THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of 311 poems set in Italy between 1548 and 1553; published in Italian (as Rime di Madonna Gaspara Stampa) in 1554, in English in 1994.
From the viewpoint of a woman, the poems depict love as a phenomenon fraught with contradictions.
A long with Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Franco, and Veronica Gambara, Gaspara Stampa is considered one of the most important female poets of the Italian Renaissance. Only fragments of Stampa’s life have been sufficiently documented. She was born in the northern Italian city of Padua around 1523. The daughter of an impoverished Milanese family’s, Stampa was educated in the fine arts in the Re-public of Venice. Becoming a skilled musician and cantatrice (“singer”), she performed regularly in the fashionable salons of the Venetian aristocracy. Venice at the time was famous for its love of luxury and pleasure, and Stampa quickly gained a reputation as a virtuosa (fifteenth- or sixteenth-century woman skilled in fine arts, especially the performance of music in salons). In 1548 Stampa fell in love with a Venetian count and began to document the turbulent “love story” in poetic form. Their different social standings doomed the relationship from the start, filling Stampa with despair. The result was poetry that elevates unrequited love to a new literary plane by redirecting the focus from the “beloved” to the complex female lover-poet. Stampa turns the spotlight on her emotional self, conveying the torments of frustration through some of the most musical poetry in Italian literature. Daring for her time, her work is highly intimate and awash with sexual innuendo. There is debate today as to whether or not she was an “honest courtesan”—that is, a woman adept at an array of fluctuating roles, from artist to entertainer, conversationalist, and, to a degree, prostitute. Her rise to acclaimed writer is a “Cinderella story” that has become the subject of poems, plays, short stories, and novels. At the heart of all the scrutiny lies Stampa’s verse. Her only literary work, Rime is a collection of 311 poems. Together they form the largest, most varied canzoniere (poetic song book) in Italian literature, one that broke new ground by offering a female perspective on love in a male-dominated universe.
Venice in the sixteenth century
In the sixteenth century, Italy was home to five major cities that had grown into larger states—Milan, Florence, Venice, Naples, and the residence of the popes, Rome. None of them became strong enough to conquer and unify the entire peninsula. In contrast to France, Spain, and England, where different political and geopolitical circumstances made unifying monarchies possible in the sixteenth century, Italy would not form a unified nation for another 300 years. To settle territorial disputes and gain political hegemony, the states of Italy often asked powerful nations to intervene. Leagues were formed, treaties signed and broken, and alliances bought and sold. The major European powers gladly interfered, angling to expand their degree of direct rule over the peninsula. Through the turmoil of the century, Venice survived as an independent republic, but its fortunes had by then started to wane.
The Italian Renaissance
The Renaissance—a philosophical, literary, and artistic revI olution inspired by the rediscovery of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures—spread from Italy across Europe during the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, in the process, the movement revolutionized the world view of an elite minority—the artists and intellectuals of European society. In an age dominated by the Church and the nobility, these artists and intellectuals began looking to classical texts (by Plato and others) as guides to living a fulfilled human life. Their enterprise is associated with the philosophical movement known as humanism, which promoted the idea that truth could be discovered by human effort. The Renaissance thinkers went so far as to reposition man as the driving force in society, discerning a unique capacity in every human being. In keeping with this view, the notion of selfexpression gained momentum, changing the artists’ and intellectuals’ outlook on life.
Venice amassed an empire of its own in the early 1000sc.e. At its zenith, around 1400, this empire included an impressive range of territories. Along with large parts of northern Italy (Treviso, Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, and Bergamo), the Venetians controlled Friuli, the Istrian Peninsula and the Dalmatian coast, the Cyclades and Sporades islands, the shores of Thessaly, the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and the islands of Crete and Cyprus. This empire gave the Venetians trading posts in the Adriatic (Gulf of Venice), Mediterranean, and Aegean seas, which made it possible for the Republic to monopolize trade routes from Europe to Asia Minor. During these golden years, Venice was the busiest trading center in Europe and one of the most prosperous metropolitan areas in the known world. The Venetian government invested large amounts of its imperial income in the creation of magnificent monuments that testified to its economic and political success. At the government’s behest, some of the most renowned artists of the period participated in the design, construction, and ornamentation of a host of luxurious public buildings and churches. In time, Venice itself became one of the first “tourist destinations.” People throughout the Christian world admired the Republic’s art.
