2300-2200 BCE800-9001000-11001100-12001200-13001300-14001500-16001600-17001700-18001800-19001900-2000Mezzo Cammin
Gaspara Stampa: To Live in Fire and Never Feel the Pain
by Wendy Sloan

aspara Stampa—now considered the greatest Italian woman poet ever—played a stellar role in Cinquecento Venetian society as a virtuosa musician, singer, and, ultimately, as a poet of the first stature. Yet after her death she was virtually forgotten for centuries.

Born in 1523 and reaching the height of her career in the 1540s, Stampa lived at the end of the late or High Renaissance: the Mannerist Period. Mannerism as an artistic movement is perhaps most readily recognized today through Parmigianino's painting, "Madonna of the Long Neck" (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). Mannerism is characterized by ornament, exaggeration, and self-conscious allusion to predecessors in form, content and technique. The noted art critic Robert Hughes described "... the tricks and tropes of Mannerist painting ... the arty metaphors and elaborate concetti" (Hughes 261). Much the same is true of Mannerist literature, and Stampa's poems can fairly be said to have these qualities. Yet Stampa's eloquence, her charm, lyricism, and, above all, her wit prevent her poems from falling into the traps of superficiality and hollowness that sometimes characterize Mannerist work of lesser quality. Then, too, Stampa's passionate woman's voice was something new in the world or, at least, reborn since ancient times; Sappho is evoked in the opening sonnet of Stampa's Rime d'amore (1554).

Stampa stood or, more accurately, self-consciously posed at the summit of a rich poetic tradition harking back to Sappho and including the Latin poets (notably Virgil, Catullus, and the writers of Roman love elegy, e.g. Ovid), the medieval Provençal poets, the Sicilian sonneteers, the dolce stil nuovo poets of Dante's youthful circle, the mature Dante himself, Petrarch and Boccaccio. What one scholar has said of the Roman love elegy is equally true of Stampa's work: it "could not have been written at an 'uncluttered desk'" (James 3). But Stampa did not merely mimic the (mostly) male masters who preceded her. She skillfully adapted and transformed their methods to serve her own, wholly feminine agenda in portraying a passionate woman in love.

Stampa worked actively in the musical arts as a practicing musician and singer.1 The Venetian salon—and the Venetian literary and intellectual club—gave her access to the highest social and artistic society (Smarr 61-62) and allowed Stampa a degree of independence unavailable to most women of her day.

Stampa composed some 300 poems, over 200 of which (mostly sonnets) narrate the story of her love affair with Collaltino di Collalto, Count of Treviso. She probably sang these sonnets in the salons, performing before leading intellectuals, artists, politicians, and aristocrats, both in Collaltino's presence and during the long absences while he was away fighting in France.2 For, "[t]he sixteenth century was a time when, through the development of the madrigal, music and poetry drew especially close to each other...[and] the revival of Petrarch as the major poetic model...was paralleled by the notion that such poetry should be set to music and sung" (Smarr 66).

Through the Venetian salon, Stampa's "talented celebration of the aristocratic object of her devotion [Collaltino] gave her, the daughter of a merchant, the continued access she desired to noble society." (Smarr 66) Her explicit goal was "to use both poetry and song to raise her social status" (66). Simply stated, "because her aim is social self-enhancement, she writes not just as a form of private self-expression, but as a public performance that will bring her attention and praise" (69). In fact, with the Count away in France most of the time, "her audience is less her lover than the social circle that is allowed to 'overhear' her confessions and complaints." (70)

Stampa's sonnets give much the same impression of "naked autobiographical confession" that W.H. Auden found "astonishing" in Shakespeare's (Auden 244). Yet how realistically they portray her relationship with Collaltino cannot be known. Her poetry was rediscovered by the Romantics, who celebrated her direct confessional voice. Rilke, for one, found Stampa's sonnets compellingly sincere.3

But it is likely, considering the culture of her day, that Stampa was more concerned with fidelity to art and to the cultivation of her own poetic voice than to such notions of sincerity and personal self-expression as came to define the Romantic artist: "It is not the sentiment that was taken seriously [by Stampa's audience], but the artistry" (Smarr 77). As Smarr observes, "Her prefatory letter to her beloved Count Collalto, whose very name ('high hill') is used in her poems to link the poetic and social heights to which she aspires, offers her poems not as a lover's complaint or demand but as entertainment and praise that can do her good even if her love is not requited:...[Italian text omitted]:

And do not think, your lordship, that I have done this to make you recognize your cruelty, for it cannot be called cruelty where there is no obligation, nor to make you sad about it; but rather to make you aware of your greatness and to gladden you ... since even by tormenting me you still help me and do me good. (Smarr 70; emphasis added).

Stampa's dual intent—both "to be a successful entertainer who can enjoy the pleasures of upper-class society" and to be a successful poet whose poetry will make her immortal—explains two qualities in her work that seem from our twenty-first century viewpoint contradictory: the tragic theme (or pose she assumes) in many of the poems and her wit (Smarr 70). Yet some of the poems "even present themselves as performances"; "self-staging" and "role-acting" are common elements (72-73).


Stampa was born in 1523 in Padua, Italy. The details of her life, which remain somewhat obscure, have been gleaned chiefly from correspondence, civic records, and the many dedications and tributes from prominent intellectuals and musicians extended to her chiefly in the last decade of her life and upon her early death in 1554.

