Enrico; or, Byzantium Conquered: A Heroic Poem

Enrico; or, Byzantium Conquered: A Heroic Poem

by Lucrezia Marinella, Maria Galli Stampino

Lucrezia Marinella (1571–1653) is, by all accounts, a phenomenon in early modernity: a woman who wrote and published in many genres, whose fame shone brightly within and outside her native Venice, and whose voice is simultaneously original and reflective of her time and culture. In Enrico; or, Byzantium Conquered, one of the most ambitious and


Lucrezia Marinella (1571–1653) is, by all accounts, a phenomenon in early modernity: a woman who wrote and published in many genres, whose fame shone brightly within and outside her native Venice, and whose voice is simultaneously original and reflective of her time and culture. In Enrico; or, Byzantium Conquered, one of the most ambitious and rewarding of her numerous narrative works, Marinella demonstrates her skill as an epic poet.

Now available for the first time in English translation, Enrico retells the story of the conquest of Byzantium in the Fourth Crusade (1202–04). Marinella intersperses historical events in her account of the invasion with numerous invented episodes, drawing on the rich imaginative legacy of the chivalric romance. Fast-moving, colorful, and narrated with the zest that characterizes Marinella’s other works, this poem is a great example of a woman engaging critically with a quintessentially masculine form and subject matter, writing in a genre in which the work of women poets was typically shunned. 

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Other Voice in Early Modern Europe Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt


A Heroic Poem
By Lucrezia Marinella


Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-50548-0

Chapter One



Lucrezia Marinella is, by all accounts, a phenomenon in early modernity: a woman who wrote and published in many genres, whose fame shone brightly within and outside her native city, and whose voice is simultaneously original and reflective of her times and culture. With both her contemporaries and twentieth-and twenty-first century readers, her renown rests on a prose treatise, The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men, published in Venice in 1600 to refute a rabidly misogynous tract, Giuseppe Passi's The Defects of Women, published the previous year. Despite its importance and novelty, as Letizia Panizza avows, this treatise "was both unexpected and atypical" of Marinella's previous production: "it was in prose, on a secular subject, and entirely polemical in spirit." It is also atypical of Marinella's later production, which includes (among others) a life of the Virgin Mary, a collection of religiously themed poems, a narrative romance, a verse pastoral play, a retelling in poetic prose of Saint Catherine of Siena's life, and a prose tract that seems to contradict her pro-woman stances in The Nobility and Excellence of Women.

The "heroic" poem L'Enrico overo Bisanzio acquistato of 1635 is, however, the most anomalous of all Marinella's texts. As Benedetto Croce has remarked, in Italy during the seventeenth century the epic was considered the highest genre, the one that would definitively put writers on the literary map. Yet the epic's wide scope and its public and political subject matter discouraged most early modern women writers. Indeed, only five epic poems have surfaced written by women in the period 1560 to 1650.

Moreover, epic poems in early modern Italy typically served a dynastic purpose: they extolled a family reigning over a principality by establishing its roots in a mythical and glorious past. This is nowhere clearer than in Orlando innamorato by Matteo Maria Boiardo (1483), and especially in its continuation, Orlando furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1516–32): Ruggiero, one of Charlemagne's knights fighting the so-called infidels, is posited as the founder of the Este family of Ferrara. Venice, however, was proud of its republican constitution, in which the doge was elected for a life term but had limited powers and was subject to numerous checks by other authorities in the city. Some scholars have maintained that the Hapsburg Empire's proclivity to use epic poems to extol its military might against Moslem as sailants as well as against the native populations in what was then called the New World turned Venetian writers (and readers) away from this genre. The epic, however, was "foreign" in Venice for many additional political and cultural reasons. Lucrezia Marinella's Enrico, on this count too, emerges as original and atypical.