By the early 1500s, however, the empire had already begun to decline. Two issues dominated Venice’s political history for most of the century. In the West, the Venetians engaged in an ever-shifting alliance with rival European powers bent on consolidating the bitterly divided regions of Italy for their own gain so one rival or another could rule the entire area; in the East, the rapid rise of the powerful Ottoman Empire ultimately ended Venice’s longstanding hegemony in the Mediterranean Sea. Harbor by harbor, island by island, the Venetian Empire lost its Eastern possessions to the expanding Ottomans, and age-old shipping routes turned dangerous and unreliable. In 1497–98, in a search to reach India by way of the Atlantic Ocean, the Portuguese discovered the Cape of Good Hope and a route around it to India. Thereafter, the Atlantic Ocean joined the Mediterranean Sea as a possible waterway for India-bound vessels, and the Venetian merchants began to lose their monopoly on trade with the East.
Meanwhile, Venice’s political problems spun out of control in the West. Its presumptuous foreign policy so alienated the major European powers that they united in a military alliance against Venice. The alliance, called the League of Cambrai, clashed with the Venetian army in 1509, outside the village of Agnadello. The League dealt the Venetians such a decisive blow that it forced the Republic to sue for peace. In the ensuing negotiations, the victors mercilessly divided the Republic’s colonies among themselves. The setback was temporary, though, for the League of Cambrai soon dissolved, and Venice gained new territory that mostly made up for its losses. Although the empire would never fully recover, it remained an important military power in the early 1500s and managed, through all the turmoil, to sustain a vibrant, often extravagant cultural life.
Culture in sixteenth-century Venice
In the early 1500s, the Republic of Venice became—and remained for the rest of the century—the undisputed intellectual center among the Italian city-states. During those years, more books were published in Venice than in Milan, Rome, and Naples combined. Through the rapid spread of the newly invented printing press (c. 1450), both reading and writing became more accessible to the general public. Books were no longer the privilege of the ruling elite. With the help of mass production, their cost dropped and the middle classes began buying them. Venice became the publishing hub of all Europe, exporting books as far as northern Germany and Flanders. The first publications were mostly reproductions of existing literature, generally the Greek and Roman classics. By the turn of the 1500s, however, publishers were asking writers to edit or translate books and even to write them, which gave rise to a new form of patronage in Italy.
Among the arts in general, the sixteenth century marked the height of Venice’s artistic grandeur. Architects like Jacopo Sansovino, Mauro Coducci, Andrea Palladio, and the Lombardo family’s defined Venice’s lavish skyline. The Venetian school of painting (Vittore Carpaccio, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Giorgione, Tintoretto, and Paolo Veronese) rose to European supremacy, challenged only by Florence’s Michelangelo Buonarroti. In literature, the satirist Pietro Aretino, the “scourge of princes,” settled and worked in Venice, along with Sperone Speroni, Benedetto Varchi, and Giuseppe Betussi. Venice became the envy of all Europe for its relatively liberal atmosphere. Though still solidly Catholic, it offered greater intellectual freedom than any other eminent Italian state and was one of the few places that tolerated religious differences. Historians speak of sixteenth-century Venice as notably in-different to the stricter moral prescriptions of Christianity. Art and sensuality were closely linked in the city of Venice. Upper-class Venetians avidly pursued sexual pleasures, the most refined among them seeking an ambience that fused sexuality and art. It seems to have been the demand for this sensual blend that led to a new phenomenon in Venetian artistic circles: the “honest” courtesan.
The honest courtesan
Scholars tend to divide courtesans in the Renaissance into two major types. The cortigiane di lume o candela, or “lower-class courtesans,” worked and lived in a brothel and were forced into prostitution out of economic necessity. The cortigiana onesta, the “honest” or “honored” courtesan, developed physical as well as social and intellectual attributes that elevated her above the ordinary prostitute. Typically coming from a middle-class background, the cortigiana onesta was endowed with exceptional beauty, elegance, and grace. She did not bestow sexual favors on an hourly basis. Her clientele was strictly from the privileged classes, including nobles, artists, and intellectuals, and she normally offered her services to one individual for the duration of their “relationship.” Typically she was an active member of the social circuit frequented by high society; often she was celebrated and popular—at least with men. The honest courtesan established a presence mainly in Rome and Venice, often commanding the respect of cardinals and kings as well as the native nobility. In Venice, she remained part of the social scene for more than a century (from about 1500 to the early 1600s), starting to lose her allure as a society figure by about the 1550s. Some of the honest courtesans were talented singers and musicians who held their own salons, where guests were entertained and became involved in subtle philosophical disputes. The honest courtesans were multitalented: they corresponded with contemporary male writers, artists, and intellectuals; participated in the ongoing literary debates; contributed to anthologies; and published their own poetry. In the highly competitive and male-dominated literary circles, these courtesans introduced a female point of view, “refashion [ing] literary conventions to serve the concerns of women who had been silenced by male authority” (Rosenthal, p. 56). It was in such an atmosphere that Gaspara Stampa conceived her remarkable verse, inspired by the main love affair of her life with the Italian nobleman Count Collaltino di Collalto.
