Morra, Isabella di (ca.1520-1545/46)
Isabella di Morra has provoked a striking amount of interest over the last four hundred fifty years given that she left behind such a small corpus of surviving poems. While in the first centuries after her death the merit of her poetry was enough to garner her glory, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries her tragic biography in large part has overshadowed an appreciation of her art.
Isabella was the third of 8 children born to Giovan Michele di Morra, Baron of Favale, and Luisa Brancaccio. Isabella had one sister, Porzia, the second-youngest, and 6 brothers: Marcantonio, Scipione, Decio, Cesare, Fabio, and Camillo, who was born after the Baron went into exile in 1528. The precise year of Isabella's birth is unknown, but Croce placed it at somewhere around 1520, while Caserta thought it somewhat earlier, around 1515. As a child, Giovan Michele, a man of humanist interest and himself a writer of poetry, educated (or had educated) Isabella along with her brother Scipione, the closest to her in age. Isabella's life changed drastically in 1528 when her father fled the Kingdom of Naples and his holding, the castle of Favale in Basilicata, as a result of his having supported the invading French army against the emperor Charles V, formerly King Charles I of Spain. Scipione accompanied his father to the court of the French king François I, while Isabella was left in the care of her other brothers. After some legal maneuvering, the holdings of the Morra family were placed in the hands of the first-born Marcantonio.
What little is known about Isabella's life can only be garnered from her poetry: severe isolation and virtual imprisonment in the cliff-side fortress that was her home. More is known about her infamous death, although much remains subject to speculation. What seems certain is that a servant of the family, a private tutor, was caught carrying letters containing verse from the Spaniard don Diego Sandoval de Castro to Isabella. Don Diego, husband of Antonia Carcciolo of Naples, was a Petrachist who had published a book of verse in Italian in 1542 and whose holdings included the castle of Bollita, located very near Isabella's home. The letters were sent in his wife's name, which encourages the belief that Isabella knew Antonia Caracciolo, and the letters themselves would indicate that some type of relationship existed between Isabella and Diego. Whether theirs was a true romance, or a friendship of like minds in the culture-deprived Basilicata of the sixteenth century, is likely to remain forever a mystery, as is the question of whether theirs was an actual correspondence, including replies from Isabella, or merely a single, fatal exchange. What is certain is that sometime between the end of 1545 and the start of 1546 Isabella's brothers were informed of the letters, that Decio, Cesare and Fabio confronted the go-between as he was delivering them and promptly killed him, and that they then killed their sister. Some English sources say that Isabella was beaten to death, but Italian sources state that she was stabbed (there was perhaps a mis-translation of the Italian a pugnalate). Don Diego, aware that the vendetta would strike him next, hired an escort, but to no avail: the three assassins, with the help of two uncles, ambushed Diego in the woods near Favale and killed him. The murder of Diego provoked much more outrage than had that of Isabella, and the three brothers were forced to flee the Kingdom of Naples. They joined Scipione and their father in France (earlier sources had stated that Giovan Michele was dead before Isabella's murder, but Croce has demonstrated that this was not the case), where Decio became a priest and Cesare married a French noblewoman. Marcantonio, who is not mentioned by sources as a conspirator in the murders, was nevertheless imprisoned for some months and then released. The youngest brother, Camillo, was not in the area at the time of the murders and was thus absolved of complicity.
There only 13 extant poems by Isabella di Morra. It is generally assumed that her poems were discovered during the investigation that followed the death of Diego, when officials searched the castle of Favale. A scant six years after her death some of her verse appeared in Book 3 of Lodovico Dolce's anthology, Rime di diversi illustri signori napoletani (Venice: Giolito, 1552), and were very positively received. There were no official reports regarding her life and death until her nephew, Marcantonio di Morra (Camillo's son), published a family history in 1629. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Isabella's tragic life struck the imagination of critics to the point of obscuring the poetry itself, in part due to the highly personal and intimate nature of her verse, which encouraged an examination of her art in relation to her life. Isabella's poetry was influenced by the popular school of petrarchismo, but her verse displays an originality unusual for the Petrarchan poets, and other influences include Dante and classical authors. Some critics have cited her as a precursor to Leopardi due to her depiction of the desolate isolation in which she lived and her lamentations against "cruel fortune."
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