June 10th, 2002

Hidden Faces, Fleeting Views

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On a carnival Ferris Wheel were masks, hidden faces, fleeting views. Which reminded James of a windy day at the Cathederal of the Assunta, near Castello Aragonese…

That day a group of students took notes while a thin faced woman wearing steel-rimmed glasses spoke loudly in an English accent:
"…her father, Fabrizio, betrothed her to Avalos, the Marquis of Pescara, in 1495 when Vittoria was three. Her husband-to-be was five. The wedding took place in 1509, right at this altar. It was not a happy marriage."
A girl in the group raised her hand. "Excuse me, Dr. Stampa, but the poems she wrote to Avalos are so beautiful and passionate. She must have been deeply in love with him."
"Biographism is very dangerous, Martha," Dr. Stampa replied. "In her poems the relationship between Vittoria and her absent husband was merely a literary topos."
"A stock rhetorical theme, a convention," Dr. Stampa said.
"I'm sorry," Martha persisted. "But it's hard to believe Vittoria wasn't sincere. Listen to this." The girl turned pages of a book, then read aloud:

You know, Love, that I never turned my foot
from your gentle prison, or freed my neck
from your sweet yoke, or tried to take back
all that my soul gave you from the first day.

You have seen, in a burning, faithful heart,
how much your dear, sharp arrow can do-
against its strength even Death is powerless.

At the word "arrow" a few in the group laughed. But Martha ignored them, and continued.

Make loose, at last, the bond yourself;
for liberty never really mattered to me,
and now, indeed, it seems late to regain it.

Dr. Stampa nodded. "Yes, of course. It appears to be very sincere. But think of it this way. Idealising D'Avalos was very much within the established tradition of neo-Platonic ascension, from an earthly to a divine love. Remember your Petrarch, your Dante. This fixed her work within clear Christian boundaries. Why? To avoid the criticism invariably leveled at a woman who wrote literature. She was the prototypical feminist. What their marriage was really like is immaterial."
"But it seems so cynical to regard Vittoria's poetry as a feminist ploy." Martha said.
"It's not so much a ploy, but rather an example of very sophisticated role-playing. It was very common in the Renaissance for artists--especially women artists--to wear various metaphorical masks, disguises. The more subtle, the more ingenious, the more subversive, the better."
"But there's so much sexual passion in her poems," Martha said.
"Wow!" A young man shouted. "Let's hear it for sex!"
"The great innovation of her sonnets," Dr. Stampa contnued, "was that for the first time she subverted the genre so that the lover was a woman, and the absent beloved a man. Writing in Italian began to be respected as equal to literature in Latin, and the idea was to imitate the greats--Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio. Which is what Vittoria did to perfection."
"But still," Martha said, "don't you agree there's a lot between the lines?"
Dr. Stampa smiled. "The language used by these early writers was mystical and highly sensual--the body of Christ was often sexualised, and I wonder…" The scholar paused. "I wonder, Martha, if it is not these resonances that you are picking up in Vittoria's poetry!"
Martha blushed. Everyone laughed.

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