The life of Gaspara Stampa
Gaspara’s father, Bartolomeo Stampa, was an impoverished jewel merchant in Padua. He educated his son and two daughters at home. The three of them—Gaspara, Cassandra, and Baldassare—studied Greek, Latin, rhetoric, music, and literature. In 1531, when Gaspara’s father died, her mother, Cecilia, decided to relocate to her native Venice. The children continued their studies, taking private lessons from Fortunio Spira, a renowned grammarian, who was friends with some of the most celebrated literati of the day. The two girls were also instructed by the famous French musician Perissone Cambio, who trained them in lute and in voice. From 1535 to 1540, the house of Cecilia Stampa served as a salon, or literary and musical center for young nobles, intellectuals, poets, and musicians, such as Francesco Sansovino, poet, editor, and close friend of Gaspara’s brother, Baldassare. Other patrons of the salon included the poet Lodovico Domenichi (who wrote rime petrarchesche —Petrarchan verse), the poet and organist Girolamo Parabosco, the physician Ortensio Lando, and the scholars Sperone Speroni and Benedetto Varchi. The two Stampa sisters entertained the company with impressive musical performances of, among other works, the poems of Francesco Petrarch, which they sang while accompanying themselves on the lute (see Petrarch’s Canzoniere , also in WIAIT 7: Italian Literature and Its Times). Gaspara’s teacher, Cambio, a celebrated singer himself, called her a “heavenly siren,” remarking that “No lady in the world loves music more than she, and none has a rarer degree of mastery over it” (Cambio in Stampa, Selected Poems, p. xiii). Parabosco, the organist, agreed: “What can I say about the angelic voice, which creates such sweet harmony whenever it strikes the air with its divine sounds … save that it infuses spirit and life into the coldest stones, making them weep from overpowering sweetness?” (Parabosco in Bassanese, p. 4).
Although not a noblewoman, Gaspara was admitted into the most renowned salons of Venetian high society. The salon of Domenico Venier, a Venetian aristocrat who suffered from paralysis, was the preferred gathering place for many of Venice’s literati at the time. Interested greatly in poetry, they took a keen interest in the poetry of Petrarch, especially in the imitation of his verse as viewed by the century’s leading literary expert, Pietro Bembo. It was in the Venier salon, at age 26, that Stampa met Count Collaltino di Collalto.
The Collaltos were a wealthy family’s, who traced their heritage back to an illustrious set of medieval ancestors, the Langobardi. It is in keeping with this heritage that the Collaltos settled on three estates near Treviso. Stampa emphasizes Collaltino’s lofty social rank in many of her poems. She calls him by his title, “Count,” and trans-figures him metaphorically into a “high hill” that she, as a woman from an inferior class, must conquer. Even if he had wanted (which is doubtful, since he seemed more interested in the thrills of war than the melodrama of love), the Count would almost certainly not have married Gaspara Stampa. She was already past marriageable age, her dowry did not amount to enough to attract a landed aristocrat, and her participation in literary salons gave her a dubious reputation. Moreover, marriages in sixteenth-century Venice were a practical matter. People usually entered into them on the basis of political, economic, and social interests, not romantic affection. In upper-class society, the aim was to preserve and, if possible, increase a family’s’s riches. Usually only the eldest son married so the wealth would not have to be split among various heirs and their wives. Hence there were many unmarried noblemen in sixteenth-century Venice. Even those who married seem to have been in no hurry to do so; most waited until their thirties. Meanwhile, female companionship was there for the taking. Not only a liberal city but also a tourist attraction, Venice offered natives and visitors alike a choice of thousands of prostitutes, courtesans, and concubines.
