I have often wondered to what extent the distinctively male 'cult of the Italian mamma' is linked both to early literature and to existing traces of Marian devotion, still surviving in figurines of the Madonna which peep out from shallow recesses above the doorposts of many country houses from Sicily to Piedmont. Assisting in the launch of the Italian Rinascimento, Alighieri's donna amata was hailed by her literary creator through a dubious idiom fostering a social constructionism potentially deterministic for gender roles - or so critics might charge.

No less up for grabs is how much progressive development of Catholic Mariology - or the theology of Mary - was shaped by the angel woman of Guinizzelli (c. 1230-1276) as precursor to what would become an enduring muse of female intangibility, going on to significantly influence Dante's celebrated expression of the Stil novo poetic style as well as his exalted representation of Beatrice, whom we meet for the first time in Vita nova.

Colourfully represented in the Sistine Chapel, that crowded pantheon of Italy's Cinquecento seems to meet with mixed reaction even today.

Here I am reminded of a trip to the French Pyrénées in 2005, during which I purchased a plastic statuette of Our Lady of Lourdes. Upon my return I offered the kitch thing to a devout co-confessionalist in keepsake: an agreeable though decidedly contradicted Calabrian who frequently took vociferous pride in his courtship of innumerable 'amiche donne', greying pate notwithstanding (and married for all that).

Months on he protested how the gift soon came to represent his long-expected femme fatale, complaining that, evidently charged with some luminous substance which glowed in the dark, 'she' had kept him awake at nights by peering imperiously down at him from her perch upon a bookshelf above his bed. Apparently she even had the unsettling habit of assuming a 'ghostly, androgynous aspect'.

My friend went on to lament how the statue gave off a blend of colours during the wee hours of the morning from which his mind would unfailingly start to fashion fantastic forms.

He suspected these of then regrouping into some dread encounter with the forbidding archangel Michael himself, stern and exacting, whom he believed to be hovering at his bedside, ever at the ready for that portended moment at which his philandering soul would be wrenched from life only to be dragged off screaming to the Divine presence and from thence to an afeared, deserving judgement.

I later discovered that my compatriot's personal biography was signed by the convoluted legacy of his late mother: a 'strong character of deep faith' who had taught him from his infancy how, matched with an unstimulating husband, finally it was the Virgin Mary alone who had in fact 'had the balls' to efficiently direct the day-to-day domestic affairs of the holy family.

Her story too was marked by having raised three children singlehandedly, so taking on the titanic role of both parents.

In sum, by pitching the image of our female protagonists as subserviently at the helm of driving so many countless motifs and dénoumonts from faith, art and literature, often it has been from the pen of male writers or by the brush or chisel of their co-conspirators that some unwary woman has been opportunistically recruited to enchant another's magnum opus. Thus has she been kept either sufficiently celestial (and so conveniently 'out there'), or else hard enough at her chores to render even the cumbersome burden of macho Atlas but a paltry feather's weight.
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