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edited by Viviana Gravano
Old age was a privilege of trees and stones.
(Wisława Szymborska, The Short Lives of Our Ancestors)
Is growing old the same condition for everyone? Are the narratives and images constructed in Western societies over the centuries for “men” and “women” the same? This call of roots_routes magazine wants to open a reflection on the different forms of shame, resulting from stereotyping, that have arisen and persistently survive in the different imaginaries regarding male and female old age. A biological condition, such as advancing age, takes on radically different connotations for men and women, thanks to the perception and consequent representation that patriarchal society has given it. Female old age is a real stigma, often understood as a negative condition. The only commonly recognised characteristic, even in popular culture, for old age is wisdom derived from experience, which, however, does not traditionally belong to women. Women are “instinct”, emotion, not intelligence or reason, therefore, their wisdom does not progress with the experience of maturity. The primary role attributed to the feminine is procreation, which with menopause, and thus the end of fertility, is canceled, and turns women into useless “old women”.
Between March and June 2023, the National Gallery in London hosted an exhibition titled The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance, curated by Emma Capron , focused on Flemish Renaissance painter Quentin Massys’, painting The Hugly Duchesse, painted in 1513, inspired by a very similar drawing by Leonardo da Vinci from his series of Grotesque Portraits. The image depicts a rather elderly woman, wearing a gaudy, almost demonic, two-horned headdress, with an uncovered décolleté from which breasts squeezed by a bodice emerge, and a neck full of wrinkles. Her face is equally wrinkled, her eyes sunken in, the distance between her shrunken lips and nose giving her an almost ape-like appearance. The rings on her hands, as well as the precious fabrics that dress her make it clear that she is a person of high rank: an ugly Duchess. In her left hand she holds an unopened rosebud that she seems to be offering to someone. In the exhibition, the canvas was flanked by another portrait of an old man, Portrait of an Old Man, by the same author, who makes a gesture of rejection, here referring to the Duchess’ flower. The “ugly old woman” not only shows her breasts in full view and dresses fashionably in spite of her age but hands her beloved a bud that has yet to bloom, as a symbol of something yet to come, to blossom. Massys, known to be a painter that we could define with Eugenio Battisti  as anti-Renaissance, produces a realist painting so frank that it even appears grotesque, ironic, and undoubtedly merciless. This image of female old age mercilessly, but also limpidly, manifests the powerful stereotype, still more than alive, that western culture, since its origin in the Greco-Latin era, has built up on the image of the elderly woman. The first essential attribute is: ugliness.
For the man, growing old, if only minimally, has nothing to do with the loss of beauty, indeed it can even generate new charm, for the woman it is always a sign of extreme physical decay, “withering away”, a body that always disintegrates and transforms in a negative sense. In her beautiful essay De senectute , which ironically takes up Cicero’s founding essay  on the subject of the same name, philosopher Francesca Rigotti writes: «If culture puts fertility, procreation, reproduction in the foreground, then the woman who has become sterile is not a woman, she is an old woman. In Socrates’ thought, which perhaps reflected a customary practice of the ancient Greeks, the woman who has gone through the menopause, no longer able to reproduce, will help other women to do so: she will become a midwife or maia, like the philosopher’s mother, Fenarete» . Hence the only acceptable and socially relevant role for an older woman: the grandmother. Since in modern times she can no longer be the midwife, her possible task is a kind of surrogate for her having been a mother. Thus the woman, having become productively useless in a productivist, capitalist world, becomes an aid to the productivity of younger women.
