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Istruire e rappresentare Isabella d'Este: Il Libro de natura de amore di Mario Equicola.

Alessandra Villa. Istruire e rappresentare Isabella d'Este: Il Libro de natura de amore di Mario Equicola.

"Morgiana": Collana di Studi e Teste Rinascimentali Diretta da Lina Bolzoni 9. Lucca: Maria Pacini Fazzi Editore, 2006. 302 pp. + 4 color pls. index. append. illus. gloss. bibl. [euro]20. ISBN: 978-88-7246-772-1.

In the genre of sixteenth-century court literature on love, the Libro de natura de amore by Mario Equicola (ca. 1470-1525) has been analyzed from historical, literary, and artistic perspectives. Stephen Kolsky entitled Equicola the "real courtier," while Werner Gundersheimer called for greater attention to this humanist writer. Equicola's text is an encyclopedic collection of antique and contemporary sources designed to give his patron and dedicatee, Isabella d'Este, a sampling of writings on love, and Villa's primarily literary study offers a useful, more complex interpretation of the rapport between patron and author, who was her tutor-secretary for thirteen years (1508-21). After carefully reviewing his education, she analyzes the manuscript text (Biblioteca Nazionale, Villa Torino), and investigates connections with Isabella's studiolo, concluding that Equicola wrote with the conscious intention of explaining and shaping his patron's public image as a cultivated female ruler.

Equicola spent his early career seeking the kind of patronage and court position that he eventually achieved in Mantua. Born in a feudal duchy of Aragon ruled by the Pietro Giampaola Cantelmo, educated with Pomponio Leto in Rome in the 1480s, he returned to Naples as Giampolo's secretary in 1494. Through his patron's friendship with Sigismondo d'Este, Equicola transferred to Ferrara in 1498-99, where he worked at the d'Este court, dedicating works to the exiled Cantelmo family, Ludovico il Moro, and Ippolito d'Este of Milan. In 1501 he published De mulieribus, which contained a substantive section praising Isabella d'Este. As part of a judicious strategy to ingratiate himself, he sent Isabella letters and birthday presents, including a dialogue on her personal Latin motto. In fall 1508 he moved to the court at Mantua as the marchesa's seventh tutor.

Equicola's role as Isabella's teacher and "cultural mediator" is subtly analyzed, extending the idea of tutor into a broader sphere. In examining potential relationships between the studiolo and the text, Villa highlights the issue of chronology, adding evidence for a generally accepted dating. The manuscript's colophon states that the Libro de natura de amore was a vernacular translation of a youthful Latin work "written during the time when Naples was in tumult" (1494-96). Literary scholars have long since doubted the existence of an early Latin version and suspected that Equicola deliberately predated his work. Villa notes that in 1495 he had recently become secretary to Giampolo Cantelmi in Naples, and had no contacts with the d'Este or Gonzaga courts. He probably began collecting writings on love in 1501, when the Cantelmi patronage was in crisis. Unedited letters to Margherita Cantelmi foreshadow his text and support this dating. Thus Villa argues that Equicola conceived the book while cultivating Isabella's attention in 1501-08, and wrote it during his tenure as tutor, even as he assisted in private readings of Latin texts in her studiolo. As in the masculine genre of manuals on the arts of warfare or government dedicated to male rulers, Isabella was both patron-dedicatee and the muse-reader-model in the work: thus it served a double function, both public and private. Villa suggests that the usual relationship between text and imagery was reversed, and that the studiolo informed revisions of Equicola's text, which formed a "literary pendant," not a source, for its decorative program, as Verheyen had suggested. Stephen Campbell's recent study shares the notion of a synchronism of the text and studiolo imagery. Equicola certainly exercised a private influence in Isabella's concepts of self-fashioning, and perhaps a semi-public one as reader and interpreter of the mythological images and their evolving meanings.

Villa's book presents a substantive new analysis of revisions between manuscript and the first printed edition (1522), and situates the book within early sixteenth-century literature. By the 1520s, Equicola's compilation of antique references was old-fashioned in contrast to the new literary forms of Bembo and the Cinquecento. The last chapter delineates the text's reception by sixteenth-century readers, changing ideologies in regard to the use of the vernacular, and its contrasts with the Cortegiano. Villa notes ironically that a text so integral to Isabella d'Este's self-definition and public image lost its dedication, and thus its close association with her, in the French edition of 1584.


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Author:Arthur, Kathleen G.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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