Argiro' on Filippini, 'Generare, Partorire, Nascere: Una Storia Dall’Antichità Alla Provetta'

Nadia Maria Filippini
Anna Argiro'

Nadia Maria Filippini. Generare, Partorire, Nascere: Una Storia Dall’Antichità Alla Provetta. Rome: Viella, 2017. 349 pp. Ill. EUR 29.00 (paper), ISBN 978-88-6728-673-7.

Reviewed by Anna Argiro' (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Italy (April, 2020) Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Naples "L'Orientale")

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In the 2017 book Generare, partorire, nascere, historian Nadia Maria Filippini reconstructs the history of maternity in the Western world, focusing on Europe. The work covers an ambitious time frame—from the ancient world to the present—and delves into key fundamental shifts in practices related to procreation from Hippocratic-Aristotelian medicine to nineteenth- and twentieth-century medical thought. This text also sheds significant light on the impact of both Christianity and political power on cultural representations of motherhood and birth. Filippini’s account is structured around the three steps of procreation: conception, delivery, and birth. The author outlines distinctions as well as connections among these three stages that enrich her reading of each phase, and draws from a diverse and vast array of sources that range from legislative, medical, social, iconographic, and folkloric texts to women’s writings and oral testimonies. This interdisciplinary approach allows the reader to “grasp the complexity of the present from its historical reconstruction” (p. 309). 

In building her analysis, Filippini’s perspective is informed by a feminist approach. The author in fact underlines how maternity has essentially shaped the Western idea(l) of femininity and womanhood. As Filippini puts it, “for centuries being a woman coincided with being a mother; motherhood was an expression of sexual identity” (p. 9). Following this theoretical approach, one intent of the book is to bring back the discourse on maternity to women’s own voice, to their power, experience, and reflection. Generare, partorire, nascere thus traces the historical, theoretical, and political emancipation of motherhood from a mainly external—social, juridical, and, most of all, male—discourse and control on it.

The first section explores ancient conceptions of the process of generation. Filippini aims at demonstrating the complex relationship between maternity and femininity by engaging with a historical analysis of their early cultural representations. One significant example is the gendered construction of reproductive roles as elaborated in ancient Greece (fifth century). As Filippini points out, male and female contributions to reproduction were framed as having a dichotomous and hierarchical distinction, with the former constituting the positive and active pole and the latter the negative and passive one. The author demonstrates how in several myths and philosophies of the ancient world, women’s role and, in particular, women’s bodies were substantially reduced to a mere containing or heating function. Aristotle also had a similar perspective, conceiving the female body as the inert matter in which the male seed acted, true protagonist and initiator/principle of the generative process (arché tes genéseos). Taking a different approach was Plato, who in Diotima’s famous speech on Love in Symposium described a dichotomous interpretation based on a mirror relationship of two kinds of pregnancy and procreation: physical, proper of the women, and spiritual, proper of the men.[1] The former ensured immortality to the individual through the generation of children; the latter gave life to a spiritual and per se immortal offspring—laws, verses, thoughts—by way of beauty.[2]  

After completing this analysis, Filippini aptly demonstrates how these early conceptions of maternity and generation persist, in different configurations, throughout history. For example, Christianity grasped onto the distinction between physical and spiritual (meaning freed from any bodily traits) pregnancy. The former was characterized by pain, dirt, and blood, and was symbolically linked to the atonement of Eve’s sin; the latter was theologically constructed as Mary’s virginal and divine maternity. If, on the one hand, in the Christian world birth acquired a fundamental symbolic relevance (as Jesus’ dies natalis), a meaning absent in the Greco-Roman period, childbirth, on the other hand, “bec[a]me the object of a real symbolic removal” (p. 42). This symbolic removal led over time to an ostracization of pregnancy and delivery from the public sphere and, subsequently, from historical analysis. The concept of birth, on the other hand—clean, theoretical, and otherworldly—remained available for public consideration. With this rejection of the physical aspects of birth in mind, Filippini meticulously investigates the symbolic value of purification rituals in the Greco-Roman world, as well as of baptism in Christianity. In the separation between the first—material, intimate, and maternal—birth, and that “second birth” that constitutes the appearance and the entrance of the newborn into a family, community, or society, she identifies the obscuration of childbirth and the promotion of paternal authority. With this insight, Filippini’s text constitutes not only a reconstruction, but first and foremost a revelation, or a disclosure, of the history of maternity.

Filippini next turns her focus to the Renaissance and early modern period. She describes mothers as having a privileged relationship with their fetuses, “thanks to her ability to hear what was happening inside her body” (p. 57). This relationship between mother and fetus and the conception of the fetus itself will come to constitute a central theme in the text. During the Renaissance, this bond was mainly understood as the capacity of the mother to influence the growth of the fetus, so that every complication was attributable to her fault. According to the so-called theory of imagination, both the gaze and the emotions of the mother supposedly had a performative power on the fetus. Conversely, the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century and, in particular, the birth of modern embryology in the late eighteenth century, reinforced the role of the mother in the process of fertilization, but reduced her strength and influence during pregnancy, stressing rather the fetus’s autonomy. However, by postulating a separation between mother and fetus, the mother lost her privileged perspective and capacity to “hear” what was happening inside her womb. The fetus was imagined simply as a being enclosed within her body, as in a box. Furthermore, surgeon-obstetricians began to slowly replace midwives (to whom Filippini dedicates a specific and detailed analysis), taking on the role of officially informing women of their pregnancy status. Within this shift, Filippini underlines the passage from what we may call an auditory and tactile approach to pregnancy and delivery to the primacy of the sight—a development that reaches its peak with the twentieth-century invention of the ultrasound. 

