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Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 31530

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The Brighter Side of the Sixteenth Century

The tales of crime and sensuality which fill the annals of the sixteenth century are so repulsive that it is with a feeling of relief that we turn our attention to other pictures of the same time which are altogether pleasing in their outlines. The court of the Duke of Urbino is the most conspicuous example of this better side of life, and his talented and accomplished wife, Elizabetta Gonzaga, a daughter of the reigning house of Mantua, presided over a literary salon which was thronged with all the wit and wisdom of the land. Urbino was but a rocky, desolate bit of mountainous country, not more than forty miles square, in the Marches of Ancona, on a spur of the Tuscan Apennines, about twenty miles from the Adriatic and not far from historic Rimini, but here was a most splendid principality with a glittering court. Federigo, Count of Montefeltro, had been created Duke of Urbino by Pope Sixtus IV. in 1474, and he it was who laid the foundations for that prosperous state which at his death passed into the hands of his son Guidobaldo, the husband of Elizabetta. Federigo's immense wealth was not gained by burdening his subjects with heavy taxes, but rather from the money which he was able to earn as a military leader, for he was a noble soldier of fortune. Vespasiano tells us, with regard to his military science, that he was excelled by no general of his time, and his good faith was never questioned. He was also a man of singularly religious nature, and no morning passed without his hearing mass upon his knees. In his lifetime he served no less than three pontiffs, two kings of Naples, and two dukes of Milan; the republic of Florence and several Italian leagues had appointed him their general in the field, and in this long life of warfare the sums of money paid him for his services were immense. Dennistoun relates that in the year 1453 "his war-pay from Alfonso of Naples exceeded eight thousand ducats a month, and for many years he had from him and his son an annual peace-pension of six thousand ducats in the name of past services. At the close of his life, when general of the Italian league, he drew, in war, one hundred and sixty-five thousand ducats of annual stipend, forty-five thousand being his own share." With this wealth he caused his desert-like domain to rejoice and blossom as the rose. His magnificent fortified palace was most elaborately decorated with rare marbles and priceless carvings, frescos, panel pictures, tapestries, tarsia work, stucco reliefs, and works of art of all kinds; here, according to his biographer Muzio, he maintained a suite so numerous and distinguished as to rival that of any royal household. So famed indeed did Urbino become, that all the chivalry of Italy crowded the palace to learn manners and the art of war from its courteous duke.

Further details are furnished by Vespasiano, who says that "his household, which consisted of five hundred mouths entertained at his own cost, was governed less like a company of soldiers than a strict religious community. There was no gaming or swearing, but the men conversed with the utmost sobriety." It is interesting to know that among his court officers were included forty-five counts of the duchy and of other states, seventeen gentlemen, five secretaries, four teachers of grammar, logic, and philosophy, fourteen clerks in public offices, five architects and engineers, five readers during meals, and four transcribers of manuscripts. Federigo had ever shown himself a liberal and enlightened monarch, and he had early acquired a solid culture which enabled him, when he grew to manhood, to bestow his patronage in an intelligent manner. Scholars and artists were clustered about him in great numbers; Urbino was widely known as the Italian Athens, and as one of the foremost centres of art and literature in all Europe, when Elizabetta Gonzaga was wedded to Guidobaldo and became the chatelaine of the palace. The young duke and his wife began their life together under the most auspicious circumstances. From what his tutor, Odasio of Padua, says about his boyhood, it is evident that if he were alive to-day he could easily obtain one of the Cecil Rhodes Oxford fellowships, for we are told that he cared only for study and for manly sports, and that he was of an upright character. His memory was so retentive that he could repeat whole books, word for word, after many years, and in more ways than one he had displayed a wonderful precocity. Elizabetta, too, had been given a most liberal and careful education, and her ready intelligence was equalled only by her careful tact and her perfect savoir faire. Indeed, on account of her many attainments, personal charm, and her refining influence, which was far-reaching, she may be likened to that celebrated Frenchwoman Catherine de Vivonne, Madame de Rambouillet, whose h?tel was, a century later, such a rendezvous for the gentler spirits of France in that hurly-burly period which followed the religious wars. Endowed as she was by nature, it was by most fortuitous circumstance that she was called to preside over the court of Urbino, for at that time there was no other woman in Italy who was so fitted for such a distinguished position. It was in the last decade of the quattrocento that Elizabetta was married, and she found clustered about her from the very start illustrious artists and men of letters. Melozzo da Forli and Giovanni Santi-Raphael's father-were there, and there the early youth of Raphael was spent; Jan van Eyck and Justus of Ghent, the great Flemish painters, were also there, and the palace was adorned with many monuments to their skill. Here it was that Piero della Francesca had written his celebrated work on the science of perspective, Francesco di Giorgio his Trattato d'Architettura, and Giovanni Santi his poetical account of the artists of his time; and here it was in the first days of the sixteenth century that Elizabetta was the centre of a group which was all sweetness and light when compared with the prevailing habits of life.

