Isabella di Morra and the Roots of Romanticism
Isabella di Morra's story is a sad one. She spent most of her short life a virtual prisoner in the remote castle of her family in a desolate part of Southern Italy. While still in her twenties, she was murdered by her ruffian brothers—an apparent "honor" killing—for exchanging Petrarchan sonnets with a local count, Don Diego Sandoval de Castro. The Count was murdered too. Somehow, Morra's poems reached Venice's Giolito publishing firm, Italy's finest, and her work was published six years after her death. No love poems were ever found. Rather, Morra wrote poems of existential despair. Her poetry consists of a small body of original, even eccentric work, chiefly in Petrarchan sonnet form, composed in relative isolation. Yet qualities of what was to become the Romantic lyric voice emerge in Morra's poetry for the first time in the early modern period. Some scholars have heard echoes of Morra's melancholic, personal voice in the poetry of Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), who in turn had a profound influence on the development of Seventeenth Century European poetry and, ultimately, on the Romantics. Then, too, uniquely in early modern literature, Morra gave voice to the voiceless. Her fate was and continues to be shared by countless women around the world. She, apparently alone, spoke for them all during the Cinquecento (Sixteenth Century). A minor poet, she is nonetheless an important one, and her work has been included in every major anthology of Italian women's poetry since the first one was published in 1559. True to her premonitions, Morra ultimately triumphed and found immortality through her death.
by Wendy Sloan
Life of Isabella di Morra
What little we know of Morra's life, apart from what she tells us herself in her poetry, we owe to the great Italian humanist critic, philosopher, and historian Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)1 . During the 1920's, Croce travelled to Naples and to the remote Morra castle in Basilicata to gain insight into Isabella's life, work, and death. In 1929, Croce published his definitive work, Isabella di Morra e Diego Sandoval, which includes the biographies and the poetry of both Morra and the Count.
Croce's biography of Morra is based chiefly upon two documentary sources: (1) the files of the contemporaneous criminal investigation conducted by Spanish authorities into not Morra's murder, but, rather, Sandoval's, maintained in archives at Naples, and (2) the Familiae nobilissimae de Morra historia, a family history written in Latin by Morra's nephew, Marcantonio di Morra, published at Naples in 1629. Marcantonio was the son of Isabella's youngest brother, Camillo, who was living away from home at the time of the murders and was not involved in them (Croce 286).
Isabella di Morra was born in Basilicata, formerly called "Lucania," an ancient region in Southern Italy2 . Her hometown was named "Favale" at the time, presumably after the humble fava bean (Mitchell 2);3 the town's name was changed to Valsinni in 1873. It was located in the valley of the Sinni River, called the "Siri" in Morra's day. The Morra castle-fortress, which still stands today, is perched on a steep hill overlooking the river, with entry to the castle only on its north side. Not far from the castle is Mount Cappola (c. 2,650 ft.), the "high mountain" described in her poems as affording Morra a view of the Ionian Sea, some three miles away ("From a High Mountain Overlooking the Sea"; D'un alto monte onde si scorge il mare) (Mitchell 2). In Morra's time, it was a wild, remote spot. Far from the splendid cities where Renaissance culture thrived, Favale was a rural, backward area. Its inhabitants were crude, uneducated, ignorant, superstitious; they had the "rough customs" of "irrational people, devoid of intelligence" ("Now That You've Clipped the Wings of Fair Desire"; Poscia che al bel desir troncate hai l'ale).
During Morra's brief lifetime, France and Spain fought for control of Italy. Southern Italy was ruled by Charles V of Spain. In 1527, when Isabella was about seven years old, the armies of Francis 1 of France invaded Italy and threatened Naples. Isabella's father, Giovan Michele Morra, sided with the French; his rival, the Prince of Salerno, sided with the Spanish. The Spanish won and, in 1528, Isabella's father fled first to Rome and then to Paris (Croce 287). Once in Paris, he showed no desire to return to Favale, but appears to have largely abandoned the family. Certainly, he abandoned Isabella, who was left at Favale apparently with no dowry and, consequently, no prospects, together with her mother, younger sister, and several brothers who, without paternal supervision, grew up to be wild and dissolute.
Giovan Michele and his wife Luisa Brancaccio had eight children: Marcantonio, the oldest, Scipione, Isabella, Portia, Decio, Cesare, Fabio, and Camillo, the youngest, born after his father's departure. All of the Morra children, except Isabella, were given names drawn from ancient Rome, apparently "reflecting the classical education Giovan Michele received in humanistic circles in Naples" (Mitchell 4). Croce characterized Isabella's name as "romantic". It is, of course, a popular Spanish name and her parents' motivation in choosing it in 1520 might have been political.
Prior to her father's departure, Isabella was educated at home by the castle tutor, or "pedagogue," along with her brother, Scipione, who may have been her twin (Croce 287). Such was, increasingly, the practice among Italian nobility during the Cinquecento4 . Scipione was given a strong background in Latin and Greek, and he continued his studies at college in Rome, where he distinguished himself. From Rome, he followed his father to Paris, where he went on to hold important positions at court. Isabella appears to have been about twelve years old when her father moved to Paris. The castle pedagogue also remained, presumably instructing Isabella, and likely her younger siblings, in Latin and Italian literature and possibly Greek. The pedagogue, who surely introduced Isabella to Petrarch, "was probably the only one in the castle with whom Isabella could discuss literature and to whom she could read her verses." (Mitchell 5). Ironically, though his name has been lost to history, he shared Isabella's tragic fate: her thug brothers murdered him too.
