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Laura Battiferra – a poetess for the Great Siege

The epic siege of Malta of 1565 left many victims behind – not least, poetry. A large outcrop of verse – clichéd, competent, inspired or insipid in varying degrees – hit the printing presses of Europe, to celebrate the triumph of Christianity over the ‘infidel dogs’ , the heroism of the Knights, the prophetic predestination of the small island. Most of this verse was instantly forgettable and was, I am glad to confirm, instantly forgotten.

She started life as an illegitimate daughter of a papal protégée
- Giovanni Bonello

I would not bother too much with this Siege poetry – Malta’s ordeal inspired no Odyssey, no Aeneid, no Ariosto or Torquato Tasso, nor the likes of the British poets of the First World War. I would gladly leave those Siege verse-makers and poetasters alone were it not for one special circumstance: the Malta muse lured dozens of men, but exceptionally, a woman too.

In a time and a culture which officially treasured masculinity and unofficially marginalised women, to find one who competed openly with men on an even footing, asserted her femininity, suffered no fall in self-esteem – all this, I believe, marks the poetess out for attention – and for some distinction too.

Laura Battiferra – Laura who? She had sunk into almost total oblivion, even though she was the wife of one of the most distinguished artists of the High Renaissance: Bartolomeo Ammannati. If one wanted to be generous, she had become an inconspicuous footnote in the history of Italian literature. The cultural explosion of feminism in more recent years has reversed the trend of gender neglect and again pushed Battiferra to the forefront.

The new feminist science has been programmatically unearthing the memories of many women of creative talent. Never has historical interest in women painters, musicians, travellers, mystics, rulers, poets, saints, politicians and warriors, and in courtesans and actresses been as intense as it is today.

Outstanding women have found themselves the subject of a fervid scrutiny intent on, finally, mapping out the bountiful feminine continents of civilisation. There is now a concerted effort to rehabilitate the memories of great and vivid female talents unfairly edged out by the traditional macho-centric custodians of culture.

One of these resurrected talents is Battiferra, only recently the focus of an important biographical study by Victoria Kirkham, Battiferra and her Literary Circle (University of Chicago Press, 2006), which also groups together, prints and translates into English many of her known poems.

“Truly, Laura Battiferri Ammannati is one of the most tantalising in the panorama of Italian literature by women writers”, is how Giovanna Rabitti, author of A History of Women’s Writing in Italy (Cambridge University Press, 2000) describes her. Her really significant achievement was not an immensity of poetic inspiration, but the fact that, in a wholly male-dominated world, she was accepted as an equal – and we are here talking 16th century.

Battiferra’s published poems include two sonnets related to the Great Siege of Malta. I have only been tempted to interfere in the finality of this magnum opus because I have found another two ‘Maltese’ sonnets by Battiferra, which had at first escaped Kirkhamand, were not included in her recent compilation of works of the poetess.

Battiferra is, by any standards, an eminently fascinating character – a firm, sensitive, highly cultured aesthete who lived for her husband, her intellectual gluttony and her devotions, a dreamer with a devouring addiction to poetry.

Born in Urbino in 1523 – the year the Knights of St John lost Rhodes – to a papal cleric and secretary of the Vatican court, Giovan’Antonio Battiferra, and to his concubine Maddalena Coccapane, Battiferra started life as the illegitimate daughter of a papal protégée in holy orders. Her father, “an upper-crust prelate from Urbino whose talents propelled him to the Papal court” was, in turn, the illegitimate son of Antonia, herself the illegitimate daughter of Jacobo Battiferra (died 1468). You could accuse the Battiferra of many failings, but not of inconsistency.

This third-generation illegitimacy did not interfere noticeably with Battiferra’s upbringing – at least, not on the academic front. She received the finest tuition in philosophy, history, languages, literature and the Holy Scriptures – for a young girl an education that appears inordinately enlightened in a culture that routinely stereotyped women: vertical in the kitchen and horizontal in the bedroom. Her father could well afford that and much more, with his extensive holdings and his income from Church benefices.

Battiferra’s father, the papal prelate, besides keeping Coccapane as his official mistress, also fathered another son, Giulio, by a back-up mistress whose name is not recorded. Giovan’Antonio dutifully acknowledged all his three love- children, and eventually, in 1543, made arrange­­ments for their formal legitimation by his friend and protector Pope Paul III, when Battiferra was 20 years old.

The Pope, Alessandro Farnese, was not one to deny his prelate the cheer of out-of-wedlock fatherhood – His Holiness was himself the contented and in-your-face father of four illegitimate Farnese offspring – born to the copulation-happy cardinal before he was elected Pope, so that’s OK. The Holy Father (of rather unholy children) discarded as dishonest any urge not to make cardinals the sons of his illegitimate children.

Ranuccio Farnese, the gentle and melancholic Knight of Malta, splendidly painted by Titian, was made cardinal at the age of 14. Farnese’s sister, the luscious Giulia, had been one of Pope Borgia’s several mistresses, and her intimacy with that worthy successor of St Peter did little to injure her brother’s career in the Church.

