We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Veronica Gambara: 6 poems, 1 letter, an arrangement · 17 June 07

Dear Miss Vane,

Last Wednesday I sent you a correspondence I had with an editor of a coming edition of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 3 of my translations from Vittoria Colonna’s poems, and an explanation for the way I ordered them. I also told of the different sorts of people who have come to my site to read and use my translations of Colonna and Gambara since I first put these on my site. Tonight I go on to send you a short letter I received from the son of a recent biographer of Veronica Gambara, 6 of my translations of her poems, and an explanation of the way I ordered Gambara’s poems. I am hoping to to take the two explanations and retype and set them up prettily and put them on my website as prefatory explanations to my two books of poetry on line.

I did preface the whole of both bodies of poetry with an essay, in which I argued for (defended) creative translation and explained how I went about translating Colonna and Gambara’s poems, i.e., told which source texts I used, my sense of what each woman was trying to express, and explained how I tried to convey that in modern English. For Gambara I also included a short life, and a brief argument against Bullock’s attribution to Vitttoria Colonna of poems hitherto thought to have been written by Gambara. I never thought to literally explain the arrangement of the two sequences. Probably I hoped people who read the poems would understand the ordering sheerly by reading through the parts, and that the labelling would serve as topic headings, but now I realize although I have been teaching John Trimble’s rhetoric for years, I have not quite taken his advice sufficiently seriously to heart: clear writers “assume with a pessimism born of experience, that whatever isn’t plainly stated, the reader will invariably misconstrue.”

First the letter. Antonia Chimenti’s book is Veronica Gàmbara: gentildonna des Rinascimento: un intreccio di poesia et storia. (Reggio Emilia, Italy: Magis, 1990). She sent me a very brief email in which she said she could not write English well enough to praise my poetry the way she wanted to, but would ask her son to write on her behalf. His note was about my whole site, especially the biography and my review of his mother’s book (which I included in a footnote to my brief biography:

Dear Ms. Moody,

Antonia Chimenti, my mother, the author of Veronica Gambara, Gentildonna del Rinascimento, ed. Magis Books, 1994. has visited your site, found it really informative and interesting and beautiful, and she wishes to thank you for your poetry, essay, and your review and positive evaluation of her work.

Thanks for your time,
Erik Di Trani

He sent me an email where I could write to them, so I wrote a letter thanking them, and left it at that.

Now as in my Wednesday letter I send you three translations, this time sonnets which I feel are cornerstones of my conception of Gambara’s sequence. My favorite, and probably Gambara’s greatest poem, is a long poem where she brings forward how her poetry is rooted in her return to a beloved landscape: Stanze (“Quando miro la terra ornata e bella,” “When I see the earth’s spring so beautiful”). But these Stanze are too long for a letter and anyway I begin Secret Sacred Woods with a sonnet of return:

Ombroso colle, amene e verdi piante

How welcome to my eyes this shady hill,
lovely gay plants, blest shores and green valleys,
these fresh and crystal clear rushing waters,
where, when I was sad, I found comfort.
Secret sacred woods, inviolable,
dark thickets, solitary paths, fragant flowers
plum-colored, white, yellow, overarching
trees—parasols reaching to paradise.
Spirits, to you I’ve cried, told of harsh demands
often imposed on me, but I come here now
to speak of what contents me:
after long troubles and desperate sorrows
this warm sunlight, this place
I thought never to see again.

The heart of Gambara’s sequence is comprized of 35 love poems, some to a lover or lovers she had before she married, a series to her husband before they married, after marriage, and after his death, 2 to Alfonso D’Avalos (adopted son and nephew of Vittoria Colonna) and one celebrating marriage. These are startlingly frank: Gambara openly explores her vulnerability, emotional pain, need and dependence on love, and great joy when she feels herself beloved. She also grieves deeply for her husband’s death. A large group of these were suppressed until the 1890s. Of these here is one which is characteristic of aspects of Gambara’s poetic personality which remains almost completely unknown even to those who read her poetry:

Quando sarà ch’io mora

Love, when does one die?
If such a harsh rough parting doesn’t kill,
what does?

If it should happen that I dream
what I imagined—the slow parting,
lingering, regretful hot sighs,
would my soul stay in my body?

If then I heard parting words
uttered with such feeling,
and could not open my heart,
and did not die,
when would I ever die?

I will not go out of this life.
I have not endured such bitter pain
to see myself deprived,
to be so far from him,
who would remain alive.

