Gaspara Stampa Stampa, Gaspara - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Gaspara Stampa c. 1523-1554

(Also wrote under the pseudonym Anassilla) Italian poet.

Stampa was a prominent figure in sixteenth-century Italian literary circles and some critics today consider her the best female poet Italy has produced. Her poetry, written in the Petrarchan style and mainly concerned with the theme of the spurned or unrecognized lover, was based on her relationship with Count Collaltino di Collalto. The majority of her poems dealt openly with their love affair. Stampa's unconventional life as a musical performer at men's homes, as well as her high level of education, make her a unique and controversial literary figure.

Biographical Information

Stampa was born in Padua, Italy, sometime after 1523. Her father, Bartolomeo, was a jeweler who could afford to have his three children, Gaspara and her two siblings, Cassandra and Baldassare, educated at home. Gaspara and Cassandra were introduced at a young age to poetry, music, Greek, and Latin—an unusual education for middle-class girls at a time when most were taught only basic household skills. Their education continued after Bartolomeo's death in 1531. Gaspara was initially trained to be a musician, or a musical virtuoso, who would sing for the wealthy families of Venetian society. Gaspara's brother, Baldassare, was considered an up-and-coming poet, and the Stampa home had become a salon where literary and artistic figures could gather to share ideas and perform for each other. Gaspara and Cassandra would routinely perform for their brother's artistic friends. In 1544 Baldassare died, but his literary and artistic peers continued to come to the salon to be entertained by the two sisters. Near the end of the 1540s Gaspara had become part of the Venetian artistic circles, routinely visiting other salons to perform her music. In 1548 or 1549 Gaspara met Count Collaltino di Collalto, a nobleman from the Fiuli region. Their relationship, chronicled in her only book, Rime (1554), inspired the start of Gaspara's literary career. She died of a fever in 1554.

Major Works

Only three sonnets written by Stampa were ever published during her lifetime. Rime, containing three hundred and eleven poems, was edited and published by her sister, Cassandra, shortly after Stampa's death. The poems were not a success and soon went out of print, only to resurface in 1738 in Rime di Gaspara Stampa e di Veronica Franco, reedited by Luisa Bergalli. The sonnets in Rime are written in the Petrarchan convention, a typical style of sixteenth-century poets. The Rime is divided into two sections. The first section, “Rime d'amore,” contains Stampa's love poetry to di Collalto; the second, “Rime Varie,” contains poems dedicated to well-known figures of sixteenth-century Venetian society.

Critical Reception

Prior to feminist scholarship of Stampa's poems, critics debated her role in sixteenth-century Italian literary culture. Critics from earlier periods, scandalized by Stampa's frequent performances at Venetian salons, her use of overtly sexual language in her poetry, and her relationship with di Collalto, viewed her as immoral. Some critics tried to present Stampa to the reading public as an “honest,” or non-sexual courtesan, in an effort to popularize her poetry. Contemporary criticism has moved away from Stampa's position within Renaissance society to focus mainly on her verse, especially her ability to capture the tensions in her relationship with di Collalto, as well as her strong assertion of independence—unusual for a female in sixteenth-century Italian society.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

*Rime [edited by Cassandra Stampa] 1554

Rime di Gaspara Stampa e di Veronica Franco [edited by Abdelkader Salza] 1913

Rime [edited by Maria Bellonci] 1976

Gaspara Stampa: Selected Poems [edited and translated by Laura Anna Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lillie] 1994

*First revision 1738 by Luisa Bergalli.

Justin Vitiello (essay date 1975)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Vitiello, Justin. “Gaspara Stampa: The Ambiguities of Martyrdom.” Modern Language Notes 90, no. 1 (1975): 58-71.

[In the following essay, Vitiello examines Rime d'amore to show how Stampa's literary and cultural heritage influenced the development of her style.]