Stampa’s on-again, off-again relationship with Collaltino began in her mid-twenties and lasted a few years, until their final breakup in 1550. The affair inspired most of the poems for which Stampa is best known. Shortly after their breakup, she entered into a new relationship with a Venetian named Bartolomeo Zen, whom she also speaks of, albeit with far less intensity, in her poetry. In her thirtieth year, the poetess grew ill and left Venice for the milder climate of Florence. She stayed into the following year. On April 23, 1554, two weeks after her return to Venice, the 31-year-old poetess died; three years later Collaltino married a woman of his own rank.
Gaspara Stampa’s Rime was first published posthumously in 1554, thanks to Cassandra Stampa, the poetess’s younger sister (only three of Gaspara’s poems were published during her lifetime). Since Stampa’s original manuscript is lost, we cannot be sure of the order in which the poems were conceived or the order in which she herself intended to publish them. Present-day editions generally divide the material into two sections: “Rime d’Amore” (Love Poems) and “Rime Varie” (Miscellaneous Poems). In both parts, the poems are closely tied to specific events and individuals in Stampa’s life. The incidents and individuals are arranged in chronological order, and there is a loose narrative thread. The “Love Poems” section contains 245 lyrical works: 218 sonnets, 19 madrigals, 5 capitoli, 2 sestinas, and one canzone. These poems are addressed to Count Collaltino di Collalto and to Stampa’s later love interest, Bartolomeo Zen. The second section, “Miscellaneous Poems,” contains 66 lyrical works: 62 sonnets, 2 capitoli, one canzone, and one dialogue in quatrains. Much less interrelated than the first section, “Miscellaneous Poems” includes a few poems written for special occasions, including some written on the death of a relative, Sister Angelica Paola de’Negri, Abbess of the Convent of San Paolo in Milan. Other poems in this section were composed for friends and other writers (including Girolamo Molin, Ortensio Lando, Domenico Venier, Sperone Speroni, Leonardo Emo, Luigi Alamanni, Trifon Gabriele, Giovanna d’Aragona, and Ippolita Mirtilla). The second section ends with several religious sonnets. In general, despite the work’s loose narrative thread, Rime remains a collection of individual lyrical compositions; it was never intended to be read as a single narrative poem.
Popular Forms Of Lyric In The Renaissance
Petrarchan sonnet Also known as the Italian sonnet, the Petrarchan sonnet was the most popular form among sixteenth-century lyric poets. Developed in the 1200s, it reached a pinnacle in the works of Francesco Petrarch (1304-74), The sonnet is a 14-line poem, made up of two quatrains (an octave) with the rhyme scheme abbaabba, followed by two tercets (a sestet), with one of several rhyme schemes, usually ccfeede or cdcdcd. The meter fs the 11-syllable line, called the Italian hendecasyllabte, with irregular accents and pauses. Generally the octave presents the problem or thesis of the poem; the sestet resolves the problem.
Canzone A form of lyric that originated in Provence, France, and was introduced into Italy ;by the poets of the Sicilian School in the thirteenth century. The canzone is a series of stanzas without a refrain; the form is written mostly in hendecasyllabic (11-syliable) lines with some heptasyllables (7-syllable lines).
Capitolo An Italian verse form that is either an imitation or a parody of Dante’s terza fima (a series of tercets linked to one another by how they are constructed—the second line of each tercet rhymes with the first and third lines of the one that follows (in the pattern aba bcb cdc). Originally used to teach a moral, in the high Renaissance the form was used for satire.
Dialogue in quatrains A form in which speakers discuss a subject in verse. The quatrain, a stanza of four lines, normally rhymes. There are wide variations in rhyme scheme; some of the most common are abab (alternating, or cross-rhyme), xbyb (x and y represent unrhymed lines), aabb (opposed couplets), abba (envelope rhyme), or aaxa (near monorhyme).
The “Love Poems”
Thematically the first of the “Love Poems” introduces the entire collection. In the style of Petrarch, Stampa sets the tone and defines her main topics in a prefatory sonnet. The sonnet proclaims her interest in the complex relationships between love and pain, suffering and inspiration, aspiration and self-expression, art and fame. Like her master, Petrarch, Stampa addresses the reader directly with the same words that open his prefatory sonnet “Voich’ascoltate” (you who listen):
O you who listen to these mournful verses,
In these unhappy, in these somber accents …
I hope to find among some well-born people,
Not only pardon for my tears, but glory,
Because the reason for them is so lofty.
I dare to hope some woman will exclaim:
“Happy is she, she who has undergone
For such a noble cause, sorrow so noble!”
