[Note: I have not transcribed the poems that are quoted in the podcast. The translations I used are from: 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.]
In Plato’s myth of the origin of love--a myth that accounts for both opposite-sex and same-sex love--he describes how all people were originally part of a double body, split from each other and eternally seeking their other half. In his 1541 dialogue titled “On the Beauty of Women”, Italian philosopher Agnolo Firenzuola expands on this, saying: "Those who were female in both halves, or are descended from those who were, love 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 ancient times Sappho from Lesbos, and in our own times in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana. This type of woman by nature spurns marriage and flees from intimate conversation with us men.”
Now I’m curious to know a lot more about Cecilia Venetiana, but alas this is the extent of her footprint in history. However we know a great deal about Laudomia Forteguerra and Margaret of Austria. Firenzuola was a contemporary and friend of theirs and no doubt was careful in how he described their relationship. The Seigneur de Brantôme, writing half a century later in France, and knowing only rumor and gossip, asserted that their love fell in the lascivious category. What evidence do we have to search for the truth between these two claims?
Laudomia was a member of the ruling families of the republic of Sienna in Italy. You must understand that 16th century Italy was far from a unified country. It was made up of a lot of separate states, often at war with each other. Large chunks were ruled by the Vatican, known collectively as the Papal States. Other chunks were ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor, who controled lands in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, and elsewhere, in addition to Italy. Other parts of Italy were independent, such as Florence under the Medicis or Mantua under the Gonzagas.
Sienna was another one of these states, ruled by a coalition of noble families and struggling to maintain their independence from the greater powers all around them. Laudomia Forteguerra, as I have said, was Siennese. She was famed for being beautiful and educated--a true Renaissance woman in every sense of the term. Scholars dedicated books to her and her own poetry was highly praised. Among those poems are five sonnets, addressed and dedicated to Margaret of Austria, expressing her devotion, admiration, and love.
I’m unable to pronounce Italian well enough to give you the original version. The translation, alas, does not rhyme and scan. But here’s the sense of one of her poems.
[Poem: Alas for my beautiful sun]
But who is Margaret of Austria? And why is Laudomia writing her poetry?
In 1521, a serving woman named Johanna Maria van der Gheynst, became the mistress of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. For those not familiar with the intricacies of the genealogies of 16th century royalty, you know how Queen Elizabeth the first of England’s older sister Mary was married to King Phillip II of Spain? Well, Charles V was Phillip’s father. It gets really complicated and I’ll try to keep the political discussion simple.
So Emperor Charles had an affair with a servant and a year later she produced a daughter, who was named Margaret and placed in the care of her aunt (Charles’s sister), also named Margaret of Austria, who was serving as governor of the Netherlands at the time. (When I first encountered this description I was, I confess, a little stunned. Wait: a woman was governor of the Netherlands? So obviously there’s a lot about Renaissance history that even I, an amateur historian, have somehow missed.)
An emperor’s children are never insignificant, even the bastards--and for the first several years of her life, Margaret is referred to in the household records simply as “the little bastard”. When Margaret was three, there were thoughts of betrothing her to a bastard of the Medici family. The Medicis were extremely important in Italy at this time, not only ruling Florence, but supplying several popes. It’s also important to know that 16th century popes were not exactly a model of propriety and virtue. You’re going to meet several bastard sons of popes in this story. But I get ahead of myself.
As I said, when Margaret was three, there was talk of betrothing her to a Medici. When she was four, she was briefly betrothed to the heir of the Duchy of Ferrara. When she was seven, it’s back to the Medicis again, but a different one. This time she was betrothed to the pope’s nephew (some said, actually his son) named Alessandro, a man ten years her senior with a terrible reputation. But this was business. Margaret the bastard would become Duchess of Florence, bringing an extensive dowry of lands and the military support of the Holy Roman Empire not only for Florence but for the Medici papacy.
The year after that, the Empire occupies Sienna and establishes a military garrison there. Remember Sienna? Where Laudomia lives? They aren’t happy about this.
When Margaret is eight, her future husband, Alessandro dei Medici travels to the Netherlands to meet her. This is also the first occasion when she meets her father the emperor face to face. The marriage is scheduled to take place four years later and preparations are made for a grand procession to convey Margaret to Italy. She settles in Naples for the interim.