Her father, Bartolemeo, a successful jeweler, descended from a noble Milanese family but had fallen into the urban bourgeoisie. Her mother, Cecilia, also appears to have come from a good family. In 1530, Gaspara's father died and her mother moved with their three children back to her native Venice. In Padua and in Venice the Stampa children—Gaspara, her older brother Baldassare, and her younger sister Cassandra—received a first-rate education equal to that provided to the children of aristocratic families, including Latin and Italian literature, Greek, rhetoric, and music. Stampa's musical training was of the highest caliber (Stortoni & Lillie x; Tylus 6). Her teachers included Perissone Cambio, a prominent composer associated with the major composers of mid-Cinquecento Venice, including Capriano de Rore and Adrian Willaert (Smarr 61).4

By the mid 1540s, Cecilia's home was the site of a salon frequented by intellectuals, musicians and poets who gathered around Gaspara's brother, Baldassarre, himself an aspiring poet.5 The two sisters, and especially Gaspara, achieved acclaim for their musical talents. In addition to her mother's salon, Stampa performed in the salon of the prominent patrician Domenico Venier that was frequented by a mix of aristocrats, men of letters, artists and musicians including such luminaries of the period as the literati Sperone Speroni (her fellow Paduan) and Ludovic Dolce, the gentleman poet Girolamo Molino, and Girolamo Parabosco, a composer and the organist at St. Mark's (Smarr 62).

Sometime before 1544, Baldassare left Venice for Padua to study law and died shortly thereafter at the age of 19, leaving the women of the family without male protection. Gaspara appears to have suffered a religious and moral crisis in response to her brother's death and, as documented in her correspondence with her relative, Suor Angelica Paola de Negri, abbess of the Convent of San Paolo in Milan, she considered becoming a nun (Stortoni & Lillie xii). Nonetheless, her fame and stature as a singer continued to grow and more artists and intellectuals attended her salon, including the painters Tiepolo and Giorgio Benzone (xii-xiii).

Shortly after Baldassare's death his friend, the intellectual and literary critic Francesco Sansovino, dedicated several works to Gaspara as a tribute to her deceased brother. In the introductory dedication to his edition of Boccaccio's Ameto, Sansovino refers to Gaspara's "most perfect judgment" in interpreting Boccaccio and suggests that she instruct certain young men who had been debating whether Boccaccio was the equal of Castiglione.6 Sansovino also dedicated to Stampa his 1545 edition of a lecture on poetry that had been delivered by Benedetto Varchi at Padua in 1540. This second dedication resulted in the first known mention of Stampa in English when, in 1615, Varchi's lecture was translated and re-published in London by one Richard Toste, who wrote of Varchi:

As he grew in yeeres, so did hee profit in Learning, and in his youthful time dedicated himselfe unto the virtuous Service of a faire and learned Gentlewoman, called Gaspara Stampa (as by the Epistle written before you may perceive), hee making account of her, more for the beautie of her minde, than for that of her body, she being as much admired for her excellent Qualities, as any one Gentlewoman of her time in all Italy.7

Similarly, the composer Parabosco (then-organist at St. Mark's) praised Stampa—apparently as a poet as well as a singer—in one of his 1545 Lettere Amorose (Italian omitted):

"Who ever heard such delightful and sweet words? Who ever heard more lofty conceits? What shall I say of that angelic voice, which, whenever it strikes the air with its divine accents, makes such sweet harmony that ... it pours spirit and life into the coldest stones, making them weep for excessive sweetness?"8

Undoubtedly, the beauty of Stampa's voice accounted for her early success and growing fame as a performer. Orazio Brunetto, who attended Stampa's salon and wrote several letters to her, mentioned a mutual acquaintance who never reread Petrarch's Sonnet 126, Chiare, fresche et dolci acque, without hearing in his imagination Stampa's musical rendition of it (Smarr 62 & n.6; Tylus 10 & n.30).

Although Stampa's reputation as a virtuosa is well-established by the contemporary record, it is less clear how she performed. Most likely her usual mode of performance was as a solo singer, accompanying herself on the lute or viol (Smarr 22; Tylus 10-11). She may have applied the common technique at the time, known as recitar cantando, of adapting a few appropriate phrases of melody to various verses. Books of simple melodies for singing sonnets and capitoli were popular and in general circulation. As Smarr observes, "The lack of existing music composed specifically for Stampa's poetry, together with Stampa's almost total concentration on the poetic forms of the sonnet and capitoli, for which such generalized melodies were available, supports the notion that she used this kind of pre-composed 'aria'" (Smarr 65).

It is likely at one of her performances that Stampa met Count Collaltino di Collalto in 1548. She was already at the peak of her musical career, renowned and admired (Stortoni & Lillie, iii). Like Dante and Petrarch, and true to Provençal and dolce stil nuovo poetic traditions, Stampa assertedly fell madly in love at first sight (Sonnet Number 2). The Count, however, is consistently portrayed as cold, aloof, haughty. Puns on his name— "high hill" ("colle alto" or "collalto") —punctuate the sonnets.

According to the sonnets, the relationship was consummated and the dashing, handsome young count of enormous wealth and highest pedigree became Stampa's lover. It was a tempestuous relationship. Because of the social gulf, it was likely understood (between them and by salon society) that they would not marry; he also seems to have been incapable of returning her love with equal intensity (Stortoni & Lillie xv).

The relationship "changed the [primary] direction" of Stampa's career from musician/singer to poet (xv). After a year, Collaltino went off to fight in France and Stampa, left behind, continued to write, complaining bitterly in sonnets addressed directly to the Count. She never heard from him. He didn't respond to her many letters and love poems (Stortoni & Lillie xx). Collaltino returned to Venice and took up with Stampa again but, before long, he went back to France. Stampa became jealous. What were the women like in Paris? During this period, Stampa associated with such leading intellectuals as Varchi, Venier, and Luigi Domenichi and it was likely at this time that she was invited to join the Accademia dei Dubbiosi (the Doubtful Ones) —a prestigious intellectual club9—taking the name of "Anasilla" from the River Piave ("Anaxum" in Latin) that ran through Collaltino's property (Stortoni & Lillie, xxi). Collaltino returned again but it didn't last long and, in 1551, they broke up.