The papal secretary, father of at least three illegitimate children by assorted concubines, on his deathbed disinherited his son Ascanio, Battiferra’s elder brother, as he could not cope with the fact that the reprobate had become entangled with Jewish moneylenders and with una donna poco honesta. Three generations of Battiferra illegitimates he deemed sufficient, and at a fourth, he firmly put his foot down.

Battiferra gained from her brother’s repudiation, as she inherited all her father’s considerable wealth. In her numerous poems, she often finds ways of bringing forward her intense love for her father and for her two husbands. Of her brothers, understandably, never a whisper – nor, strangely enough, of her mother; presumably some deeply conflictual stresses had irretrievably deranged the maternal bond. It is as if Battiferra never had a mother. Motherless by choice, childless by adversity. A motherless poet intersecting a childless poet. Do we read anything in that?

Of the three portraits of Battiferra known to have been painted, two have survived. Her first one, a profile image by Bronzino, shows her as a young lady still in her early 30s, of almost ascetic plainness, holding a book of sonnets by Petrarch in her hand.

Distinguished and skeletal, fine and refined, there is no escaping she would have benefited from a discreet nose job. And, if Bronzino chose to depict her in profile, it means the artist thought that to be the least unflattering angle. Or, quite possibly, the painter opted to show Battiferra in profile because that was the way her favourite poets, Dante and Petrarch, were often portrayed.

Perhaps not without reason, when Battiferra joined the prestigious literary academy degli Intronati of Siena, the other members chose for her the tongue-in-cheek academic nickname la sgraziata – the graceless one. Every member had to sport one, and usually these fancy names had a comic or sarcastic undertone.

In the second portrait, painted around 1590, a year after her death, when Battiferra would have been approaching her very late 60s, she looks even more austere. Alessandro Allori had been commissioned to create the altarpiece for the Ammannati funerary chapel in the church of San Giovannino degli Scolopi in Florence, then run by the Jesuits. In this composition, Christ and the Canaanite Woman, Allori inserted a fleshier, weathered, pious Battiferra in monastic clothes, kneeling and holding a book, together with her husband Bartolomeo as St Bartholomew, looking lovingly at his, by then dead, wife.

We do not know how she coped with the fruitful infidelity of her beloved
- Giovanni Bonello

Bartolomeo, as sculptor and architect, only ranked second to his friend and rival Michelangelo. Today he is generally remembered by his most infelicitous work, the Biancone fountain of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence – a hugely ungraceful colossus in white marble lording it over the most exquisite bronze satyrs and nymphs.

Michelangelo, on viewing that unwieldy hulk, is supposed to have exclaimed: “Ammannato, Ammannato, che bel marmo hai rovinato (what lovely marble have you ruined).

With friends like these...

In 1550, Battiferra married Ammannati as her second husband, but despite her votive pilgrimage to the House of Loreto, the couple never had children. Her former spouse, Vittorio Sereni, died very young, in 1549, leaving her widowed when only 26 years old. Sereni had been a court organist, and in his will he described his wife as “docile, obedient, benevolent, dear, faithful and loving towards him”.

Moved by “her faithfulness and her servitude” Sereni left her all his belongings. I doubt the plusses that endeared Battiferra to her first husband would have earned her brownie points in the ratings of radical modern feminists.

After her young husband’s death, the widow fell in love with Ammannati, 12 years her senior, one of the greatest sculptors and architects of the Italian cinquecento. She spent the rest of her life doting on him and theirs seemed, overall, a lasting and rapturous union.

This did not stop Ammannati from fathering a child, Claudio, by a widow, Maddalena Guiducci. He obviously believed comforting widows to be one of the compulsory works of mercy – a relapser, he did it twice. We do not know how Battiferra coped with the fruitful infidelity of her beloved – she probably wrote a couple of anguished sonnets, her spiritual Prozac.

In their later life, the Ammannati couple fell under the spell of the vibrant new Jesuit Order, at a time when the Catholic universe had seriously started moving towards the revolutionary spiritual disciplines of the Counter-Reformation.

Battiferra became more fundamentalist, more Church-oriented, multiplied her devotions and wore religious vestments, embracing a tormented mysticism reflected in her prose and verse. She slowly drifted to a contemplative life, muted and detached, except for some violent, anti-Protestant outbursts.

Her husband Ammannati too went through a harrowing spiritual crisis. He publicly denounced and repudiated his nude works, all inspired by Satan, and left his entire estate to the Jesuits, just as his wife had done before him.

Ammannati relished, no doubt, being depicted as St Bartholomew in his family chapel, and, with hindsight and male menopause, his exquisitely sensuous women, mythological strippers who could not be bothered with a proper wardrobe, now stood in his way to the perfections of puritan sanctity.

Most of her married life Battiferra spent in the Ammannati villa at Maiano, close to the city gate of Florence, a residence she related to with unhidden affection: “felicitous, and justly renowned are her descriptions of nature, infused with love for their residence at Maiano, and some subdued but nevertheless passionate declarations of conjugal love. Indeed, Laura’s husband is far from the idealised model of the beloved whom we meet in other love lyrics with a more heavily erotic stamp, yet he is central to Laura’s poetry.”

To be continued.

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