Saturday, November 17, 2012

La Compiuta Donzella: 13th c. Poet, or Legend?

La Computer Donzella

First, let me explain.

The above image was the result of one of those misheard comments, when I was chattering away about La Compiuta Donzella and my listener thought I said La Computer Donzella.  It was a rather irresistible thought; hence this picture.  (All credit--or is it blame?--is due to my husband Tim for this one.)

But she was not La Computer Donzella.  She was - or possibly wasn't - a woman who lived in the 13th century in Florence and who wrote poetry.   And what do we know about her?


We don't even know if she really existed.  Some scholars have thought that she was nothing more than the fanciful creation of male poets, while others believe she was a real woman (though Compiuta may have been a pseudonym rather than her actual name) who did write the three surviving poems ascribed to her.  If she did exist, she is the first woman known to have written poetry in the Italian vernacular.

Playing music

And me?  I think she was real.  Otherwise, I find it difficult to imagine why several well-known (and male) poets of her day wrote poetry and letters to her.  But perhaps they were even more fanciful than we know, and the whole thing was an elaborate setup.

In lieu of a portrait, let's look at the best known of her sonnets, in which she begins by writing (with what one editor, Luciano Rebay, calls "moving simplicity and consummate poetic skill") of the beauties of spring and of love.  But in the eighth line she changes her tone, and the poem becomes a complaint, a lament.  Here's a translation by Rebay:

In the season when the world leafs and flowers,
Joy grows in all gentle lovers,
They go together to the gardens, while
Little birds make sweet song,
All free-hearted people fall inlove,
And every man steps forth to serve,
And every maiden lives in joy.
As for me, miseries and tears abound.

For my father has put me in a quandary,
And keeps me often in terrible pain:
He wants to give me--forcing me--a husband.
and I have neither wish nor will for this,
And in great torment I live every hour:
So that neither flower nor leaf rejoices me.

Defending the castle

Who was she?  "Donzella" suggests that she was a maiden, a damsel, an unmarried woman.  "Compiuta," which was actually in use at the time as a female name, means something like Capable or Competent, with a suggestion, too, of learned skill; maybe Accomplished would come closest.  And that is why I've sprinkled this post with images of other compiute donzelle from the middle ages, since it is not possible to offer you a portrait of the poet herself.

When and where did she live?  The "where" is a little easier than the "when."  Her Tuscan dialect places her in or near Florence.  The "when" is trickier, though.  It appears that she was active in the latter part of the 13th century, and some have guessed that she died around 1300.  But that still leaves us guessing.  Did she die young, possibly in childbirth?  Did she live to a ripe old age?  When was she writing her sonnets, which speak of the plight of a young woman whose fate is in someone else's hands?


We can hazard some guesses based on what we know of the men who corresponded with her.

First was Guittone d'Arezzo, who many consider the most prolific and influential poet of the Italian vernacular before Dante.  We have a surviving letter from Guittone to the "Donna Compiuta," praising her poetic gifts and offering her his devotion and admiration.

Teaching geometry
Guittone, a Guelf (the minority party in Arezzo), fought and lost at the battle of Montaperti in 1260, after which he chose to exile himself from his native city.  In the mid 1260s he underwent a religious conversion, left his wife and children, and joined a new religious order (the Milites Beatae Virginis Mariae, or Frati Godenti, a lay order founded to promote civic harmony in a time when such was a rare commodity).  If we assume that his letter to La Compiuta Donzella was written before his conversion, that means she was known for her poetry by, say, 1262-1263.  It also means she was married; he wrote Compiuta Donna rather than Donzella.

Maestro Torrigiano wrote her two letters.  In one, he dubbed her the "divine Sybil" and wondered whether the presence of such talents in a woman was unnatural, or possibly miraculous (but he probably meant that in a nice way).

But figuring out dates on Torrigiano is tricky.  Some historians say he was the prominent physician and medical scholar from Florence who was often known by the Latin version of his name:  Turisanus.  If so, he was a student of Taddeo Alderotti (see last blog post) in Bologna, and he had a reputation as a formidable scholar, albeit one who had really bad luck in actually curing patients.  But biographical information, including dates, is a bit garbled.  Filippo Villani, Florentine chronicler and Torrigiano's biographer, appears to equate him with a master who taught medicine in Paris as late as 1350, yet Taddeo Alderotti's student Turisanus died in 1319.  If the doctor was indeed La Compiuta Donzella's admirer, he may have been born somewhere in the 1240-1250 range.


The third man is even harder to pin down.  We have an anonymous poem which addresses her (this time as "Compiuta Donzella," so, not yet married) in a manner consistent with the conventions of courtly love, and to which she replied with pleasant courtesies and compliments.  Some historians believe this anonymous poet was Chiaro Davanzati, a member of a prominent Florentine family (the Palazzo Davanzati still stands in Florence, now a museum to the medieval Florentine home, with wonderful displays of furnishings and textiles).

Chiaro, too, fought in the battle of Montaperti (1260), so he must have been born not much later than about 1240.  He died in 1303.

Taking all this into account, I believe that La Compiuta Donzella was probably born in the 1240s, and that she was married by around 1263 or thereabouts.  But it's all guesswork.

A bit of historical context:  the battle of Montaperti was fought between the Ghibelline (imperial) forces and the Guelf (papal).  The Ghibellines won, inflicting great damage on the Guelf army and, it was said, making the river Arbia run red with blood.  Prominent Guelf families were exiled from Florence, and the triumphant Ghibellines took over, destroying Guelf palaces and towers and seizing other property.  It was, however, the Ghibellines' last hurrah in Florence.  A mere six years later, one year after Dante's birth (his Guelf family had apparently not been prominent enough to suffer exile), the battle of Benevento restored Guelf supremacy and the tables were turned - Ghibellines were exiled, and the formerly exiled Guelfs returned in triumph and began wreaking havoc on the Ghibellines' property.  The Ghibellines were never again to prevail in Florence, which remained staunchly Guelf, although the Guelf party split into two warring factions toward the end of the thirteenth century.

One wonders:  was La Compiuta Donzella's family Guelf or Ghibelline?  Were they exiled, either after Montaperti or after Benevento?  If, as we surmise, she was in her prime when Dante was born (1265), did she live long enough to see him transform Italian poetry?


La Compiuta Donzella's second surviving poem, by the way, also concerns marriage, only this time she is expressing a desire to leave the world and to enter a convent and serve God, but her father is having none of it.  She complains that the world is full of corruption and of falseness.  It is "the world of lies" where all is "mad and false and vile," in the translation by Leonard Cottrell.

We have no idea whether these few graceful works of poetry are truly autobiographical, or whether they simply represent poetic conventions.  The "malmaritate" (badly married) songs were very popular, some tragic, some quite funny.  It's certainly possible that the lady's father was in reality a very nice man, wanting only the best for his daughter.  Maybe.

We don't know much more about La Compiuta Donzella than we did when we began exploring the possibilities, but looking at her life does provide a good example of scholars making educated guesses.  It makes you wonder, though--how many other women wrote about their lives, in prose or in verse, only to have their words disappear with time?  She can't have been the only one.

After all, as it's often said, "Anonymous was a woman."

Images in this post are in the public domain because more than 100 years has passed since any possible copyright expired, except for the oddity at the top, which is property of Tim Heath.

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