Tullia d’Aragona (c.1510-1556) was an Italian courtesan, author, and philosopher in Venice. Under her mother’s influence, Tullia had been initiated into the life of a courtesan when very young. She left us three books — her lyric Rime, her philosophical Dialogo, and her epic Il Meschino, and some urban legends. As an author and a literary character, she seems to court attention still. D’Aragona’s intellect and wit are evident in her Dialogue and in her dialogic poetry: in addition to poems by Tullia, illustrious men of letters wrote sonnets to her. Girolamo Muzio praises her intellectual beauty in the Dialogue’s preface and in poetry. The inspiration was mutual, and his love lasted until her death.
Misnamed “the intellectual courtesan,” Tullia d’Aragona transcended the destiny bequeathed by the unfortunate early death of Cardinal. Allegedly her father, the Cardinal paid for young Tullia to be tutored in the rudiments of a classical education as well as her training in poetry, music, and dance. When he died, her courtesan mother fashioned a “career” — from which she later escaped. Later in Florence, under the patronage of and his Spanish wife Eleonora di Toledo, Tullia was freed of the yellow veil that courtesans were required to wear as a sign.
Garnering fame, esteem, and freedom from the label of “courtesan,” the Rime established her as a talented Petrarchan poet. The Dialogue on the Infinity of Love satirizes and revises the Florentine Academy’s version of Neoplatonism. “Tullia’s” idea of honest love integrates body and soul, age and beauty, and both sexes in a treatise that is presciently feminist, giving women a symbolic place at the table.
Her romanzo Il Meschino (The Unfortunate One) narrates the picaresque travel adventures of its hero trying to find the parents from whom he was separated at birth. Unaware of his noble birthright, Meschino must get by on the basis of his merits — much like his author, who could not fully exploit her (illegitimate) birth into the royal family of Aragón, the rulers of Spain and southern Italy.
In 1547 the Venetian printer Giolito published Le Rime della Signora Tullia di Aragona et di diversi a lei (now Tullia d’Aragona’s Poetry of Dialogue) and Il Dialogo della Signora Tullia d’Aragona della Infinita di Amore (“Dialogue on the Infinity of Love”). Scholars also attribute to her the epic Il Meschino altramente detto il Guerrino (The Little Unfortunate One, a.k.a. the Little Warrior), (Venice: Sessa, 1560).
We can surmise that the young Penelope, who is said to be Tullia’s sister despite a 20-25 year age difference, was her daughter. We believe that Tullia tried not to make the same mistakes with Penelope that Tullia’s mother had made with her, although Penelope’s early death at age 13 prevents us from knowing much about her life. We do now have a statement that Tullia wrote in the preface to her epic, expressing regret that she had had such an early knowledge of the world. In addition to Penelope, Tullia d’Aragona had a son, Celio, who is mentioned in her will. She died in the Trastevere section of Rome in 1556, but not before finishing her epic Il Meschino.
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