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Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 28303

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Women in the Later Renaissance

The age of Lorenzo de' Medici-that bright fifteenth century-in the history of the Italian peninsula was signalized by such achievement and definite result in the intellectual emancipation of the minds of men, art and poetry were given such an impetus and showed promise of such full fruition, that he who would now conjure up the picture of that fair day is well-nigh lost in wonderment and awe. But in this love of art and worship of the beautiful it soon becomes apparent that pagan influences were stealing into daily life, and that the religion of the Christian Church was fast becoming an empty form which had no value as a rule of conduct. Blind faith in the power of the Vicar of Christ to forgive the sins of this world still remained, and in that one way, perhaps, did the Church manage to exist throughout this period; for men, sinful and irreligious and blasphemous as they certainly were, were none the less so impressed with the possibilities of suffering in a future state that they insisted upon priestly absolution-which they accepted with implicit confidence-before setting out upon their journey into the Unknown. The most terrible crimes were matters of common occurrence and were allowed to go unrebuked, at least by the moral sentiment of the community; adultery was too frequent, murder caused little comment, and incest was not unknown. The pursuit of pleasure was of no less importance than the pursuit of fame and glory; the Italian idea of honor was in perfect harmony with deceit and treachery; and unclean living, and a married woman was considered above reproach so long as she did not allow her acts of infidelity to become known to all the world.

In an age of this kind it cannot be said that the women occupied a position which is to be envied by the women of to-day. It is not to be expected that the women will show themselves better than the men at such a time, and when was there a better opportunity for vice to run riot? The convents of the time were, almost without exception, perfect brothels, and the garb of the virgin nun was shown scant respect-and was entitled to still less. Venice became a modern Corinth, and was a resort for all the profligates of the continent; it was estimated that there were twelve thousand prostitutes within its gates at the beginning of the fifteenth century. A century later, Rome counted no less than seven thousand of these unsavory citizens, and they, with their villainous male confederates, who were ever ready to rob, levy blackmail, or commit murder, did much to make the Holy City almost uninhabitable in the days of Pope Innocent VIII. As Symonds has said, the want of a coordinating principle is everywhere apparent in this Italian civilization; the individual has reached his personal freedom, but he has not yet come to a comprehension of that higher liberty which is law; passions are unbridled, the whim of the moment is an all-compelling power, and the time was yet far in the distance when society could feel itself upon a firm foundation.

From all that can be learned, it appears that women were not treated with any special respect; men were free to indulge in the most ribald conversation in their presence, and it has yet to be proved that they took offence at this unbecoming liberty. The songs which were composed at Carnival time were dedicated to the ladies especially, and yet in all literature it would be difficult to find anything more indecent. Society was simply in a crude state so far as its ideas of decency and delicacy were concerned, and both men and women were often lacking in what are now considered to be the most elementary notions of propriety. As the men were by far the more active and the more important members of each community, it cannot be said that women were looked upon with equal consideration. The Oriental idea of women in general, as domestic animals whose duty it was to minister to the wants and pleasures of their master and superior, lordly man, was but slowly vanishing, and many centuries of suffering, experience, and education were to intervene before saner and truer notions could prevail. Lorenzo de' Medici, in writing of a beautiful and talented woman, makes the following statement: "Her understanding was superior to her sex, but without the appearance of arrogance or presumption; and she avoided an error too common among women, who, when they think themselves sensible, become for the most part insupportable." It is evident that if women were generally held in as high esteem as men, it is altogether unlikely that the expression "superior to her sex" would have been employed, and the latter part of the sentence leads to the further inference that pretentious and pedantic women of the kind referred to were not altogether uncommon at this time.

No better illustration of the relative position of women in society can be found than in one of the letters received by Lorenzo from his wife, who was a member of the old and proud Orsini family, which was much more aristocratic than his own. She addresses him by the term Magnifice Conjux, which certainly does not betoken a very great degree of intimacy between husband and wife; and the letter concerns the unbearable conduct of the poet Poliziano, who was then an inmate of their house and the private teacher of their children. It seems that he had persecuted her with his attentions, and she is led to protest against his continued employment. In spite of her protest, however, she meekly adds: "Know, I should say to you, that if you desire him to remain, I shall be very content, although I have endured his uttering to me a thousand villainies. If this is with your permission, I am patient, but I cannot believe such a thing." Lorenzo's behavior upon the receipt of this letter will be of interest and will throw much light upon the question involved. Did he burn with indignation at this story of Poliziano's disgraceful conduct and did he dismiss him from his service forthwith as one unworthy of his trust? By no means. The children were soon after taken away from their mother's supervision and sent off to a villa not far from Florence, where they were put entirely under the control of the man who had just insulted their mother! Furthermore, Boccaccio wrote, at a somewhat earlier date it is true, but in a state of society which differed little from that under discussion, that women were of little real consequence in the world, and that "since but few good ones are to be found among them, they are to be avoided altogether."

