Tullia d'Aragona  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Tullia d'Aragona (c. 1510 - 1556) was a celebrated 16th century Venetian courtesan, author and philosopher. She had one daughter, Penelope d'Aragona, born in 1535, and a son, Celio, by Silvestro Guiccardi.

Her work has recently been revived in the University of Chicago's "The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe" series, which deals with texts from Renaissance era female authors, as well as male advocates of women's emancipation from that era. More recently, an anthology of her poetry and prose has been reprinted.

Contents

Background

Tullia was born to a courtesan herself, Giulia Ferrarese, in Rome, c. 1510. Her mother was lauded as "the most famous beauty of her day." Her father's identity is unknown, although it may have been Cardinal Luigi d'Aragona, who was himself the illegitimate grandson of Ferdinand I of Naples.

Tullia was educated by the Cardinal and proved to be an infant prodigy who amazed even her mother's 'guests.'

Appearance

Interestingly enough, Tullia's fame and success as the most celebrated of Renaissance courtesans was not hampered by the fact that she was not considered physically attractive in a time when Renaissance Italy worshipped beauty, namely, petite, full-bodied blondes. Tall and curveless with large thin lips and a hooked nose, her physical shortcomings were apparently vastly and easily overcome by her intellect and cunning, such that men, both powerful and famous poets, fell in love with her and the general public treated her like a celebrity.

Years in Rome

After the Cardinal's death in 1519, Tullia spent seven years in Siena, before she returned to Rome in 1526. Entering into the rampant world of prostitution at age 18, she niche marketed herself as the "intellectual courtesan" and quickly rose to the top of the pile within 3 or 4 years. This not only included her ability to entertain, but a shrewd knowledge of fashion, choosing to eschew the excess of the time for signature simplicity.

She was often seen in the company of poets, like Sperone Speroni. Available evidence suggests that Tullia was highly mobile and stayed in Bologna in 1529, where Pope Clement VII and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V were engaged in negotiations after the Sack of Rome in 1527.

In 1531, she hooked Filippo Strozzi, a Florentine banking magnate who had been famous for crushing Italy's most beautiful courtesan, Camilla Pisana. However, Tullia ensnared him to such a degree that he shared state secrets with her and had to be recalled to Florence. Other lovers included Emilio Orsini, who founded a Tullia Society of six cavaliers who protected her honor.

Years in Venice

At age thirty, Tullia moved to Venice, the most competitive stage in Europe with nearly 100,000 courtesans at that time. However, she prevailed once again and bagged the top poet in the city, Bernado Tasso.

In 1537, Tullia was living in Ferrara, as Battista Stambellino's correspondence to Isabella D'Este suggested. Ferrara was the capital of arts and culture and it was here that Tullia's skill for public relations was put to full swing. She conquered the city with extravagance, singing and sharp-tongued entertainment. Two of Italy's literary giants, Girolamo Muzio and Ercole Bentivoglio both fell in love with her. Muzio wrote five ardent eclogues to her, naming her as "Thalia" while Bentivoglio went so far as to carve Tullia's name on every tree on the Po River. When she left Ferrara four years later, more than one man had attempted suicide for her.

In 1543, she is recorded to have married Silvestro Guiccardi of Ferrara, who may have later starved to death. She used her marriage to overcome sumptuary law and residential restrictions on her career, dress and housing choices.

In 1545/6, Tullia fled civic unrest in Siena, and arrived in Florence, where she became an attendant at the court of Cosimo I de Medici, then Grand Duke of Tuscany. While there, she composed Dialogues on the Infinity of Love (1547), which is a Neo-Platonist assertion of women's sexual and emotional autonomy within exchanges of romantic love. During the preceding century, the Medici court had sponsored considerable revival of Neo-Platonist scholarship, particularly Marsilio Ficino, who had also written on the nature of sexual desire and love from this perspective. At the same time, she wrote a series of sonnets that praised the attributes of prominent Florentine noblemen of her era, or celebrated contemporary literary figures. Her last known work, Il Meschino, is an epic poem, which related the experiences of a captive youth, Giarrino, who was enslaved and journeyed across Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as Purgatory and Hell, trying to find his lost parents.

As an aging forty year-old with no claim to beauty, Tullia embarked on a successful campaign to ensure her current lifestyle. Her target was the intellectual king of Florenece, Benedetto Varchi, whom she bombarded with flattering sonnets until he finally succumbed and was soon followed by the rest of the cultural elite. Tullia turned her home into a philosophical academy for the cognoscenti and continued to thrive as a 'serious writer.'

After this, Tullia returned to Rome from Florence, and little further is known about her life. She died in 1556. After her death, there were posthumous editions of her work in Italian, in 1552, 1694, 1864, 1912, 1974, 1975 and 1980. With the emergence of second-wave feminism in the seventies and eighties, her creative and academic gifts found new devotees.

Critics

In a time when intellectual pursuits were confined to the male world and beauty was viewed as corresponding with inner goodness, Tullia was decried as a woman who desecrated aesthetic ideals and the limits of her gender and profession.

She was denounced twice to authorities, both times of which she escaped punishment through her often powerful and well-connected friends. The third time, she had to appeal to a Florentine duchess in order to be saved from disgrace.

Bibliography





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