Veronica Gambara: a Renaissance poetess and stateswoman

Veronica Gambara was born on the 29 or 30th of November 1485 (she died on the 13th of June 1550). This illustrious woman was not only an Italian poet, stateswoman, and political leader, but also the ruler of the County of Corregio from 1518 until 1550.

Veronica Gambara (1485–1550). Painting by Antonio da Correggio about 1517-1520, The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia
The 18th century Palazzo Gambara in Pralboino

Veronica was born in Pralboino (now in the Province of Brescia), in Lombardy, Italy to Count Gianfrancesco da Gambara and his wife, Alda Pio da Carpi. She was one of the 7 children in this large family that included a number of interesting female intellectuals such as her great-aunts – the humanist poets Ginevre and Isotta Nogarola. It is remarkable that Veronica was also a niece of Emilia Pia da Montefeltro, who is one of the main interlocutors in Baldassarre Castiglione’s famous ‘Book of the Courtier.’ Much thanks to her family’s intelligent background, Veronica obtained a stellar education: she studied humanism, languages (Greek, Latin, French, Flemish, German), philosophy, theology, astronomy, and of course scripture.

Since her adolescence, Veronica maintained correspondence with the leading neo-Petrarchan – Pietro Bembo. An Italian scholar, poet, and literary theorist, Bembo was also a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, one who influenced the development of the Tuscan dialect as a literary language for poetry and prose. Veronica, who had talents in both poetry and prose, naturally felt interested in their correspondence and often relied upon his advice in her creative works.  She often sent to him her compositions for critical assessments, which Bembo gladly provided for her. She also corresponded with many Renaissance humanists.

Portrait of young Pietro Bembo (Raphael) by Raphael, c 1506, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary

In 1509, at the age of 24, young Veronica married her cousin – the elderly Giberto X, Count of Correggio, in Amalfi. They had 2 children: their son, Ippolito, was born in 1510, and Girolamo was born in 1511. Veronica became widowed in 1518, and she took charge of the county and the guardianship of her young children and her stepdaughter, Costanza. As her family life was over, her intellectual life was only starting to bloom like a flower: it was a time when Veronica dedicated herself not only to her county and family, but also to cultural activities – she created a popular salon in Italy with members such as important figures Pietro Bembo, Marcantonio Flaminio (an Italian humanist poet known for his Neo-Latin works), Gian Giorgio Trissino (an Italian Renaissance humanist, poet, dramatist, and grammarian), Ludovico Ariosto (an Italian poet best known as the author of the romance epic ‘Orlando Furioso’ of 1516), and even Titian, who came to her to the south of Italy from his native Venice from time to time.

Veronica was a politically active woman. Even when her sons came of age, she still helped them rule the County of Corregio and advised them on political allies. In 1530, Gambara and her sons signed the alliance treaty with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Veronica personally met Charles V in her estate in the same year and threw a series of magnificent feasts in his honor. According to their treaty, Charles was obligated to defend the county and her other lands from external threats. The treaty was renewed in 1533. However, in 1538 Galeotto Pico II, Count of Mirandola and Concordia, launched an assault on Correggio and Veronica’s other lands – Veronica and her sons organized a successful defense of the city and resistance to the invader. Veronica later negotiated with the emperor to pay for improved fortifications between 1546 and 1550. There were no other serious attacks on her family’s territorial possessions.

Veronica was a prolific author. She composed more than 80 poems and about 150 letters to important people of the time – they are extant. In her lifetime, little of her poetry was published, but it was widely circulated in manuscripts between intellectuals. A full English translation of her poems was published in 2014 and is available now. Veronica’s poetry fell into 4 categories: devotional poems, poems on political issues, Virgilian pastoral, and love poems to her husband. She usually wrote in the form of sonnets, but she also used madrigals, ballads, and stanze in ottava rima. It is interesting that in her political poems Veronica was one of the first authors who expressed the concept of unified Italy as an entity centuries prior to its unification.

This anthologized madrigal – ‘Occhi lucenti e belli’ – seems to be a love poem addressed to Gambara’s husband.  It sounds very beautifully in Italian:

Occhi lucenti et belli:
come esser può ch’in un medesmo instante,
nascan da voi sì nove forme e tante?

Lieti, mesti, superbi, umili, alteri
vi mostrate in un punto, onde di speme
e di timor m’empiete,

e tanti effetti dolci, acerbi, e feri
nel cor arso per voi vengono insieme
ad ogn’or che volete.

Or poiché voi mia vita e morte sete
occhi felici, occhi beati e cari,
siate sempre serni, allegri, e chiari

If we translate it into English, we will get:

Brilliant and lovely eyes
How can it be that in one single instant
You give birth to so many varied moods?

Happy and sad, exalted, humble, proud—
You shine forth in a flash, in which, with hope
And fear you fill me full

And many other sweet effects – bitter and wild—
All come together in a heart on fire
With you, when you desire.

Now that you are both life and death to me,
O joyful eyes, O blessed eyes and dear,
Be evermore serene, happy and clear.

The truce of Nice, 1538, between François I and Charles V, and mediated by Pope Paul III. Painting by Taddeo Zuccari.

Given the contemporary feud between King François I of France and Emperor Charles V, Veronica Gambara wrote an ode praising Charles V. The man was her ally and protector, and she probably did not know how Charles treated his fellow monarch and his two sons during their imprisonment in Madrid, for it was difficult to believe for many contemporaries that the emperor could be so inhuman. In 1538, Veronica wrote an ode to both Charles and François ‘Vinca gli sdegni e l’odio vostro antico’ when Pope Paul III tried to get them to a permanent peace:

Vinca gli sdegni e l’odio vostro antico,
Carlo e Francesco, il nome sacro e santo
Di Cristo, e di sua fè vi caglia tanto,
Quanto a voi più d’ogni altro è stato amico.

L’arme vostre a domar l’empio nemico
Di lui sian pronte; e non tentete in pianto
Non pur l’Italia, ma l’Europa e quanto
Bagna il mar, cinge valle o colle aprico.

Il gran pastore, a cui le chiavi date
Furon del cielo, a voi si volge, e prega
Che de le greggie sue pietà vi prenda.

Possa più de lo sdegno in voi pietate,
Coppia reale, e un sol desio v’accenda
Di vendicar chi Christo sprezza e nega.

The poem’s translation to François I and Charles V is in English:

Conquer your wrath and your ancient hatred,

Charles and François, in the holy and blessed name

of Christ, and in His faith, who more than any other

has been your friend: Be at peace.

 

Let your weapons be ready to tame

His irreverent enemy, not just for Italy

but for all of Europe, and for all lands washed by the sea,

where the sun touches upon hills and valleys.

 

The great Shepherd to whom the keys of Heaven

were given, turns to you and prays that you

be taken with pity for his flock.

 

Be stronger in piety than in hatred, O royal pair,

and let a single desire ignite you both:

to vanquish those who hate Christ, and deny Him.

All images are in the public domain.

Text © 2020 Olivia Longueville

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