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Case 5 - Continental Women Writing About Love

While religious themes dominated early modern women’s writing in England, women in Italy and France wrote about secular love as well. Some, such as Vittoria Colonna, Gaspara Stampa, and Louise Labé used the imagery of Petrarch’s sonnets to speak of their own loves from a female point of view. Veronica Franco drew on the more overtly sexual tradition of Pietro Aretino and Latin verse to compose her sensual poetry. Tullia d’Aragona’s dialogue about the nature of love responded to neo-Platonic writings such as Castiglione’s The Courtier, while Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptaméron used linked stories modeled on Boccaccio’s Decameron to explore many types of love. All of these writers brought fresh perspectives to the dominant male traditions of love literature.

Princess Marguerite of Angouleme, c.1530.

Marguerite de Navarre. Heptaméron. Paris, 1740

Vittoria Colonna. Rime della divina Vettoria Colonna marchesana di Pescara. Venice, 1539

Tullia d'Aragona. Dialogo della infinità di amore. Venice, 1552

Gaspara Stampa. Works. 1554. Venice, 1554

Anne Southwell. Miscellany of Lady Anne Southwell. Manuscript, ca. 1587–1636


Although both Marguerite de Navarre and Vittoria Colonna wrote religious works, they were both well known for their secular writing about love. In an early portrait of Marguerite, before she became queen of Navarre, she is pictured with a parrot, which may represent eloquence and love, both symbols appropriate for the author of the Heptaméron. This collection of love stories was gathered together and first published in 1559 after Marguerite's death. Influenced by the poet Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Marguerite created a framing tale of a group of French nobles who are stranded on their way home from a spa. To pass the time, they tell stories, most dealing with various relationships between the sexes.


For her part, Vittoria Colonna was the first major poet to use Petrarchan love imagery from a female point of view. Her poems express longing and mourning for her husband, the soldier Francesco Ferrante d’Avalos, who died in 1525. Her poems circulated widely during her lifetime, and she gave a manuscript copy of her sonnets to her friend, Michelangelo.


Another Italian poet was Tullia d’Aragona, a high-class courtesan who moved in elite literary circles with writers such as Tasso and Aretino. Her Dialogue on the Infinity of Love is set in her own home, and imagines her debating the nature of love with her friend, poet Benedetto Varchi. She creates a complex persona, sometimes playing dumb or submissive, other times smart or arrogant, in an intellectual neo-Platonic game.


Gaspara Stampa’s 311 poems were partly inspired by her unhappy love affair with Count Collaltino di Collalto. She also uses Petrarchan imagary of the cruel, disdainful dark lady, later also used by Shakespeare, but she inverts it to refer to her male lover. In the first poem she hopes other women will envy her for loving such a man. Stampa was educated in Latin and Greek and was a talented musician as well.


Like many of the women writing during this period, Lady Anne Southwell wrote both secular and religious works, and her manuscript miscellany contains both, as well as a list of books, receipts, and letters. It was compiled and written by various members of Southwell's household.



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