10 Incredible Italian Women who made History

Mad about lists? Here is a good one for Italy lovers. 10 incredible Italian women throughout the centuries; from ancient Rome to the end of the XX century.

Let’s discover together what Catherine de’ Medici, Rita Levi Montalcini or Matilde di Canossa and others became famous for.  

This is not the story of a woman but a story that belongs to women’s history and it deserves to open this list. It was 195 b.c. when women marched – probably for the first time in history – against a law that was limiting their rights.
The Lex Oppia was a sumptuary law established in 215 b.c. in Rome, during the Second Punic War, to face the serious financial and social issues caused by the war.
This particular law – the first of a series of sumptuary laws – restricted women’s wealth, forbidding them to wear multi-colored clothes, to possess more than half a ounce of gold and to ride in an animal-drawn vehicle in the city.
In 195 b.c. Rome, after the victory over Carthage, was wealthier than ever and the patrician families of Rome got tired of following the law. Two tribunes proposed repealing the Lex Oppia, saying it was no longer needed.
The consul Cato the Elder spoke in favor of the law saying that it was promoting equality between different social classes. Nonetheless – while the debate was raging in the Senate – the matrons of Rome gathered on the Capitol hill and marched towards the Forum, blocking all the streets and asking the tribunes to support their cause and abrogate the law.
The day after they gathered, sitting in in front of the house of Marcus Junius Brutus and Publius Junius Brutus – tribunes and big supporter of the law – to protest nonstop until the law was abrogated.
The siege worked and eventually the law was finally repealed.

1 – HORTENSIA     
Daughter of the Roman orator Quintus Hortensius, Hortensia is considered probably the first female lawyer in history thanks to a famous oration she delivered in the Roman Forum in 42 B.C..
During the civil war against Brutus and Cassius (who murdered Julius Cesar) the triumvirate of Marc Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus proposed to raise money for the war by taxing the property of 1400 rich Roman women, who – being women – could not defend themselves against this decision.
Hortensia took the word in the Forum declaring that women should not pay for a war they didn’t ask for or take any part in. Women, she said would help fighting against the enemies but wouldn’t pay for the cost of the war. Her oration worked and the number of women liable to the taxes was reduced to 400 and the same taxation was extended to men.               

Powerful and determined, Matilda was one of the most important political figures of the Middle Age. Born in 1046 she was the heir of the Duke of Tuscany, Boniface III and of Beatrice of Lorraine.
She eventually got to rule a vast territory that included the present-day Tuscany, Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna.
Well educated, strong, fearless and determined, she was one of the few Medieval women to be remembered for her military accomplishment.
A natural leader in a period of constant battles she was able to change radically the course of the history. She lived also in Florence and gave a new shape and direction to the city that finally went towards the Commune.
She died quite old for the average of the time, when she was 69 y.o. and she is now buried in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome – one of only six women who have the honor of being buried there. Her Memorial Tomb was commissioned by the Pope, centuries later in the 1600’s to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the architect famous to be the creator of the Baroque in Italy.

3 – CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI (1519-1589)
Catherine de’ Medici was born in Florence in 1519; her father was Piero de’ Medici – son of Lorenzo Il Magnifico – and her mother the French countess Maddalena de la Tour d’Auvergne.
Her mother died a few days after her birth, her father passed shortly after and she was brought and raised in Rome by her grandmother Alfonsina Orsini and then by the Pope Leone X – her grand-uncle – and the Pope Clemente VII – her second cousin.   
She was a well-educated girl, maybe more educated than usual, even for a very well-off family. A Medici, indeed; a smart, tough, independent girl since she little.
She married the French prince Henry II, second son of King Francis I of France, and eventually became Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 and mother of three kings of France.
She was a powerful woman, remembered as a strong Queen but also as a memorable trend-setter. She appreciated creativity and fashion and brought many new habits to the French court:
she invented the corset and the bloomers, she brought her personal scent maker from Florence and brought the habit of using perfumes to France.
She started to use a particular kind of wedge heel shoes – higher than a pair of Louboutin –  that immediately became a huge trend. From Florence she also brought the innovation of the fork – that was practically nonexistent anywhere else – and the Florentine cooking tradition, making the basis for French cuisine with recipes like the onion soup and béchamel sauce.

4- ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI (1593-1656)                        

Daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi – an artist that was strongly influenced by the work of Caravaggio – Artemisia started painting in her father’s workshop, showing very early her talent.
She was the first woman to become a member of the Academia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence.
Her paintings are famous for the strong, brave, powerful female characters she depicted – mainly biblical or mythical heroins – and for the characteristic use of colors.
Her paintings are famous for the strong, brave, powerful female characters she depicted – mainly biblical or mythical heroins – and for the characteristic use of colors.
The women on Artemisia’s paintings are very distant from the stereotypical shy and elegant woman depicted in the artworks of the time.
Artemisia was raped when she was very young by her tutor and Orazio’s coworker Agostino Tassi. She had to suffer a very long trial against her rapist, during which she was tortured in order to prove her virginity and her innocence. Her father Orazio, after the trial, arranged a marriage between his daughter and a Florentine painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi, to save Artemisia’s social respectability.
When in Florence Artemisia blossomed as a mature artist, became a successful court painter under Cosimo II de’ Medici and established friendly relationships with artists and intellectuals like the artist Cristofano Allori and the scientist Galileo Galilei.