Any student of Italian poetry has learned that Gaspara Stampa is “petrarchesca” and that her work is firmly entrenched in Renaissance tradition.1 Departing from this point, I intend to investigate, through a reading of Rime d'amore, VII-IX, precisely how she utilizes her literary and cultural heritage to develop a style that may be aptly called “gasparino.”2

Sonnet VII introduces a certain ambiguity regarding the tone of reverence and awe predominant in I-VI:

          Chi vuol conoscer, donne, il mio signore,
miri un signor di vago e dolce aspetto,
giovane d'anni e vecchio d'intelletto,
imagin de la gloria e del valore:
          di pelo biondo, e di vivo colore,
di persona alta e spazioso petto,
e finalmente in ogni opra perfetto,
fuor ch'un poco (oimé lassa!) empio in amore.
          E chi vuol poi conoscer me, rimiri
una donna in effetti ed in sembiante
imagin de la morte e de' martiri,
un albergo di fé salda e costante,
una, che, perché pianga, arda e sospiri,
non fa pietoso il suo crudel amante.(3)

The address of line 1 establishes the poem's social context, its “courtly” ambience. These “donne” form the symposium of savants, the attentive public for the airing of ideas and feelings. This invocation, or “convocation,” automatically calls to mind the famous openings of works of the stilnovisti and Petrarch: “Donna me prega,—per ch'eo voglio dire,”4 “Guido, i'vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io,”5 “Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore,”6 “Chiare fresche e dolci acque.”7 With Gaspara Stampa, however, the appeal is not to a poetic or intellectual elite, not to Nature or its sylvan deities, but to women who, by implication, are capable of appreciating an “alta fantasia”8 for its true worth, who can perceive ideas, beauty, the miraculous, effectively. This mode of communicating has its roots in the simple word “miri” (“guarda con intensità affettiva, riempiti di meraviglia”). But the issue becomes more complex when we begin to wonder if these “donne” might not be the fellow courtesans of the poet.

The subsequent depiction of the lover (lines 2-7) recalls the imagery, syntax, and “love-religion” of Petrarch and the Neoplatonism so current in the Cinquecento. This lord's “vago e dolce aspetto” suggests the Botticellian combination of sweetness, loveliness, grace, and will hearkening back to the “donna evanescente” of Petrarch's “Erano i capei d'oro a l'aura sparsi”:

… e 'l vago lume oltra misura ardea
di quei begli occhi ch'or ne son sí scarsi;
          e 'l viso di pietosi color farsi,
non so se vero o falso, mi parea:
i' che l'esca amorosa al petto avea,
qual meraviglia se di subito arsi?

(p. 106)

The dimension of sensuality, or biology, fuses with a “non so che,” a supra-sensuality which cannot be grasped in language. In other words, this “subtle knot” of flesh and spirit can only be “defined” as “the ineffable,” the essential quality of the love-object's beauty permeating mystical and erotic literature from Jacopone da Todi on down through the Sweet New Style, the Commedia, Petrarch, Bembo, and Michelangelo.9

Line 4 rarifies the portrait of the lover even more. The word “imagin” is charged with multiple connotations. It makes immediate to us a Petrarchan “bel velo,” evanescent, yet always corporeal. Further, its presence is the inseparably aesthetic and ethical creation of the poet. Again, we must consider that consciously contrived, problematic world of the Canzoniere, where “gloria e valore” function as artistic and religious principles upon which the work is constructed. These image-concepts recur throughout: “Stiamo, Amor, a veder la gloria nostra, / cose copra natura altere e nove” (p. 289); “Arbor vittoriosa, triunfale, / onor d'imperadori e di poeti” (p. 368). And they signify a total system of values that the “signore” of Gaspara Stampa, like Petrarch's Laura, will embody: nobility of soul, superior moral and intellectual gifts, heroic sfumatura, grace, beauty, and (since glory, in liturgical formulations, means glorification of the Trinity, and, in Patristic writings, the presence of God) a nature that is, at least transparently, divine. Within this frame of reference, the courtesan-poet, echoing Petrarchan and Christian traditions, heralds her beloved's deification.

In prophecy and in poetry, gods are so often transcendent and immanent, descending to this “too, too solid flesh.”10 Gaspara Stampa provides us with pertinent, albeit economical, details: “di pelo biondo, e di vivo colore.” These traits are also reminiscent of Petrarch, who projects a complete, conventional physiognomy in #157 of the Canzoniere:

          La testa or fino e calda neve il volto,
ebeno i cigli e gli occhi eran due stelle,
onde Amor l'arco non tendeva in fallo;
          perle e rose vermiglie, ove l'accolto
dolor formava ardenti voci e belle;
fiamma i sospir, le lagrime cristallo.