Still, a crusade as the topic for an epic poem had a prestigious antecedent: Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (1581, revised as Gerusalemme conquistata in 1593) concerns the First Crusade (1095- 99). Marinella's choice of the expedition that most involved the Venetians would not be peculiar, if not for the fact that the Fourth Crusade (1202–4) never reached the so-called Holy Land; instead it brought about the conquest of Constantinople, a Christian city—although an Eastern Orthodox (rather than a Roman Catholic) one. This move on Marinella's part forcefully establishes her as a Venetian writer, one whose voice is as individual and fiercely independent as her hometown. She declares her work to belong with Tasso's on her title page; as Rinaldina Russell points out, his Gerusalemme liberata was the first poem to be named "heroic." But this positioning came with striking ideological attributes, given Marinella's topic. Most early modern Italian epics (including the only other woman-penned historical heroic poem, Margherita Sarrocchi's Scanderbeide [Rome, 1606 and 1623]) pit Christian against Moslem fighters; furthermore, Tasso's poem reflects the increasingly militant (some would say oppressive) attitudes and beliefs of the Catholic Church after the Council of Trent (1545–63). With Enrico, Marinella walks a fine line between ideological expectations, literary models, and civic and personal circumstances that lead to an atypical text.

By selecting a topic that was both religiously and politically relevant, Marinella builds on some of her previous works, especially, as Laura Benedetti has recently shown, the hagiographic Colomba sacra (Marinella's first printed work, from 1595). She also reinforces the Venetian mythical tradition that saw the city and the state it headed as sanctioned and protected by Saint Mark the Evangelist—linking the sacred and civic (and political) in a tight and inextricable bond. The obvious ties to an established literary genre such as the epic and to a time-honored tradition of patriotic pride in Venice must not tempt us to ignore the novelty and otherness of Marinella's self-imposed task with Enrico. Women were excluded from political discussion (and, of course, direct action). However, in this poem Marinella singles out an important episode in the history of Venice to remind the world of her city's destiny and import; in doing so, she asserts her voice not only as a writer but as a devout, loyal, and vocal Venetian subject. She dares to write in the highest literary genre of her time, one of only five women to do so in early modern Italy. She dares to write in a genre that for various cultural reasons was out of favor in Venice. She dares to select a topic that by necessity offers a commentary on current political debates of her time. Lastly, she dares to offer a Venetian version of the events of the Fourth Crusade, a crucial moment in the history of her city but for which no contemporary Venetian documents existed. With Enrico, in sum, Marinella lifts a powerful and striking "other voice."


Generally speaking, we know very little about the individual lives of early modern women, unless some exceptional occurrence inscribed them in written documents. Despite her numerous printed writings, Lucrezia Marinella is no exception to this rule. Nonetheless, archives have recently begun to yield some of their riches to patient and determined researchers such as Susan Haskins. Although we still know nothing about Marinella's mother, not even her name, we know that her father, Giovanni Marinelli, was a physician and natural philosopher originally from Modena whose published writings concerned hygiene and beauty remedies (Women's Ornaments [Gli ornamenti delle donne], Venice, 1562), as well as gynecology (Medicines Pertaining to Women's Illnesses [Le medicine partenenti alle infirmità delle donne], Venice, 1563; revised and reprinted, Venice, 1574). Her older brother Curzio was also a physician, whose published works span medicine and history, including A Discourse on How to Study History in Order to Rule States (Discorso nel quale si scrive il modo di studiar l'Historie per reggere stati, 1580) that situate him in the camp "of Machiavelli-derived aristocratic republicanism" ("di un repubblicanismo aristocratico machiavelliano"). Lucrezia had a presumably older sister, Diamantina, who married a lawyer from Belluno and had died by 1620, and another older brother, Angelico, a priest who died after 1630.

Though Giovanni was not from Venice, Lucrezia and the rest of her family "belonged to the cittadinanza although it is at present unknown when, as 'foreigners,' the Marinelli were granted this status." Only five to eight percent of all Venetians were cittadini, and while they were not patricians, they constituted the largest cadre of civil servants and were the administrators of the charitable institutions of whose existence and tradition the city was so proud.