5- MARIA MONTESSORI (1870-1952)

Doctor, philosopher and pedagogist Maria Montessori was one of the first women to graduate in Medicine in Italy in 1896. She became assistant doctor at the psychiatric clinic of the University of Rome where she developed a new teaching method to support the education of children with mental disabilities. In 1907 she opened her first school in a poor neighborhood dedicating her work and researches to the children of working families; in that school  – called Casa dei Bambini (House of Children) – she applied her method to mentally normal children between the ages of 3 and 6. The school was a huge success and Montessori’s method – based on building a favorable environment, both physical and spiritual, to follow the childrens needs, and on specifically designed materials – became immediately famous worldwide; in less than 10 years, schools based on her method opened in more than 10 countries. The popularity of the child-centered Montessori approach never decreased and is still very popular more than a century later.

6- GRAZIA DELEDDA (1871-1936)

First Italian woman to be awarded with the Noble prize for literature (1926), she was also the second woman to win it after Selma Largerlöf. Born on the island of Sardinia, in 1871 she died in Rome in 1936. She came from a wealthy, middle-class, well educated family who taught her to read and write even before she was of school age. Nonetheless her formal education ended after the fourth grade and she was mainly a self-taught kind of intellectual. When she published her first short story – Sangue Sardo (Sardinian blood) – the plot about a love triangle involving a teenage girl was not well received by the very traditional social environment of her town but, despite that, she went on writing under a nom de plume. When she moved to Rome with her husband she found success as a writer; her books translated into many languages and adapted for the screen. Normally labelled as a representative of the verismo (realism) literary movement, Deledda was quite an original voice within her contemporaries; rooted in her native island’s stories and traditions, her writing was deeply autobiographical and focused on important concepts like love, sin, death and pain.


Born in 1909 in Turin she died in Rome in 2012. Neurobiologist, she was awarded with the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1986 for the discovery of nerve growth factor. In 1938, due to the publication of the Manifesto of Race and the subsequent introduction of laws barring Jews from academic and professional life, Rita, coming from a Jewish family, was banned from the university. She and her family fled to Florence where they could survive the holocaust, hiding under false identities. They went back to Turin only in 1945 after the end of the war. During the whole period of the war, even when hiding in Florence, she went on doing scientific experiments, setting up laboratories in her family’s apartment. She was a Senator of the Italian Republic and was still regularly attending the parliament activities the year she died. She was 103 years old.

8- MARGHERITA HACK (1922-2013)
Born in Florence in 1922, she was the first woman in Italy, to head of an Observatory. Margherita Hack, had a very long, successful life and was one of the most brilliant minds of the XX century. Astrophysicist and scientific disseminator she was a Professor at the University of Trieste for a much of her life and brought the University’s observatory to international fame.
She became an iconic personality.  Not just for her scientific talent – which was outstanding – but also for her personal choices and her nonconformist lifestyle. She was a vegetarian for her whole life – she said that she never ate meat in her life – and also wrote a book on vegetarianism that became immediately very popular. She was also a firm atheist, critical toward the Catholic Church hierarchy. Her strong Florentine – that she proudly maintained even if she lived most of her life in Trieste –  accent and very  straightforward “no-frills” way of talking became iconic too. Her most popular quote is that “we are made of star matter”.

9- TERESA “CHICCHI” MATTEI (1921-2013) Born in Genova she graduated in philosophy at the University of Florence in 1944.  She was a partisan with the nom de guerre “Chicchi”. After the war Mattei was the youngest elected to the Constituent Assembly – in which she served as a secretary bureau – and was so called “the girl of Montecitorio”.
She introduced the Italian tradition of using mimosa as a symbol for the Women’s Day. Mimosa was a flower that was growing wild almost everywhere, was inexpensive and resistant, so it was easier to find and could be within everyone’s reach, even by the many poor of the rural areas of Italy. She was a strong and determined woman since her early teenage years. She started to protest against the racial laws of Benito Mussolini when she was in high school and from that moment she never stopped. Her whole life was dedicated to the defense of the Constitution and to attempting to spread a deeply anti-fascist culture to the youngest.

10- ANNA MAGNANI (1908-1973)
Iconic actress of the Italian neorealismo, Anna Magnani was one of the greatest artists of the XX century. She was the first Italian to win an Academy Award for best actress (1955) and one of the few Italian personalities to have a dedicated star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood. Born in 1908 in Rome she paid her studies at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome by singing at night clubs. She had an incredible career and worked with the most important Italian and international film directors; she was described as “fiery” by Time Magazine, “earth mother of Italian cinema” by the critics, but for sure she was one of the most beloved Italian women of the XX century. Women loved her because they felt represented by her true face and emotions. Famous was her answer to the make-up artist who tried to camouflage her wrinkles: “Why would you do that? It took so many years to get those wrinkles!!!”.

Are you planning a trip to Florence? Take a look at our tour celebrating the amazing Women of Florence from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and beyond. We’ll walk with you unraveling their stories through the streets of the city center. We’ll meet some women of the most famous family of the city, the Medici. We’ll meet a Queen, a beautiful nun and a brave countess of the year 1000 A.D. We’ll talk about scandals, passions, loves and sacrifice. We’ll talk about what women read and how they dressed. Starting from the Middle Ages we’ll delve into and discover the lives of Renaissance of women from all walks of life. 

You also may enjoy our Artemisia Gentileschi tour with one of our world leading expert guides. 

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