Instead of committing suicide—like Dido—or falling apart, Gaspara Stampa found another man. And not just any man. Bartolomeo Zen was by all accounts the better match for Stampa: a patrician intellectual with whom Stampa shared "a tender relationship based on a correspondence of interests and sensibilities" (Stortoni 136). In one of her most beautiful and accomplished sonnets, Sonnet Number 206 (discussed below), written not to the Count, but to Zen, Stampa declared that this second flame "burned hotter than the first."

In 1553, however, Stampa's health declined. She died in 1554 in the house of Geronimo Morosini, "where her mother had first brought her family" (Tower & Tylus 12).

Only a handful of Stampa's sonnets were published during her lifetime, but several months after her death her sister Cassandra published a collection of Stampa's Rime d'Amore. After that, Stampa's work fell into obscurity for some two centuries until Collaltino's descendent, Antonio Rambaldo, commissioned a republication in 1738 (Stortoni & Lillie xxiii). The definitive text has been Albdelkader Salza's edition: Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco, Rime (Bari: Laterza, 1913). Salza rearranged portions of the 1554 text "aggressively, mostly with a view to giving the whole volume...a strong penitential conclusion" that has left contemporary critics "generally...unconvinced" (Braden 136 & n. 16). In 2010 the University of Chicago published a bi-lingual edition edited by Troy Tower and Jane Tylus, restoring the original order and providing the finest English translations (by Tylus) to date.

It is impossible to ignore the ongoing debate over whether or not Stampa was a courtesan of some sort. Unlike Veronica Franco (1546-1591) —another Venetian poet—Stampa wasn't renowned specifically as a courtesan (and for her amatory skills). There is no direct proof whatsoever that Stampa was a courtesan, a fact strongly suggesting that she was not. All surviving contemporary references to her, with one exception (see: notes 4 & 13 below), address her as a singer or poet. Yet Stampa's position as a musician and singer, her free circulation with men in society through that work, her notorious affair with the Count and her second love affair outside holy matrimony with Zen were more than enough to damage her reputation.10

As the prominent Italian liberal intellectual and philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) famously said, Stampa "was not a courtesan by trade, as some contemporaries classified her, but certainly a woman outside the rules, probably a virtuosa of music and singing, with the free and easy attitudes of life and the equivocal relationships that the [musical] profession brought with itself, and almost justified" (Stortoni 135).11 (See: e.g. Braden 131).

Frank J. Warnke's discussion of the cortigiana onesta ("honorable" or "honest" "courtesan") is instructive in this connection. In fifth-century B.C. Greece, the institution of the hetaira, a prostitute who provided "intellectual companionship" as well as "sexual satisfaction," developed (14). Similarly, the docta puella ("learned girl") of the Roman elegiac poets Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid developed in the sophisticated urban environment of Augustan Rome.12 And similarly, the cortigiana onesta emerged in the sophisticated urban society of Renaissance Venice (Warnke 15-16). Stampa's educated audience, well versed in the Latin love elegy and familiar with the docta puella, might have viewed Stampa as speaking, at least in some sense, in the role of the addressee of Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid.13

But Stampa's career trajectory fits another narrative pattern through which a woman of the early modern period could succeed in meaningful work despite the heavy constraints of what Warnke calls "officially misogynistic" Western society. Like the Baroque artist Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1652), who was trained as a painter by her father, Orazio, or the English silversmith Hester Bateman (1708-1794), who successfully ran the family business after her husband's death, Stampa made her entree into salon society as the sister of her poet-brother, Baldassare. It was not as a fallen woman that Stampa first escaped the confines of domestic life, but under her brother's protection.


Stampa's poetry is rich in imagery, word-play and allusion, echoing millennia of poetic tradition, technique and trope. The immediate influence was Petrarch, of course. His work dominated the 16th Century and "as an Italian lyric poet of the Cinquecento, Stampa is inevitably Petrarchan" (Warnke 18). But as a woman living and writing in the restrictive patriarchal society of Cinquecento Venice, Stampa significantly altered Petrarch. Indeed, "the enterprise by which she adapts and modifies Petrarchan convention to her own situation is one of the most impressive aspects of her artistic achievement" (Warnke 18).

Like Petrarch, she "retains the pose" of "adoring a cold and distant love" (Warnke 18). But unlike Petrarch's Laura, Stampa's beloved is no chastely pure unobtainable woman but an emotionally distant man whose coldness comes not from his "chastity" or "moral superiority" but because "having enjoyed his mistress, he has abandoned her" (18). Physical desire for Stampa is not "expressed in fantasy or daydream," as in Petrarch, but is instead firmly rooted "in the memory of the joy of past fulfillment" (18). Instead of Petrarch's prolonged unrequited love, Stampa's Rime proceed—almost from the beginning—with an assumption of love fulfilled. "Her frustration characteristically looks backward, toward 'la memoria ardente/del diletto provato, c'han disperso' (Rime 171.13-14) [the ardent memory of the known delight that has dispersed]) rather than forward; her Petrarchan voice speaks from a narrative that begins on the other side of the point which Petrarch's own story never reaches" (Braden 131),

By whatever inducements, Stampa almost uniquely makes her way to the key discovery: that on her side of the gender line consummated desire is the beginning of lyric empowerment. It is the discovery of how the next chapter of the Petrarchan story goes... Suppose the man got what he wanted; might he then have nothing to say? Stampa's sequence dramatizes that possibility ... To her he is, within and outside her poetry, silent, and she spends most of her sequence parsing that silence. She has become the one with something, everything to say. Sexual love, at least in this context, is the vanishing point between female and male silence (131; emphasis added).

