Scanderbeide: The Heroic Deeds of George Scanderbeg, King of Epirus

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The first historical heroic epic authored by a woman, Scanderbeide recounts the exploits of fifteenth-century Albanian warrior-prince George Scanderbeg and his war of resistance against the Ottoman sultanate. Filled with scenes of intense and suspenseful battles contrasted with romantic episodes, Scanderbeide combines the action and fantasy characteristic of the genre with analysis of its characters’ motivations. In selecting a military campaign as her material and epic poetry as her medium, Margherita Sarrocchi (1560?–1617) not only engages in the masculine subjects of political conflict and warfare but also tackles a genre that was, until that point, the sole purview of men. 

First published posthumously in 1623, Scanderbeide reemerges here in an adroit English prose translation that maintains the suspense of the original text and gives ample context to its rich cultural implications.

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Editorial Reviews

Renaissance Quarterly - Nathalie Hester
"Russell's meticulous introduction gives indispensable biographical information as well as important historical and pseudohistorical contexts for various episodes in the poem. . . . As a whole the volume is impresively rich and comprehensive."
Renaissance Quarterly
Russell's meticulous introduction gives indispensable biographical information as well as important historical and pseudohistorical contexts for various episodes in the poem. . . . As a whole the volume is impresively rich and comprehensive.

— Nathalie Hester

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Rinaldina Russell is professor emerita of European languages and literatures at the City University of New York, Queens College. She is coeditor and cotranslator of Tullia d’Aragona’s Dialogue on the Infinity of Love, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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SCANDERBEIDE The Heroic Deeds of George Scanderbeg, King of Epirus
By Margherita Sarrocchi
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-73508-5



Margherita Sarrocchi's La Scanderbeide is a poem on the war of resistance that George Scanderbeg, the Albanian prince, led against the Ottoman sultans from 1443 to 1468. Its claim to fame in literary history, it can now be reasonably assumed, will rest on its original and significant contribution to the poetry of warfare and to the representation of political conflicts. The first historical heroic epic authored by a woman, it appeared in a partial draft in 1606 and was published in its complete form posthumously in 1623. In selecting a military campaign that current events kept relevant to contemporary politics, Sarrocchi not only tackled a genre that more than any other seemed to be the purview of men but also dared to choose a subject matter potentially impervious to being shaped into poetic form. The decades preceding the publication of the Scanderbeide had been a period of great theoretical interest in poetics, one in which the scope and legitimacy of all literary genres, heroic poetry in particular, were exactingly weighed and passionately argued about. Torquato Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, which first appeared in 1581, had been accepted by most critics as the epic that best adhered to the literary and moral principles of the age, and it had consequently become the model for a spate of imitations that were competitively written and attentively scrutinized. When it first appeared, Sarrocchi's poem attracted a great deal of attention, but after a few decades its intrinsic and circumstantial merits were forgotten, and the name of its author has ever since been relegated to a few negligible footnotes in literary histories. Starting from the inception of Italian national history, furthermore, the Italian seventeenth century has been viewed by literati and by historians alike as a period of literary and political decadence. Dismissed as a product of that century, and written by a woman to boot, the Scanderbeide was left to lie buried among the myriad imitations of Tasso's masterpiece, seemingly doomed to be forever ignored. 1

Sarrocchi was a celebrity in her time and remains today an exception in the history of early modern women writers for the level of competency she achieved and for the ease with which her personal merits allowed her to move in Roman literary and social circles. Many prominent men who could observe her closely expressed astonishment at the extent of her knowledge, the quality of her poetic talent, and the deft expertise with which she stood the test of critical scrutiny in reunions of literati and in the gatherings of academicians. Gian Vittorio Rossi, a writer and critic of prestige, who proved to be an implacable satirist of all contemporary poets and intellectuals, in 1645 wrote praising her in unequivocal terms as a woman of outstanding capacities and as the only one to have completed a lengthy heroic poem, and to have done so with the favor of Apollo and the Muses. In view of the increased restraints imposed on women in the post-Tridentine era, Sarrocchi's success is puzzling, but it can be explained in the context of the revival of Roman life at the turn of the century.


From the start of the Council of Trent (1542-63) and for several decades thereafter, the Catholic Church reorganized clergy and liturgy, reformulated theological dogma, and imposed tight control over the lives and minds of Italians by means of the Inquisition and the Index of Forbidden Books. At the same time a new educational program was devised and set in place for the preparation of clergymen and the edification of society. The plan was part of a concerted strategy aiming to appropriate the educated classes and subject the entire artistic and literary production to the glory of God and the goals of the church. Toward the end of the century, however, the tight control imposed on the population yielded to a more liberal attitude. The cultural and artistic activities of the city of Rome came to life again. Not only did liberal men appear among the religious authorities, but freethinkers and rebellious artists who were eager to try untested ways of expression and wished to be free of ideological restraints began to circulate as well. Historical and literary studies of recent decades have brought to light the ferment of ideas, of cultural programs, and of mental and moral attitudes that distinguished Rome between the papacy of Clement VIII (1592-1605) and that of Urban VIII (1623-44).

