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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #29 – Eisenbichler 2001 “Laudomia Forteguerri Loves Margaret of Austria”

Full citation: 

Eisenbichler, Konrad. “Laudomia Forteguerri Loves Margaret of Austria” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn), Palgrave, New York, 2001.

Publication summary: 


Palgrave is one of the most important academic publishers of work in the loosely-defined field of “queer history”, both monographs and collections such as the present work. As with the collection on singlewomen, I will be blogging all the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their direct applicability to my project. And expect to keep seeing the various authors included here in other publications yet to be covered.

Eisenbichler, Konrad. “Laudomia Forteguerri Loves Margaret of Austria”

This concludes the articles from Sautman & Sheingorn with a lesson on how even conventional formulaic poetry should be taken seriously, or at least one should allow for the possibility that it reflected serious desire. Remember this article when I present two contrasting takes on the lyrics of Bieris de Romans. At the moment I'm trying to line up enough articles to carry me through the coming week's trip off to Portland OR for the Golden Crown Literary Society conference, where I'll be doing a reading and trying to convince people to buy my book. So expect a spate of articles on cross-dressing because I've already pre-digested a lot of that material for my previous summary article.

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In the 16th century Laudomia Forteguerri wrote sonnets to Duchess Margaret of Austria, five of which survive. And at least one contemporary of theirs placed the relationship between the two in the context at Plato’s myth of lovers seeking their "other half”, placing them in a list of "those each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Forteguerra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as ... in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana.” Setting aside the distinction between "pure" and "lascivious" love, this text provides not only an acknowledgement at the possibility of love between women-in a variety of expressions-but gives the names of actual women considered to embody that love. In addition, it puts a label on the sentiments expressed in Laudomia's poetry that otherwise would be at the mercy at interpretations that focus only on the conventional expressions and format of laudatory verse. The literary dialog in which the discussion takes place is rife with male gaze and privilege. Written by a male author (Agnolo Firenzuola) it presents a conversation between a young man and four women on the topic of female beauty where the man dominates and directs the conversation. Despite this, not only does he express this view of apparent tolerance, but the conversation began as a female-only admiring discussion of another woman's beauty that they were reluctant to include the man in. (As framed by the male author, to be sure.)

There is no other reliable source for the identity of Cecelia Venetiana though another author gives a brief biography of her origins and how she set herself up in her profession with the assistance of a series of men. There are other references to Roman courtesans having female lovers as in Brantôme’s description “courtesans, who still have plenty of men available to them all the time, indulge in this rubbing (fricarelles) and seek each other out and love each other, as I have heard it said in Italy and Spain.” Whether this reflects reality or only popular imagination is unclear.

A far more solid background is known for Margaret of Austria and Laudomia Forteguerri. Laudomia was of the Siennese nobility, twice married, had children, was both the author and subject of poetry, was considered beautiful and learned, and is reputed to have been one of a group of women who organized the women of sienna in defense against a siege of the city in 1555. Margaret of Austria was the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V, twice married, by which she became duchess of Parma and Piacenza, had children, served as governor of the Netherlands, and was remarked on as less than beautiful and masculine in personality. There is no solid documentation that the two met in person though a contemporary claims they did first in 1535 and on later occasions. At their first meeting, he says, “as soon as Laudomia saw Madama, and was seen by her, suddenly with the most ardent flames of Love each burned for the other, and the most manifest sign of this was that they went to visit each other many times.” And on one of these occasions, “they renewed most happily their sweet Loves, and today more than ever, with notes from one to the other they warmly maintain them.” (Alas that none of this correspondence has been located!) This first meeting would have been early in their lives when Laudomia was newly married and just before Margaret’s first marriage. This writer, too, felt it was important to point out the "purity" of their love. The language of Laudomia's poems is conventional love and praise, unusual only in having both a female subject and object. Laudomia praises Margaret's beauty and begs her for a portrait that she can look at always, she longs for Margaret's physical presence. There is no self-consciousness in her expression or sense of guilt for her feelings. Laudomia at that time was an apparently happy wife and mother, with a growing reputation as an intellectual. Margaret, on the other hand, after a brief first marriage at a young age, openly refused to consummate her second marriage. Political satires at the time accused her family of all sorts of sexual vices and she was accused of being a lesbian in this context. Having eventually relented, Margaret produced children for her husband after which she returned to living separately from him. She was never accused of interest in any other man and other than the satirical speculations early in her second marriage, the only claim that she was a lesbian comes a generation later from the unreliable Brantôme, working from Firenzuola's description, but his garbling of the original text and the salaciously misogynistic context he brings it up in cast doubt that the interpretation came from anything except Brantôme's imagination and literary purpose.

In all the discussions of the relationship between the two women, there's a clear Madonna-whore thing going on (with Margaret, at least, assigned variably to both categories) which distorts the possibility of reliable evidence on the women's physical relationship,

The article concludes with the text of the sonnets in the original and English translation.

Time period: 

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