A case in point is the famous Sonnet 104 (see: Appendix, below), her "(not quite) morning-after sonnet" (Braden 130). Stampa's first tercet "probably remembers two famous stanzas [from Petrarch] about an endless night with Laura (Canzioniere 22.31-36, 237.31-36" (130). Petrarch's sonnet, though, imagines lovemaking that he "knows will never happen" (130), while Stampa describes "an achieved fact, its aura still with her" (130). The poem is "[a]nother instance of going beyond Petrarch" (Tower & Tylus 22).

Note, too, the song-like characteristics of Stampa's poetic technique. Take, for example, the first quatrain, with its word repetition ('piu" "chiara" "beata" and, of course, "notte"), repeated parallel phraseology, frequent internal rhyme in addition to the strict end rhyme, and lilting, dance-like meter: "O notte, a me piu chiara e piu beata/ che i piu beati giorni ed i piu chiari/ notte degna da primi e da piu rari/ ingegni esser, non pur da me, lodata". ("O night, to me more luminous and blessed/than the most blessed and luminous of days,/night worthy of being praised/by the rarest geniuses, not just by me") (translation Tylus's; see Appendix, below). The "laude" ("praises") formerly rendered to God by San Francesco (in his poetry) and Jacopone da Todi are here given instead to the remembered night of love—to the "notte...lodata."

Most importantly, unlike Petrarch, Stampa neither repents her passionate attraction to her lovers nor sublimates her love into religious experience.

The courage of such an endeavor and the inherent risks play out in the history of Stampa's legacy. "Greeted first by a silence that ignored and denied it a place in literary history and then by biographical interpretation that either sentimentalized or imputed promiscuity to its author," Stampa's Rime has only recently "received consideration as art" (Moore 62). Sadly,"[w]e can gauge what such writers had to fear from the posthumous abuse, heavy with sexual insult, that Stampa received," and that likely contributed to "denying her...the poetic fame which she sounded so confident would be hers" (Braden 131).14

Throughout her poems, Stampa herself is the hero. As Warnke observes, the male Petrarchan poet through his devotion to his "distant and virtuous lady" is "simultaneously expressing erotic longing, transmuting that longing into religious transcendence and establishing contact with...his own creativity" (Warnke, 18 & n.6) But the notion of a male Muse is "clearly ridiculous," and in any case "the unfaithful Collalto in no sense fulfills a Muse function." (Warnke) He is, instead, the mere "agency, the occasion, through which Gaspara's creative and erotic energy is liberated" while that "energy has its ultimate source in Stampa herself." (Warnke) The "double burden" on Stampa of 'inspiring and being inspired demands a singular kind of heroism" (Warnke).

Stampa found precedent for her heroic voice in Boccaccio's figure of Fiammetta in Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta (1343-44). In that work Boccaccio, assuming the woman's voice, portrays a woman whose story "takes some un-Petrarchan turns when [her] lover successfully seduces his lady" (Braden 132). And Stampa found other paradigms in the ancients, notably, first in the consummate heroic abandoned woman, the Dido of Virgil's Aeneid (See, e.g. Tylus 16) and second, in the voices of the multiple heroines—nearly all of them abandoned women and including Dido —adopted by Ovid in his Heroides (Phillipy 3). Like Ovid's, Stampa's "leverage comes in shifting the contest from military achievement to [the] subjective experience [of the abandoned woman], indeed replacing public endeavor with what by the end is proclaimed as a cosmic subjectivity" (Braden 126).15 Such a "retreat" from epic, after all, "defines the elegiac vein" (Tower & Tylus 26).

The Poems

Two sonnets in particular—Sonnet 1 and Sonnet 206 of Stampa's Rime—illustrate many of the predominant characteristics of her work (see below: Appendix, for the full text of the two sonnets, with English translations by Jane Tylus. The translations of all excerpts from these two sonnets in the discussion below are also Tylus's unless otherwise specified).

Sonnet 1

Sonnet 1 sets the tone, methodology and direction of the entire sequence in motion. The first line is obviously a close adaptation of the first lines of Petrarch's opening sonnet of Rerum vulgarium fragmenta.16 For his "Voi ch' ascoltate in rime sparse il suone/di quei sospiri ond 'io nudriva 'l core" ("You who hear in scattered rhymes the sound/of those sighs with which I nourished my heart"), Stampa kicks off with, "Voi ch' ascoltate in queste meste rime/ In questi mesti, in questi oscuri accenti/ Il suon de gli amorosi miei lamenti" ("You who hear in these troubled rhymes/ in these troubled, in these dark accents/ the sound of my amorous laments"). From the outset, Stampa signals at one and the same time both her close adherence to Petrarch and her stark deviation from him, for hers are no mere "sighs" "nourish[ing]" the heart but full-blown "amorous laments" (Moore 63). In contrast to Petrarch's first sonnet, Stampa's rhymes are "mournful but not scattered" (Braden 122).

Note here, again, the song-like quality of Stampa's lightly handled line, achieved in part through internal and end rhyme and in part through frequent repetition (here of "meste/mesti" and "queste/questi"). The melodious assonance of the Italian vowels (and, regrettably, much of the poetry) is lost in translation.