And then the pope dies. He is succeeded by a member of the Farnese family who ruled in Parma. Now the Medicis aren’t looking like quite the same hot property that they were before. There is some dithering about the marriage but the Florentines apply pressure and Margaret marries Alessandro when she’s 13. Although she is installed as Duchess of Florence it’s quite likely that this is still a marriage in name only. Child marriages among medieval and Renaissance nobility often came with an understanding that the marriage wouldn’t be consummated until the bride was a reasonable age--something that isn’t always understood from the bare facts.
Whatever the nature of Margaret’s marriage, it didn’t last long. Alessandro, as I’ve said, had a terrible reputation, both personally and politically. Half a year later, he was assassinated by his own cousin to the cheers of the citizens of Florence.
Margaret doesn’t have long to enjoy her widowhood. The next year she is betrothed to Ottavio Farnese. Remember that the new pope is a Farnese? This is his grandson. Margaret is sixteen and this time she’s older than her future husband, by four years. She’s on record as despising him and trying all sorts of things to get out of the marriage. But she is taken to Rome in preparation, and as she travels to Rome, she passes through Siena and spends three weeks there.
Remember Siena? Where Laudomia lives? At this time, Laudomia is 23. She is married and has produced a son. And we know that Laudomia and Margaret meet on this occasion.
A contemporary of theirs says they also met three years earlier and describes it this way:
At their first meeting, “as soon as Laudomia saw Madama [that is, Margaret], 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.” On one of those subsequent meetings he describes, “They renewed most happily their sweet Loves. And today more than ever, with notes from one to the other they warmly maintain them.”
Alas none of this correspondence has survived, only the poems. Here’s another one of the poems that Laudomia wrote for Margaret.
[Poem: Happy plant]
Margaret continued on to Rome and set out to win the hearts of the people of Rome (who weren’t all that fond of the Farnese pope, and by association, of her future husband Ottavio). She has her own villa there in Rome, which she fills with scholars and artists. Although she tries to delay the marriage, she is tricked into receiving a ring that is then held to be a token of her acceptance. Relying on the support of the people of Rome and the political indifference of her father the emperor, she refuses to consummate the marriage.
By this time, Laudomia has finished writing her sonnets to Margaret.
Political satires at the time accused the Farneses of all sorts of sexual vices and Margaret was accused of being a lesbian in this context, an accusation that may have been mere mud-flinging or may have been based on actual knowledge. What was definitely noted was that, although Margaret did obey her father’s ultimatum and produced twin sons for her husband, she returned to living separately from him after that. And in an age of sexual scandal, her name is never associated with any male lover and at least one political commenter notes that she has no interest in men. (He intended it as a positive comment on her virtue.)
Italian politics are getting even more violent. Margaret takes up her position as Duchess in Parma and finds herself besieged by her neighbors the Gonazagas. Ironically her father the emperor supports them in this because Margaret’s husband has started playing political footsie with France. Let’s skip the details of what France is doing in all this, except to note that Siena--remember Siena?--is also calling on French support against the Holy Roman Empire and it, too, comes under siege as a result.
During the siege of Siena, Laudomia is recorded as having valiantly organized the women of the city to help strengthen the city walls. But eventually the combined forces of Florence and the Empire win out and Sienna falls.
Laudomia never appears by name in any records after that date. The only tantalizing clue we have is that 18 years later, Laudomia’s second husband makes a will that makes reference to a living wife. (It is possible, of course, that he has remarried.)
After all the political uproar settles down for a bit, Margaret and Ottavio make peace with the emperor and Margaret travels to the Netherlands with her one surviving son to place him in the guardianship of her half-brother Phillip, in whose favor Charles has just retired from the imperial throne. Margaret ends up staying in the Netherlands and even serves a couple of stints as governor there before eventually returning to Italy to spend the rest of her life.
This is all a great deal about politics with not quite so much about the love between Laudomia and Margaret. But we know a great deal more about the former than we do the latter. We do know that they met and that they loved each other, by some understanding of the word “love.” We know that contemporaries who admired them considered their love to be that of two souls finding their other half. We know that Laudomia wrote poems to Margaret that used the language and imagery of romantic love--imagery that would be considered to imply sexual desire if used from a man to a woman. And we know that Margaret was notorious for disdaining and avoiding sexual relations with her husband, even when that avoidance caused significant personal difficulties.
That seems quite enough as a basis for imagining what a love affair between two Renaissance noblewomen might look like. I have *ahem* imagined just such a thing in my short story “Where My Heart Goes” which is included in the historic romance anthology Through the Hourglass, edited by Sacchi Green and Patty G. Henderson. And I even dared to imagine how to give them a happy ending.