(p. 25411)

For some reason, surely a personal one, Gaspara Stampa makes more of her god's “petto” than does Petrarch in the case of Laura's. Yet, generally speaking, we must note that she touches upon physical characteristics rather sketchily in comparison to some of her contemporaries,12 bringing this crescendo of male attractions to its ethereal coda in line 7. The word “opra,” of course, lends itself to a whole chain of interpretations. The lord, or Collaltino di Collalto13 if we prefer to call him by the name of the living model for this poetic image, is assumed perfect in word and deed, in comportment and in his very being. This “cosa sopra natura” not only incarnates the ideal qualities of body, mind, and spirit, but also seems himself to be a work of perfection. That is, his origin is comprehended, and relegated to a special place, in the grand cosmic design. Gaspara Stampa's Neoplatonism comes to the fore, where the lover, even in corporeal form and through his active virtues, is the translucent reflection, the resplendent image, or, to use Plotinian terminology, the emanation14 descended into matter of the fullness and perfection of the ideal world, the Truth, the static and eternal One.

This topos, so vital throughout the Renaissance, requires little documentation. I cite one example amongst myriads: Michelangelo's vision of the creative process as the effort to capture the Idea in concrete form:

Non ha l'ottimo artista alcun concetto
c'un marmo solo in sé non circonscriva
col suo superchio, e solo a quello arriva
la man che ubbidisce all'intelletto.(15)

Adapting the commonplace to portray her lover, Gaspara Stampa gives tangible shape to her eroticism. It is highly significant that this “religion,” relying on a personal, masculine god, is more akin to Christianity than to Neoplatonism in the long run. But the issue becomes complicated by her creation of a deity who rests as the epitome of conventional poetic beauty, the source of moral and artistic inspiration, the spur to carnal passion, and, even more paradoxically, an entity somewhat remote and rather cold in simple human terms.

I mean to say that we can detect a distinct shadow of doubt regarding the perfection of this lover. And, appropriately, at the center of the work (line 8), the poet cries out in anguish and in protest, “fuor ch'un poco (oimè lassa!) empio in amore.” This turning point, anticipated by the subtitle (“Egli, bello e crudele; ella, fedele e dolente”), casts lines 2-7 in a seemingly contradictory light. For, like Petrarch's “fera bella e mansueta” (p. 207), or the troubadours' lady-tigress, the “signor,” this god-lover, in spite and perhaps because of his “perfection,” can be indifferent, unjust, cruel, inhuman, even sacrilegious and hateful—according to the poet's canons. Physically and abstractly, he is beautiful. But from the deeper emotional or religious perspective, he is ugly. This vein of thinking leads to the key questions raised in the sonnet as a whole. Taking into account Gaspara Stampa's argument (ad hominem and sub specie aeternitatis), can we conjecture that the woman is more worthy of our sympathy, and our admiration, and that, in the sphere of affective reality, which is the essential one, she is truly the victor?

The self-portraiture of lines 9-13 is apparently negative. But, looking at it closely, we can understand that we are witnessing a love-suffering in imitatione Christi. Like many a saint embracing her Passion, Gaspara Stampa condemns herself to martyrdom and emerges as more human and more heroic than her pitiless lord.16

The clue to this device whereby the poet exalts herself through abasement is simple: “E chi vuol poi conoscer me, rimiri.” “Rimiri,” or “guarda con meraviglia.” Clearly, it is she who “steals the show”; and the subsequent lines (10-11) present her as the real sufferer, the authentic amatrix dolorosa, tearing her clothes and hair and cheeks in an archetypal posture. This agonized mourning for her own death hints of nothing “vago” or “perfetto.” It is merely the most vital and profound of human experiences.

In describing herself as “imagin de la morte e de' martiri,” Gaspara Stampa takes advantage of all the dramatic force of the topos so familiar in Christian and erotic poetry: the death for love. To illustrate its use in the former, we might recall the Laude of Jacopone or the impassioned swoons of a Saint Teresa of Jesus or a Saint John of the Cross. To appreciate its potential for exquisite sentimentality in the latter, we need only refer to the master, Petrarch, who, in “Chiare fresche e dolci acque,” conjures up the image of his own “ritratto in morte”:

          Tempo verrà ancor forse
ch'a l'usato soggiorno
torni la fera bella e mansueta
e là 'v'ella mi scorse
nel benedetto giorno
volga la vista disiosa e lieta,
cercandomi; ed o pieta!
già terra infra le pietre
vedendo, Amor l'ispiri
in guisa che sospiri
sì dolcemente che mercé m'impetre,
e faccia forza al cielo
asciugandosi gli occhi col bel velo.

