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Mario D'Alessandro
279
WOMEN POETS OF THE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE.
COURTLY LADIES AND COURTESANS
Edited by Laura Anna Stortoni
Translated by Laura Anna Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lillie
New York: Italica Press, 1997. 267 pp.
I
n her well-known essay "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" (in Women,
History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly, Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1984, pp. 19-50), Joan Kelly concludes that "there was no
renaissance for women". Thankfully, Laura Anna Stortoni, the editor of
Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance, disagrees with this view, and her
anthology of 19 Renaissance women poets is itself meant as a response to
Kelly's argument. Although Stortoni and her collaborator, Mary Prentice
Lillie, "agree that social restrictions on Italian women in the Renaissance
were considerable", they nevertheless point out that "the abundance of Italian
women who wrote and published poetry in the Renaissance is staggering, and
was not considered by Kelly, who appears to have known only Vittoria
Colonna" (XXVI-XXVII, n. 3). Their most convincing argument against
Kelly's thesis comes in an endnote in which they offer an impressive list of
over 130 Italian women poets from the sixteenth century alone.
The 19 women poets anthologized are the following: Lucrezia Tornabuoni
de' Medici (1425-1482), Antonia Giannotti Pulci (1452-?), Camilla
Scarampa (15th century), Barbara Bentiviglio Strozzi Torrelli (c.1475-1533),
Veronica Gàmbara (1485-1550), Aurelia Petrucci (1511-1542), Leonora
Ravira Falletti (16th century), Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547), Olimpia
Malpieri (?-1559?), Tullia d'Aragona (c. 1510-1556), Chiara Matraini (15151604?), Laura Bacio Terracina (1519-C.1577), Isabella di Morra (1520-1546),
Lucia Bertani Dell'Oro (1521-1567), Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554), Laura
Battiferri Ammannati (1523-1589), Veronica Franco (1546-1591), Moderata
Fonte (1555-1592), Isabella Andreini (1562-1604).
Stortoni's introduction provides a useful concise history of women's
literature within the cultural context of the Renaissance. Although writers
such as Compiuta Donzella and St. Catherine of Siena had achieved literary
success in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the number of women
writers increased greatly in the following two centuries. Two significant
factors contributed to this tremendous flowering. The first is the rise of
humanism. Many women of high social status -Isabella D'Este, Giulia
Gonzaga, Veronica Gàmbara, Vittoria Colonna (XIV-XV)- enjoyed the same
humanistic education as men, and this very often permitted them to govern
states, either directly or in the absence of their husbands. More significantly,
however, the studia humanitatis "lent [women] faith in their own capacity for
literature and poetic endeavors" (XII), and many women, learned in the
Mario D'Alessandro
280
Classical languages, began writing prose and poetry in Latin. Among these
are: Battista Malatesta (1348-c. 1458), Laura Cereta (1469-1499), Ginevra
Nogarola (1419-1465), her sister Isotta Nogarola (1418-1466), Cassandra
Fedele (c. 1465-1558) (XIII).
A second contributing factor is the rise of print and the wide diffusion of
books (XV). Translations of Greek and Latin works became readily available
and made classical culture easily accessible to all. The rise of print,
moreover, also inspired the great number of women writing in the sixteenth
century to publish their works. Stortoni cites Rinaldina Russell's claim that
between 1539 and 1560 women authored 56 editions of books (XV-XVI),
and in 1559 Ludovico Domenichi published his first anthology of poetry
written exclusively by women: Rime diverse d'alcune nobilissime et
virtuosissime donne.
The mid-sixteenth century also saw the rise of middle and upper middle
class women writers such as Chiara Matraini, Laura Terracina, Laura
Battiferri Ammannati, Lucia Bertani Dell'Oro, Isabella Andreini (XVIII).
Highly educated and brilliant upper class courtesans, or cortegiane honorate,
also began to emerge as significant literary figures. These were very often the
daughters of courtesans or the "brilliant and beautiful daughters of
impoverished families, who were unable to aspire legally to any
improvement in social class" (XIX). Writers and poets such as Tullia
D'Aragona, Gaspara Stampa, Veronica Franco and Isabella Andreini belong
to this class.
Stortoni and Lillie do not include translations of any Latin works, and they
devote little space to fifteenth century writers. They do include Barbara
Torrelli's sonnet "spenta è d'Amor la face", considered by many to be the
finest poem ever written in Italian (18), and the bulk of the anthology is
devoted to the greatest and best known writers from the sixteenth century.
These include Veronica Gàmbara and Vittoria Colonna, along with Gaspara
Stampa, considered by Stortoni as possibly the greatest Italian woman poet of
all time. The outspoken Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco, who had
rejected "Petrarchism...[and] wrote in terza rima or in prose" (170), also
receives considerable attention, as do Tullia d'Aragona, Chiara Matraini and
Isabella di Morra. The last author covered is Isabella Andreini, the most
famous dramatic actress of her time and perhaps the most versatile of the
writers included in this anthology (she wrote not only rime, but also plays,
letters, dialogues).
Each poet is introduced by a highly informative biography that is a stimulus
to further study. Along with a general bibliography, the editor also provides
essential bibliographies for each author.
In their excellent translations of the poems, Stortoni and Prentice Lillie
attempt to strike a balance between adherence to the "literal sense of the
Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance
281
original" and the desire "to create a composition that would read as a poem in
the English version" (XXXI). They eschew straight prose translation and
strive as much as possible to preserve "the formal metrics of the original
Italian texts" (XXXI). In order to avoid any distortion of sense, however,
they do not keep the end-rhyme patterns of the original poems. As they had
hoped, Stortoni and Prentice Lillie succeed effectively in making their
translations " a s transparent and fluent as possible" (XXXI), and the English
versions work successfully as "arrows" pointing the reader back in the
"direction of the original text" (XXXII).
On several occasions the editor promises the reader letters written by the
women authors, in particular Veronica Gàmbara's letter to Ludovico Rosso
in which she discusses her desire to live a simpler life, and Lucrezia
Tornabuoni's letter to her husband describing the virtues of a prospective
bride, Clarice Orsini. She also omits a brief piece from Tullia d'Aragona's
Dialogue on the Infinity of Love. Her failure to include these prose excerpts is
an unfortunate oversight. Perhaps this omission will encourage her to
produce an anthology devoted exclusively to the prose writings of
Renaissance women. By employing the same excellence and devotion
demonstrated here, I am certain that Stortoni would give us a work just as
valuable as Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance.
MARIO D'ALESSANDRO
University of Toronto,