The Medieval Review 14.03.20


Eisenbichler, Konrad. The Sword and the Pen: Women, Politics, and Poetry in Sixteenth-Century Siena. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 372. $32.00. ISBN: 978-0-268-02776-6.



Reviewed by:


Fabrizio Nevola
University of Exeter
f.nevola@exeter.ac.uk

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini's Historia de duobus amantibus, originally written in Gratz in 1443-1444, was a romantic best- seller of the fifteenth century which had gone through eighty manuscript copies, over thirty editions and numerous translations by 1500. The tale tells of the love affair between a married Sienese noblewoman, Lucretia, and a German knight in the entourage of the Emperor Sigismund, Eurialus, which took place during the imperial sojourn in Siena, in 1432-1433. In the Historia the beautiful and highly educated Lucretia first sees Eurialus during the ceremony prepared by the Sienese government for the arrival of the Emperor, at which four cultured and beautiful women "that looked like goddesses, not mortals" addressed the visitors. In his literary re-evocation of those events, Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II) substituted his heroine for one of the four women; but the events as narrated in the Historia largely match the contemporary ceremonial records. The inclusion of erudite speeches delivered by learned Sienese women often formed a part of such welcome ceremonies. So, when in February 1452 Emperor Frederick III visited Siena (and there met his betrothed, Leonora of Portugal), Battista Berti, wife of Achille Petrucci, offered an oration in Latin, and was rewarded for this by the emperor with a life- suspension from the limitations imposed by sumptuary law. This seems to have entered the city's local memory so that when Orlando Malavotli formulated his history of Siena in the later sixteenth century, he recorded the anecdote.

Konrad Eisenbichler's, The Sword and the Pen is the first monographic study of the lives and writings of a number of Sienese female literary figures, and focuses on a group of authors active in the middle decades of the sixteenth century. As I have suggested above, this was perhaps less of an isolated efflorescence than Eisenbichler concedes, and the author might have set his study more firmly into a longer tradition that stretched back at least to the beginning of the previous century. Indeed, he opens Chapter 2 with a quote from the Independent newspaper in which Luke Syson (then curator at the National Gallery, London) comments on the Sienese love for "blonde women," and it has been interestingly argued that the dual agenda of education and beauty fuelled a strand of idealized female portraiture in local Renaissance artistic production. That said of course, there are no traced extant texts surviving from this earlier period, and as Eisenbichler clarifies, what is remarkable about the decades he considers is that quite a considerable corpus of works documents the women's activity and at times the high quality of their work. Moreover, given the attention that has been afforded by modern scholars to such female literary figures as Vittoria Colonna or Veronica Franco, it is all the more surprising that their Sienese contemporaries had been largely consigned to oblivion until now.

The Sword and the Pen sets out to recover the biographies and work of a core group of three neo-Petrarchan poets, Aurelia Petrucci, Laudomia Forteguerri and Virginia Salvi. The book also helpfully provides a rich 50-page appendix of poetry by ten Sienese women, transcribed in the original vernacular and translated into English; this will certainly be a valuable resource and should certainly help in getting these works into university curricula. In addition, in another volume also of 2012 published by the Sienese "Accademia degli Intronati," Eisenbichler provides an edition of the entire oeuvre of Virginia Salvi, the subject of Chapter 4 of The Sword and the Pen. Collectively, this is certainly a major step in reinstating these authors into the canon of women Italian poets of the Renaissance that has recently been mapped out in the work of Virginia Cox and Diana Robin.