(p. 207)

I would venture to generalize that in the love-death or martyrdom (whether sacred or profane), the victim gains an awesome strategic advantage. For his or her end is nothing less than a total legitimization of the “passionate intensity” of the act, the justification—often cosmic—of self and the cause.17 Conversely, the victimizer, the conqueror, the poor mortal who must bury the dead and write the epitaph, all “lose.” The “murder,” of course, is contemptible—whether intentional or not. Any words spoken in praise are paled by the monstrous heroism of the self-sacrifice. And the aftertaste of life in the presence of a grandiose or noble death is cloying at best. Collaltino and the “donne” are thus implicated in Gaspara Stampa's agony, cast as antagonist and chorus in the tragedy, but reduced to an awful silence.

On this stage, the poet, defaced, defeated, emotionally slaughtered, rises to embrace her dying. Her agon is the glorious one of the martyr. But this Christian gesture actually exalts a profane concept, a “pagan” eroticism, to the level of tragic sublimity.18 Going beyond the guilt-ridden fame of Petrarch, beyond the immortal pathos of Catullus and the Roman Elegists,19 Gaspara Stampa dramatizes her human passion with all the hubris and vigor and glory that are its sine qua non.

The imagery of lines 12-13 reinforces her central argument. Vanquishing the Turk who slays her, she proudly brands herself “albergo di fé,” and thereby embellishes her erotic last supper with a Christian-like grace. Furthermore, a standard Petrarchan configuration (triunal at that) helps to ennoble her mission: “perché pianga, arda e sospiri.”20 The major traditions to which she is bound serve the free expression of her own poetic truth.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, Sonnet VII is redolent of a characteristic Petrarchan dilemma: the conflict between compassion and cruelty that is the rub of unrequited love. Gaspara Stampa, however, gives shape to this conflict without the nostalgic sentimentality,21 the unabashed self-pity,22 the “tono di medietà,”23 and the romantic seriousness24 of Petrarch. On the contrary, she strikes us as expressing an affective presence, an apparent self-pity that is really an imprecation, a passionately argumentative self-justification, and a gravity that allows for a bitter-sweet irony with a far-reaching social import.

This irony, or critical...

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Fiora A. Bassanese (essay date winter 1980)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bassanese, Fiora A. “The Feminine Voice: Gaspara Stampa.” Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 3, no. 2 (winter 1980): 81-88.

[In the following essay, Bassanese explores the charactersitics of Stampa's poetic voice and her placing of her own persona as the center of her poetry.]

A fascinating aspect of the love lyric in Renaissance Italy is its collective character, based upon the imitation of Petrarca and the cult of stylistic elegance. The poetic language of the common exemplar and the themes of the early Canzoniere were imitated and reworked to such a degree as to saturate the literary tradition and dominate the lyric vocabulary until, as Umberto...

(The entire section is 4033 words.)

Fiora A. Bassanese (essay date winter 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bassanese, Fiora A. “Gaspara Stampa's Poetics of Negativity.” Italica 61, no. 4 (winter 1984): 335-46.

[In the following essay, Bassanese explores the Petrarchan foundation of Stampa's Rime as a basis of her pervasive humility, self-disparagement, and self-deprecation.]

Gaspara Stampa has long been recognized as a petrarchista, but critical literary analysis of her poetry has been late in coming. From the appearance of the second edition of the Rime in 1738 to the early decades of this century, most works written about Stampa centered on the poet's biography at the expense of her art: the poetry was repeatedly interpreted as versified...

(The entire section is 5233 words.)

Frank J. Warnke (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Warnke, Frank J. “Aphrodite's Priestess, Love's Martyr: Gaspara Stampa.” In Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, pp. 3-11. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Warnke examines the impact of Stampa's life as a “respectable courtesan” on her work. He concludes that Stampa was a lyric poet of considerable stature, capable of writing about women's place and sensibility like no other poet of her time.]

Gaspara Stampa, the greatest woman poet of the Italian Renaissance, was born in Padua, probably in 1524. Her father, a jeweler, died while she was still a girl, and her family moved to...

(The entire section is 3732 words.)

