Poetess sings praises of Great Siege heroes
The Ammannati, the Battiferra and the Vitelli had close links on various planes. In 1549, Chiappino Vitelli had married a grand-daughter of Pope Innocent VIII, Eleonora Cibo, herself said to be an industrious poetess, well versed in Latin, Greek, and possibly Hebrew too – though only one poem by her survives.
Up to 1564 the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati had his studio in a house in Florence rented from Vitelli’s wife, who had virtually begged Laura Battiferra to compose poems in praise of her husband.
This Battiferra did, singing the virtues of a rather unvirtuous Vitelli. But she also dedicated her translation of the first penitential psalm to Faustina Vitelli, an illegitimate daughter of Vitelli, shunted out of the way as a cloistered nun in the monastery of the Murate (echoes of buried alive) in Florence.
Besides Faustina, Vitelli also had another illegitimate child, Gian Vincenzo, who forged a career for himself and eventually became an ambassador of the Medici court. When Vitelli died in 1575, his widow Cibo also cloistered herself with the nuns in the Murate convent, where she had spent a long part of her childhood and where she died in 1594. She took an impressive dowry with her, to buy new habits for the other nuns. No record survives as to how Vitelli’s widow and his illegitimate daughter got on, under the same bleak roofs.
What history has recorded about Cibo points to a sad, crushed woman, inclemently scoffed at by fate right through her entire pursuit of happiness. The only known portrait of Cibo can be found at Palazzo Falson, Mdina, though it has not yet been established how this historical rarity ended in Malta.
Vitelli actively took part in the very last phases of the Great Siege of Malta, after the landing of the Gran Soccorso early in September 1565. He distinguished himself when he and his men raced the Turks to the top of a hillock west of Mdina; both sides wanted to occupy it for its strategic position. Vitelli got there first. From the heights he charged the Turks “and completely routed them”.
He repeated his success on other high ground dominated by a house and a windmill – he killed a great many and forced the others to retire; it is known as the Torre Falca assault, and is among the last significant skirmishes before the Turkish forces re-embarked, crestfallen and exhausted.
Francesco Balbi di Correggio, the genial diarist of the Siege, has nothing but praise for Vitelli: “Known and loved as he was by all the veterans, Chiappino Vitelli was implicitly obeyed by all the troops... he bore himself throughout as one would expect of so brave a knight.” But then Balbi, a professional, intelligent mercenary, very rarely let any critical streak show, that is, if he had any. You never know when and to whom you might need to apply for your next soldier’s job.
On Vitelli’s return to Florence, Battiferra felt she had to celebrate his contribution in the siege of Malta with a grandiloquent sonnet Or c’ha pur l’alto valor vostro invitto. She had written other poems in praise of Vitelli, but not related to his Malta enterprise.
In Victoria Kirkham’s translation this reads: “Now that your lofty valour invincible has / conquered even the wicked people, God’s enemy, / and with a bitter lance stabbed and pierced the heart / of the evil predator from the east, / the present age, renowned lord, newly raises / to you noble colossi, like those once adorning Rome / and Egypt, as it was forewritten of you in heaven / and now similar to his proud Neptune who / took away the adversaries’ powers of strength and / imposed on them eternal silence, / I discern, consecrated to you a new Alcides, who has put to flight the infidel monsters, work, and / clever art of my good Phidias.”
High praise for Vitelli, no doubt, comparing him to Alcides (Hercules), but also some rather unsubtle promotion for the Ammannati firm, monuments, marble memorials and funerary sculpture at very competitive prices. Shorn of its tiresome rhetoric, the unwritten sub-text reads: a huge statue of the hero Vitelli should be erected, like the ones they put up in Rome and Egypt to victorious generals. My husband has already sculpted the monumental Neptune (in the Signoria square) and other colossi, and anyway, this work can only be entrusted to him, as he is the modern Phidias (the most renowned Greek sculptor). Battiferra often refers to her husband Ammannati by that mythical Greek name, the ultimate term of comparison for any sculptor.
One snag. Patrons who paid for public statuary often had Neptune and conquering heroes depicted in the nude. Vitelli, with his arrant abuse of the middle-age spread – urrrrgh, and can we change the subject please?
On the lifting of the Great Siege, Battiferra also wrote a sonnet in honour of Don Garcia de Toledo, the overall leader of the Gran Soccorso, who landed in Malta and put the weary Turks to flight – a most controversial figure who managed the relief army and fleet in a most controversial way. Perhaps unfairly, many accused Toledo of being irresolute, of dithering, of excessive timidity in his decisions.
Grand Master de Valette, though overtly courteous and grateful to Don Garcia when he landed with his relief forces in Malta, is said to have been furious at the Spanish general, and highly contemptuous of him in private.
Those who try manfully to justify Garcia’s very obvious procrastination, factor in the detail that his fleet was far smaller than that of the besieging Turks, and his soldiers were fewer still. If the element of surprise failed, he would just have condemned his forces to fight an unequal war with the odds heavily stacked against him. His delays, justified or not, almost caused the loss of Malta to the crown of Sicily, of Sicily to Europe, and in a catastrophic sequence, of Europe to Christianity.
Toledo had married Vittoria Colonna, who had six children by him. But he also fathered two illegitimate children by other women.
Toledo’s wife was the niece of her namesake Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547), the great woman poet, Michelangelo’s close friend and (platonic) muse, and the idealised companion of Pietro Bembo, a leading man of letters, a Knight of Malta, and, quite coincidentally, also the reputed and none too bashful lover of Lucrezia Borgia.