Where Petrarch expresses his hope to "find pity, not only 'pardon'", Canzioniere 1.8, Stampa hopes that her poetry will bring her glory (Braden 122). Stampa's hope, the purpose expressed repeatedly in her work—to find glory among the well-born (lines 6-7, "Gloria, non che perdon, de 'miei lamenti/spero trovar fra la ben nate gente", "Glory, and not only pardon, from my laments, I hope to find among the well-born [people]" (translation mine). ) —is placed "boldly at the head of her sequence" (122). And this "glory not only contrasts with Petrarch's 'pity'": it also "implies...poetic recognition" (Moore 65). At the same time, in claiming "valor" (line 4) ("virtus" in Latin), an ancient and "military virtue most often attributed to men," she "redefine[s] the moral traits associated with the genders" (66).

Stampa displays herself "as a spectacle that entertains the well-born" and "revels...in her performance" (Moore 65). While the device of addressing a discerning audience of gentle folk sympathetic to or familiar with love's ways was traditional (e.g. Dante's "To every heart which the sweet pain doth move," "All ye that pass along Love's trodden way," Vita Nuova 3, 5), and also used by Petrarch (Braden 122), Stampa's stated "desire to use both poetry and song to raise her social status", openly expressed "starting with the very first poem" (Smarr 66-67), is something else again—something more bourgeois and modern.

From the outset, then, Stampa "unapologetically assumes the role of erotic and poetic subject...genders the position as female...and defines her [speaker] as a female exemplifying and valorizing female speech" (Moore 63).

In the sonnet's last lines, Stampa evokes Sappho through an allusion to Petrarch's Triumphus Cupidinis, 4.25-26, in which Petrarch "refers to Sappho's parity with famous male poets, 'Una giovene greca a paro a paro/coi nobili poeti iva cantando' (a young Greek girl went singing alongside the noblest of poets)" (Tower & Tylus 21 & n.52). Such layering of multiple allusion—carried off by Stampa in an apparently simple, effortlessly graceful line—is typical of her, and it was precisely the kind of elaborate Mannerist conceit likely to appeal to her audience. Stampa announces, from the first, her desire to walk "a paro" with Sappho.17

The trope of addressing a group of women (lines 9-14) is also characteristically employed by Stampa in many of her sonnets. Dante addressed an audience specifically of women in the most famous poem of his Vita Nuova, "Ladies that have intelligence in love".18 In Stampa, though, this device comes into play more frequently—appearing in some eight of the poems—and it clearly performs a different gender function, giving her opportunities both to define herself and to expose women's social position and relationships—here, of dependency and rivalry (Braden 121; Moore 65-71). Stampa's tercets conjure a female audience who will envy her experience with the Count.

Stampa's "self-referentiality as a poet," here and throughout her work, "... depicts...[her] specifically as a woman poet" and "makes her poetry a display of form, wit and intellect, of poetic making that implicitly refutes...[her society's] limited views of women" (Moore 232). In many of her concepts and metaphors, too, Stampa "undermines the gendered dualisms of master discourse that associate women with matter and chaos, men with spirit, form and mind" (Moore 59 & n. 3). In another poem, Sonnet 8, Line 8, for example, with its sexually charged play on "la pena e la penna" or "the pen and the pain," Stampa "likens erotic lack to poetic prowess, using the pun to aurally and visually represent that likeness" (58-59). Her display of artistic mastery belies her protestations that she is merely an "abject and vile" woman (Sonnet 8, line 1). No doubt her audience found her self-deprecation witty, ironic, and amusing, no less so because it follows from the tradition of the Roman love elegists (who frequently articulated their alleged inferiority to the epic poets) and from the "Petrarchan heritage of self-affirming false modesty...[in the face of] the actual accomplishment of the poems" (Moore 83).

Sonnet 206 (Sonnet 208 in Salza's edition)

The theme of this, perhaps the most beautiful of all Stampa's work, is the re-birth of love; it concerns not Count Collalto, but Bartolomeo Zen. The sonnet "demonstrates...many...elements...in Stampa's self-construction through poetic self-reference: her display of intellectual and erotic wit, her concern with the substance of women, her foregrounding of the issues of gender, agency, and power, and her ambitious poetic desire" (Moore 87).

Stampa likens herself to a salamander and to a phoenix: "Amor m'ha fatto tal ch'io vivo in foco/ qual nova salamandra al mundo, e quale/l'altro di lei non men stranio animale/ che vive e spira nel medesmo loco" ("Love has made me such that I live in fire/some new salamander come to earth and that/ other, animal, no less strange/ that lives and dies in one and the same place." Translation mine) Stampa apparently took the metaphorical image of the salamander from Petrarch (Conzoniere 207.40-41) (Braden 134). The image of the phoenix may also echo Petrarch, at Rime 185, in which a plumed Laura, dressed in red, burns the poet/speaker (Moore 88-89).

In Stampa, however, the phoenix is the female poet herself, speaking from inside the bird's burning body. Like the phoenix, like the salamander, the poet lives in fire, and vows "viver ardendo e non sentire il male" ("to live burning and not feel the pain"). The Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio (1863-1938) adopted this line as his motto. The phoenix's rebirth "symbolizes the poet's poetic—as well as erotic—rebirth" (Moore 87). Fire is the poet's natural element, just as it is the natural element of the salamander and the phoenix. That not only a second love, but "further loves, further deaths and rebirths" may follow this one, is implicit in the poet's hedging devises— "she chooses to feel the fire as joy...she chooses not to care for the beloved's pity...the phrase fin qui...'so far,' or 'until this point,' suggest[s] an independent ability to desire more than one person" (Moore 90-91). In the final line's expression of her hope that her lover will "resti de l'arder mio pago e contento", Stampa evokes the satisfaction of passionate ardor (Moore 91). Here, "...Stampa's speaker ...incorporates her knowledge of myth, intellect, wit and sexual passion in ways that women poets in English will not risk until the twentieth century" (Moore 91).