(Stampa, Selected Poems, p. 3)
The general mood is melancholic and nostalgic. There follows a set of 244 poems in which Stampa relives the emotional rollercoaster of her two major love affairs over a four-year period, first the relationship with Count Collaltino di Collalto and, after their breakup, with the second Venetian nobleman, Bartolomeo Zen.
As Stampa records in Poem 2, it was around Christmastime—the year was 1548—that she met and fell passionately in love with Collaltino di Collalto. The attraction was mutual, and their relationship started out happily (as Stampa points out in Poem 1, she wants to be envied for her “high fortune,” “such great love,” and “such a splendid lord”). This was true despite their different social standings and the occasional chilliness on the count’s part (in Poem 4 Stampa observes that “the pale Moon/Made his heart colder than my warm desire” (Selected Poems, pp. 3, 9). Very early in the Rime, we learn about the social obstacles to Stampa’s love for Collaltino: while the poetess is of “low” social status, her beloved belongs to the aristocracy as metaphorically expressed by his name, Collalto, “high hill.” Throughout she will refer to him as “Count,” addressing him in a way that highlights the inequality between them.
At first, Collaltino, who must have been flattered by Stampa’s undivided attention, dedicated some sonnets of his own to her, though his poetry—some of which is published in Salza’s critical edition of Stampa’s Rime —was by no means a fitting match for Stampa’s original verse. She in fact discourages him from continuing in this very vein, saying that he should leave it to her to celebrate him and not vice versa: “Why do you waste, my lord, paper and ink/In praising me?” (Selected Poems, p. 95).
In this early and brief phase of their relationship, the couple spends considerable time together, which fills Stampa with a happiness she records in Poem 17: “For my delights are such and so abundant/They cannot be contained in human heart,, While I enjoy the presence of those lights” (Selected Poems, p. 23). Much of her energy seems dedicated to trying to please her beloved Collaltino. She sings his praise and celebrates his many virtues: “So he alone among us should be perfect., Saturn gave him his height of intellect;, Jupiter, love for all that’s fair and noble;, Mars made all men beside him seem unwarlike” he has “style” and “judgement,” “beauty” and “grace” he is a “gentleman with sweet expression,” “young in years”; and “His hair is blond, and his complexion light,, He’s tall in stature, with a manly chest” (Selected Poems, pp. 9, 23).
Despite her poetic compliments, Collaltino soon starts losing interest in Stampa. He often goes to his castle of San Salvatore on the banks of the Piave River, leaving her behind. In Poem 21, “Love… flies away” in Poem 43, we learn that her beloved “flees” from her; and in Poem 47, Stampa waits in vain as “he shuts his ears against returning,” “while he lives happily among his hills” (Selected Poems, p. 45). His behavior makes Stampa feel hurt and lonely. “Forever weeping,” she is con-signed to her “unhappy fate” (Selected Poems, p. 27). As early as Poem 5, she compares the fluctuation of their relationship to the changing of the seasons. In Poem 18, she likens her lover to the wandering sun: in Collaltino’s presence, she feels “happiness and vigor,” but when he departs, the sun sets and “leaves the earth to sink down in the west” (Selected Poems, p. 25). Her feelings are even more intense because she can never be sure he will return: “While my sun’s brilliant dawning and return, To me is doubtful; certain is the parting” (Selected Poems, p. 25). References to unrequited love increase until they become a central theme in the collection “Count, where has fled so soon, The faithful love that once you swore to me?” (Selected Poems, p. 189).
As Collaltino spends more and more time away from her, Stampa’s poetry takes on a sinister tone, bearing witness to a fast-growing internal struggle. The speaker of her verse complains about her lover’s unfaithful nature, then shows a raging jealousy. She lives in constant “fear that another woman holds him” (Selected Poems, p. 51).
In 1549 Collaltino goes to France to fight under King Henry II: “O mighty valor of a courteous knight, Who carried off to France a loving heart” (Selected Poems, p. 75). Now in danger of losing his life in combat, he gives Stampa cause for new torment and distress: “Now hope is gone and grief remains alone,/Since, owing to my bitter, evil star,/You, my dear lord, took flight from me to France” (Selected Poems, p. 76). In his absence, Stampa awaits the count’s return. When she finally learns that his arrival is imminent, she is overcome with joyful anticipation. “O blissful, dear, and sweetest of all news,, Message of joy, in which you promise me, That I’ll see again the dear and happy, Lights… “(Selected Poems, p. 79). They spend a beatific night together, reconciled as poet and warrior, but not for long. Collaltino soon re-turns to France, where he remains until 1550. Although Stampa writes many letters, he responds only rarely, which causes her to suffer intense loneliness and jealousy. Her speaker sends off a desperate message to him in Poem 145: “Tell him my life is drawing near its sunset,, Unless in a few days—or, better, hours—, His rays appear to light my weary eyes” (Selected Poems, p. 115).
