... and more than just a few, in Renaissance Italy. This exciting collection contains selections from the works of nineteen Italian poetesses, whose social status ranged from a reigning princess (Leonora Falletti) to the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman (Laura Ammannati), to convent girls, wives of middle class merchants, professional singers, and practitioners of "the oldest profession." Each selection is matched with a brief biography of the authoress, and together these capsule biographies amount to a very cogent history of the incipient feminism of the Renaissance.
The themes of these poems range from fervent mysticism to fervid eroticism, with a surprising number of patriotic exhortations, including prescient calls for Italian unification. Some were published in the poetess's lifetime, but many have survived incorporated in letters; those of the women of highest social rank tend to be unpublished, just as the poems of music of male aristocrats would have been. The forms are the tightly-packed, elliptical, allusive sonnets and madrigals of the era. Many of them must have been intended for musical setting and, indeed, their passionate rhetoric is hard for modern ears to capture without the support of a singing voice. The best known of the nineteen is Gaspara Stampa, widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Italian Renaissance, in a class with Petrarch and Ariosto. The most fascinating, for modern readers I suspect, will be Veronica Franca, a Venetian 'courtesan' who mixed freely with the most rarified circles of humanists and painters, who was hired by the Republic to 'entertain' the young Henry of Valois on his way to his coronation as King of France, who was accused of witchcraft by the Inquisition and 'beat the rap,' and who founded a shelter for abandoned and abused women and aging prostitutes, thus becoming one of Italy's earliest 'social workers.'
The anthology is bilingual. I warn you that most of the beauty of the poetry is lost in English translation. That is true, of course, of poems by men as well. For an English reader, I think, the interest of the book will be more historical and social than aesthetic. But if you can read even a little Italian, it will be the kind of book you'll take out once in a while just for a jolt of passionate refinement.
It is really good to find an excellent translation on women poets of the Italian Renaissance, as well as to have an edition that has facing Italian and English poems. The translators have also preserved the spelling and diacritical marks of the original text. The brief biography on each woman writer offers important background information on her life and her literary style. At the end of the book, there is an additional section written about the political and social situation in Italy from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. There is an added bonus of a map that shows the Italian city-states around 1559. The bibliography shows the amount of painstaking effort to research material for this book. Finally, there is an index of first-lines that makes reference very easy. Therefore, this book is an excellent book to use either in a classroom or for purely recreational enjoyment.