In this circle were to be found, among others, Bernardo Bibbiena, the patron of Berni, of whom Raphael has left us a portrait which is now in the Pitti Palace; Giuliano de' Medici, whose marble statue by Michael Angelo may still be seen in San Lorenzo at Florence; Cardinal Pietro Bembo, who had in his youth fallen a victim to the charms of Lucrezia Borgia when she first went to Ferrara; Emilia Pia, the wife of Antonio da Montefeltro, who is described as "a lady of so lively wit and judgment, that she seems to govern the whole company"; and last, but far from least, Baldassare Castiglione, that model courtier and fine wit, who has left a picture of Urbino in his celebrated book Il Cortegiano, which was long known in Italy as Il Libro d'Oro. This volume is an elaborate discussion of the question, What constitutes a perfect courtier; and it was for a long time a most comprehensive and final compendium, handbook, and guide for all who wished to perfect themselves in courtly grace. What interests us most in the book, however, is the fact that Castiglione has put this discussion of polite manners into the form of a conversation which he supposes to have taken place in the drawing room of the Countess of Urbino, that being the most likely spot in all Europe for such a discussion at such a time, for Guidobaldo's court was "confessedly the purest and most elevated in all Italy." Castiglione was one of Elizabetta's most ardent admirers, and he says of her that no one "approached but was immediately affected with secret pleasure, and it seemed as if her presence had some powerful majesty, for surely never were stricter ties of love and cordial friendship between brothers than with us."

Count Guidobaldo early became a cripple and an invalid, too ardent devotion to books and to athletic pursuits at the same time having undermined a constitution that was never strong; therefore, it was his custom to retire for the night at an early hour; but it was in the evening that the countess held court, and then were gathered together, for many years, all the brightest minds of Italy, who felt the charm of her presence and the value of her stimulating personality. Urbino was a school of good manners, as Naples had been in the days of Queen Joanna; it was the first great literary salon in modern history, and, presided over by a woman who was a veritable grande dame de société, its influence was by no means confined to a narrow sphere. Even in far-away England, Urbino was known and appreciated; and Henry VII., to show his esteem for its ruler, conferred the Order of the Garter upon Guidobaldo. In acknowledgment of this favor, Castiglione was sent to the English court to bear the thanks of his lord, and with him he took as a present Raphael's Saint George and the Dragon, which, by the way, was taken from England when Cromwell ordered the sale of the art treasures of Charles I., and may now be seen at the Louvre. The old Count Federigo had made all this refined magnificence possible, it is true, and Guidobaldo had been in every way a worthy successor to his father, though lacking his rugged strength; but to Guidobaldo's wife, the gracious and wise Elizabetta Gonzaga, belongs the credit for having kept Urbino up to a high standard-an achievement of which few, if any, other women of her time were capable. There was needed a person who combined worldly knowledge with education and a sane, decent philosophy of life, and Guidobaldo's wife was that person.