The central image and metaphor of this, Stampa's most famous sonnet—that of living in perpetual fire—may also evoke Beatrice's reappearance before Dante on the threshold of Paradise "vestita di color di fiamma viva" ("dressed in the color of living flame" (Purgatorio, Canto XXX, line 33). Even as he regains Beatrice, Dante loses Virgil, who has led him through hell and purgatory and who Dante considered his most important artistic influence. Dante captures the moment with lines interlaced with the widow Dido's description of her reawakening to a new love (Aeneas) in Virgil's Aeneid, e.g., Dante turns to Virgil (at line 49) uttering (in effect) Virgil's own words, "conosco I segni dell'antica fiamma" ("I know the signs of the old flame") Compare; Aeneid line 23, "agnosco veteris vestigial flammae."19 But Virgil has already disappeared. No doubt Stampa's subtle secular appropriation (or re-appropriation) of Dante's cosmic moment of the reawakening of love resonated with her audience.

1 For a detailed examination of Stampa's musical work, education and performances, see Janet L. Smarr, "Gaspara Stampa's Poetry for Performance," JRMMRA 12 (1991), University of Illinois Press, 61 et. seq.

2 The text of the sonnets themselves provides additional support for the conclusion that Stampa performed them in public. Throughout the sonnets, Stampa frequently refers to herself as both "writing and singing" them (Smarr 62-65).

3 Rilke wrote, "...Have you imagined Gaspara Stampa intensely enough so that any girl deserted by her beloved might be inspired by that fierce example of soaring, objectless love...Shouldn't this most ancient of sufferings finally grow more fruitful for us? Isn't it time we lovingly freed ourselves from the beloved and, quivering, endured..." Stortoni & Lillie, at x & n.2, quoting and citing Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Poetry, ed. & trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage, 1989). Rilke refers to Stampa twice in a similar vein in his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage, 1985), 134, 135. First, the hero evokes Stampa "As one of those powerful examples of women in love who, even while they called out to him, surpassed the man they loved, who did not cease until their torment turned into bitter, icy magnificence"; and second, Rilke comments that "Women like Stampa hurl themselves after the man they have lost, but with their first steps they overtake him, and in front of them there is only God" (quoted in Stortoni & Lillie, x & n.2).

4 Cambio dedicated his Primo Libro di madrigal a quarto voci (1547) to Stampa, "[b]ecause it is well known by now—and not only in this fortunate city, but almost everywhere—that no woman in the world loves music as much as you do, nor possesses it to such a rare degree. And thousands upon thousands of fine and noble spirits attest to this who, having heard your sweet harmonies, have given you the name of divine siren...." Tylus, at 8 & n. 22, quoting the translation of Martha Feldman, City Culture and the Madrigal at Venice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 373; Smarr at 62 & n. 7.

5 Some thirty-four of Baldassarre's sonnets are included in the Appendix to the definitive collection of Stampa's work compiled by Abdelkader Salza in 1913. Also included in the Appendix (among others) are eleven sonnets attributed to Stampa's boyfriend, Count Collaltino di Collalto and seventeen sonnets dedicated to Stampa, mostly upon her early death, by notable intellectuals of the time including Torquato Bembo, son of the leading Cinquecento Venetian man of letters Cardinal Pietro Bembo (1470-1547). Also included is one slanderous anonymous sonnet calling Stampa, among other things, "p ... " ["puta", or "whore"]. Abdelkader Salza, Gaspara Stampa—Veronica Franco, Rime, (Bari: Laterza, 1913). The text, now in the public domain, is available as a reprint through Amazon.

6 Tylus, at 7-8 and n. 18, citing Ameto Comedia delle Nimphe Fiorentine di Messer Giovanni Boccaccio da Certaldo, Con la Dichiaratione de I luoghi difficili di Francesco Sansovino (Venice, Giolito, 1545) ff. vii-L

7 Tylus, at 7-8, citing Richard Toste, "Lives of the Authour of This Worke, Benedetto Varchi and Francesco the publisher of the same" in Benedetto Varchi, The Blazon of Jealousie, trans. Richard Toste (London, John Busbi, 1615). Two of Benedetto Varchi's sonnets to Stampa are included in the Appendix to the Salza edition of her work.

8 Smarr, at 62 and no. 4, citing Girolamo Parabosco, Lettera a la virtuosissima Madonna Gaspara Stampa", Lettere amorose, vol. 1 (Venice: Giolito, 1545). The translation is Smarr's. A sonnet written by Parabosco to Stampa upon her death is included in the Appendix to Salza's edition of her work.

9 These academies or intellectual clubs—started by humanists in the fifteenth century—had "headquarters in different Italian towns," and frequently took "droll or funny names chosen with Socratic irony...[such as] Gli Insensati (Those without Wits), I Rozzi (The Uncouth Ones), I Pazzi (The Crazy Ones), I Timidi (The Shy Ones), etc." (Stortoni & Lillie xxi & note 10).