The position occupied by women in the eyes of the law is somewhat more difficult to determine, but it may be said with certainty that they took no part in the public duties of life and seem to have manifested no yearnings in that direction. They did not vote or hold public office, and would no doubt have looked inquiringly and without comprehension at anyone who proposed such possibilities. Women were evidently being shielded and protected as much as possible; property was rarely held by them in their own names, and the laws appear to have been made for the men almost exclusively. It will be remembered, perhaps, that when Dante was banished from Florence, his wife was allowed to continue her residence in that city without molestation, and was even able to save much of their property from confiscation and devote it to the education of their children. Later on, when Carlo Strozzi was sent away in exile, his family was not disturbed in the least, and it was during his absence from the city that his daughter Maddalena was married to Luchino Visconti in the midst of most brilliant ceremonies. Guests were invited from all the north of Italy, there were horseraces and tournaments, and the whole function was one of great pomp and brilliancy. The brothers and grown sons of exiled citizens were never accorded such consideration, and it is but fair to assume that the popular sentiment of the time demanded this exceptional treatment for the women. At one time it was even held to be against the Florentine statutes to banish a woman; in 1497, at the time of a conspiracy to restore the banished Piero de' Medici to power, his sister, though proved to have conspired in equal measure with the men, was not given an equal measure of punishment; she was merely kept in seclusion for a period at the palace of Guglielmo de' Pazzi, and was then set at liberty through the influence of Francesco Valori, to whom it seemed unworthy to lay hands upon a woman.

In the midst of this exciting and excited world, it may well be imagined that the passions were strong and that women of charm and beauty were able to exercise no little influence upon the men who came within their power. Never, perhaps, in the history of modern civilization has the ?sthetic instinct of a people been so thoroughly aroused as it was in Italy at this time, and the almost pagan love of beauty which possessed them led to many extravagances in their sentimental conceptions. As Lorenzo de' Medici was the most powerful and distinguished Italian of his time, so may he be termed its representative lover, for his excursions into the land of sentiment may be considered as typical of his day and generation. The first passion of his heart was purely subjective and artificial, the result of a forcing process which had been induced by the power of brotherly love. It so happened that Lorenzo's brother Giuliano, who was assassinated later by the Pazzi, loved, very tenderly, a lady named Simonetta, reputed to be the most beautiful woman in all Florence; so great was her fame that she was quite generally spoken of as la bella Simonetta, and the artist Botticelli, who had an eye for a pretty woman, has left us a portrait which vouches for her charms in no uncertain way. She was but a fragile flower, however, and died in the bloom of youth, mourned by her lover with such genuine grief that, with one impulse, all sought to bring him consolation. Letters of condolence were written in prose and verse, sonnets were fairly showered upon him, and Greek and Latin were used as often as Italian in giving expression to the universal sorrow. But how all this affected Lorenzo, and what inspiration it gave to his muse, he had best relate in his own words, for the tale is not devoid of romance, and he alone can do it justice:

"A young lady of great personal charm happened to die at Florence; and as she had been very generally admired and beloved, so her death was as generally lamented. Nor was this to be marvelled at, for she possessed such beauty and such engaging manners that almost every person who had any acquaintance with her flattered himself that he had obtained the chief place in her affections. Her sad death excited the extreme regret of her admirers; and as she was carried to the place of burial, with her face uncovered, those who had known her in life pressed about her for a last look at the object of their adoration, and then accompanied her funeral with their tears. On this occasion, all the eloquence and all the wit of Florence were exerted in paying due honors to her memory, both in verse and prose. Among the rest, I, also, composed a few sonnets, and, in order to give them greater effect, I tried to convince myself that I too had been deprived of the object of my love, and to excite in my own mind all those passions which might enable me to move the affections of others."