Veronica Gambara deserves a place among the good and illustrious women of this time; and though she occupied a position far less conspicuous than that of the Countess of Urbino, she was still a person of reputation and importance. Born in the year 1485, her "fortunate parents," as Zamboni calls them, gave her a most careful and thorough education, and as a young woman she was noted for her poetic gifts, which were of a high order. At the age of twenty-five she married Ghiberto, Count of Correggio, and their union was one of true sympathy and deep attachment, such as was rarely seen then, when the mariage de convenance was more in vogue, perhaps, than it is in these later days in Paris. Nine happy years they spent together, and two sons were born to them; then Ghiberto died, leaving Veronica in such grief that she fell ill and hovered a long time between life and death. In one of her poems she relates that it was the fear that she might not meet her beloved husband in Paradise which prevented her from dying with him. She had work to do, however, as her husband, in sign of his great confidence in her, had made her his sole executrix and given into her care the government of Correggio. Veronica had always possessed a lively imagination, and now in her grief her sorrow was shown to the world in a most extravagant way. She wore the heaviest and blackest mourning obtainable; her apartments, furnished henceforth with the bare necessities of life, were tapestried in black; and black was the hue of her livery, her carriages, and her horses. To further proclaim to all the world her love for the departed, she had painted over the door of her chamber the couplet which Virgil has ascribed to Dido:

"Ille meos, primus qui me sibi junxit, amores

Abstulit: ille habeat secum servetque sepulchro!"

[He who first linked me to himself hath borne away my affection: may he possess it still and retain it in his grave!]

As to her personal appearance, Veronica was not beautiful in face, as her features were irregular; but it was said of her in her early womanhood that if her face had equalled her form she would have been one of the most beautiful women of her time. She was high-strung, enthusiastic, and passionate, but she possessed a character and an intelligence which enabled her to hold herself in check; she was a most devoted wife and entirely domestic in her disposition. Her poetry is addressed chiefly to her husband, and she never tires of extolling his many virtues. His eyes, in particular, seem to have been especially beautiful in her sight, as she devotes no less than six sonnets and a madrigal to a description of their charms, calling them occhi stellante, and telling of their power in most fervid terms. We cannot, however, consider her as a woman who was wholly concerned with her own small affairs, as her letters show her to have been in communication with the most illustrious literary men and women of all Italy, including Ariosto, Bembo, Sannazzaro, and Vittoria Colonna. Though her literary baggage was not extensive, the few sonnets she has left have a strength, simplicity, and sincerity which were rare among the poets of her time. Her best poem was one addressed to the rival sovereigns, the Emperor Charles V., and the brilliant Francis I. of France; in it she pleads with them to give peace to Italy and join their forces, so as to drive back from the shores of Europe the host of the infidels. Her death occurred in the year 1550, and then, Mrs. Jameson tells us in somewhat ambiguous phrase, "she was buried by her husband." A little reflection will clear away the doubt, however, and make clear the fact that she was laid to rest beside the husband for whom she had buried herself in black for so many years.

No woman more completely devoted herself to her husband's memory, by means of her enduring verse, or deserves a higher place in the annals of conjugal poetry, than Vittoria Colonna; such laurel wreaths did she put upon the brow of her spouse, the Marquis of Pescara, that Ariosto was tempted to say, in substance, that if Alexander had envied Achilles the fame he had acquired in the songs of Homer, how much more would he have envied Pescara those strains wherein his gifted wife had exalted his fame above that of all contemporary heroes! Vittoria came from most illustrious families, as her father was the Grand Constable Fabrizio Colonna and her mother was Anna di Montefeltro, daughter of Federigo, the first great Duke of Urbino. At the early age of four, fate joined Vittoria in an infant marriage to the young Count d'Avalo, who was of her own age, and who later, as the Marquis of Pescara, really became her husband. When Vittoria was but a young girl, her beauty and her wonderful talents, added to her high station, made her conspicuous among her countrywomen, and her hand was often sought in marriage even by reigning princes. Both the Duke of Savoy and the Duke of Braganza desired to marry her, and the pope was even persuaded to plead their cause; but all to no avail, as she had long considered her future settled and had no desire to change it. At the age of seventeen they celebrated their wedding, and their life together, which began with that moment, was never marred by a single discordant note.