In 1551 Collaltino returns to Venice and sees Stampa, but they pass most of the time together quarreling; he torments her with demands, accusations, and threats of abandonment. This time Collaltino carries out his threats: he leaves, never to return. Stampa falls into a deep depression and goes off alone to recuperate. As the days pass, she slowly breaks free from his spell and accepts the suffering as a fair price to pay for her literary fame: “Since you, O Love, have given me back my freedom,, Keep me forever in this happy state,, So that my heart’s my own, as once it was” (Selected Poems, p. 159).
Probably in 1551, a new lover, the Venetian patrician Bartolomeo, appears on the horizon. Not much is known about the specifics of this relationship, although judging from Stampa’s poems, it is less intense and passionate than her previous affair. While the poetry inspired by her love for Collaltino is permeated with images of death, pessimism, and pain, the poems to Zen carry a brighter tone, centered more on spiritual love. In this phase, Stampa was keen to explore the relationship between “earthly” and “heavenly” love (between the love exchanged by humans and the love of God).
He teaches us to love him and our neighbour too.
Now if you must love, what better way is there than by loving me
For I adore you and I’ve made a temple and mirror of your lovely face?
Love then; and, by loving, keep Christ’s pact.
(Stampa in Bassanese, p. 120)
A few poems in the “Rime d’Amore” section deal with topics other than Stampa’s love affairs, such as war, social issues, and reflections on the ideas of Plato. The opening verses of Poem 134 are an homage to the city of Venice as the seat of republican freedom. Praising the Venetian salon society “that enables her performances of passion and poetry,” Stampa portrays Venice itself as a nurturing mother and “a space of freedom that allows even a female poet to raise herself proudly” (Smarr, p. 10). In Poem 248, she denounces the greed and violence of war and comments on the political situation of her time. Several condemn the political ideology that divides people into social ranks.
Flexing Her Poetic Muscles?
Many scholars consider the poems in the Rime Varie an elaborate exercise in the art of writing. In the Renaissance It was fashionable to write just for writing’s sake; most people in cultured society tried their literary luck, some in search of fame, some just for fun or prank, often in imitation of famed writers.
Section two—“Miscellaneous Poems”
Most modern editions of Stampa’s Rime are based on Abdelkader Salza’s 1913 edition of Gaspara Stampa’s and Veronica Franco’s poetry. Salza arranged Stampa’s miscellaneous poems in thematic blocks. One large section comprises all poems addressed to Stampa’s friends: Domenico Venier, Sperone Speroni, and Giovanni Delia Casa (Poems 246-295). Another, smaller section, which ends the book, contains the poems written in homage to a deceased nun, Angelica Paolo (Poems 296-303). This final section closes with eight religious sonnets (Poems 304-311).
In Poem 250 Stampa declines a friend’s invitation to visit her birthplace, Padua. The poet uses this occasion to reminisce about her native town, striking a rather nostalgic tone: “Without me, lord, you went… where I was born,, Where the first light of heaven struck my eyes,, So sweet a place, none other is its equal” (Selected Poems, p. 197). In Poem 276 of the same section, Stampa repays in kind Leonardo Emo’s praise of her in his verse: “Since I have been recorded in your poems,, Emo, and polished by your artist’s file!… And if Apollo pours his gifts upon me,/ I will go praising you and that high spring” (Selected Poems, p. 203).
Poem 298 belongs to the second thematic block, the collection of poems addressed to the nun Angelica Paolo, Stampa’s relative and dear friend. Comparing the nun’s life in a convent to that of most other women, Stampa finds a way to address urgent issues that her female contemporaries faced when married: the complaining husband, quarreling children, the torments that women underwent to look attractive: “Some strive to make their hair curly and blond,/Try every art, every ingenious trick, Which only drives their souls to the abyss. … One spoils her face with acids and bleaches,, Injuring in this way her own good health” (Selected Poems, pp. 207–213).