In this attempt to put himself in the place of another, Lorenzo de' Medici began to wonder how it would seem to have such grief to bear on his own account; and then his thoughts went still further afield, and he found himself speculating as to whether or not another lady could be found of the same merit and beauty as the lamented Simonetta. In the midst of the great number of those who were writing eulogistic poetry in this lady's honor, Lorenzo began to feel that the situation lacked distinction, and he was not slow to realize what great reputation might be acquired by the lucky mortal who could unearth another divinity of equal charm. For some time he tried in vain, and then suddenly success crowned his efforts, and he has told us in what manner. "A public festival was held in Florence, to which all that was noble and beautiful in the city resorted. To this I was brought by some of my companions (I suppose as my destiny led) against my will, for I had for some time past avoided such exhibitions; or if at times I had attended them, it proceeded rather from a compliance with custom than from any pleasure I experienced in them. Among the ladies there assembled, I saw one of such sweet and charming manners that I could not help saying, as I looked at her, 'If this person were possessed of the delicacy, the understanding, and the accomplishments of her who is lately dead, most certainly she excels her in the charm of her person.' Resigning myself to my passion, I endeavored to discover, if possible, how far her manners and conversation agreed with her appearance; and here I found such an assemblage of extraordinary endowments that it is difficult to say whether she excelled more in person or in mind. Her beauty was, as I have said before, astonishing. She was of a just and proper height. Her complexion was extremely fair, but not pale, blooming, but not ruddy. Her countenance was serious without being severe, mild and pleasant without levity or vulgarity. Her eyes were sparkling, but without indication of pride or conceit. Her whole figure was so finely proportioned that amongst other women she appeared with superior dignity, yet free from the least degree of formality or affectation. In walking or in dancing, or in other exercises which display the person, every motion was elegant and appropriate. Her sentiments were always just and striking and have furnished me material for some of my sonnets; she always spoke at the proper time, and always to the purpose, so that nothing could be added, nothing taken away.... To recount all her excellencies would far exceed my present limits, and I shall therefore conclude with affirmin

g that there was nothing which could be desired in a beautiful and accomplished woman which was not in her most abundantly found. By these qualities, I was so captivated that not a power or faculty of my body or mind remained any longer at liberty, and I could not help considering the lady who had died as the star of Venus, which at the approach of the sun is totally overpowered and extinguished."

The name of this wondrous lady is carefully kept in the background by Lorenzo, but from other sources she is known to have been Lucrezia Donati, a lady of noble birth, celebrated for her goodness and beauty, and a member of that same Donati family to which Dante's wife belonged. At the time of this love affair, Lorenzo was about twenty, and the lady was somewhat older, but that made no difference to the young poet, who immediately began to exhibit all those symptoms which have become traditional in such maladies of the heart. He lost his appetite, grew pale, shunned the society of even his dearest friends, took long, solitary walks, and wrote many an ode and sonnet in honor of the fair Donati. But she was indeed a divinity rather than a friend, and his oft-expressed delight in her many charms was rather intellectual than emotional and passionate. She becomes for him, in truth, a very sun of blazing beauty, which he looks upon to admire, but the fire of the lover is entirely wanting. While it was no such mystic attachment as that professed by Dante for Beatrice, it no doubt resembles it from certain points of view, as, in each case, the lover has little actual acquaintance with the object of his affections. But there this comparison must end, for it has been explained how Dante derived a certain moral and spiritual benefit from his early brooding love, and in the more modern instance nothing of the kind is apparent. On the contrary, everything seems to show that Lorenzo was at an age when his "fancy lightly turned to thoughts of love," and, being of a poetic temperament, he amused himself by writing amorous poetry which came from the head and not the heart. The characteristic traits of this poetry, then, are grace and elegance, sonority and rhythm; it lacks sincerity and that impetuous flow of sentiment which is generally indicative of intense feeling. It cannot be denied, however, that he often reached a high plane; perhaps the following lines show him at his best:

"Quale sopra i nevosi ed alti monti

Apollo spande il suo bel lume adorno,

Tal' i crin suoi sopra la bianca gonna!

Il tempo e'l luogo non ch'io conti,

Che dov'è si bel sole è sempre giorno;

E Paradiso, ov'è si bella Donna!"

[As Apollo sheds his golden beams over the snowy summits of the lofty mountains, so flowed her golden tresses over her gown of white. But I need not note the time and place, for where shines so fair a sun it can be naught but day, and where dwells my lady fair can be but Paradise!]