Isabella distinguished herself at her studies. The scholar Irene Musillo Mitchell quotes Isabella's nephew, Marcantonio Morra, as bragging in his 1629 family history that "She made such marvelous progress that she composed verses that sexum superando [overcoming the limitations of her sex] rendered her celebrated in the environs in which she lived and beyond, seeing that some of her lyrics were still circulating [in the 1600's] in volumes." (Mitchell 5, footnote omitted). The comment is particularly interesting if it was intended to mean that Isabella was known locally as a writer and that her sonnets were circulating during her lifetime. Croce similarly states that Isabella studied together with Scipione, and composed verses that were known in the surrounding area where she lived and beyond (Isabella aveva studiato insieme col fratello Scipione, e componeva versi che la resero nota anche oltre la cerchia incui viveva; "Isabella had studied together with her brother, Scipione, and she used to compose verses that were noted even beyond the area in which she lived") (Croce 287) (translation mine). Yet Croce specifically states that Isabella's poems were not circulated in literary or academic circles prior to her death (e non erano tali da circolare tra literati e accademie) (Croce 311).
At the time of Giovan Michele's escape to France, the Spanish Royal Camera "stripped him of his properties in Favale and declared him a rebel" (Mitchell 6). Within a few years, however, his oldest son Marcantonio and his brothers and uncles were able to appear before the Spanish authorities and pay a fine of two thousand scudi to be reinstated to the paternal estate. On January 31, 1533, then, Giovan Michele was absolved and his property recognized as in the possession of his sons. At any time thereafter, according to Croce, he was perfectly free to return to Favale. He never went back.
Ironically, Giovan Michele is mentioned in a poem by another exiled Italian poet, written under a pseudonym, in which he is portrayed as nostalgic for the "rich lands" he left behind in Favale and for his family and country, all of which (according to the poem) he dutifully gave up for the sake of serving the "glorious" Francis I (Mitchell 6) (Croce 291–292). And so Isabella's father stayed in France, where he received a pension from the King. He was still living at the French court in 1549, several years after Isabella's murder (Jaffe 141, Mitchell 6), and the guilty brothers joined him there. Virginia Cox, an expert in the field of Renaissance literature and culture, has noted his "probable" complicity in Isabella's murder (Cox 369).
Francis I's court was a brilliant, stimulating cultural center that drew many great artists and educated aristocrats from Italy. The celebrated Italian poet Luigi Alamanni was there; Isabella addressed one of her sonnets directly to him ("Not Only Was Heaven Generous and Courteous to You"; Non solo il ciel vi fu largo e cortese). Likely her father, himself something of a poet, had befriended Alamanni in France; it appears Giovan had left a volume of Alamanni's poetry in his library at Favale (Mitchel 6).
In her sonnet to Alamanni, and throughout many other poems, Isabella tries to attract the attention of the outside world—Luigi, her father, King Francis, intellectual circles in Naples or Paris—both to gain poetic recognition and to escape from Favale. And in the sonnet "What Pride You Can Take, My Beloved Siri" (Quanto pregiar ti puoi, Siri mio amato), Isabella writes of a friend living nearby who made her "hope flourish," namely, hope that "laurel will crown" her head. Clearly, she hoped for recognition as a poet. Had her friend promised to give Isabella's work to a writer or publisher? Croce has identified Morra's friend as Princess Giulia Orsini, by the "vermilion rose" referred to in line 9 of the sonnet. Once again, the plain implication is that Morra was circulating or, at least, attempting to circulate and publish her poems during her lifetime.
Isabella was devastated by her father's desertion. She hated Favale, portrayed in her poems as a "vile and horrid…region" where she was condemned to "[s] pend…[her]…time without any praise" ("The Fierce Assaults of Cruel Fortune I Write"; I fieri assalti di crudel Fortuna scrivo), an "infernal valley" of "wild beasts" and "rocky ruins," ("Here, Then, Another Time, Infernal Valley"; Ecco ch'una altra volta, O valle inferna), and home to the "turbid Siri," the river portrayed in her poems as both confidant and alter ego ("Turbid Siri, Heedless of my Pain"; Torbido Siri, del mio mal superbo). Most of all, she hated the "rough customs" of the "irrational people, devoid of intelligence" who lived there, especially her brothers, who had taken to living "in extreme and horrid indolence" after their father's departure ("Now That You've Clipped the Wings of Fair Desire"; Poscia che al bel desir troncate hai l'ale). Isolated and alone, without dowry or prospects, Isabella could only pour out her grief in her writing and hope for her father's return. She clung to the dream of escaping from Favale. Increasingly, the sonnets reveal, she despaired, to the point of considering suicide ("Turbid Siri, Heedless of my Pain"; Torbido Siri, del mio mal superbo). A strong premonition of her own death enters her work ("If to The Present Hope, a New Obstacle"; Se a la propinqua speme nuovo impaccio). In her canzone, "Now That You've Clipped the Wings of Fair Desire" (Poscia che al bel desir troncate hai l'ale), Morra despairs that Fortune had "killed" any pity for her in one who could have secured her escape from Favale. In some of her last poems, she seeks peace in God, having given up hope of happiness in this life ("I Write With a Bitter Style, Sorrowful and Harsh"; Scrissi con stile amaro, aspro e dolente).
Isabella befriended Antonia Carcciole, wife of Don Diego Sandoval de Castro (c.1505–1546), a Spaniard who had a fiefdom at Bollita, near the Morra castle. Because of some alleged crime, Sandoval, too, was an outlaw in the Spanish provinces, and had taken refuge in nearby Benevento, in Campania, which was ruled by the Pope. From Benevento, Sandoval would make forays home to Bollita to visit his wife.
Don Diego was also a poet; in fact, he was a published poet. He had participated in literary circles in Florence and in the Florentine Academy and had published a volume of Petrarchan verse at Rome in 1542. Apparently a dashing figure, he is mentioned in one contemporary love lyric as "Mars and Apollo in one," and as being valiant in arms and letters (Mitchell 11). Another contemporary, though, and member of the Academy, wrote in a sonnet that Don Diego's poetry had little art, rather "Florentine men of letters were inspired by respect, not for his poetry, but for '…that/ sword…at his side night and day…'" (Mitchell 11). Don Diego's lyrics survive and were included by Croce in his study of Morra. They are basically trite Petrarchan sonnets devoid of originality, extolling a cold, unobtainable woman.
