Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Gaspara Stampa: Italy's Greatest Poetessa

The first work written in the Italian vernacular, most likely in 1224, is the "Canticle of the Sun," an exquisite paean to God's creation by the Other Christ, San Francesco of Assisi, and he was quickly followed by the greatest poets of the Renaissance: Dante, Giacomo da Lentini, Guido Cavalcanti, Petrarca, Boccaccio, Ludovico Ariosto, Michelangelo, and Torquato Tasso, to name only the most prominent. It is difficult to find many poems that can be definitively credited to a woman in this period. The first to be noted is usually Compiuta Donzella, but this is not a name - it is an epithet, meaning the Accomplished Demoiselle, for nothing is known of her beyond the few facts that she was from Florence and was writing poetry in the second half of the thirteenth century. Only a handful of her poems survive.

Though Gaspara Stampa is not the only woman whose poetry has withstood the ravages of history, she is widely regarded as the greatest of their small company, one which includes Veronica Franco and Vittoria Colonna. In fact, Stampa is widely regarded as Italy's greatest woman poet of all time. She was born in 1525 to a wealthy merchant family and she was raised in a home that played host to the cream of Venice's artistic, literary, and musical society. In addition to her poetry, it is likely that Stampa was also an accomplished musician and composer. Her 311 poems comprise a sonnet cycle that rivals those of Shakespeare and Petrarca, written out of the despair and torment she experienced following the collapse of her love affair with the Count Collaltino. Collaltino may have had significantly more social power than Stampa did while they were alive, but today he is remembered solely as the object of her poetically expressed love. Stampa passed away in the spring of 1554 and later that year her poems were published under the direction of her sister Cassandra.

Stampa's relative obscurity in the English-speaking world, and her decidedly secondary status to her male contemporaries in the Italian canon, can be ascribed to her gender. While Shakespeare, Petrarca, and Dante receive adulation for the baring of their souls in thrall to their aloof beloveds, elevating their personal torments to a universalized expression of the human (male) capacity to love, Stampa is always marginalized as a woman poet, making her achievement the expected reflection of her personal experience. Although her poems are a supreme example of the dominant poetic form and subject matter of her time, her work is interpreted as womanly because it is personal, while her male contemporaries' work is great because it attains the universal through the personal. Stampa's poems are not universalized as they would be had she been male, for critics, up until very recently men by default, did not believe that a woman could understand a man, as they were capable of understanding women. Furthermore, such all-encompassing love in a man is an expression of unusual virtue, of nobility and grandeur, while for a woman that love is simply the prerogative of her sex, her destiny to seek out a monogamous partner, and therefore her feelings are not counted extraordinary. Similar treatment would meet the sonnet cycle of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, three centuries later.

Stampa's poems are different in one crucial respect, however. While the majority of these poets writing love sonnets were dedicating their work to real figures (or composites of real figures), the most prominent loved from afar. Dante saw Beatrice only twice and they may never have spoken, while Petrarca's adoration for Laura seems to have been sparked by a glimpse of her in a church. In contrast, Stampa's beloved was actually her lover, not an abstract presence of beauty and grace, but a flesh-and-blood man. This is perhaps why her poetry, though very much of its age, seems more modern, more rooted in human experience, than so many of her contemporaries'. Her love is not an intellectual, purely internal experience, which may fire the imagination, but remains bounded to the dream realm of the fictional. Stampa, on the other hand, was drawing on the actual lived experience of loving and being loved; she did not have to imagine what message her beloved's eyes sent her, since she could actually talk to him.

To give some idea of the beauty of Stampa's poetry, I have written a very loose translation of one of her loveliest sonnets, "La piaga, ch'io credea che fosse salda." Better translators than I have rendered her work in English and I encourage readers who cannot read Italian to seek out her work in one of these iterations. I have made no serious attempt to retain the metrical rhythm of the original, choosing instead to privilege sense over form.

The wound, which I believed was healed
by the, by now, long absence and little love
of that stony and hardened heart,
colder still than cold coat of snow,
awakens once and again and grows warm,
and pours once and again blood and lymph;
so that my soul lives again in fear,
when by now it should be safe and dauntless.

Nor, even as I seek to add new cords
to my neck, may I do so without that old knot
hindering me more or less.
One often says that fire drives away fire;
but you, Love, that seek out my martyrdom,
make so that this in me, spent, cannot be.

I hope that this one, very imperfect translation of this exquisite poem suffices to pique interest in Stampa's work, for her poetry deserves a place alongside that of Shakespeare and Petrarca, but will not find it unless we read it. 

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