While still preoccupied with what Mrs. Jameson terms his visions of love and poetry, he was called upon by his father, at the age of twenty-one, to marry, for political reasons, a woman whom he had never seen-Clarice Orsini. That the marriage was unexpected is attested by a note in his diary to this effect: "I, Lorenzo, took to wife, Donna Clarice Orsini, or rather she was given to me," on such and such a day. The ceremony was performed in Naples, it appears, but the wedding festivities were celebrated in Florence, and never was there a more brilliant scene in all the city's history. The fête began on a Sunday morning and lasted until midday of the Tuesday following, and for that space of time almost the entire population was entertained and fed by the Medici. On this occasion the wedding presents took a practical turn, in part, for, from friends and from some of the neighboring villages subject to the rule of Florence, supplies were sent in great quantities; among the number, record is made of eight hundred calves and two thousand pairs of chickens! There were music and dancing by day and by night; musicians were stationed in various parts of the city, and about them the dancers filled the streets. An adequate conception of this scene will perhaps be a matter of some difficulty, but those who know something of the way in which the people in modern Paris dance upon the smooth pavements on the night of the national holiday, the Quatorze Juillet, will possess at least a faint idea of what it must have been. That all classes of the population were cared for at this great festival is proved by the fact that one hundred kegs of wine were consumed daily, and that five thousand pounds of sweetmeats and candies were distributed among the people.

The marriage of the poet Ariosto with the beautiful Alessandra Strozzi, widow of Tito Strozzi, a noble Florentine who was famed in his day for his Latin poetry, was not concluded with any such display and magnificence, the author of the Orlando Furioso being in no position which made it necessary for him to entertain the whole population, and having ideas all his own regarding the advantage of publicity in such matters. Long before Ariosto's marriage, however, in the days of his youth and before he had ever set eyes upon the Titian-haired Alessandra, he fell captive to the charms of Ginevra Lapi, a young girl of Florentine family, who lived at or near Mantua. He met her first at a festa di ballo, we are told, and there he was much impressed with her grace and beauty, for she seemed like a young goddess among her less favored companions. Then began that attachment which lasted for long years and which seems to have inspired much of his earlier lyric poetry. Four years after their first meeting he writes that she was "dearer to him than his own soul and fairer than ever in his eyes," and she seems to have made a very strong impression upon his mind, as he mentions her long afterward with most genuine tenderness. What more than this may be said of Ginevra Lapi has not yet come to light, and it is due to the poet alone that her name has been handed down to posterity. If Ariosto had been an expansive and communicative man, we might know far more than we do of Ginevra and of the other friends of his youth, for he was a person of most impressionable nature, who was very susceptible to the allurements of beautiful women, and there is no doubt of the fact that he had a certain compelling charm which made him almost irresistible with the ladies of his entourage. However, the history of his affairs of the heart has baffled all investigators as yet, because the poet, from the very earliest days of his youth, made it a rule never to boast of his conquests or to speak of his friends in any public way. As a symbol of this gallant rule of conduct, there is still preserved at Ferrara one of Ariosto's inkstands, which is ornamented with a little bronze Cupid, finger upon lip in token of silence.

Early biographers and literary historians were inclined to give to Ginevra Lapi all credit for the more serious inspiration which prompted him to write the major part of his amatory verse, and so careful had he been to conceal the facts that it was not until many years after his death that his marriage to Alessandra Strozzi was generally known. Ariosto had been on a visit to Rome in the year 1515, and, on his return, he chanced to stop at Florence, where he intended to spend three or four days during the grand festival which was being held in honor of Saint John the Baptist. Arriving just in time to be present at some social function of importance, the poet there saw for the first time this lady who was to mean so much to him for all the rest of his life. It will be remembered that when Lorenzo de' Medici first met Lucrezia Donati he had been taken to some evening company, much against his will. In the present instance, it was the lady who showed disinclination to go into society, and her recent widowhood gave her good reason for her feeling in the matter; but, won over by the entreaties of her friends, da preghi vinta, she finally consented to go. What she wore and how she looked, and how she bore herself, and much more, do we know from Ariosto's glowing lines which were written in commemoration of this event. Her gown was of black, all embroidered with bunches of grapes and grape leaves in purple and gold. Her luxuriant blond hair, the richissima capellatura bionda, was gathered in a net behind and, parted in the middle, fell to her shoulders in long curls on either side of her face; and on her forehead, just where the hair was parted, she wore a twig of laurel, cunningly wrought in gold and precious stones.