Isabella and Don Diego met, and, as poets, they may have exchanged correspondence, likely Petrarchan sonnets. Little more is known about their relationship. According to both the nephew's family history and the criminal investigation, Don Diego's correspondence to Isabella was delivered in Antonia Carcciole's name, using the pedagogue as a go-between. This was done, obviously, to maintain appearances in a conservative rural area. It is possible that they exchanged love poems, but no love poems written by Isabella, or by Don Diego to her, have ever been found. As Croce has noted, from the poems that remain it does not even appear that Morra was actually maintaining a regular correspondence with Sandoval (Croce 304). It is possible that they actually had an affair. Comments made by Don Diego's widow to investigators have been read by some scholars as supporting the possibility of an affair, but they are ambiguous at best and prove nothing at all. Rather, it seems at least equally likely that Isabella was "innocent," as her nephew stated in his history, and that Don Diego and Isabella were simply two poets who exchanged their work, as poets do.
Here is Croce's account of Isabella's murder, citing nephew Marcantonio's family history (Mitchell's translation, Mitchell 12):
Now it happened that Isabella's brothers had been apprised of letters consisting of verses that de Castro, in the name of his wife, had sent
to Isabella through a pedagogue or maestro of school. The brothers
surprised her with the letters in her hand, still unopened and unread,
which she affirmed came from Antonia Caracciolo, as she had been
told. Her answer did not restrain the fury of those three, Cesare, Fabio,
and Decio, 'whom the rustic environment had educated to be ferocious
and barbarous'[quotations as they appear in Croce's translation] and
who without delay, cruelly slaughtered the pedagogue and then stabbed
their innocent sister to death. The demon had induced them to this
action because they suspected that upon learning about the intercepted
letters, de Castro would apply to the governor of the province so that
he would hasten to remove the young woman from their hands, which
was then proven to be false. [footnote omitted].
Mitchell notes that the reference to a "demon" is Croce's "interpolation" (Mitchell 12 note 5), while the nephew attributed the brothers' actions to their own "wicked dispositions" (Mitchell). Note, too, that the nephew's history was published some eighty years after the murders, and presumably based on the story passed on to him by his father, Camillo, who was away from home when the murders were committed.
After murdering Isabella and the pedagogue, probably in late 1545 or early 1546, the brothers fled the Kingdom of Naples. Determined, however, to eliminate Don Diego as well, they planted a spy on his staff. Don Diego, for his part, retained bodyguards. Upon learning that Don Diego was planning a visit to Bollita, Isabella's brothers returned, waited in ambush for him for two or three days, and attacked. Don Diego's bodyguards fled in terror and Don Diego was left in the road to die of his wounds (Mitchell 12).
Documents in the archives at Naples uncovered by Croce provide investigatory details of Don Diego's murder. On October 15, 1546, viceroy Pietro di Toledo wrote to Emperor Charles V requesting that Don Diego be removed from his responsibilities as castellan of Cosenza because he was guilty of contumacy. Seeking news of Don Diego, the viceroy communicated with Alonso Basurto, an old soldier of Charles V and governor of Basilicata, who informed him that Don Diego was dead. The viceroy so advised Charles V, who demanded an explanation as to how Don Diego had died, and the viceroy, in turn, ordered an inquiry.
As part of his investigation, Basurto interviewed Don Diego's widow, Antonia Carcciolo. His report of the interview, quoted by Croce and translated by Mitchel (13), states that Antonia:
complained against the baron of Favale [Marcantonio Morra] and his brothers, because she suspected that they killed her husband or had him killed, because it was said that he courted a sister of the baron and his brothers, and that they had found certain letters and sonnets that Don Diego sent her that she had yet to answer and give ear to, and for this reason, the public voice there rumors that the brothers murdered him
Irene Musillo Mitchell and Giovanni Caserta, two Morra scholars, believe that in referring to what was being "said" of her husband's "court[ing]" of Isabella, Antonia, while sympathetic, reveals her own doubts about the relationship (Mitchell 13). But, Antonia's statements are at most ambiguous comments taken down, who knows how accurately, by an investigator. Talk is cheap after all, and there may have been nothing more than a literary exchange at the bottom of this local gossip. And, of course, Isabella's brothers (and father) had a more practical motive for eliminating her, namely: to avoid ever having to pay out a dowry on her behalf. When the case reached Charles V, his imperial secretary summarized it in a note stating that Don Diego had died because of certain "frivolities…with a baron's sister" (Mitchell 13). The sister's name was apparently not considered important enough to record. One scholar has even suggested that it may have been the other Morra sister, Portia, rather than Isabella, who was murdered (Jaffe 150–151).
Ironically, after her death Isabella's brothers, except the oldest, also named Marcantonio, and the youngest, Camillo, who was living away from home, moved to France, where they were reunited with their father. Decio became a priest and abbot of an Augustinian abbey in Limoges; Cesare married a French woman with property in that area (Jaffe 162 n. 26). Only Marcantonio, the heir in possession of the estate, remained at Favale and served a long prison term for Don Diego's murder (Jaffe). Noting the "probable" complicity of Isabella's father in her murder (Cox 369), Cox cites politics as a possible motive "since Don Diego was Spanish" (Cox 397). Or, having abandoned his daughter, Giovan Michele might simply have been glad to be rid of her once and for all to avoid ever having to visit the issue of paying her dowry. Apparently nothing is known of her sister Portia, apart from the fact of her birth.
Sources and Influences
Morra's poetry was influenced primarily by classical literature, by Dante, and by Petrarch.