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Rome was still an economic and political force to be reckoned with, and the Roman court was again a powerful sponsor capable of influencing all Italian culture. New educational institutions and academies were organized; their members initiated or attended gatherings of friends in the palaces of the nobility and high prelates. Some institutions, such as the Accademia degli Umoristi and the Accademia dei Lincei, embraced the baroque avant-garde and the new scientific discoveries; others promoted more conservative trends in art, literature, and thought. The Curia itself became a center of patronage that encouraged, admonished, and imposed constraint. By and large, the liberal arts, art, and architecture became efficient purveyors of ideology and transmitters of suggestions that played on the eyes, minds, and imagination of believers. These were the years of the great baroque churches and palaces, of the gardens, the fountains, the popular festivals of Rome. It was the time of Bernini and Caravaggio, of sacred music and opera.

Once again a center of artistic activity, whose splendor crossed the frontiers of the Papal States, Rome attracted artists and writers from the rest of Italy and Europe. And while outside its territory the church maintained a policy of strong ideological control, in Rome itself, notwithstanding a continued climate of alertness, an unexpected measure of freedom was bestowed on artists, musicians, and writers who concurred with official policies. Sarrocchi was part of that consensus, and as a successful product (and an exceptional one, being a woman) of the approved system of education, she was allowed the freedom to move pretty much unimpeded in cultural circles. The praise bestowed on her, at first most probably as an adolescent and then as an adult, must have strengthened in her that great sense of her own value that distinguished her, as well as her determination to outshine all others. And being a learned woman who strongly identified with the ideals of her society, she was consistently promoted by the people and the authorities who had educated and nurtured her. Her character and the prestige she enjoyed explain Sarrocchi's daring decision to prove her artistic mettle in heroic poetry, a field that at the time ranked highest in the literary categorization of genres. Those same circumstances of life conferred added interest on Sarrocchi's work, for in the context of contemporary social regulations, and indeed thanks to Sarrocchi's basic acceptance of them, the profeminist discourse that can be elicited from her poem appears realistically relevant to the status of the women of Sarrocchi's age.


Very few facts are known about Sarrocchi's family and early life. She was born in Naples around 1560 into a middle-class family of comfortable means that had originated in Gragnano, a small town near Castellamare di Stabia. Her father, Giovanni Sarrocchi, died prematurely, and the responsibility for Margherita's education was assumed by Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto, a prominent scholar of Counter-Reformation theology, custodian and overseer of the Vatican Library, and a man keenly interested in the education of Catholic youth. After placing her in the monastery of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Sirleto saw to it that Margherita would receive first-class instruction in the liberal arts and sciences. Her teacher in Latin and Italian poetry was Rinaldo Corso, a tutor of repute and a prolific author of books on literature, dance, theology, and the law, who had also written a very successful text of Italian grammar. Credit for Sarrocchi's enduring interest in the sciences goes to Luca Valerio, a distinguished mathematician and teacher, much respected in intellectual circles and in the bureaucracy of the Roman Curia. He taught mathematics, in addition to other disciplines such as rhetoric and Greek, first at the Collegio Romano, then, from about 1600, at the University "La Sapienza" of Rome. In 1611, by recommendation of Cardinal Marcantonio Colonna, he became Greek consultant at the Biblioteca Vaticana. Among his young pupils was Ippolito Aldobrandini, who later became pope and reigned from 1592 to 1605 as Clement VIII. No doubt Sarrocchi's teachers exemplified the best there was in the educational program sponsored by Rome, which combined the humanistic curriculum with an innovative interest in the sciences, all made consonant with the theological and political directives of the post-Tridentine church. The biographical notes left by several of her contemporaries attest, in fact, that Sarrocchi was exemplary not only in the humanities, which implied a thorough grounding in the classics and in the disciplines of the trivium and quadrivium, but also in mathematics, which was part of the newly formed Ratio studiorum in all Jesuit colleges. Significantly, Valerio had himself been a pupil of Christopher Clavius, mathematician of the Collegio Romano, who was a strong proponent of mathematics as preliminary to the study of physics.