The nature of love
In one of Stampa’s most famous and influential sonnets, “O night…” (Sonnet 104), she describes a night with Collaltino after he returns from the French battlefield. The poem testifies to her connection with the Renaissance spirit. The centerpiece of the sonnet is the surprisingly bold first tercet: it refers candidly to an erotic episode in Greek mythology. The god Zeus wants to spend the night with a mortal queen, Alcmena, and in order to gain access to her bed, disguises himself as her husband. To prolong the joyous experience, Zeus delays the arrival of morning, making the night twice as long as usual. Stampa’s mythological allusion to the tale in her verse allows her to display her knowledge of ancient narratives and to share her uplifting sexual experience with the reader, a highly unconventional topic for a female poet. One of Stampa’s greatest literary contributions to the poetry written in the style of Petrarch is her substitution of an unattainable, forever honored platonic love with sensual, flesh-and-blood relationships.
Another remarkable aspect in Sonnet 104 is the shift in focal point from the beloved to the lover. Throughout the sonnet, Stampa uses personal and possessive pronouns that highlight the speaker’s own persona, either as lover or artist. There are eight instances of I, me, my and mine, compared to one him, and no he or his. The en-tire poem is addressed to the night, which Stampa personifies and has her speaker address in the second person singular, a voice usually re-served for the beloved or love itself. Stampa gives the night a starring role, focusing on the inter-action between this natural force, this “You,” and the lover, “I,” while relegating the beloved to a supporting role.
O night, more glorious and more blest to me
Than are the brightest and most blissful days!
Night, worthy to be praised by the most brilliant
Of human minds, not only by my words.
You only were the faithful minister
Of all my joys: and all the bitterness
That had oppressed me you made sweet and dear,
Bringing back to my arms him who had bound me.
I only lacked the gift that was bestowed
On fortunate Alcmena, when you lingered
Far past the usual hour of dawn’s return.
And yet I cannot say so much of you,
O shining night, but that song of mine
Will not be overwhelmed by what it sings.
(Selected Poems, p. 85)
Sources and literary context
By liberating her lyrics from the tradition of featuring the beloved, Stampa renounces the fairly rigid, pre-formulated language of her predecessors in favor of a more sincere and spontaneous female voice. Yet her poetry is intimately tied to Italian literary tradition. At the outset, the speaker of the Rime identifies herself as a servant of love, in the manner of the Sicilian poets of the dolce stil novo (“Sweet New Style”), of Dante, and most notably, of Petrarch. By modeling her opening poem closely on the prefatory sonnet of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, Stampa immediately places her Rime within the Petrarchan poetic tradition and its verse forms, especially the sonnet. In the Renaissance, the evoking of a familiar pattern was an integral part of the strategy of the sophisticated writer. Skillful imitation was not considered a fault, but an excellence. According to Bembo, the century’s leading literary theorist, the current Italian writers should imitate the works of the tre corone, the three great writers of the fourteenth century: Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Francesco Petrarch.
Petrarch’s Canzoniere was the standard model for amorous lyric poetry throughout Western Europe during the Renaissance. A collection of 366 lyric poems on various subjects with diverse metrical forms (sonnets, madrigals, canzoni [“songs”], and sestinas), Petrarch’s corpus would remain extraordinarily influential throughout the century and beyond. That Stampa drew on Petrarch is evident in her frequent use of his sonnet form, her systematic borrowing of his vocabulary and rhymes, and her imitation of his style and rhetorical devices. But Stampa tailored his lyric standard to her own experiences, asserting her independence in her own prefatory sonnet. While Petrarch condemns his love as a youthful error, Stampa celebrates hers as a “noble cause” (Selected Poems, p. 3). Petrarch concedes that love has been futile, shameful, and frail and calls it an obstacle on his way to salvation, whereas Stampa accepts love as her destiny. Un-like Petrarch’s opening lyrics, which conclude that human pleasures “are but brief dreams” and which preach repentance, the verses in Stampa’s opening poem lack any religious connotation (Petrarch in Durling, p. 37). In Petrarch’s prefatory sonnet, a man pursues a woman and laments his amorous defeat from the perspective of a devout Christian; Stampa, on the other hand, focuses on a tormented woman’s yearning for redemption in the form of earthly fame and glory. Throughout her Rime, Stampa’s speaker is mesto (“mournful,” “unhappy”)(Selected Poems, p. 3); most of the poems document her lover’s lack of warmth and his indifference to her yearnings, loneliness, bereavement, jealousy, humiliation, and suffering. But instead of merely pitying her-self, the speaker identifies the agony of unrequited love as a torturous but essential sentiment in the inventory of a writer: “O noble object, O bright object, O divine object, since even in tormenting me you are beneficial and produce fruit” (Selected Poems, p. xxxiii). As her love story approaches an unhappy ending, the fateful equation pena-penna (pain-pen) grows more and more prominent: the stronger is the pain, the stronger her pen. Ultimately the speaker recognizes pain as the primary source of her inspiration. The commemoration of amorous pain as the stimulus of the creative process is not only a prominent theme throughout her poetry but a significant new perspective in love poetry.