The historical record indicates that Morra's classical education was considerable. In addition to Latin, she is said to have studied with her brother Scipione, and history has recorded that Scipione was taught Greek by the castle pedagogue. It is likely, then, that Isabella, too, studied Greek as well as Latin and Italian literature. Her poetry abounds in classical allusions as well as in the use of classical poetic technique.
In addition, as a poet of the early Cinquecento, Morra was strongly influenced by Petrarch. The chief critic and arbiter of literary taste of the period, Pietro Bembo (later Cardinal) (1470–1547) initiated a sweeping Petrarchan revival. Petrarchan structure, especially the Petrarchan sonnet, as well as Petrarchan stylistic devices and imagery are extensively employed in Morra's poetry. Morra frequently echoes entire lines of Petrarch, remolding them in her own voice to striking effect.
Finally, in her concision and, in particular, her deft ability to sketch a character in a few words, or through a single gesture, Morra shows Dante's influence.
Morra's Poetical Works
Isabella di Morra's entire body of surviving poetical works is comprised of ten sonnets and three canzone. A "canzone" ("song") is usually a lyric poem of five to seven stanzas in length. The ordering of the poems is not Morra's own, but that of her first Venetian editors after her death.
In her poems, Morra moves through various stages of hope: hope that her father will send for her ("From a High Mountain Overlooking the Sea"; D'un alto monte onde si scorge il mare), hope that she will marry ("Sacred Juno, if Vulgar Lovers"; Sacra giunone, se i volgari amori), hope that she will gain recognition as a poet ("The Fierce Assaults of Cruel Fortune"; I fieri assalti di crudel Fortuna), hope that, thanks to her friend, her poems will become known and she will be crowned with the laurel ("What Pride You Can Take, My Beloved Siri"; Quanto pregiar ti puoi, Siri mio amato), hope that the poet, Luigi Alamanni, will recognize her as a poet ("Not Only Was Heaven Generous and Courteous To You"; Non sol il ciel vi fu largo e cortese).
Even from the scant record, it appears that Morra was sending her poems to acquaintances and, in Alamanni's case at the very least, to experienced, published poets in order to draw attention to herself and so escape Favale through recognition of her work. Likely, then, this was also the nature of her relationship with the Count. However personal and private her poetry may have been (Croce 311), there is no doubt that Morra wanted it published.
Coming to the end of her hope, Morra moves through stages of despair: first, despair in contemplating King Francis's failure in Southern Italy ("Fortune, That Raises to a High State"; Fortuna que solevi al alto stato), and despair at the wildness of the terrain ("Here, Then, Another Time, Infernal Valley"; Ecco ch'una altra volta, O valle inferna), to contemplation of suicide ("Turbid Siri, Heedless of my Pain"; Torbido Siri, del mio mal superbo), through recollection of her tragic life of isolation ("Now That You've Clipped the Wings of Fair Desire"; Poscia che al bel desir troncate hai l'ale), and through final despair and a premonition of impending death ("If to the Present Hope a New Obstacle"; Se A la propinqua speme nuovo impaccio), to ultimate abandonment of the world in favor of the spirit ("I Write with a Bitter, Sharp and Sorrowful Style"; Scrissi con stile amaro, aspro e dolente, and the two canzoni, "Lord Who, Until Now, by Your Great Mercy"; Signor, che insino a qui, tua gran merdede and "That Which in Days Gone By"; Quel che gli giorni a dietro). She seeks "release from her town, her brothers, her state of mind—and, ultimately, her life." (Robin 74, footnote omitted).
Among the most moving and personally revelatory of Morra's poems are the sonnet "Turbid Siri, Heedless of my Pain" (Torbido Siri, del mio mal superbo) and the canzone, "Now That You've Clipped the Wings of Fair Desire" (Poscia che al bel desir troncate hai l'ale), both haunting existential songs filled with a foreboding of doom. Reading them with the knowledge of hindsight as we do, they are chilling. They also employ themes and techniques that were to become typical Romantic tropes, such as use of the pathetic fallacy and placement of the melancholy poet alone confronted by destructive nature. Her poems remind us of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind," for example, or, to name an Italian poet closer to Morra in tone and worldview, of Leopardi's "To the Moon" and "L'Infinito". They are, as Croce observed, very personal and private (Croce 311). Here, then, is "Turbid Siri" (translation mine)5:
Turbid Siri, Heedless of my Pain
The River Siri ran near the Morra Castle
in remote Basilicata, Southern Italy
Turbid Siri, heedless of my pain,
now that I sense the end is drawing near,
please tell my father all that's happened here,
if destiny should bring him back again.
Explain how I, in dying, could abate
misfortune and a miserable fate
by my rare example: his unlucky daughter
consigns her sullen name to your dark waters.
And once he's reached your rocky riverside,
(but with that thought, what others you compel
in me, fierce star—how I've been thwarted and deprived!),
tell him, churning up storm-tossed waves in swells,
"They filled me like this, when she was alive—
her eyes, yes—yes, those rivers of Isabelle."
Torbido Siri, del mio mal superbo
Torbido Siri, del mio mal superbo,
or ch'io sento da presso il fine amaro
fa' tu noto il mio duolo al Padre caro,
se mai qui'l torna il suo destino acerbo.
Dilli come, morendo, disacerbo
l'aspra Fortuna e lo mio fato avaro
e, con esempio miserando e raro,
nome infelice a le tue onde io serbo.
Tosto ch'ei giunga a la sassosa riva
(a che pensar m'adduci, o fiera stella
come d'ogni mio ben son cassa e priva!)
inqueta l'onde con crudel procella,
e di': "M'accrebber si, mentre fu viva,
non gli occhi no, ma i fiumi d'Isabella."