Lucrezia was born in Venice in 1571; Giovanni Marinelli's last printed work is dated 1576, so it is possible that her brothers might have had more influence on her upbringing than her father. Given the limited schooling that young women had access to, we must speculate that either her father or one of her brothers gave her encouragement and help in furthering her education, in writing, and in getting published. Another doctor and man of letters, Lucio Scarano, might have introduced Lucrezia to G. B. Ciotti, the publisher of her Nobility and Excellence of Women, dedicated to Scarano himself. In May 1607 Marinella became engaged to a physician, Girolamo Vacca; they married in August of that year. She was thirty-six years old, he was forty-eight; "by normal late sixteenth-and seventeenth-century standards, this was an extremely late marriage for both," observes Haskins, "but Vacca may have been a widower." Marinella's dowry amounted to 3,500 ducats, though it is unclear whose money this was. We know nothing of her husband; from her 1645 will we know she was the mother of two children, Antonio and Paulina, and from a 1648 codicil we learn that Paulina had a daughter, Antoletta. Marinella died of a fever on October 9, 1653, and was buried in the parish church of San Pantaleone in Venice.

If not for her printed works, Marinella's life would have left very few marks on public Venetian life. We know of no correspondence of hers and of no social functions that she initiated or in which she took part. We also know of no extant manuscript work. Remarkably, however, Marinella was prolific and successful enough to have her works printed over a long period of time. Her first work appeared in 1595, when she was twentyfour years old; it is a four-canto sacred epic poem entitled The Holy Dove (La Colomba sacra) or, alternatively, Saint Colomba, and composed in ottava rima (eight lines of eleven syllables linked by four rhymes following the scheme ABABABCC), the typical form for epic poems and the one Marinella preferred over all others throughout her writing career. Dedicated to Margherita Gonzaga (married Este), duchess of Ferrara, it follows Colomba's devotional life and sufferings up to her martyrdom.

Two years later, Marinella published Life of the Seraphic and Glorious Saint Francis (Vita del serafico et glorioso San Francesco) in the same genre and verse form as her first work. Her 1598 Cupid in Love and Driven Mad (Amore innamorato e impazzato) is a ten-canto moral allegory dedicated to another noblewoman, Caterina de' Medici (married Gonzaga), duchess of Mantua. While the topic is drawn from the classical psychomachia tradition, Marinella's Amore "reverses the roles, and subjects an arrogant, lustful Cupid to defeat at the hands of wiser, more virtuous women."

In 1600 the treatise The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men (La nobiltà et l'eccellenza delle donne, co' difetti et mancamenti de gli uomini) was published to refute Passi's misogynist treatise. It was enlarged in 1601, and this edition was reprinted in 1620. Marinella follows the structure of Passi's text, offering in part I praise of women "for the virtues contrary to the vices Passi condemned" and, in part II, condemnation of "men for nearly all the same vices—and many more—that Passi had accused women of."

In 1602 she published a work in the same religious vein as her first ones, Life of the Virgin Mary, Empress of the Universe (La vita di Maria Vergine Imperatrice dell'universo), which combines two different retellings of Mary's life: one in ottava rima and the other in prose. Dedicated to the highest authorities in Venice ("Principe e Signoria," i.e., doge and senate), it was reissued three times by the same printer, Barezzi, in 1604, 1610, and 1617. She appended to this, her third religiously themed text, some considerations on poetics, in which she adheres to Tasso's dictates as well as those of the Catholic Church after the Council of Trent (1545–63): "sacred, heroic, and philosophical subjects ... should be expressed with the same eloquence and poetry that classical authors used for pagan subjects," mixing the marvelous with the verisimilar. We can surmise that the subject matter of this work, one of the holiest figures of the Catholic Church, might have prompted Marinella to defend her choice and her treatment explicitly.

In 1603 a collection of Holy Verses (Rime sacre) was printed in Venice that included sonnets, madrigals, and longer poems. Two years later, in 1605, her verse-and-prose romance Happy Arcadia (Arcadia felice) appeared, also in Venice. It is dedicated to Eleonora de' Medici (married Gonzaga), duchess of Mantua, and as a consequence an interpretation of this text as a roman à clé is possible, though not clear-cut. More important, Marinella follows Italian predecessors such as Jacopo Sannazaro in avoiding love as the rationale for the plot, in line with the moralizing goals of her religious and mythological works.