10 In contrast to Stampa, Franco was trained as a courtesan by her courtesan mother and was widely famed in her day specifically as a courtesan. She was included in an official list of Venetian courtesans published in 1565. When King Henry III of Valois passed through Venice in 1574 on his way to be crowned King of France, the Republic of Venice hired Franco to entertain him. Franco also belonged to the circle of Venier (though at a later date) and, like Stampa, attended his salon. She corresponded with Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, and befriended Cardinal Luigi d'Este (to whom she dedicated her Lettere in 1575). Montaigne mentions receiving a gift of letters from Franco in his Journal de voyage in Italie. See: Stortoni, Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance, at 169-171.

11 Quoting and citing Croce's Poesia populare e poesia d'arte, Bari, Laterza, 1967.

12 For a detailed analysis of the docta puella and her relation to Latin love elegy, see Sharon L. James, Learned Girls and Male Persuasion, Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy, University of California Press, 2003.

13 This idea was proposed to me by A.M.Juster, a translator of Tibullus and Petrarch, among other works see: Longing for Laura (Birch Brook Press 2001); Elegies: with Parallel Latin Text (Oxford 2012). I am indebted to Juster for generously sharing his research on Stampa with me—introducing me to many of the leading scholarly authorities and, also, to the docta puella.

14 Stampa fully expected her poetry to make her immortal. Note, for example, the last line of her famous Sonnet 91, "Lassa, ch'io sola vinco l'infinito!" ("Thus, I alone conquer infinity!"). In discussing the role sexism and slander played in eclipsing Stampa's work, Braden points to "the savage sonnet" or "epitaffo infamante" republished in the Appendix to Salza's edition, in which "[f]our words are represented only by their first letters" (and see: end note 4, above). "According to the manuscript in which the poem is preserved", Braden informs us, "there were originally twenty others to the same effect" (Braden 131 note 40).

15 "Such a move", Braden notes, "is one of the abiding innuendos of male Petrarchism, latent in the symbolism of the laurel, but usually made explicit only at the edges of the tradition...Stampa's boast rises from the very center of the Petrarchan love story" (Braden, 126-127). The same "move" had been explicitly articulated by the Roman love elegists, Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius. See: Sharon L. James, Learned Girls and Male Persuasion, Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy.

16 See: Tower & Tylus, 366 n. 35. As they note, the lines may also allude to Pietro Bembo's 1530 Rime.Stampa continues her tracking of Petrarch in Sonnet 2, setting the date of her first encounter with Collaltino on Christmas Day and in so doing giving it charged spiritual/emotional significance, even as Petrarch set his first meeting with Laura during the Easter season (see: Tower & Tylus, 366 n. 38). Dante similarly met Beatrice on a numerologically-charged date when he and she were about nine years old (Vita Nuova, 1).

17 Sappho's famous fragment 31 ("I think him God's peer that sits near you face to face"), was preserved in the critique of it, "On Sublimity," written by an anonymous ancient known as "Longinus." It was not available in early modern Europe until published in the very year of Stampa's death—1554—in a treatise on Sappho edited by Stampa's fellow Paduan, Francesco Robortello, "On the Sublime." Though Stampa wrote a similar sonnet (Sonnet 28), it is not known if she had access to Robortello's work or only to that of Catullus, who "imitated" Sappho's fragment 31 in his poem 51 ("He seems to me to be equal to a god") (Tower & Tylus, 35-36). Robortello was a well-known Greek teacher and scholar in Venice and at Padua (site of the major university of the Veneto region) and it is quite possible that as "one of Venice's most cultured poets and performers" Stampa knew Robortello and his work (36). The drama, the emotion, the "clash of conflicting feelings" that are found in Sappho's fragment (and also, of course, in Petrarch) and that characterized much of Stampa's work held a particular appeal for the Mannerist composers of her day (Einstein 200, Smarr 72).

18 Dante, La Vita Nuova, trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Dover Publications (Mineola, New York: 2001), 18.

19 John D. Sinclair has noted that "The last words [line 49, "I know the marks of the ancient flame"] are from the Aeneid." Purgatorio, note 7 at 400.

Appendix: The Sonnets

The text and English translations of the sonnets below are taken from Tower & Tylus (footnotes omitted); the translations are by Jane Tylus.

Sonnet 1

Voi ch'ascoltate in queste meste rime,
     In questi mesti, in questi oscuri accenti
     Il suon de gli amorosi miei lamenti,
     E de le pene mie tra l'altre prime,
Ove fia chi valor' apprezzi, e stime,
     Gloria, non che perdon, de' miei lamenti
     Spero trovar fra le ben nate genti;
     Poi che la lor cagione è sì sublime.
E spero ancor, che debba dir qualch' una,
     Felicissima lei, da che sostenne
     Per sì chiara cagion danno sì chiaro.
Deh, perche tant'Amor, tanta Fortuna
     Per sì nobil Signor' à me non venne
     Ch'anch'io n'andrei con tanta Donna à paro?

You who hear in these troubled rhymes,
     in these troubled and these dark accents
     the sound of my amourous laments
     and sufferings that vanguish all others'—
wherever valor is esteemed and prized,
     I hope to find glory among the well-born:
     glory and not only pardon; for what
     gives rise to my laments is so sublime.

And I hope some woman will be moved to say:
     "Most happy she, who suffered famously
      for such a famous cause!
     Oh, why can't the fortune that comes
      from loving a lord like him be mine,
     so such a lady and I might walk side by side?

Sonnet 104

O' notte, à me più chiara, e più beata,
     Che i più beati giorni, & i più chiari,
     Notte degna da'primi, e da' più rari
     Ingegni, esser non pur da me lodata.
Tu de le gioie mie sola sei state
     Fida ministra, tu tutti gli amari
     De la mia vita hai fatto dolci e cari,
     Resomi in braccio lui, che m'ha legata.
Sol mi mancò, che non divenni allora
     La fortunate Alcmena, à cui stè tanto
     Più de l'usato à ritornar l'Aurora.
Pur cosi bene io non potrò mai tanto
     Dir di te notte candida, ch'ancora
     Da la materia non sia vinto il canto.