The Siri River, at first simply hostile in greeting Isabella's pain with disdain (del mio mal superbo), becomes her confidant, and, finally, a sort of saving alter-ego as Isabella jumps in, preserving her name in its waves, and their identities merge. The turbulence of the river, swelling during a storm to mimic Isabella's mood, is of course a metaphor for Isabella's emotional state. This is typical of her work, in which "the ravaged landscape of her homeland…mirrored her own inner landscape" (Robin 74).
Morra uses the Latinate technique of beginning and ending the piece with the most important words, here "[t]urbid Siri" and "Isabella," placing special emphasis on them and, in this case, strengthening the ultimate identity of the two, as Isabella loses herself in the river's waves. The two characters—the river and Isabella herself—are equated, indeed conflated.
Note, too, the final, shocking detail as the raging river's waves are swollen as if by storms after Isabella's death, just as they were swollen by the "rivers" of water that streamed from her crying eyes when she was alive. It is almost Poe. The "cry me a river" motif is derived from Petrarch's line in his Sonnet 279, degli occhi tristi un doloroso fiume ("from your sad eyes a sorrowful river"). Morra's image, though, is the more ominous. Indeed, Morra, speaking as the River Siri, looks back at herself, and we join her in looking back at Isabella "when she was alive"—prior to her death as imagined by Morra the poet. In light of the horror of her real death—which we, the readers, have only too clearly in mind—the premonition of impending death distilled by the poet with such emotion has added poignancy.
Morra's work brings to mind that of Italy's leading Romantic poet, Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837). In Morra's "Turbid Siri" the poet is overcome by memories of her unfortunate life. Similarly, Leopardi declares to a dead young woman, "…the pain of my misfortune comes back to me" ("To Sylvia," line 35). Also in "Turbid Siri," Morra is alone in a natural landscape, addressing the River Siri. And, similarly, in "To the Moon" (lines 12-16), a solitary Leopardi laments to the moon "…now I remember, how I came up over this hill in pain to gaze at you" and "…how pleasant it is when you're young—and hope's road is still a long one, and memory's short—the memory of things past, even though sad, and how the hurt endures!" For Morra, nature is a hostile force, as it will be for Leopardi. He writes, again in "To Sylvia" (lines 36-39): O natura, O natura…perche di tanto inganni i figli tuoi? "…why deceive your children so?" And, like Morra in the final lines of "Turbid Siri," Leopardi, too, disintegrates into the waves, "So my mind is drowned in this immensity/and the shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea." L'Infinito, (line13–15) (all translations mine).
In fact, Leopardi and Morra had similar backgrounds. Like Morra, Leopardi grew up in his family's castle in a small, isolated, culturally backward, and conservative town, Recanati, in Italy's Marche Region. He felt trapped there and longed to escape. Like Morra, he was tutored at home by castle pedagogues and, precociously brilliant, educated himself in the classics and Italian literature through his father's extensive library. Leopardi's father had amassed an enormous library of some 20,000 volumes. Did it include the famous Giolito publishing firm's mid-Cinquecento anthologies? Morra's poems, after all, were in several of them. Like Morra, Leopardi viewed life as essentially tragic and nature as a destructive force. And, like Morra, Leopardi's life was basically tragic. Physically crippled, frequently ill, kept in poverty by aristocratic parents who refused to give him any money, bereft of the love he longed for, he died in Naples during the cholera epidemic of 1837 at the age of thirty-nine. But, of course unlike Morra, Leopardi was ultimately able to escape Recanati and live on his own, though in poverty, joining literary circles at Milan, Florence, Pisa, and Naples. And, unlike Morra, Leopardi published his work, to much acclaim, during his lifetime.
In her canzone, "Now That You've Clipped the Wings of Fair Desire", Morra reveals the depths to which her life had fallen (translation mine; the Italian text is provided in a note cited at the end of the poem):
Now That You've Clipped the Wings of Fair Desire
Now that you've clipped the wings of fair desire
that rose within my heart, malicious Fortune,
so that I must live starved of your affection,
I will say in this coarse, weak style
something of my inner pain,
caused by you alone, among these briars,
among these crude manners
of irrational people, devoid of intelligence,
where, with no support
I am constrained to lead my life,
stuck here by everyone in complete oblivion.
Since those few years of infancy
you deprived me of my father
who, if he is not already on the other shore,
must feel grave pangs of death for me,
as my pain redoubles his own suffering.
Caesar6 prevents him from helping me,
Oh, unheard-of thing,
to keep a father from caring for his daughter!
And so you've kept pursuing me full tilt, relentless Fortune,
ever since my cradle and my mother's milk.
What they call the flowering age
I spent here, all of it, blind and infirm,
withered and obscure, isolated and alone,
without ever knowing esteem for my beauty.
Any pity for me has been dead in you,
and you killed it in another, who could have
freed me from this perverse prison and moved
this shell of my tired soul,
which you are consuming hour by hour,
as the sun melts the white snow;
and it will melt away at last since I remain here.
Here, I do not experience woman's rightful place
because of you, who cast me so evil a lot
that death would be sweet life to me.
The wards of my beloved father
weep all around me. Aye, miserable fate,
to eat the bitter fruit that others picked;
we who never sinned,
our simplicity would pacify
a tiger, a serpent.
but, no, not you, more obdurate and fierce towards us
than Procne to her son and Medea to her brother.
Of affection, which your hand dispenses unjustly,
you have made me such a beggar that you clearly show
how much you are my enemy,
making my every intention vain
in this strange and solitary hell.
If I complain of you, so justly,
to relieve my mind,
then, by those who through ignorance misunderstand me,
alas, I am reproached:
If I'd been raised in the city,
you would have more blame, I, more pity.
The children of my miserable mother
should be the staff of her frail old age,
but because of your black tempests
they are in extreme and horrid indolence;
and that gentility handed down to us today
from the ancients will be finished for them
unless mercy from heaven
reaches the heart of the King of France
so that, weighing the harm with just balance,
he reckons a recompense
consistent with the merit of my faith.