The first four years of their married life were spent on the island of Ischia, where Pescara had a villa and a small estate, and there they lived in an idyllic happiness which has almost become proverbial. The young husband was not so studiously inclined as was his gifted wife, but he was a manly fellow, much given to athletic pursuits, and with a decided taste for a military career, and Vittoria was loved by him in a most tender and noble fashion. They were denied the happiness of children, and the young wife expresses her sorrow over this fact in her twenty-second sonnet; but she consoles herself by adding: "since it is not given to me to be the mother of sons who shall inherit their father's glory, at least may I be able, by uniting my name with his in verse, to become the mother of his great deeds and lofty fame." After their long honeymoon had come to an e

nd, Pescara was moved to return to the world, or rather to enter it for the first time as a man, and he entered the imperial army. At the age of twenty-one, as a general of cavalry, he took part in the battle of Ravenna, where he was made a prisoner of war. After a year's detention, however, he was allowed to return to his post, and then followed campaigning in various parts of the peninsula. Vittoria, during all these days of absence, had remained quietly in their island home at Ischia, where she devoted her time to the composition of those sonnets in honor of her husband's glorious deeds which have since brought her such lasting reputation. In token of her fidelity and her general attitude toward the world and society at this time, Vittoria had adopted as her device a small Cupid within the circlet of a twisted snake, and under it was the significant motto: Quem peperit virtus prudentia servet amorem [Discretion shall guard the love which virtue inspired]. The soldier-husband came for a hasty visit to Ischia whenever distances and the varying fortunes of war made it possible; but his stays were brief, and he always wore in his wife's eyes that romantic halo which it was but natural that a poetic woman should throw about the head of a young and brilliant general whose handsome features and noble carriage made him none the less attractive, and who happened at the same time to be her husband.

After a somewhat short but notable career as a soldier, Pescara was given entire command of the imperial armies, and he it was who directed the fortunes of the day during that memorable battle of Pavia when King Francis I. of France was captured, and when the illustrious French knight "without fear and without reproach," the Chevalier Bayard, made that remark which has long since become historic, Tout est perdu fors l'honneur. That battle won, and with such credit to himself, Pescara was loaded with praise and rewards, and, as is often the case under such circumstances, he was subjected to some temptations. His power had become so great, and his military skill was considered so remarkable, that efforts were made to entice him from the imperial service; he was actually offered the crown of the kingdom of Naples in case he would be willing to renounce his allegiance to Charles V. The offer tempted him, and he hesitated for a moment, writing to his wife to ascertain her opinion on the subject. It is clear that he wavered in his duty, but his excuse to Vittoria was that he longed to see her on a throne which she could grace indeed. She, however, without a moment's hesitation, wrote to him to remain faithful to his sovereign, saying, in a letter cited by Giambattista Rota: "I do not desire to be the wife of a king, but rather of that great captain who, by means of his valor in war and his nobility of soul in time of peace, has been able to conquer the greatest monarchs." Pescara, obedient to his wife's desire, immediately began to free himself from the temptations which had been besetting his path, but he had gone so far upon this dangerous road that he was able to turn aside from it only after his hitherto untarnished honor had been sullied. The criticism which he received at this time made him melancholy, and, weakened by wounds received at the battle of Pavia, which now broke out again, he soon came to his end at Milan, at the age of thirty-five. Though she was for a long time stunned by her grief, Vittoria finally accepted her sorrow with some degree of calmness.

Back she then went to Ischia, where they had passed those earlier days together, and there, for seven years almost without interruption, she spent her time thinking of the dead lord of Pescara, and extolling him in her verse. Still young and beautiful, it was but natural that her grief might be controlled in time and that she might again find happiness in married life. Distinguished princes pleaded with her in vain, and even her brothers urged her to this course, which, under the circumstances, they considered entirely within the bounds of propriety; but to them all she gave the calm assurance that her noble husband, though dead to others, was still alive for her and constantly in her thoughts. After the first period of her grief had passed, she found herself much drawn toward spiritual and religious thoughts, and then it was that her poetry became devotional in tone and sacred subjects were now her only inspiration. Roscoe mentions the fact that she was at this time suspected of sympathizing in secret with the reformed doctrines in religion which were then making such headway in the North and playing such havoc with the papal interests, but there seems little ground for this suspicion beyond the fact that her devotion to the things of the spirit and her somewhat austere ideas in regard to manners and morals were in that day so unusual as to call forth comment. This sacred verse was published in a volume entitled Rime spirituali, and Guingené is authority for the statement that no other author before Vittoria Colonna had ever published a volume of poetry devoted exclusively to religious themes.