Alessandra's most effective charm was her wonderful hair, of that color which had been made famous by the pictures of Titian and Giorgione, and it really seems that in Ariosto's time this color was so ardently desired that hair dyes were in common use, especially in Venice. It is with a feeling of some regret that we are led to reflect that much of that gorgeous hair which we have admired for so many years in the famous paintings of the Venetian masters may be artificial in its brilliant coloring, but such, alas! is probably the case. The fair Alessandra, nevertheless, had no need to resort to the dye pots of Venice, as Mother Nature had been generous in the extreme, and the poet was inspired by the truth, if the painters of the time were not. How unfortunate, then, that a serious illness was the means of her being shorn of this crowning glory! Her attending physician decided upon one occasion that it would be necessary to cut her hair to save her life, but later events proved that he had been over anxious and that this desperate remedy had been entirely uncalled for. Ariosto, as may well be believed, was indignant at the sacrifice, and wrote three sonnets regarding it before he cooled his anger. In one of these passionate protests occur the following lines, which will give some idea of his highly colored style and at the same time show us what an important place Alessandra Strozzi must have held in his affections: "When I think, as I do a thousand times a day, upon those golden tresses, which neither wisdom nor necessity but hasty folly tore, alas! from that fair head, I am enraged, my cheeks burn with anger, even tears gush forth bathing my face and bosom. I would die, could I but be avenged upon the impious stupidity of that rash hand. O Love, if such wrong goes unpunished, thine be the reproach!... Wilt thou suffer the loveliest and dearest of thy possessions to be boldly ravished and yet bear it in silence?"

Though Ariosto had come to Florence to spend but a summer day or two at Saint John's feast, his visit lengthened into weeks, and full six months had rolled around before he could tear himself away after that first eventful evening. As his time was spent with his friend Vespucci, Alessandra's brother-in-law, he had ample opportunity to bask in her smiles without exciting unfavorable comment; and when he finally did depart, he left his heart behind him. From that day until the time of his death it was known that he loved her, but their names were never coupled in any scandalous way, and it was only after the death of the poet that the fact was known that they had been secretly married. No one has been able to give the exact date of this marriage, but there is now little doubt with regard to the fact itself, and certain evidence leads to the conclusion that the wedding must have taken place in the year 1522. Why this matter was kept a secret has given rise to much speculation, for it would appear to the superficial observer that a public acknowledgment of the fact might have been a matter of pride to either the poet or the Signora Strozzi. Family reasons have been alleged by Baruffaldi, one of Ariosto's many biographers, but they seem entirely inadequate and unsatisfactory, and the whole matter still remains shrouded in mystery.

One side of the question which has not perhaps been presented before is this-would there have been any change in the tone of Ariosto's lyric verse if Alessandra had been known to all the world as his wife? With the possible exceptions of the Brownings and one or two others, the case is hardly recorded where a poet has been inspired to his highest efforts by his wedded wife, and it is extremely problematical whether or not in the present instance the fire and fervor of Ariosto's lines could have been kindled at a domestic hearth which all the world might see. The secret marriage was probably insisted upon by the wife, and all honor to Alessandra Strozzi for her pure heart in that corrupt time! But the fact was probably kept hidden to gratify some whim of the poet. The very situation is tinged with the romantic, the old adage about stolen sweets was undoubtedly as true in that time as it is to-day, and the poet had a restless nature which could ill brook the ordinary yoke of Hymen. So long as he could live in the Via Mirasole, and Alessandra in the stately Casa Strozzi, Ferrara had charms for him, and his muse was all aflame. Would this have been true if one roof had sheltered them?

Whatever the verdict may be in this matter, the fact remains that all of Ariosto's lyric poetry and many of the passages in the Orlando Furioso were inspired by his real love for some woman, and it was this living, burning passion which gives him his preeminence as a poet. He had mannerisms, it is true, and much that he wrote is apt to appear stilted to the ordinary English reader, but such mannerisms are only the national characteristics of most Italian poetry and must be viewed in that light. On the other hand, Ariosto's evident sincerity is in striking contrast to the cold, intellectual, amatory verse of Lorenzo de' Medici, which was, in truth, but an ?sthetic diversion for that brilliant prince. And even this was due to the inspiration he received from the sight of a fair lady, many years his senior, for whom he had a most distant, formal, Platonic affection, while it never dawned upon him that his own wife's beauty might deserve a sonnet now and then.

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