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Laura Battiferra’s four poems on the Great Siege of Malta

True to the more austere Counter-Reformation ideals, not a trace of overt eroticism surfaces in Laura Battiferra’s verses. Passionate love, carnal frenzy, the compulsion to procreate she sublimated in heavenly metaphor and the munificence of grace.

Battiferra translated her feelings into verse
- Giovanni Bonello

And yet the literary circle she regularly exchanged poetry with and with whom she must have developed an intellectual, if not personal, affinity, included sensual, often bawdy poets like Grazzini Il Lasca, Benvenuto Cellini, Agnolo Bronzino and others, who let no puritan nonsense stand in the way of the fullest exploitation of pleasure, and whose verse is replete with refined and less refined sexual innuendo. Battiferra shared her poetry with them, but otherwise stretched stout sanitary cordons between her personal morality and that of the lascivious versifiers, her contemporaries and friends.

Battiferra accompanied her husband whenever work commitments – sculpture and architecture – called him elsewhere, especially to Rome. What we know about these movements mostly comes from her written exchanges with a leading Knight of Malta, the renowned intellectual and man of letters Annibale Caro, with whom she kept up a high-level correspondence which has, at least in part, survived. Battiferra’s biographer describes that Knight of Malta as “a personage that no other papal courtier could rival for wide-reaching contacts in the world of letters”.

Already during her lifetime, contemporaries were comparing Battiferra to Sappho, the supreme woman poet – which may have been stretching it a bit too far. A man of letters, Pietro Calzolari, wrote of her: “There lives today, to the infinite glory of women, the most learned and never adequately celebrated Madonna Laura Battiferra de gl’Ammannati, wife of the most excellent Messer Bartolomeo”.

And the Greek classical scholar Pietro Vettori went one step further: Battiferra equalled Sappho in genius, but surpassed her in morality. The Counter-Reformation had little time for sexual ambiguities, even less for those who did not conceal them, and none at all for those who flaunted them. Sappho’s last known registered address was Lesbos.

Battiferra wrote four poems related to the Great Siege of Malta, and I want to deal with them briefly. Two of these sonnets were recently published and translated into English in a substantial volume of her collected works meant to include the better and more significant verses written by the poetess.

Two other poems by Battiferra at first escaped Victoria Kirkham, the very thorough biographer and compiler of the poetess’s life and works – an excellent and scholarly book which forms part of a series of studies about historically significant women, aptly called The other voice. The two not included were, in fact, printed in 1567 in an extremely rare anthology of Great Siege verses compiled anonymously by someone who brought together a number of men of letters (and one woman) to contribute poems in honour of the heroic Knights of Malta ­– Rime di diversi in lode de’ Signori Cavalieri di Malta. Collections like this, commissioned beforehand by enterprising editors, were quite fashionable then.

I suspect this anthology of Great Siege poems may have been compiled by Girolamo Fenarolo, a minor poet about whom we know very little, except that he was a monsignor of the Roman curia born in Brescia, and that he died in the papal city in 1574. He specialised in putting together his own writings and those of other poets on specific events, and publishing the lot in thematic collections of verse.

The Malta siege anthology, which includes the two Battiferra sonnets, also has poems by Fenarolo, together with many others by poets today almost totally forgotten.

Perhaps it is well to correct an assertion that could be quite misleading: Battiferra did not write about the warfare or the siege, but, more accurately, about the 1565 victory of the Christian knights and about two of the leading warriors who more or less shone in the Malta siege.

Women do not generally celebrate war in poetry – only silly men do that – but then they do sometimes sing the praises and the virtues of male warriors and champions, the handsome supermen of their unacknowledged dreams, objects of unabashed hero worship or more.

And Battiferra did exactly that. She has one sonnet about the victory over the Turks, two (or rather, the same sonnet with variants) about Don Garcia de Toledo, and another about the Tuscan condottiero Chiappino Vitelli for the cameo part he played in the epilogue of the siege, the Gran Soccorso, that arrived from Sicily for the relief of the beleaguered island early in September 1565.

There may have been several reasons for Battiferra’s interest in the siege of Malta: one of her closest friends was Annibale Caro, himself a leading poet and Knight of Malta, who kept away from the hostilities but would certainly have had them constantly on his mind. He died, aged 59, the year following the victorious outcome.

The Maltese siege must have been the flavour of the month in Battiferra’s Florence, with everyone eagerly awaiting the latest news, commenting and analysing, poring over siege maps and broadsheets and offering strategic advice to anyone daft enough to listen. Many of the more influential Florentine and Tuscan families had knights manning the walls of Malta fighting for their survival and for that of Christianity – an impressive number of them, young men in their prime, sacrificed their lives on the island’s battered ramparts.

Besides that, Cosimo de’ Medici had a great admiration for the Order of St John. For the first time in Florentine history he decreed the construction of a considerable fleet, and modelled his navy almost exactly on that of the Knights of Malta. And when, in 1561, de’ Medici decided to found a military order for the nobility of Tuscany, he virtually copied the statutes of the Order of Malta for his new institution.

And, to underline his admiration for the ancient brotherhood he was emulating, de’ Medici decreed that his new Order of St Stephen would be branded by the eight-pointed Maltese cross in red on a white field, to associate it clearly with the original cross in white on a field of red.

The only significant contrast in the statutes between the old and the new orders related to the compulsory celibacy espoused by the Hospitallers.

Differently from the Maltese knights, the ones of the Florentine order were not expected to take the solemn and very flexible vow of chastity, and could marry before or after joining the Order of St Stephen. Not everyone agreed which order had the more attractive solution.

Just after the siege, de’ Medici also sent his top military engineer, Gabrio Serbelloni, to assist Grand Master de Valette lay out the new fortress city of Valletta.