Every wrong I forgive you,
nor will my soul ever again ache over you,
if you would just do this one thing—
aye, Fortune, and why shouldn't you do it?—
let my sighs reach the great King.7
Here, Dante's influence is plain in Morra's deft character sketch of her dissolute brothers. The children of her "miserable mother", who should be "the staff of her frail old age," live instead "in extreme and horrid indolence." We know these spoiled delinquents only too well. And, similarly, as to her own predicament, "If I complain…I am reproached." Critics have duly noted Morra's ability to "pack an intense psychological self-portrait into the space of a few lines." (Robin 74).
Yet here, as throughout her poetry, Isabella never blames her "dear" father for having abandoned her. In "Torbido Siri," for example, line 3, Isabella writes, "fa' tu noto il mio duolo al Padre caro," which means, literally, "inform my dear father of my pain8." Morra always places the blame elsewhere—on "cruel" Fortune or Charles V. Her loyalty is beyond pathetic, especially considering her father's likely involvement in her murder and, at any rate, the warm reception he gave her brothers in France after they'd finished her off. But, of course, she was in a position of such utter dependency and powerlessness; she couldn't have spoken out against her father no matter what she really thought of him.
As one scholar put it, "Given that her real life ended with her murder, the dominant theme of her work—the poet's search for a way out—had, and continues to have, a haunting resonance for modern as well as sixteenth-century readers of Morra" (Robin 76).
The After Life of Isabella di Morra
Scholars consider it most likely that Isabella di Morra's poems were discovered during the investigation into Sandoval's murder, "as the magistrates searched the [Morra] castle" (Mitchell 14; And see: Croce, 311). They were then sent to Naples, "where they were read with pity and admiration" (Mitchell, quoting Croce, furono letti con pieta e ammirazione). It would also seem possible that Sandoval, or the friend mentioned in Morra's sonnet as giving Morra "hope" that "laurel will crown" her head, identified by Croce as Giulia Orsini, had already forwarded Morra's work to Naples or elsewhere. According to Croce, it was the Neopolitan bookseller Marcantonio Passero who forwarded the poems to Ludovico Dolce, the progressive editor at Venice's leading Giolito publishing house (Croce). In this way, some of Morra's poems first appeared in 1552 in the first anthology of Neapolitan poets published by the Giolito firm, and edited by Dolce, Rime di diversi illustri signori napoletani e d'altri nobilissimi intelletti; nuovamente raccolte, et non piu stampate, Terzo libro ("An Anthology of Famous Neopolitan Poets and Other Great Writers, Recently Collected and Previously Unpublished, Book 3). (Robin 48). As Robin notes, "While Sandoval de Castro had no trouble publishing his collected Rime in 1542, even a partial publication of Morra's opus would have to wait until she had been dead for six years." (Robin 73–74). Ironically, then, as Croce believed, but for her murder, Morra may never have gained recognition as a poet (Mitchell, Croce 311).
Morra's work appeared "in batches" in Dolce's "four successive anthologies of Neapolitan poets" between 1552 and 1556 (Robin 73 & note 82). "But it was [Lodovico] Domenichi who gathered her ten sonnets and three canzoni together and published them as her complete oeuvre in his anthology of women, though he followed Dolce's ordering of the poems for the most part" (Robin 73). In 1559, then, Morra's entire known body of work appeared in the first ever anthology of women poets, Domenichi's Rime diversi delle donne9 (Robin 50-51, 72).
After the close of the century, the history of poetry by Cinquecento Italian women "is not a linear one." (Cox 38). The first revival of their work occurred at the end of the seventeenth century, "with the beginning of the classicizing Arcadian movement, which returned the idiom of sixteenth-century Petrarchism to fashion." (Cox) Between 1692 and 1701, the "Naples-based French publisher Antonio Bulifon…republished" work of a group of Cinquecento Italian women, including Morra, and also reissued Domenichi's 1559 women poets' anthology (Cox). "At the same time, contemporary women were once more beginning to contribute to the lyric tradition, as they had not for almost a century" (Cox). In 1726, Venetian editor and writer Luisa Bergalli published an anthology of Italian women poets "stretching back to the origins of Italian literature". It, too, included Morra (Cox 38-39). Bergali's anthology was the "most complete and comprehensive" collection of Italian Renaissance women's poetry prior to Cox's own 2013 collection (Cox). Finally, in the twentieth century, Croce rediscovered several Italian Renaissance women poets, including Morra.
Because Morra was a woman, her work—like that of all the other Italian Renaissance woman poets—was excluded from the cannon and out of print most of the time during the centuries following her death. Consequently, it is difficult to evaluate the extent of her influence. Recent research, however, suggests that it was substantial.
Fabio Finotti, for example, has illustrated how the women poets of the Cinquecento—Finotti notes especially Tulia d'Aragona, Gaspara Stampa, and Veronica Franco, but also Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara—contributed to the emergence of "a new poetic voice" (Finotti 121, 128). This voice moved away from Petrarchan tradition towards a more immediate, reality-based expression of earthly, unsublimated, mature, sensual love. And this voice "would prove fundamental to the psychology and rhetoric of such later major writers as Torquato Tasso." (Finotti 121). Morra's oeuvre does not include love poetry and she is not mentioned in Finotti's essay. Still, it is clear that Morra contributed to the development of this new lyric voice. Finotti elaborates on some of its other aspects as follows (at 132):
Something new resonates here both sensual and sentimental, a
melancholy of the body and the spirit that makes even poetic discourse
more moving, more expressive and musical. The female voice provides
a foundation for the new psychology and the new melancholy and sensual
rhetoric of Torquato Tasso, in turn a model for Italian and European poetry
of the seventeenth century.