The book is made up of four main chapters, one dedicated to each of the three poets, and a first one that touches on a more broadly- defined female poetic community. It does so by discussing a literary exchange resulting from the visit of the aspiring Sienese literato Alessandro Piccolomini, to the tomb of Petrarch near Padua at Arquà in August 1540. A popular destination for literary tourism, Piccolomini had penned a sonnet there, which he sent to various friends, including a number of women back in his native Siena. These, in turn elicited poetic responses from a number of the recipients, including five Sienese noblewomen, in what became a tenzone or poetic dialogue between friends. The exchange goes some way in highlighting the distinction between male and female intellectual horizons at this period, with Alessandro away from Siena, studying at Padua, visiting Petrarchan landmarks and bidding ambitiously for a dialogue with such figures as Pietro Aretino or Benedetto Varchi, while his female interlocutors were firmly bound to their hometown and could but engage in mobility through their literary imaginations and dialogue with more minor figures such as Alessandro. Nonetheless, as Eisenbichler is keen to stress, this did not make these women apathetic escapists; as the three literary biographies that follow show, in a number of cases they were quite the opposite, engaged actively in the political and social life of their city.

It is well known that Renaissance Siena was a city quite sharply divided between ruling groups (the Monti) and that in the decades preceding its loss of independence in 1555 it came under the alternating influence of the dominant European powers of France and Spain prior to being absorbed into the Medici duchy. Attention to this complex political context is particularly appropriate in the case of Aurelia Petrucci (1511-1542), granddaughter of the quasi-prince of Siena Pandolfo Petrucci, who had been born of the marriage between Pandolfo's son Borghese and Vittoria Todeschini Piccolomini (the most powerful branch of the city's leading noble family, to whom both popes Pius II and Pius III were closely related). Aurelia's high status and evident educated tastes made her the dedicatee of a number of published works, flattering poems and a eulogy by Alessandro Piccolomini on the occasion of her untimely death at the age of thirty-one. Only two poems by Aurelia survive, with the sonnet "Dove sta il tuo valor, Patria mia cara," standing out as especially poignant and politically engaged.

Chapter 3 looks at the literary oeuvre and intriguing life of Laudomia Forteguerri, another scion of a leading noble family, a prolific poet, and allegedly one of the quasi-mythic (in local lore) donne sanesi that took up arms in the city's defence in the final siege of 1553, where she may even have lost her life. In the longest chapter of the book, Eisenbichler goes some way towards reassembling the concrete evidence for Laudomia's biography and somewhat scales back the mythologized image of the poet- intellectual-Amazon, instead probing more closely her relationship with Margherita d'Austria, daughter of Emperor Charles V, during the 1530s. Five poems dedicated by Laudomia to Margherita attest to her love, which is also recorded in various accounts including sonnets by Varchi and Alessandro Piccolomini. While Eisenbichler speculates that these may evidence the outpourings of "the first 'lesbian' poet in the Italian vernacular tradition" (114), he remains cautious and suggests a possible alternative reading of the poetic relationship as politically motivated--the duchess of Parma and Piacenza serving as a privileged female muse in a wider Sienese currying of Imperial favour.

The final chapter considers Virginia Salvi, the most prolific of the three poets discussed in the book, and one whose production was quite widely circulated in her lifetime both in Italy and as far afield as Bruxelles and Paris. Eisenbichler laments the fact that in spite of this Salvi has until now been largely ignored by scholars, and goes some way in redressing this. Salvi's work too-- like that of Aurelia Petrucci--was politically engaged and in part documents the final years of Sienese independence and its reliance upon strategic and material support from King Henry II of France. An epilogue completes the book and includes mini-biographies of eight other women-poets of the same period, a sample of whose work is included in the appendix.

Eisenbichler has performed a valuable service in recovering the biographies and poetic production of this intriguing and numerous group of literary figures. In the opening comments of the Introduction, he make the relatively humble claim that this adds a further "tessera in the greater mosaic that is women's participation in Italian letters" (3), but the sheer number of authors and their previously overlooked poems amount perhaps to adding a whole new figura in the mosaic. Again, as numerous studies have shown in the past decade or so for all the arts (painting, sculpture, architecture, music and literature), scholars have overlooked Siena during the years of the Renaissance, perhaps as this period has all-too-often remained in the shadow of the fourteenth-century golden age. Thus, The Sword and the Pen also contributes to a wider understanding of the sophisticated cultural milieu that prevailed in Siena at least up until the loss of its independence in 1555.



Copyright (c) 2014 Fabrizio Nevola



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