Publication and reception
Gaspara Stampa’s lyrics circulated and were read in Venetian salons, and her madrigals were performed and sung during her lifetime. However, only three of her poems, all sonnets, were published while she was alive. They appeared in the anthology ll sesto libro delle Rime di diversi eccellenti autori nuovamente raccolte e mandate in luce con un discorso di Girolamo Ruscelli (The sixth book of the Rhymes of diverse excellent authors newly collected and published with an introduction by Girolamo Ruscelli, published in Venice by G. M. Bonelli in 1553). Six years later, the three sonnets were reprinted in another anthology. Finally in October 1554, the year of Stampa’s death, her sister, most probably with Giorgio Benzone, compiled an entire collection of poems under the title Rime di Madonna Gaspara Stampa (con gratia et privilegio) in Venezia —per Plinio Pietrasanta 1554(Rhymes by Lady Gaspara Stampa—[with grace and distinction]—published in Venice by Plinio Pietrasanta in 1554).
After its initial publication, Stampa’s Rime was forgotten for almost two centuries until one of Collaltino’s descendants rescued her poetry from oblivion. In 1738 Count Antonio Rambaldo di Collalto commissioned Luisa Bergalli to reissue the text, this time with several illustrations (including portraits of Gaspara and Collaltino) and with poetry by Collaltino and Vinciguerra II di Collalto.
The second edition of Stampa’s poems appeared in 1738 and was introduced by a biography written by Count Antonio Rambaldo, heir to the family’s title of the Collaltos. This unauthenticated biographical account of Stampa’s life marks the beginning of romantic legend about her that endured for centuries. The Rime was read as autobiography, equating the speaker with the woman who wrote the poems. Rambaldo’s account has since given rise to fictional recreations of Stampa’s life in plays, stories, and novels.
In the twentieth century, the renowned critic Benedetto Croce minimized the importance of the Rime, describing it as nothing but a diary of Stampa’s single greatest love. Yet Stampa’s poetry impressed at least two twentieth-century poets. Italy’s Gabriele D’Annunzio took his personal motto from a line by Stampa—“to live burning and not to feel the pain” (Selected Poems, p. xxv). For the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Stampa was inspirational in the language of transcendent love, that is, of love that soars above earthly emotion to become divine.
Bassanese, Fiora A. Gaspara Stampa. Boston: Twayne, 1982.
Durling, Robert M., ed. and trans. Petrarch’s Lyric Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Feminine Pastoral as Heroic Martyrdom. Gaspara Stampa and Mary Wroth.” In The Currency of Eros: Women’s Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Lane, Frederic C. Venice, a Maritime Republic. Balti-more: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
Robin, Diana. “Courtesans, Celebrity, and Print Culture in Renaissance Venice: Tullia d’Aragona, Gaspara Stampa, and Veronica Franco.” In ItalianWomen and the City. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
Rosenthal, Margaret F. “Courtesan.” In The Feminist Encyclopedia of Italian Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Salza, Abdelkader. Gaspara Stampa-Veronica Franco. Rime. Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1913.
Smarr, Janet Levarie. “Introduction.” In Italian Women and the City. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003.
Stampa, Gaspara. Rime. Ed. Maria Bellonci. Milan: Rizzoli, 1976.
.——Selected Poems. Ed. and trans. Anna Laura Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lillie. New York: Italica Press, 1994.
Warnke, Frank. “Aphrodite’s Priestess, Love’s Martyr: Gaspara Stampa.” In Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.
rime1 / rīm/ • n. (also rime ice) frost formed on cold objects by the rapid freezing of water vapor in cloud or fog. ∎ poetic/lit. hoarfrost. • v. [tr.] poetic/lit. cover (an object) with hoarfrost: he does not brush away the frost that rimes his beard. rime2 • n. & v. archaic spelling of rhyme.
So rime vb. XIII. — (O)F. rimer. The sp. rime prevailed till XVI, when the tendency to respell on classical models led to the use of rithme, r(h)ythme; these were succeeded after 1600 by rhime, RHYME.