When news of the Siege spread throughout Italy and Florence, de’ Medici incited Tuscan noblemen and military captains to raise troops for the relief of Malta, and many took up his plea. In fact, the Tuscan contingent in the end turned out to be the most numerous of all, manned by experienced and brave volunteers and by mercenaries paid for by the volunteers – some 3,000 fighting men in all.

De’ Medici put the Tuscan complement under the military discipline of Vitelli. The freshly launched Florentine fleet, seven galleys in all, saw action for the very first time in the soccorso of Malta.

With all the carnage going on in Malta and all the despondency and excitement building up around her, it is not difficult to understand how Battiferra joined in the concerns, the fears, the prayers – and finally in the widespread European exultations that followed the defeat of the Ottoman armies. Differently from other Tuscan women caught up in the same anxieties, Battiferra translated her feelings and intuitions into verse – probably the only woman poet to write about the Great Siege of Malta.

The first sonnet I want to deal with, Battiferra dedicated to “The Victory of Malta over the Turks” (Di Madonna Lavra Battiferra. Della Vittoria di Malta contro i Tvrchi) and is found only in the rare anthology collected and printed in 1567. It opens with the line Di Celesti gemmati pregi, e cari and consists of an exhortation and a desire: may high and resplendent diadems be formed by celestial gems and by beloved worth, now that the triumphant, illustrious peoples shine just as brightly as they (the diadems) do.

Souls espoused to Christ can now put an end to bitter tears, and with sweeter accents can sing about the great fatigue and the daring of the defenders, faithful and renowned. And about those who opposed the bold and strongly-armed Turk and the cruel Orion who exposed the Tyrrhenian Sea to such a bitter and tempestuous war.

As ever with Petrarchan sonnets, poets strive to round off their verses with a punchline, and Battiferra proves to be no exception: the knights fought so valiantly that the Turk, overwhelmed with anger and pain, in time disappeared, not without leaving the waves discoloured and reddened with his blood (havendo pria lasciato / l’onde del sangue suo torbide e rosse).

On his return to Florence, Battiferra dedicated another sonnet to the captain of the Tuscan contingent that came to the relief of Malta with the Gran Soccorso. De’ Medici placed Vitelli, his most eminent professional captain (could be hired by the highest bidder, a typical condottiero di ventura), in command of all the officially recruited troops and of Tuscan volunteers who wanted to join the soccorso meant for Malta under the general leadership of Don Garcia de Toledo.

Gian Luigi Vitelli, known to all as Chiappino (little buttocks?) was born in 1519 in Città del Castello, Umbria, and had, from early age, distinguished himself as a brave warrior and a fine military strategist – the very first nobleman chosen to be knight of the new Order of St Stephen. The Medici and the Spanish high commands had put him in charge of several campaigns to further their interests in their wars against the Ottomans and in Flanders.

The Spanish King Philip II also dispatched Vitelli as ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I when England impounded five Spanish ships that had sought refuge in English ports during a terrific storm. Neither Vitelli’s oratory nor his sardonic Florentine charm served to move Elizabeth to release them. Vitelli’s mission also included the task of sounding Elizabeth discreetly on a general peace with Spain.

No one questioned his daring or his strategic abilities – he invented and put to the test an ingenious siege technique, and had generally distinguished himself in warfare. That did not derail the harshest criticism aimed at the man and his actions. He must have been prodigiously fat. One contemporary described him as “Famous for his valour and for his monstrous corpulence”.

Laura equalled Sappho in genius, surpassed her in morality
- Giovanni Bonello

Another remarked that Vitelli l’orso (the bear) was so inordinately obese that his belly had to be supported by an appropriate harness as otherwise he would have been unable to walk.

Vitelli attracted some admiration, but he also provoked vitriolic criticism. In those turbulent times, when a state of war was the rule and peace the exception, he found plenty of detractors to brand him “an atheist, and a ferocious person”. He may have been a competent warrior but “he left a very poor name for himself where honesty and Christian piety were concerned”. And, being suspected of atheism, placed a person firmly on the unhygienic side of the Inquisitor’s curiosity.

Both Vitelli’s parents had been assassinated in a respectable sexual imbroglio. His cuckolded father, weary of the serial lechery of his wife, Gentilina della Strafa, with anyone except him, had finally murdered her, reasserting his honour. Niccolò Bracciolini, the more or less final lover of Vitelli’s mother, vindicated his dead mistress and reasserted his honour by murdering his father. Only to be, in turn, murdered, quite predictably, by Vitelli himself, who resented not having some honour to reassert.

A choice, sound pedigree for our Great Siege hero: the murderous son of a murderous father and of a murdered bawd. They rooted for different schools of philosophy, but then a common quest for honour united them.

Battiferra’s biographer has a most unflattering thumb-nail portrait of Vitelli which goes very much in the opposite direction to the fulsome praise of the poetess: “History has painted an ugly picture of this man, so grotesquely obese that he was forced to support his stomach in a sling around his neck; cruel and bloodthirsty from youth, when he is said to have murdered his father’s killer.

“Vitelli died despised in Flanders, violently as he had lived, when he fell (or was pushed) into a ditch from a sedan chair on a dike.” Born from murder, lived for murder, died of murder. That was in July 1575.

If these assessments hover anywhere near the truth, then Vitelli found excellent company in the Gran Soccorso assembling in Sicily.

Another condottiero di ventura specifically hand-picked by the Pope to come to the relief of Malta was the one-eyed Ascanio della Corgna, wanted by the police forces of Italy for multiple rape, murder, embezzlement, fraud and extortion – just the right paladins to save Christianity from the baddies, those heathen Muslims. Vitelli and della Corgna were good friends and shared common interests. These did not include stamp collecting.

To be concluded.

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