WOMPO - Women's Poetry Listserv
Foremother: Gaspara Stampa (1523-54)
by Ellen Moody
by Ellen Moody
She is the third of women poets of the Italian Renaissance who were not quite forgotten. I have translated some of her sonnets, but can no longer find where I put what I did. So here are four from Gaspara Stampa: Selected Poems, edited and translated by Laura Ann Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lille:
Love, do you know why your fair mother gave you
These arrows to your hands, and bound your eyes?
That you may shoot the first wound and break
The heart of this or any faithful lover;
And tied the blindfold, so you cannot see
The dreadful cruelty you have inflicted
So that it will not let you suffer pity,
Or even moderate your impious furor.
For, if you saw one of my dreadful wounds,
You would not be a god, but a wild beast,
Or it might make you tender, or less fierce
I would not wish you to come face to face
With the rays of my sun; my wound would seem,
Next to his greatness, small and even light.
With what sufficient greetings or what words
Shall I receive my dearly cherished lover
Who now returns to me with such great glories
As the sun never saw in one sole man?
What color rosy-red or violet-pale -
Will mine be, as my heart is brave or fearful
When I am led before his noble form
Which makes me bold and timid all at once?
And will I dare embrace with faithful arms
His lovely neck, or lift my trembling face
To press against his glowing cheek?
While I am suffering such a painful good,
I fear my heart will break with too much joy.
Only she who has felt it understands
Place me where ocean breaks with angry roar,
Or where the waters lie serene and calm,
Place me wherever sun shoots sparks that scorch
Or where the ice pierces with sharpest pain,
Place me beside the frozen Don, by Ganges
Where the sweet dew and manna are distilled,
Or where the bitter air sparkles with poison,
Wherever people laugh and cry for love.
Place me where cruel, heartless Scythians strike,
Or where the people live in peace and quiet,
Or where one lives and dies, too soon, too late
I shall live as I've lived, be what I've been,
As long as my two faithful stars still shine
And will not turn their light away from me.
Toward that sweet nest where I remained though parting,
And where the better part of me still lingers,
Whether the weary sun returns or leaves,
I always spread the wings of my desire.
And still from time to time I blame myself
For never having used device or force
To stay with you, knowing, away from you,
A thousand times a day I die while living.
My doubtful feet were moved by constant hope
That you would follow soon to visit me,
Extend my fleeting life a little longer.
Observe, my lord, the promise you have given:
To come and make these dreary shores alive,
Joyous and loved, and me grateful and happy.
For those familiar with Mary Sidney Wroth, Stampa's work is similar, only Stampa openly tells of a sexually consummated love affair with a man then living (and he is recognizable through the puns she uses and details she gives), a man then powerful (part of a rich well-connected clan) who lived close to Venice. He despised her and dropped her eventually; she also tells of her having other lovers and one later love affair. This is extraordinarily courageous and she probably was only able to do it because she was a known courtesan with no family members to murder her or destroy the copies of her book either before they went to press or afterwards. Nowadays what I like best about the story of her life is how her sister, Cassandra, was responsible for the publication of her book. As opposed to the common or usual response of relatives, Cassandra enabled Stampa to live on to reach others in her era, later and now us.
Stampa's is not the first collection of secular original poetry by a woman to be published: that goes to Vittoria Colonna in 1538; the first book of poetry by a woman not justified by religious matter to have been published or put into the public domaine with her name on it since Sappho. However, Colonna only published a small part of her collection in 1538. Cassandra published the whole, all 311 poems put in chronological order. In imitation of Petrarch's sequence, they were later published as a two parter: one made up of love poems, mostly to Count Collaltino di Collalto; the second a miscellany of poems on other subjects.
Most biographies go with the modern urge to whitewash her, and you can easily find (as in Stortoni and Lillie's book) her story told in a way that denies she was a prostitute. The older critics and scholars were franker. We owe it to her status that the book was able to be published. To allude to Janis Joplin, she had nothing left to lose (freedom's just another word ... ) And she could not have lived the life she did (would have been repressed, married off young) had she not lived as a courtesan in a sophisticated city.
The essential facts such as we know them are not in dispute. She lived from 1523-54, a short life. Born in Northern Italy, of a noble Milanese family in decline. What probably hurt the family very badly was the death of the father in 1530 when Gaspara was about 7. Mother, Cecilia, was left with three children: Baldassare and Cassandra are the names of her brother and sister. Gaspara's brother also predeceased her. She died of "male de mare" - disease of the womb. Perhaps a miscarriage, perhaps a bad child birth, perhaps venereal disease. These things carried off most courtesans before 35.
The story told in the poems is as follows: She met Collatino di Collalto, Count of Treviso. She fell in love with him, and he with her. The love affair lasted for some three years. After a while he didn't care for her intensity; he didn't like the claims she was making on him. However, from the very beginning you can see how she values him more than he values her: he is above her in just about every way but intrinsic talent and character. Which still don't matter in many things as much as we pretend. He has other lovers, and so does she. This tortures her; he is open about it, she has to hide hers. After he leaves her, she does have a second more muted love affair.
I don't think of her life as peculiarly hard or difficult. Most men went through 3 wives; all of Jane Austen's sisters-in-law had a child every year, two had 12 children and died in the last childbirth. If Stampa had to endure the calumny of narrow minds, so too have many people and those who despise others will find reasons to despise even a queen. She had many compensations: respected intelligent men sought her out; she lived an interesting social life with much beauty and learning; she had a devoted brother and sister. Many a life has much less. And she left some great poems.
In Stampa's case what we have is not merely a psychoanalytical notebook (in effect) but a poetry of reproach, one which by implication shows us the powerlessness of women, lower class people, the damage such mores can do. There is a sense in which Stampa has the upper hand: Collatino is forever remembered as the narrow cold unimaginative count. His later relative who re-published the sonnets writes a ream of apology (this occurred in the 18th century as I recall -- just when the first republication of Gambara's work occurred -- a highly censored account which still shapes how she's seen); the apology got nowhere. The woman's story was told for the first time -- and on her grounds, how she felt.
She does not have repeating or characteristic images that one can trace throughout her sequence. She uses what comes to hand. What is remarkable is the delicacy, the subtlety with which she uses language, and how she can articulate states of mind that sticking to large general categories does not permit. I found the translations in this book somewhat disappointing. They were nowhere as passionate as Stampa and seemed much barer of imagery than she. Almost embarrassed. They also are not angry enough; they don't get the reproach in and the revenge element.
I find her sonnets do fall off in the couplet. She seems not to know how quite to end. Often she will return to the lover after having written 12 lines in a very different vein. They are more conventional. You can see this in Nos 111 and 161. She imitates Colonna in a number of her more famous ones I think the mood of these are less characteristic of Stampa.
She did suffer from religious guilt and shame (alas) and there are poems recording this. Ironically these are now given more pride of place than they once were (at the end of this book). Some may be read a proto-feminist as in them she defends herself as a woman on grounds that seem modern.
Before GMU cut down on the numbers of section in the course I used to teach her in (now there is one section a term, and not always), I got to teach these poems three times. Some girls loathed them, others wrote passionate essays loving them and in defense of her. It was the rare student who was ambivalent and critical here but sympathetic there. Always the sex seemed to be so central to them all.