Jane Tylus on Gaspara Stampa:
In Venice, gateway to the East, city of gondolas, canals, and lively gatherings, sophisticated men and women were entertained by talented young singers such as Gaspara Stampa. Brought by her widowed mother to Venice as a young girl, Stampa was well-read in the classics of Italian literature as well as Latin and possibly Greek. Her ambitions to be more than just a "virtuosa" – a musician – are clear from the collection of 310 poems left unpublished at Gaspara’s sudden death in 1554 when she was only thrity years old. Her sister Cassandra writes that "certain learned gentlemen" implored her to publish Gaspara’s poems rather than hiding them under a bushel – and we are glad that she did.
Gaspara wrote many of her poems about the aristocrat Collaltino di Collalto, whom she may have met at one of the gatherings where she sang. We do know that it was "around Christmas" when, she claims, her lord "made himself a nest and refuge in my heart." This unabashed reference to herself as a pregnant Mary and Collaltino as Christ is characteristic of Gaspara’s daring verse, in which she counts herself among the greatest lovers of all time. "Alas that I alone defeat the infinite!" she cries in sonnet 90, and in her first poem she imagines the envy her poems will inspire in future women readers. Yet when Collaltino predictably left her, Gaspara fell in love with another aristocrat, one Bartolomeo Zen, whose name is spelled out in the first letters of each line of sonnet 216. We thus have a rare instance of poems directed to more than one male beloved, as Stampa refers to herself as a salamander who lives in flame, a phoenix born from her own ashes.
A performer to the end, Gaspara surprises, even shocks with her emotional and lyrical range. It may be that their scandalous sentiments led to the poems' neglect for almost two centuries, until one of Collaltino’s descendants had them republished in 1738. In the last century Stampa was championed by the German writer Rainer Marie Rilke, and today she is generally acknowledged as Italy’s greatest woman poet.
Jane Tylus is Professor of Italian Studies and Comparative Literature at New York University. Editor of the early modern volume of the Longman Anthology of World Literature, her recent work has focused on women writers of the Italian Renaissance such as Catherine of Siena and Lucrezia Tornabuoni de'Medici, the mother of Lorenzo "the Magnificent." Her latest book is her translation in 2010 of the complete Rime of the sixteenth- century poet and musician Gaspara Stampa, published by the University of Chicago Press and co-edited with Troy Tower.
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