The men who praised Sarrocchi's accomplishments were well-known literati who empathized with the cultural and political trends of their times. Bartolomeo Chioccarelli, a Neapolitan scholar, reports that Sarrocchi excelled in rhetoric, Latin, Greek, geometry, philosophy, and theology. Cristofano Bronzini, a writer then employed in the bureaucracy of the Vatican, adds that she was also versed in logic, astrology, and in other sciences. He could testify to Sarrocchi's learning and dialectical skill, he says, "having seen and heard her often.... in fact almost continuously." Giulio Cesare Capaccio, a polygraph in the service of the Neapolitan king, states that Sarrocchi's achievements in poetry and her knowledge in many other disciplines were so astonishing that she could deservedly be considered the Aspasia, the Ippatia, the Cornificia, the Cornelia, and the Proba of both Naples and Rome. These praises will sound less hyperbolic when we consider that, in addition to the Scanderbeide, and to writing sundry Latin and Italian verse, reportedly in excellent style, Sarrocchi was the author of works, lost to us, whose titles bespeak a considerable range of interests and a very keen participation in the questions that were debated by her contemporaries. She wrote a commentary on the poetry of Giovanni della Casa, a favorite topic of academic lecturers; a translation from the Greek of Musaeus's Hero and Leander, and an essay on geometry, "Ex geometria habentur aliquot eius demontrationes allata ab eodem Luca Valerio in suo Commentatio ad Euclidem," which was a lesson on Valerio's Archimedean methods for dealing with problems of volume and gravity of solids. We also know that she wrote a theological treatise in Latin entitled De praedestinatione, choosing to deal with the question of grace and free will that had caused a long-standing controversy between Dominicans and Jesuits and that was debated by those orders in the presence of the pope from 1595 to 1602.

Praised as a prodigy, young Margherita was introduced to members of the powerful Colonna family, whose palace, like those of many other aristocrats, had become a meeting place for artists and writers. Her association with this group may explain the contacts she soon was able to establish with other nobles and men of consequence. At fifteen she was asked for a poem to be included in the verse anthology that Muzio Manfredi was editing to honor the ladies of Roman high society: the sonnet contributed by Sarrocchi celebrates Felice Orsini, who with her husband, Marcantonio Colonna, hosted the reunions she attended. Two sonnets singing the praises of Costanza Colonna, Felice's sister-in-law, accompanied the dedication to the same lady in the 1606 edition of the Scanderbeide. Another sonnet, memorializing Margaret of Austria, queen of Spain, can be found in an anthology of poems gathered together in honor of their sovereign by some Spaniards living in Rome. We know of Sarrocchi's correspondence with both established and up-and-coming men of letters, but the most famous is the one she herself initiated with Torquato Tasso. The sonnets she sent him are now lost, but judging from the ones forwarded to her in return, which deal with ideas of repentance, withdrawal from the world, and the search for God, Margherita's poems must have proposed the theme of a spiritual journey, a favorite topic in those days and one considered proper for a woman corresponding in verse with a man.

From a 1588 book by Giuliano Giasolino on the beneficial effects of the baths of Ischia, which mentions her as Sarrocchi Biraga, we learn for the first time that Margherita had married a Birago, a man not otherwise identified but assumed by most scholars to be from the region of Piemonte. By that time she had made her Roman home a gathering place for literati and intellectuals of repute and of all social extractions. These reunions are described enthusiastically by Aldo Manuzio in a letter he sent to her on December 18, 1585. According to Gian Vittorio Rossi, Margherita "wanted her house to be not only an altar to all fine arts, but also an oracle of philosophy, theology, all the beautiful disciplines, and even all virtues." And he adds rather caustically: "She participated in [other people's] discussions, she mediated their disagreements, and she maintained that whatever she had said was to be taken as a response of the oracle of Delphi." The doors of prestigious academies were soon opened to her. At the dawn of the century, the academy enjoying the greatest favor among the Roman avant-garde was the Accademia degli Umoristi. Sarrocchi was one of the early members-she joined around 1602-and remained active in it for several years. Rossi writes: "I saw her often as she recited very elegant poems with witty epigrammatic endings to the general admiration of the entire audience." From Piemonte, Agostino della Chiesa, present at several of Sarrocchi's lectures during his visits to Rome, also testified to her exceptional learning and skills. According to Nicolò Toppi, she also astonished the best academicians in Naples, reciting her own learned poetic compositions and, at other times, discussing philosophical questions. Sarrocchi was the first woman to be a regular member of an academy and, understandably, took great pride in her ability to shine in the assemblies of learned men, as no one of her sex had had the opportunity to do so earlier. We also know that she was prone to criticize her fellow literati in public. "Far greater than her merits were her pride and vanity," Rossi tells us. "She considered herself better than anyone.... she would pursue with relentless hostility anyone who, during discussions, would not give preference to her assertions or would dare to criticize them. For that reason she made enemies of many men of letters."


Excerpted from SCANDERBEIDE by Margherita Sarrocchi Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments....................vii
Series Editors' Introduction....................ix
Margherita Sarrocchi and the Writing of the Scanderbeide....................1
Volume Editor's Bibliography....................45
Note on Translation....................59
Cast of Main Characters....................63
Scanderbeide: A Prose Translation Canto 1....................75
From Canto 2....................100
Canto 3....................113
Canto 5....................139
From Canto 6....................164
Canto 7....................179
Canto 9....................204
Canto 10....................223
From Canto 13....................240
From Canto 14....................263
From Canto 15....................274
From Canto 17....................290
From Canto 18....................295
From Canto 19....................313
From Canto 20....................324
Canto 21....................349
Canto 22....................366
Canto 23....................387
Appendix: Excerpts from Cantos 5, 6, 13, and 22 in Italian....................403
Series Editors' Bibliography....................441
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