A text that similarly mixes verse and prose is Saint Peter's Tears (Le lagrime di San Pietro), printed in 1606, where prose passages offer a commentary on the story of the apostle Peter's denying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, which itself is told in verse. That same year, Marinella saw her Life of Saint Justine (Vita di Santa Giustina) printed in Florence as well as a reprint of her Life of the Seraphic and Glorious Saint Francis (Vita del serafico et glorioso San Francesco) of 1597.

After eleven years of such copious production, no subsequent book by Marinella was printed until 1624. Indeed, after 1606 only three entirely new works appeared. Marinella's marriage in 1607 supports Panizza's hypothesis that "maybe she devoted herself to marriage and to bringing up her children" during this period, but, as Panizza concedes, "we do not know." It is very likely that after her marriage "since neither of her children appears to have been born in Venice ... Marinella may well have lived in or near Padua," a city linked to her husband's family. It is also "possible that Marinella and her husband may have been living apart" for years. After his death in 1629, a new phase of Marinella's life opened, in which she would be relatively more autonomous and "comfortable as she was independently wealthy."

In any case, another burst of creativity materializes. In 1624 The Heroic Deeds and Marvelous Life of the Seraphic Saint Catherine of Siena (De' gesti eroici e della vita maravigliosa della serafica S. Caterina da Siena) was printed by Barezzo Barezzo in Venice, with a dedication to Maria Maddalena of Austria, Grand Duchess of Florence, and at that time co-regent with Christine of Lorraine of the Medici domains, within whose boundaries Siena lay. Marinella tackled a complex topic, as Catherine had been canonized in 1461, and numerous accounts of her life and visions were already circulating in addition to her own writings. Marinella emphasizes Catherine's ascetic life and mystical visions rather than other aspects of her biography. As Paola Malpezzi Price has pointed out, it is in this work that "the transference of sexuality to the mystic plane" already evident in Colomba sacra and Vita del serafico et glorioso San Francesco reaches its fullest expression, an element that marks Marinella as a post-Tridentine writer who fully followed "contemporary literary taste."

In 1635 her epic poem L'Enrico, overo Bisanzio acquistato was printed by Gherardo Imberti in Venice. Like her 1602 La vita di Maria Vergine Imperatrice dell'universo, it was not dedicated to a noblewoman outside Venice but to the "most serene doge Francesco Erizzo and to the most serene Republic of Venice," indicating the public relevance she attached to this poem.

Marinella's last new work appeared in Venice in 1645: An Exhortation to Women and to Others (Essortationi alle donne e agli altri) puzzles twenty-first-century readers because it seemingly retracts her bold assertions in The Nobility and Excellence of Women by accepting a strict division of roles between the sexes. She also presents beauty not as a divine gift but as something fleeting and corruptible. One could attribute such a novel stance to old age; however, Kolsky has suggested that "Marinella is arguing in untramque partem, producing a rhetorically charged negative parallel to La nobiltà e l'eccellenza delle donne." Most recently, Paola Malpezzi Price and Christine Ristaino have cleverly traced elements of the philosophical and rhetorical tradition of the Greek sophists in this text, showing that Marinella's "language is often playful, her incorporation of opposites significant, and her message serious" but not coinciding with its literal meaning. Afterward, in 1647 she published a joint poetic celebration of Saints Francis and Claire in Victories of the Seraphic Francis and Glorious Steps of Saint Claire (Le vittorie di Francesco il serafico; Li passi gloriosi della diva Chiara) and in 1648 an additional verse work on the martyr Saint Justina, The Love Sacrifice of the Virgin Saint Justine (Holocausto d'amore della vergine Santa Giustina), confirming that devotional inspiration and religious themes were central to Marinella's interests and works, and again underscoring the singularity of her epic Enrico.


Excerpted from ENRICO; OR, BYZANTIUM CONQUERED by Lucrezia Marinella Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Maria Galli Stampino is associate professor of Italian and French at the University of Miami. She is the author of Staging the Pastoral: Tasso’s Aminta and the Emergence of Modern Western Theater.


Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >