, who was one of his students and, according to Carolyn James, was being tutored by Equicola even from afar by means of his letters. After demonstrating from both scripture and authorities such as Hermes Tristmegistus and Cicero that the image of God in man is not differentiated in its essence between genders, Equicola invokes the authority of Plato and Aristotle to defend his main argument that the physiological and intellectual differences between men and women are due to poor educational custom and not nature. One traditional hermeneutic that was mined by Renaissance humanists from the texts of the Neoplatonic authors was the attempt to harmonize the apparent dichotomous philosophies of Plato and Aristotle for the sake of defending what they perceived to be the unique truth of perennial philosophical wisdom. Equicola praises both of these philosophers even though the latter wrote little to nothing on the current subject. He writes:

(English translation below)

Divinitatis a secretis semideus Plato in libris quos de republica scripsit in gymnica mulieres certamina deducere non veretur, et iactu lapidum, arcu, funda, luctatione exerceri iubet. In legibus quas ipse vehementer probavit (cum respublica voventis sit atque optantis, illae eligentis) eadem quae masculis eadem feminis exercitia tribuit, legem sanciens ut mulieres rem bellicam non negligant, gymnasticam discant, iaculandi sagiptandi exercitationes, peltasticen, quoque, et omnes armatorum dimicationes; acierum ordinationes, ductiones exercitus, castrorum positiones, et quaecumque ad equestrem pertinent disciplinam. Tales certe non tulisset leges nisi feminas – neque corporis valentia et robore, neque animae excellentia et nobilitate – viris inferiores cognovisset, et ad omnia habiles aptasque ex philosophiae penetralibus percepisset: consuetudineque feminis res forenses et bellicae, non natura, prohibitae.

Aristoteles, cum aliqua iisdem in legisbus et republica non probet, illam de mulieribus sanctionem praeterit, quod homo ingeniosissimus mortalium et gloriae ante alios cupidissimus non utique omisisset nisi sic esse habuisset optime exploratum: naturale enim cognorat, quod maxime natura fieri patitur.

~ Mario Equicola, De Mulieribus Delle Donne, edited by Giuseppe Lucchesini and Pina Totaro, (Rome: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 2004), p. 34.


Plato (the semi-divine) writes in the Republic, by means of a secret divinity, that women are not afraid to launch a competition and he decrees that they are to be trained in throwing stones, in the bow, the sling, and in wrestling. In laws that he has vehemently proven (since the republic is characterized by laws voted on, wished for, and elected) Plato assigns the same rule for the training of both men and women, a rule sanctioning that women not neglect the military art, that they learn gymnastics, and [receive] training in throwing and shooting arrows (also with the pelta), and all the arts of combat: the arrangement of a battle line, the leading of an army, the positioning of encampments and everything that pertains to the equestrian discipline. He would have certainly not proposed such laws if he thought that women are inferior to men (either in power and strength of body or in the excellence or nobility of their souls), and he perceived (from the inner shrine of philosophy) that [women] are capable and well-suited for every activity and that courtly and military duties are prohibited for women because of custom and not because of nature.

Since Aristotle did not approve of some of Plato’s [arguments] in the Laws and the Republic, he did not make mention of any law concerning women. This man – who was the most talented of mortals and was more desirous of glory than others – would certainly not have omitted [this topic] unless he would have held that [Plato’s conclusions] were most optimally investigated, for he naturally recognized what the highest nature brings into being.

The hermeneutic employed here implies that if Aristotle omitted anything that Plato treated then the latter must have agreed (though Equicola allows for some non-essential disagreement) with his teacher. Yet, a more idealistic or Platonic account of gender difference would seem to work against Equicola’s argument that women are capable of education in the liberal arts despite their gender difference.

Later in his argument Equicola appears to depend more on Aristotle when he argues that the human mind is a tabula rasa and that women have no innate weakness or daftness but may perform well in all of the so-called “masculine” arts with the proper education. He argues, “It was rightly said that custom is a second nature [alteram naturam] – as neither conditions nor habits, vices nor virtues come into being by fortune or fate but by choice and practice [arbitrio et exercitatione] – since we are as a blank canvas [tabula rasa] on which anything can be painted.” As many Renaissance humanists, however, Equicola appears to see no essential difference Platonic and Aristotelian epistemology; he affirms, “Nature has given us an imperfect intellect but which is capable of being perfected. It has also given us the seeds of all the arts and the little sparks of the virtues [virtutum scintillas], but so great is the corruption of bad customs and of such great force that these little flames of the virtues [virtutum igniculi] are extinguished and vices spring forth and are strengthened [in their place].” For Equicola, one’s natural capacities for acquiring the various virtues are innate “little sparks” that are either strengthened or doused by education. Using these principles Equicola is able to argue that the two genders are not different in essence but, nevertheless, have certain bodily differences for the sake of procreation.