Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Marianna Alcoforado

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Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Heritage Floor; detail), 1974–79. Porcelain with rainbow and gold luster, 48 x 48 x 48 ft. (14.6 x 14.6 x 14.6 m). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography

Marianna Alcoforado
b. 1640, Beja, Portugal; d. 1723, Beja, Portugal

An epistolary document known as the Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1669) was once universally ascribed to a woman named Mariana Alcoforado. It is now generally thought that Alcoforado is a fictional creation and that the Letters were actually written by Gabriel-Joseph de Guilleragues (1628–1685), a Parisian lawyer, litterateur, and diplomat. The first edition of the letters appeared in French in 1669, published anonymously and ostensibly translated from the Portuguese. The writer describes herself as a Portuguese nun and calls herself Mariane; the addressee is a French soldier who had seduced and abandoned her. Almost immediately after publication, Guilleragues was identified as the translator. In 1810, a scholar named Boissonade claimed to have discovered a note identifying the author as a nun named Mariana Alcoforada; archival research turned up an actual nun named Maria Ana Alcoforada who in 1656, at the age of sixteen, had entered the Convent of the Conception in Beja, Portugal, become abbess in 1709, and died in 1723. The letters were subsequently translated into Portuguese and entered the canon of Portuguese literature. In the 1920s, however, scholars began to notice discrepancies between the epistolary Mariane and her real-life counterpart. The case was revisited in 1962 by two scholars who presented compelling evidence of Guilleragues' authorship. But the case is by no means closed and continues to generate intense debate.

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