From the eighteenth century on, a detached and artificial approach to the generative process started to emerge, one that would continue to develop throughout the twentieth century. As appropriately described by Filippini, due to the institution of the surgeon-obstetrician, the birth of maternity wards, and the spreading of obstetric schools, humankind faced the hospitalization and medicalization of delivery. Childbirth was reduced to a mere routine operation and became the object of medical studies. However, during this period, the birth of new human beings (intended as new citizens) also reached a crucial political importance. This was due to new Enlightenment ideas of the state as a “social body” (p. 181). According to this perspective, birth was seen as the social body’s renewal, and thus became an object of public and political interest. Filippini masterfully emphasizes how this new attention to birth revealed and went hand in hand with a reconfiguration of political power that shifted from the sphere of death—or the power to give death—to that of life and its control. According to the famous definition of Michel Foucault, political power started to be understood as a biopower over bodies and lives.[3] In this context, the fetus was conceived as an “unborn citizen” (p. 240). The fetus became the bearer of fundamental human capital and so the subject of special care and protection. During the twentieth century, the radicalization of this trend evolved to include qualitative control over births and the spread of eugenics. In other words, politics managed to gain control of the reproductive fate of the individual—and his or her mother.

The state was not the only political organ concerned with control over human reproduction, however. At the end of the nineteenth century, the church (the Catholic Church in particular) promoted a similar protective approach to “nascent life” that “with a subtle semantic shift, became the ‘defense of life’ par excellence” (p. 250).[4] This defensive approach led to a radical condemnation of abortion, signaling the culmination of the profound break from the Greco-Roman worldview and turn towards the Judeo-Christian worldview that had begun centuries before. Accepted as contraceptive practice before the fourth century, with the advent of Christianity abortion started to be morally condemned as infanticide. Indeed, from the thirteenth century onwards, it was considered a crime in Europe. In the early 1500s, the debate on the “fetus’s animation” and the intensification of control over women’s sex lives also led to preventive action on abortion (p. 80). Filippini argues in fact that “very few considered the idea of a woman’s freedom to choose, recognizing her as the subject of a decision regarding her own existence: she always remained the object of conflicting discourses and powers” (p. 248). The question of who was entitled to make decisions regarding pregnancy unfolded specifically in the deontological debate on the priority of the life of the mother or the child that, during the nineteenth century, anticipated some of today’s current bioethical issues.

The 1970s Italian feminist movements radically challenged the idea that women had no role to play in decisions regarding pregnancy. Shifting from the emancipationist approach of the late nineteenth century to a claim of self-determination, these movements demanded freedom of choice for every woman with respect to both sexuality and maternity. From this moment on, maternity became a (woman’s) choice and the object of feminist thought. This shift and subsequent laws, such as law 194, passed in Italy in 1978, “signaled a crucial step in women’s history, a sort of habeas corpus that grounded female citizenship on the principle of self-determination regarding one’s own body” (p. 284). After the subsequent development of cryopreservation techniques and the spreading of assisted reproductive practices, maternity became not only a choice, but a right. In conducting her analysis of these developments, Filippini draws upon multidisciplinary studies and emphasizes how this revolution raised a series of challenging bioethical issues that prompted the constitution of national bioethics committees in several European countries. The capacity to carry out fertilization outside the maternal body—in vitro—also produced radical changes in understanding maternity, birth, sex roles, and family. Building upon texts such as Maria Luisa Boccia and Grazia Zuffa’s L’eclissi della madre. Fecondazione artificiale, tecniche, fantasie e norme (1998), the author talks about a “deflagration,” or a decomposition of maternity, that starts to be, symbolically and, to some extent, practically, released from the maternal body (p. 302). On the one hand, some feminists have welcomed this separation as an important achievement for women, an enfranchisement from a mere natural reproductive function. On the other hand, many intellectuals see this phenomenon as another (male) attempt to appropriate women's procreative capacity.[5] Filippini concludes by comparing this last controversial point to the Platonic dialogue mentioned in the book’s first pages. Thanks to the technological achievements of the twentieth century, “the aspiration to individual survival is no longer linked only to real filiation, as Plato maintained, but already realized in nuce through ‘possible’ filiation, in the cryopreservation of the seed/oocyte that contains the individual’s genetic heritage” (p. 303). Filippini’s Generare, partorire, nascere is a journey through the history of maternity in Europe. The complexity of both the topic and the experience of maternity is thoroughly investigated through a meticulous historical reconstruction of its practices and cultural representations. The result is a deep and broad analysis that sheds light on the arduous path that women have pursued across the ages to give not only to other women, but to all people, the possibility to exercise a fundamental right—the right to a free and conscious maternity.   


[1]. Platone, Simposio, in Opere complete, vol. 3 (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 1971). 

[2]. Here Filippini draws specifically upon Francesca Rigotti, Partorire con il corpo e con la mente: Creatività, filosofia, maternità (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2010); and Adriana Cavarero Nonostante Platone: Figure femminili nella filosofia antica (Verona: Ombre Corte, 1990). 

[3]. Michel Foucault, Nascita della clinica: Una archeologia dello sguardo medico, ed. Alessandro Fontana (Turin: Einaudi, 1998). 

[4]. Filippini draws upon Barbara Duden, Il corpo della donna come luogo pubblico: Sugli abusi del concetto di vita, trans. Gina Maneri (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1994). 

[5]. With respect to the first position, Filippini mentions for example Donna Haraway, Manifesto Cyborg: Donne, tecnologie e biopolitiche del corpo, ed. Liana Borghi (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1995). For the second belief, she refers to Luisa Muraro, L’anima del corpo: Contro l’utero in affitto (Brescia: La Scuola, 2016). 


Citation: Anna Argiro'. Review of Filippini, Nadia Maria, Generare, Partorire, Nascere: Una Storia Dall’Antichità Alla Provetta. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL:

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