Battiferra, the younger of the two woman poets, seems to have held the elder one in sincere esteem; in the end Colonna’s literary fame survived better than Battiferra’s.
Perhaps being a high-profile member of the all-powerful Colonna clan may have had something to do with that – a pope, a few cardinals, some viceroys and generals flickering on the family tree never really harmed anyone.
Where Colonna and Battiferra diverged sharply was on religious conformity: Colonna did not try too hard to hide her very obvious (and unsafe) sympathies for the Lutheran revolution, while Battiferra’s devout allegiance to the strictest Catholic doctrine never wavered.
Don Garcia, the son of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples, himself Viceroy of Sicily, had a strong, all-round connection with the Medici – his sister Eleonora had married Duke Cosimo, and his daughter, in turn, married, almost incestuously, Cosimo’s son.
Such was the sly and overt criticism Spain had garnered throughout Europe for its slowness in sending help to Malta, that King Philip II did what any self-respecting autocrat was expected to do – he blamed someone else. Don Garcia ended eased elegantly out of his command. The game is called ‘spot the scapegoat’, and I don’t believe it was first marketed yesterday.
Battiferra’s sonnet to Toledo, sycophantic and quite hollow, saw the light in two versions. The Kirkham one starts: Voi che del sacro generoso fianco, while the one only extant in the anthology of Great Siege verses starts Poi che del proprio e generoso fianco. There are major variants in the text too.
Kirkham thus translated this sonnet: “You who with your sacred generous flank / made a shield, adamantine and true, between the / devout people of Jesus and those so many enemy/ squadrons rebellious to God / before the world tires of praising you and / glorifying your deeds, so bright and beautiful, the / wandering and firm stars of the wide heaven / one by one will disappear./ Invincible warrior, if now garlands and prizes / are given to him whose powerful hand / makes a man safe from high peril, / what crowns immortal, what rewards / and decorations are due you, who ere now / saved the good name Christian from such a cruel claw?”
Why, one may wonder, was Battiferra inspired to write verses to boost the ego of such a problematic hero as Garcia de Toledo, seen by many (perhaps unfairly) as an incompetent, craven general? We will never know the answer, but I suspect that her unwavering allegiance to the Medici may well explain this homage. Don Garcia was Duke Cosimo’s brother-in-law, and one needed few credentials besides that to earn a tired sonnet here and there.
Though not a Great Siege sonnet, I would also refer to another poem Battiferra addressed to a very controversial Knight of Malta, Fra Paolo del Rosso, about whom I recently published my research.
Del Rosso, who started life as a rabidly anti-Medici Florentine, had been virtually kidnapped in Rome on suspicion of having taken part in a plot to poison Cosimo de’ Medici. He had been taken in chains to Florence where the Medici police viciously tortured him and then kept him in prison for 13 years.
During his long term in jail, Del Rosso softened and professed a newly-discovered and fawning allegiance to the Medici. He is today remembered in Malta mostly as the author of the first printed translation into Italian of the Statutes of the Order of Malta and of several other fortunate literary works.
On the occasion of his last illness, after his release from jail, Battiferra dedicated to him a sort of get-well sonnet, which contains a veiled hint to his (unmentionable) imprisonment for treason and attempted assassination – i foschi giorni amari (the gloomy and bitter days).
Battiferra’s good wishes and prayers proved quite futile. Del Rosso died shortly later.
Del Rosso did not take part in the Great Siege (he languished in a prison in Pisa when the Ottoman forces attacked Malta) but he had seen action against the Turks on the galleys of the Knights of Malta before his arrest, and his daring had been attested by many.
Especially because of her constant reliance on classical and mythological allusions, Battiferra’s verse can sometimes sound forced and contrived, even in the best translations. Far less so in Italian, as she had an infallible ear for the musicality of words and a sense of arresting, melodious cadence. Worship Petrarch as your model poet and you run the risk of being imprisoned in harmony.
The Great Siege of Malta inspired a number of contemporary poets, of diverse skills, to write epic poems and shorter verse in memory of those gory apocalyptic events, in homage to the men who made them so momentous and in eternal gratitude for the salvific outcome of that carnage.
Though many of these poems have been recorded and some have been studied, I do not believe that an organic, in-depth survey and analysis has been attempted so far: the Great Siege, not as a military, political or a historical narrative, but as that aesthetic, spiritual, intellectualised experience of mining inside poetry’s parallel world. A vast task, I acknowledge, but a most rewarding one too. Were I a literary critic, I would be sorely tempted to corral this unexplored and unappropriated territory for myself.
Battiferra spent most of the last stretch of her life in a chapel specially built for her by her husband in a rented villa in Camerata, close to the gates of Florence. Ammannati could afford that and much else besides, after a long and highly successful career as a sculptor and an architect. She passed away in November (probably the 1st), 1589, and was buried in the Ammannati chapel in the Florentine church of San Giovannino whose façade had been designed by her gifted husband.
The grateful Jesuits put up a marble memorial over the joint tomb of the Ammannati spouses who had been their benefactors throughout their life and of whom they were appointed heirs after death. Someone later replaced the worn-out or broken epitaph, but, this second time round, got Battiferra’s years at death wrong – the new inscription gives her age as a few years younger than she actually was. Had our godly Battiferra suffered from anything as earthy as vanity, she would have been delighted.
My thanks to Maroma Camilleri for her assistance at the National Library and to Victoria Kirkham whose researches into the life and works of Laura Battiferra were determining for this study. Thanks also to the University of Chicago for kind permission to use copyright translations by Kirkham of two Battiferra sonnets and to Tim Chilvers for useful suggestions.