Ann Rosalind Jones (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Feminine Pastoral as Heroic Martyrdom.” In The Currency of Eros: Women's Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620, pp. 118-41. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses how Stampa and Mary Wroth–both of whom occupied marginal social positions—used the pastoral mode to write histories of unrequited love.]

Two women poets who used the pastoral mode to write histories of unrequited love occupied similarly marginal social positions, close to the highest aristocracy of their time but excluded from its inner circles. By birth Gaspara Stampa was a member of the rich mercantile class of Padua. Her father,...

(The entire section is 10430 words.)

Fiora A. Bassanese (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bassanese, Fiora A. “Male Canon/Female Poet: The Petrarchanism of Gaspara Stampa.” In Interpreting the Italian Renaissance, edited by Antonio Toscano, pp. 43-54. Stony Brook, N.Y.: Forum Italicum, 1991.

[In the following essay, Bassanese explores the nature of Stampa's Petrarchism as well as her divergence from that tradition. She concludes that Stampa capitalized on her gender within the Petrarchan code to declare her rightful place in it.]

In 1860, Jacob Burckhardt published his seminal study, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which “would become the decisive interpretation of a great period in history”1 for generations....

(The entire section is 4584 words.)

Janet L. Smarr (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Smarr, Janet L. “Gaspara Stampa's Poetry for Performance.” Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, no. 12 (1991): 61-84.

[In the following essay, Smarr examines Stampa as a singer and also explores her combining of tragic tone and theme with wit in many of her poems.]

During the mid-sixteenth century in Italy, when a remarkable number of women joined in the production of poetry, one of the channels open to their pursuit of intellectual life and fame was the Venetian salon. There music and poetry mingled as poems were frequently sung or recited before an audience rather than read privately in silence. The poetry of Gaspara Stampa...

(The entire section is 7614 words.)

Laura Ann Stortoni (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stortoni, Laura Ann. Introduction to Gaspara Stampa: Selected Poems, edited and translated by Laura Ann Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lillie, pp. ix-xxvii. New York: Italica, 1994.

[In the following essay, Stortoni examines Stampa's life and proclaims her the greatest Italian female poet ever.]

Gaspara Stampa (1523-1554) is generally regarded by most critics as not only the greatest woman poet of the Italian Renaissance, but also as the greatest Italian woman poet ever. She forms part of the traditional triptych of Italian Renaissance women poets, along with Veronica Gambara (1485-1550) and Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547); but she surpasses her courtly predecessors...

(The entire section is 4637 words.)

Patricia Phillipy (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Phillipy, Patricia. “‘Altera Dido’: The Model of Ovid's Heroides in the Poems of Gaspara Stampa and Veronica Franco.” In Love's Remedies: Recantation and Renaissance Lyric Poetry, pp. 1-18. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Phillipy examines Stampa's and Franco's different uses of Ovid's Heroides to appropriate the Petrarchan lyric as a genre in which the female speaker is given a voice.]

Ovid's Heroides, a text in which a male author adopts the voices of female speakers, offered to Renaissance women writers a model of “feminine” writing with which to revise Petrarchism for use by women poets....

(The entire section is 7410 words.)

Gordon Braden (essay date summer 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Braden, Gordon. “Gaspara Stampa and the Gender of Petrarchism.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 38, no. 2 (summer 1996): 115-39.

[In the following essay, Braden argues that Stampa's work may have been the dominant paradigm of female Petrarchism. He examines Stampa's Rime d'amore, citing it as one of the most distinguished and exemplary sonnet sequences of the period.]

The immense fact of Petrarchism gives Renaissance literature some of its most obvious insignia of continuity and coherence, but we have not been especially resourceful in assessing what they mean or even in keeping track of what they are. There is no circumstantial history of...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Bassanese, Fiora A. Gaspara Stampa. Boston: Twayne, 1982, 144 p.

Discussion of Stampa in the context of life in sixteenth-century Venice.

Donadoni, Eugenio. Gaspara Stampa Messina, Italy: Principato, 1919, 100 p.

Discusses Stampa's role as a courtesan.

Salza, Abdelkader. “Madonna Gasparina Stampa secondo nuove indagini.” Giornale storico della letteratura italiana 62 (1913): 1-101.

Attempts to separate the fictional from the historical facts of Stampa's life.

———. “Madonna Gasparina Stampa e la società veneziana del suo...

(The entire section is 256 words.)