The psychology of melancholy, as given voice by Morra and Tasso, is the specific subject of Juliana Schiesari's intriguing essay, "The Gendering of Melancholia: Torquato Tasso and Isabella di Morra". Tasso was, of course, the archetypal embodiment of the "cultural myth" of the "melancholic intellectual," the alienated artistic genius that emerged during the Renaissance and was later extolled by the Romantics, including Goethe and Byron, who admired Tasso's poetry and persona (Schiesari 239, 258)
There are striking similarities between Morra's life story and that of Tasso's mother. Like Morra's father, Torquato Tasso's father, Bernardo Tasso, was forced to flee Naples after his patron, the Prince of Salerno, ran afoul of the Spanish authorities. A child at the time, Torquato eventually followed his father into exile, leaving his mother, Porzia, in Naples "where she, like Isabella, was kept a prisoner by her brothers and may have been subsequently murdered by them." (Schiesari 247). Porzia died suddenly in 1556. Her family hadn't paid over her dowry to Bernardo before he left Naples, and after her death (and likely murder) they never did, despite Bernardo's repeated efforts to get his hands on the money. Bernardo was convinced that Porzia's brothers had poisoned her "to keep her dowry for themselves" (Schiesari, footnote omitted). In fact, Torquato never inherited his mother's property, and his sister, Cornelia, left behind in Naples, was forced to marry below her station by her dead mother's relatives.
Such murders were not as uncommon in Renaissance Italy as we'd like to think. Women were property and had few legal rights. One of the most memorable characters in Dante's Commedia is "La Pia", Pia dei Tolomei, married (for her dowry) by an unscrupulous man who sent her away to an isolated castle in the Maremma, an area notorious at the time as a malaria-infested swamp. She died soon after ("Purgatorio", Canto V, lines 130-136). And who could forget Robert Browning's "The Last Duchess," though Browning's character is, of course, fictitious, unlike La Pia, unlike Porzia, and unlike Isabella di Morra.
Schiesari focuses on Tasso's unfinished autobiographical poem, "Canzone al Metauro," which she finds strikingly similar to Morra's canzone, "Poscia che al bel desir troncate hai l'ale." She observes that "[a] cruel Fortune casts her unhappy spell in both poems." And she points out that Isabella is crossed by Fortune "beginning from mother's milk and from the cradle" (Schiesari 248, citing line 22 of Morra's canzone), while Tasso bemoans how "Me, from mother's breast impious Fortune/ a child divided" (Schiesari, citing Tasso's Canzone al Matauro, lines 30-31). Morra clearly derived her line from Petrarch, although, in the process of incorporating it into her own canzone, she completely transformed it. In his Canzone 359, Petrarch laments his loss of the deceased Lara, declaring, in effect, that he wished he'd never been born, " Ch'or fuss'io spento all latte e a la culla." ("If only it had ended for me with my mother's milk and my cradle"). But Morra's poem, and Tasso's, are totally unlike Petrarch's canzone. Petrarch's poem makes no mention of Fortune. Rather, the malign entry of Fortune into the picture, and the haunting mood of impending doom, are strictly Morra's innovations. Schiesari concludes that there is an overall "similarity [between Tasso's poem and Morra's]…lead[ing] one to suspect that Tasso had read her [Morra's] poem, especially if one considers that Tasso's library was well stocked, and he certainly must have been familiar with the two anthologies in which her work appeared." (Schiesari 248, note 40). Then, too, Tullia d'Aragona was one of the Giolito publishing house's best-selling authors, and a close personal friend of Bernardo Tasso. Both father and son were leading courtier/literati. Both had access to the finest libraries in Italy. The Giolito anthologies must certainly have been familiar to both of them.
As Schiesari demonstrates, Tasso, for his part, appropriates his mother's loss of life as his own loss, making himself the victim of "unjust and evil" Fortune, "What is at stake is his own persecution, his own loss of the mother…[a loss that is]…loudly heard and displayed, not only in the…poem but also throughout the history of Tasso's work" (249). In short, as far as Tasso is concerned, it's all about him. "When the loss is Tasso's," Schiasari explains, "it is elevated to high aesthetic status and becomes analyzed because his loss could also be the loss of other men. He becomes a symbol of the alienated and creative individual; he becomes celebrated; he and his language even become models." (261). As a man, in short, Tasso's "melancholia appears as a specific cultural form of male creativity, one whose narrative turned the experiences of disempowerment into a representational artifact" as other men are able to relate to his experience (Schiesari 241).
For Isabella, in contrast, "[l]oss is everywhere, but none of it is hers to claim. She can only lament her condition of disempowerment. Her loss is dependent on her father's power; she sees her loss to be his" (Schiesari). And Schiesari points to Isabella's declaration in her poem, O cosa non piu usida, privar il padre di giovar la figlia ("Oh, unheard of thing, to keep a father from caring for his daughter!") (translation mine).
Both her psychic and social realities clearly demarcate the relations between
dominance and forced submission which she, from her dislocated place,
articulates and which paradoxically allow us to read what is at stake in her
lament: the economy of gain and loss whose vectors cannot be determined
except from without. It is her father's loss; it is the gain of Charles V and
the King of France. (Schiesari 249–250)
Morra's voice, Morra's text, "has no public arena" so long as she remains unpublished (Schiesari) and, in fact, for the better part of centuries even after she was published. What is more, as Schiesari explains, Morra says, Qui non provo io di donna il proprio stato, "Here, I do not experience womans' rightful place". Ironically, while Morra laments that "her father's return would restore her to her 'proper station', where, we may assume,…[she] would reclaim the dowry she needed to marry," this "proper and independent state, however, is neither [proper nor independent], since it depends on her positioning by and within a patriarchal order" (Schiesari 251). Even in that "proper" state, "her social as well as discursive disempowerment would remain" (Schiesari). Or, we can read "proper state" as referring to "her libidinal position as a desiring subject (as an object of desire)," a desire Morra expresses: "Blind and infirm, I have spent all [my youth] here/without ever knowing praise of beauty" [25-26] (translation Schiesari's 251). Isabella's narcissism here, Schiasari emphasizes, is "decidedly different from that of a poet such as Tasso.…[Morra's] is marked by a desire to return to one of the only 'public' spaces available to her—as an object of desire." (Schiasari).