Her most faithful friend and admirer in all her long widowhood of twenty-two years was the great artist, sculptor, and painter, Michael Angelo, who never failed to treat her with the tenderest courtesy and respect. No other woman had ever touched his heart, and she gave him suggestion and inspiration for much of his work. After those first seven years of loneliness at Ischia, Vittoria spent much time in the convents of Orvieto and Viterbo, and later she lived in the greatest seclusion at Rome; there it was that death overtook her. Wherever she went, Michael Angelo's thoughtfulness followed her out, and in those last moments at Rome he was with her, faithful to the end. He was the kindly, rugged master-genius of his time, an intellectual giant, and she was a woman of rare devotion and purity of soul; and the real Platonic affection which seems to have possessed them, in that age of license and scepticism, is touching and impressive. What this friendship meant to him, the poet has expressed in the following sonnet addressed to Vittoria, which is here given in Wordsworth's matchless translation:

"Yes! hope may with my strong desire keep pace,

And I be undeluded, unbetrayed;

For if of our affections none find grace

in sight of Heaven, then, wherefore had God made

The world which we inhabit? Better plea

Love cannot have than that in loving thee

Glory to that eternal peace is paid,

Who such divinity to thee imparts

As hallows and makes pure all gentle hearts.

His hope is treacherous only whose love dies

With beauty, which is varying every hour:

But in chaste hearts, uninfluenced by the power

Of outward change, there blooms a deathless flower,

That breathes on earth the air of Paradise."

The ducal court at Ferrara became, in the latter half of the sixteenth century, the centre of much intellectual life and brilliancy; generous patronage was extended to the arts and to literature, and here gathered together a company which rivalled in splendor the court of Urbino in the days of the Countess Elizabetta. The duke, Alfonso II., son of that unfortunate Renée, daughter of Louis XII. of France, who had been kept in an Italian prison for twelve long years because of her suspected sympathy with the reformed doctrines, came of a long line of princes who had in the past given liberally to the cause of learning. During his reign, which covers the period from 1559 to 1597, the social side of court life in his dukedom came into special prominence. The two sisters of Alfonso-Lucrezia and Leonora-presided over this court, and to it came, from time to time, many of the most beautiful women of Italy. Tarquinia Moeza was there, a woman of beauty and of rare poetic gifts; Lucrezia Bendidio, beautiful and accomplished, and having constantly about her a most admiring throng of poets and literati; and later came the two acknowledged beauties of the day, Leonora di Sanvitali, Countess of Scandiano, and her no less charming mother-in-law, Barbara, Countess of Sala. Among the men of this company, suffice it to mention the name of the poet Guarini, whose fame has become enduring on account of his charming and idyllic drama, Il pastor fido, for he it is who seems to embody that sprightliness of wit which gave to Ferrara at that time its gladsome reputation.

To this court there came, for the first time, in the year 1565, young Torquato Tasso, poet and courtier, scholar and gentleman, and already the author of a published narrative poem, the Rinaldo, which caused him to be hailed as the most promising poet of his generation when he was but in his eighteenth year. Bernardo Tasso, the poet's father, was likewise a poet and a professional courtier of some distinction, and varying fortunes had taken him to Urbino, where the son Torquato grew up, surrounded by all the evidences of refinement and culture. He had been favored by nature with a tall and commanding figure, and his good looks had already caused more than one gentle heart to flutter, when, at the age of twenty-one, with his father's consent and approval, he entered the service of the Cardinal Luigi d'Este, and became at once a conspicuous figure in court circles. Almost instantly the youth, filled as he was with most romantic ideas and readily susceptible to the power of woman's beauty, fell a captive to the charms of the Princess Leonora d'Este, who, though some ten years his senior, seemed to embody all the graces and to completely satisfy the ideal which up to this time he had been able to see only with his mind's eye. Leonora had already been sought in marriage by many titled suitors, but she had invariably turned a deaf ear to such proposals, never finding one who could please her fancy or who promised comfort in her loneliness. For she was lonely in that court, as she seems to have dwelt in a sort of spiritual isolation most of the time; there was always a melancholy air about her, which had no doubt been induced in large measure by her mother's sad fate. For Tasso to love her was most natural; but they both knew that such a love could be but hopeless, and it cannot be said that she encouraged him in any covert manner or that he made open profession of his passion. It is true that he makes her the subject of many of his poems, wherein he lauds her to the skies, but this is no more than was expected of a court poet; he did the same for other ladies, but in all that was dedicated to her charms there seems to shine forth a truer light of real affection than is found in all the others. What words of affection, if any, passed between them can never be known; but it seems that there must have been some sort of tacit consent to his silent adoration, and Tasso tells in a madrigal, perhaps in proof of this, that once, when he had asked her pardon for having put his arm upon her own in the eagerness of conversation, she replied, with gentleness: "You offended, not by putting your arm there, but by taking it away!"