O night, to me more luminous and blessed
     than the most blessed and luminous of days,
     night, worthy of being praised
     by the rarest geniuses, not just by me,
you alone have been the faithful minister
     of all my joys; all that was bitter
     in my life you've rendered sweet and dear
     and placed me in the arms of the man who bound me.
Had I only then become the fortunate
     Alcmene, on whose behalf
     the dawn delayed her usual return!
Yet even so, I'll never know to say
     enough of you that my song, snow-white night,
     is not finally defeated by its subject.

Sonnet 206 [Sonnet 208 in Salza's edition]

Amor m'ha fatto tal, ch'io vivo in foco
     Qual nova Salamandra al mondo, e quale
     L'altro di lei non men stranio animale,
     Che vive, e spira nel medesmo loco.
Le mie delitie son tutte e'l mio gioco
     Viver' ardento, e non sentire il male,
     E non curar, ch'ei che m'induce à tale,
     Habbia di me pietà molto, nè poco.
A' pena era anche estinto il promo ardore,
     Che accese l'altro Amore, à quel ch'io sento
     Fin qui per prova più vivo e maggiore.
Et io d'arder' amando non mi pento,
     Pur che chi m'ha di novo tolto il core
     Resti del'arder mio pago, e contento.

Love has fashioned me so I live in flame.
     I'm some new salamander in the world,
     and like the animal who also lives and dies
     in one and the same place, no less strange.
These are all my delights, and this my joy:
     to live in burning and never notice pain,
     nor do I ask him who reduced me to this state
     to pity me, much or a little.
Hardly was that first passion spent
     when Love lit another, and what I've sensed thus far
     suggests this one's more alive, more forceful.
Of this consuming love I won't repent,
     as long as he who's newly taken my heart
     is satisfied with my burning, and content.

The poems appear with kind permission from the University of Chicago Press.

Works Cited

Auden, W.H. "Introduction to the Sonnets", William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and Narrative Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, "Everyman's Library", 1964.

Braden, Gordon. "Gaspara Stampa and the Gender of Petrarchism", Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 38 (1996):. 115-139.

Dante (Alighieri), La Vita Nuova. Trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Mineola, Dover Publications, 2001.

Dante (Alighieri), Purgatorio, Trans. John D. Sinclair, New York, Oxford University Press, 1961.

Einstein, Alfred, The Italian Madrigal vol. 1, Trans. Alexander H. Krappe, Roger H. Sessions, and Oliver Strunk, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1949).

James, Sharon. Learned Girls and Male Persuasion: Gender and Reading in Roman Love Elegy, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2003.

Hughes, Robert. Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

Moore, Mary. Desiring Voices: Women Sonneteers and Petrarchism. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.

Phillippy, Patricia, "Altera Dido: The Model of Ovid's Heroides in the Poems of Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco", Italica, 69.(Spring, 1992): 1-18.

Smarr, Janet L., "Gaspara Stampa's Poetry for Performance", JRMMRA 12 (1991), Urbana, University of Illinois: 61-83.

Salza, Abeldekar, Ed. Rime di Gaspara Stampa e di Veronica Franco. Bari, Laterza, 1913.

Sappho, Greek Lyric, Sappho and Alcaeus, Loeb Classical Library vol. 141, Cambridge, Harvard University Press (1982).

Stortoni, Laura Anna, Ed. Women Poets of the Italian Renaissance: Courtly Ladies & Courtesans. New York, Italica Press, 1977 (cited as "Stortoni").

Stortoni, Laura Anna & Lillie, Mary Prentice, Eds., Gaspara Stampa: Selected Poems. New York, Italica Press, 1994 (cited as "Stortoni & Lillie").

Tower, Troy & Jane Tylus, Eds. Gaspara Stampa: The Complete Poems, The 1554 Edition of the "Rime", a Bilingual Edition. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Virgil, Ecologues, Georgics, Aeneid 1-6. Loeb's Classical Library vol. 63.

Warnke, Frank J. Three Women Poets, Renaissance and Baroque: Louis Labe, Gaspara Stampa, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 1981.

Gaspara Stampa
Years: 1523-1554
Birthplace: Italy
Language(s): Italian, Latin, Greek
Forms: Sonnet, Sestina, Capilolo, Madrigal
Subjects: Love/passion
Entry By: Wendy Sloan
32 Poems
The Academy of American Poets
The Atlantic
The Christian Science Monitor
The Cortland Review
Favorite Poem Project
The Frost Place
The Iowa Review
Light Quarterly
Modern American Poetry
The Poem Tree
Poetry Daily
Poetry Society of America
Poets House
Raintown Review
String Poet
Valparaiso Poetry Review
Verse Daily
Women's Poetry Listserv
The Yale Review

Bread Loaf
Poetry by the Sea


Barefoot Muse Press
David Robert Books
David R. Godine Press
Graywolf Press
Headmistress Press
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Louisiana State University Press
Northwestern Univ Press
Ohio Univ Press
Persea Books
Red Hen Press
Texas Tech Univ Press
Tupelo Press
Univ of Akron Press
Univ of Arkansas Press
Univ of Illinois Press
Univ of Iowa Press
Waywiser Press
White Violet Press

City Lights
Grolier Poetry Bookshop
Joseph Fox Bookshop
Prairie Lights
Tattered Cover Bookstore

92nd Street Y
Literary Mothers
Poets & Writers