In short, while Tasso's melancholy renders him an alienated artistic genius as he transforms his disempowerment into art, Morra simply remains disempowered. Or does she? Tasso, perhaps by appropriating, in addition to his mother's "loss," the new personal, lyric voice of Cinquecento women poets, went on to exercise a profound influence over Seventeenth Century European poetry. He entered "the canon," from which Morra and all of the other Cinquecento Italian women poets were excluded for centuries (Schiesari 259–261). "Furthermore," Schiesari observes, "the canon, as an instance of patriarchal authority, legitimates itself through an imaginary literary historiocity precisely because it does not recognize certain articulations of disempowerment. Thus, a 'victim,' such as Isabella di Morra, is denied a legitimate voice of pathos and mourning in literary form." (261).
Or is she? Morra wrote, despite the constraints of her social position, despite "her position of extreme marginalization" (Schiesari 262). She was published in the Giolito anthologies. Despite her murder—perhaps because of it—Morra now appears to have won the poetic immortality she so desperately desired.
1 Croce's is buried in a tomb in the Pantheon in Rome, an indication of the high esteem in which he is held in Italy.
2 Basilicata is well known today as the setting of Carlo Levi's popular 1945 novel, Christ Stopped at Eboli. As a young doctor, from 1935–1936 Levi was "exiled" under Mussolini to a small town in Basilicata as punishment for anti-fascist activities. It was Mussolini's practice to send political opponents of fascism into "exile" in backward, impoverished areas of Southern Italy.
3 Croce, however, cites authority for the proposition that the town's name was derived from fabalis (Croce 300 and note 3).
4 For further discussion of the education of women in Italy during the Cinquecento, see: the discussion in my Timeline essay, "Veronica Franco," in the section, "The Women Poets' Renaissance in Italy."
5 My translation of "Turbid Siri, Heedless of my Pain" was originally published on the Sonnet Scroll of the online journal Poetry Porch.
6 King Charles V of Spain.
7 The Italian text for "Now That You've Clipped the Wings of Fair Desire" is:
Poscia che al bel desir troncate hai l'ale
Poscia che al bel desir troncate hai l'ale,
che nel mio cor sorgea, crudele Fortuna,
sì che d'ogni tuo ben vivo digiuna,
dirò con questo stil ruvido e frale
alcuna parte de l'interno male
causato sol da te fra questi dumi,
fra questi aspri costumi
di gente irrazzional, priva d'ingegno,
ove senza sostegno
son costretta a menare il viver mio,
qui posta da ciascuno in cieco oblio.
Tu, crudel, de l'infanzie in quei pochi anni,
del caro genitor mi festi priva,
che, se non è già pur ne 'altra riva,
per me sente di morte i gravi affanni,
chè l'mio penar raddoppia glia suoi danni.
Cesar gli vieta il poter darmi aita.
O cosa non più udita,
privar il padre di giovar la figlia!
Cosi, a disciolta briglia,
seguitata m'hai sempre, empia Fortuna,
cominciando dal latte e da la cuna.
Quella ch'è detta la fiorita etade,
secca ed oscura, solitaria ed erma
tutta ho passata qui cieca ed inferma,
senza saper mai pregio di beltade.
È stata per me morta in te pietade,
e spenta l'hai in altrui, che potea sciorre
e in altra parte porre
dal carcer duro il vel de l'alma stanca,
che, come neve bianca
dal sol così da te si strugge ogni ora
e struggerassi infin che qui dimora.
Qui non provo io di donna il proprio stato
per te, che posta m'hai in si ria sorte
che dolce vita mi saria la morte.
I cari pegni del mio padre amato
piangon d'intorno. Ahi, ahi, misero fato,
mangiare il frutto ch'altri colse, amaro
quei che mai non peccaro,
la cui semplicità faria clemente
una tigre un serpente,
ma non già te, vêr noi più fiera e rea
ch'al figlio Progne ed al fratel Medea.
Del ben, ch'ingiustamente la tua mano
dispensa, fatta m'hai tanto mendica,
che mostri ben quanto mi sei nemica,
in questo inferno solitario e strano
ogni disegno mio facendo vano.
S'io mi doglio di te sì giustamente
per isfogar la mente,
da chi non son per ignoranze intesa
i'son, lassa, ripresa:
chè, se nodrita già fossi in cittade,
avresti tu più biasmo, io più pietade.
Baston i figli la fral vecchiezza
esser dovean di mia misera madre;
ma per le tue procelle inique ed adre
sono in estrema ed orrida fiacchezza:
e spenta in lor sarà la gentillezza
dagli antichi lasciata a questi giorni,
se dagli alti soggiorni
pietà non giugne al cor del Re di Francia,
che, con giusta bilancia
pesando il danno, agguaglie la mercede
secondo il metro di mia pura fede.
Ogni mal ti perdono,
nè l'alma si dorrà di te giamai
se questo sol farai
(ahi, ahi, Fortuna, e perchè far non dêi?)
che giugnano al gran Re gli sospir miei.
8 For aesthetic and technical reasons, I've completely omitted the word "dear," and any other translation into English of the Italian "caro," from my own translation of the poem "Turbid Siri, Heedless of my Pain" (Torbido Siri, del mio mal superbo).
9 For a more detailed discussion of the importance of Domenichi's 1559 anthology of women poets in the context of the Cinquecento, see the discussion in my Timeline essay, "Veronica Franco," in the section, "The Women Poets' Renaissance in Italy."
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