Gambara’s poems fall into three other kinds: devotional, friendship, and politicking and networking poems. Of these the best known are her poems of friendship, a genre Paula Backscheider demonstrates women find deep fulfillment in writing.

However, I want to call attention to one not well known that shimmers with joy, characteristic of Gambara’s urge to celebrate life through beautiful rituals: a Nativity Canzone (perhaps revised by Bembo). I admit the attribution is uncertain.

A canti sonori

Shepherds, shepherdesses, everywhere
angels invite us to celebrate
through joyous festivals,
reverberating songs,
in merry dances;
the wonder of infinite joy:
Mary feeding her baby;
a sacred birth.
Joseph looking down lovingly,
holds Him tight, embraces Him,
serves, caresses, humbly kisses his boy.
Two pack-horses helped keep a God warm.
A rare miracle.

Yet more rare, this accompanying music.
The birds singing so sweetly:
green and lovely meadows,
fragrant odors displacing the sour,
cedar-trees ooze with honey,
beech-woods with oil.
Sadness is spent,
All tears gone:
The ordeals of existing end:
Now is our time to sing:
Hell is smashed, shattered, its doors
forever closed, death defeated.

Come, shepherds and shepherdesses,
dance the offer of your hearts.
give gifts to the new baby,
who looks up at you so happily,
with a holy light in His eyes,
grace is there, inspiration.
Pray Mary’s child turns His face to her
with mirth, and while he is near to her heart
they become one with that mildness of shared
apprehension which gives sustaining calm
quiet, contentment, joy

oh sing:
darling child, sweet baby,
you carry in your face a promise
of fate’s kindness,
somewhere a lovely Paradise.
Humbly let us pray to You,
God humanized,
let us be happy together,
in this blest moment of your reign.

She was often better at longer poems, like this from her landscape poetry:

Con quel caldo desio che nascer suole

With that warm, breathless eagerness common
to those who can hear their hearts beat as they
return home, long absent, longing to see
beloved eyes and to hear the sweet words
of family and friends, so I return
to you, unique shores, fresh lakes, shady hills,
and see you, stronger than any city
the sun shines on, lovely, gay Brescia.

Hail, dearest city, and you, lucky, rich
countryside, so beloved by Heaven,
that like the graceful and sacred phoenix,
you acted with famous and noble courage;
Nature, who wounds others in a thousand
grevious ways, taking from them everything
they have, is to you alone, mother, nurse,
does you good graciously, generously,

Here are no tigers, lions, or serpents,
man’s enemies, no venomous poison
like that which has the power to kill
even those who least fear death’s bitterness:
instead one sees flocks of sheep playing,
untamed, nimble, well fed, in meadows
filled with green herbs and lovely flowers,
scattering gracious and precious perfumes.

But since to write poetry about you,
blessed place, requires a style nobler than
my humble rough one, a genius far more
sublime and splendid than mine, alas, is,
in thought my soul will forever praise you,
and with each step I take I will carry
your memory engraved in my heart’s core.
as far as it is within my power.

As it was easy to arrange Gambara’s poems coherently, so it’s easy to explain my arrangement. She really did write her poems in accorance with generic norms, and they fall into five groups: landscape, love, devotional, friendship, political. Occasionally a poem may fit into more than one category: poems can be about love and to a friend; some landscape poems are also political; she uses landscape in her devotional poetry; her poems to friends are about love and friendship. I chose to put such combined poems in the category I thought central to the particular poem.

So this sonnet about a wedding, possibly on the occasional of a brother’s wedding, resembles her joyous poems about fulfilled love and I’ve put it “under the sign of Dido:”

Unbind and weave into your golden hair

Unbind and weave into your golden hair
waving in the breeze myrtle and laurel,
beautiful Venus, create sweet concord,
a restorative time for these lovers.
And you, sacred Hymen, who everywhere
sing with noble heart-stirring poetry
with golden plectrum, vermilion roses
and purple flowers honor this proud day.
And you, oh great gods who govern mortals,
with full hands give us lilies, and scatter
joy, peace, tenderness, love and constancy.
May the sweet kisses and joyful hours
of this time spent—just you two together
be such that no other gifts come near this.

There is no adequate picture of Veronica Gambara. For my site I chose as an emblem the frontispiece of the 18th century edition of her poetry which depicts her as a widow in the act of writing.

Addio for now,
Miss Drake

Posted by: Ellen

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