Susan Sontag in her essay on old age , which addresses the radical difference between “the two sexes”, writes: «Old age is a real trial, which men and women face in a similar way. Growing old is above all a test of the imagination, a moral disease, a social pathology, which is intrinsic to the fact that it afflicts women far more than men. It is above all women who experience aging (everything that precedes actual age) with such disgust and even shame» . An important key word appears here, which is one of the guidelines of this call: shame. Sontag begins almost jokingly, quoting just before the famous story of not asking women their age after “a certain age”. A “nice” practice, which we have all come across without attaching any particular value to it, but which just happens not to apply to men. Sontag defines age as the “dirty secret” of women. «Growing old is a less deep wound for a man, because in addition to the propaganda for youth that puts men and women on the defensive when they grow old, there is a double standard about aging that denounces women with particular severity. Society is much more permissive towards the ageing of men, just as it is more tolerant towards the sexual infidelities of husbands. Men are “allowed” to grow old, without penalty, in various ways that women are not. This society also offers women fewer rewards for aging than men».
Sontag, as well as De Beauvoir in the other seminal essay on the subject L’âge de discretion (The Third Age) , bring into play another taboo that separates women and old men: an old man can have relationships, even sexual ones with women even much younger, and even “aesthetically” this is acceptable or even intriguing; an old woman with a young man arouses reprobation, contempt, even disgust, and again shame, both for her and for the boy who is immediately marked by appellations such as Gigolo or Toy Boy. Another, closely related theme is the total desexualisation of the figure of the woman in old age. Just think of the advertisements for products aimed at one or the other. A myriad of pills and the like for the sexual efficiency of elderly men, never a product advertised for vaginal dryness, which is not even mentioned as a physical problem. In the brilliant fiction Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lilly Tomlin , the two protagonists start a series of businesses that facilitate their sexual activity as women over seventy, with hilarious suggestions of toys for autoeroticism, creams and more. The fiction, which has a complex and very interesting plot, for the first time puts men’s old age in the background, and brings single women and homosexual men to the fore. This is a very interesting approach that speaks to a very wide audience, and that finally clears female sexuality in old age as a joyful thing, totally autonomous from hetero family models, and also full of desire. And Grace lives an affair with a man much younger than her, ironising in a crude and radical way, precisely on her fears as an upper-middle-class woman who, in spite of everything, continues to unintentionally impersonate on her own body the stereotypes of female old age, which she deconstructs and destroys one by one.
Female sexual desire is another element marked by shame for older women, while it remains a flag of virility for men. The elderly woman must not show sexual drive for two reasons: first, she must be aware of her aesthetic inadequacy to attract male sexual drives; second, because her primary role as a mother, which attracts and satisfies the man in order to procreate, disappears with menopause. Francesca Rigotti writes: «Basically, the paradoxical portrait of the old woman, good grandmother / pernicious witch, is an extension of the virgin / whore dichotomy that has plagued the female universe for centuries. In old age the virgin becomes a respectable, sexless grandmother, while the prostitute – since the third age is considered to be devoid of expressible sexuality – is transformed into an old maid, spinster, i.e. a member of the category that receives the most scorn. […] Most of the evil and terrifying figures in Greek mythology, including Empusa, Medusa, Scylla, Lamia, the Graeae, the Fates and the Erinyes are old maids, spinsters. […] The mythological figures mentioned above, on the other hand, are old maids who have rejected the biological role of wives and mothers, or who have been rejected as bedfellows because of their ugliness, deformity, poverty or insouciance» .
 Emma Capron, Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance, Natl Gallery Pubns Ltd, London 2023.
 Eugenio Battisti, L’antirinascimento, Feltrinelli, Milan 1962.
 Francesca Rigotti, De Senectute, Einaudi, Torino 2018.
 Cicerone, De senectute, 44 a.C.
 Francesca Rigotti, cit., kindle ed, p. 102.
 Susan Sontag, The Double Standard of Aging, in «The Saturday Review», September 23, 1972, pp. 29-38.
 Ivi, p.32
 Simone de Beauvoir, L’âge de discrétion, Gallimard, Paris 1967.
 Grace and Frankie, edited by Marta Kauffman e Howard J. Morris, Netflix 2015/2022.
 Francesca Rigotti, cit., Kindle Ed., p. 698.
CALL FOR PROPOSALS
abstract submission deadline
by 05 October 2023
publication 15 January 2024
article by 01 December 2023