For twelve years Tasso remained at Ferrara, constantly writing sonnets and short poems of all descriptions, which were most often addressed to Leonora, but at the same time he was busily working upon that longer poem in epic form, descriptive of the First Crusade, the Gerusalemme liberata, wherein he puts a new feeling into Italian poetry, which had been expressed before by Ariosto in his amatory verse, but which cannot be found to any great extent in his more pretentious work, the Orlando Furioso. This new feeling was real sentiment, and not sentimentality, and it denotes the growing conception of the worth and dignity of womanhood which we have already discovered in the poetry of Michael Angelo. Allowing for the infinite contradictions possible in human nature, it may be that these men of the same time, who so coolly killed their wives and sisters for acts of infidelity, were touched in some dim way with the same feeling, to which, alas! they gave but sorry expression, if the surmise be true.

The constant excitement of the court and his unending literary labors commenced to tell upon the poet in 1575, when his health began to fail and he grew irritable and restless, became subject to delusions, fancied that he had been denounced by the Inquisition, and was in daily terror of being poisoned. Then it was said that the poet was mad, and there are some who have whispered that it was his unrequited love for the Princess Leonora which brought about this calamity. However that may be, the climax was reached in the year 1577, when Tasso, in the presence of Lucrezia d'Este,-who was then Duchess of Urbino,-drew a knife upon one of his servants. For this he was arrested, but soon after was given his liberty on condition that he should go to a Franciscan monastery and give himself that rest and attention which his failing health demanded. Here, however, he was beset with the idea that the duke sought to take his life, and he fled in disguise to his sister, who was then living at Sorrento. Various explanations have been given for this sudden flight, and some biographers have insinuated that the duke had discovered some hidden intrigue between his sister Leonora and Tasso which had caused the latter to fear for his safety. This supposition cannot be accepted as true, however, for if the duke had known or had even strongly suspected such a thing he would have promptly put the poet to death without compunction, and such a course of action would have been entirely justified by the public sentiment of the time. And if this supposition were true, is it probable that Tasso would have been allowed to return to Ferrara in a short time, as he did? Now, begins a confused life, and the poet comes and goes, moved by a strange restlessness, never happy away from Ferrara, yet never caring to stay there long. Finally, on one occasion he thought himself so neglected at his return that he made a most violent scene, and became so bitter and incoherent in his complaints that he was pronounced insane and imprisoned by order of the duke. There he remained for seven years, and the most of that time he was in a well-lighted and well-furnished room, where he was allowed to receive visitors and devote himself to literary work whenever he so desired. At the end of this time, in which Tasso himself speaks of his mental disorder, he went to Mantua, where he had been invited by the Prince Vincenzo Gonzaga; there he spent a few pleasant months; but he soon grew discontented, the roaming fit came upon him again, and after a number of years of pitiful endeavor he finally died, in 1595, at the convent of Saint Onofrio.

It does not seem just to blame the Princess Leonora d'Este for the sad fate which befell Tasso, as so many have done, for there is no proof of any unkindness on her part. That he loved her there can be but little doubt, but hardly to the verge of madness, as he wrote love sonnets to other ladies at the same time; the truth seems to be that he became mentally unbalanced as the result of the precocious development of his powers, which made a man of him while yet a boy and developed in him an intensity of feeling which made his candle of life burn fiercely, but for a short time only. His end was but the natural consequence of the beginning, and whether Leonora helped or hindered in the final result, it matters not, for she was blameless. She died in the second year of Tasso's imprisonment, sad at heart as she had ever been, never deeply touched by the poet's constant praises, and to the end a victim to that melancholy mood which had come upon her in childhood.

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