The Rare First Edition of Lucrezia Gonzaga's Letters – The Countess of Bute's Copy

Gonzaga di Gazzuolo, Lucrezia (1522-1576)

Lettere della molto illustre sig.ra donna Lucretia Gonzaga da Gazuolo con gran diligentia raccolte, & à gloria del sesso feminile nuovamente in luce poste.

Venice: Appresso Gualtero Scoto, 1552


Octavo: 15 x 10 cm. 328, [6] p. Collation: A-X8 (X8 blank and present.)


Bound in 18thc. stiff vellum, large blind-stamped arabesque at center of boards, lightly soiled. A fine copy internally. v. light soiling to title, light ink stain to one leaf. Fine woodcut printer's device to title. With a 19thc. manuscript biography of Gonzaga on the f.f.e.p. and a genealogical table "Descent of the family of Gonzaga, as far as may serve to illustrate these letters…" on the final blank leaf and two rear free endpapers. With the bookplate of Sophia Frederica Christina Hastings (1805-1859), Marchioness of Bute (See foot of this description for full provenance.)

"Lucrezia Gonzaga was born in Gazzuolo (near Mantua) around 1521, one of seven children. Her parents, Pirro Gonzaga and Camilla Bentivoglio, died in 1529, and Gonzaga was taken in by her relative Luigi Gonzaga of Castelgoffredo (or Castel Giuffrè). There she was introduced to intellectual life under the tutelage of Matteo Bandello, who taught her Greek and Latin. In 1541, Gonzaga married Giampaolo "Fortebraccio" Manfrone, a condottiere for the Venetian Republic. She followed her husband first to Verona and then to Fratta; she had two children, both daughters, with him. In 1546, Manfrone, who was known for violent behavior and had been banned from Mantua after murdering a Gonzaga servant, was arrested and imprisoned for attempting to poison Duke Ercole II d'Este of Ferrara. He spent the rest of his life in prison and the story of his crime and his wife's efforts to have his sentence commuted became the fodder for numerous chronicles and poetic retellings. These events are a principle theme in the Lettere della...donna Lucretia Gonzaga, Gonzaga's epistolary collection published in 1552.

"Upon Manfrone's death in prison in 1552, Gonzaga's dowry was returned to her, but Manfrone's will stipulated that she could not remarry. Gonzaga spent at least three years in a convent in Bozzolo, where she was sent on the authority of her cousin Vespasiano Gonzaga of Sabbionetta, and from which she repeatedly begged to be released. By the mid-1560s she had returned to Mantua, where she became caught up in the climate of religious dissent that swept through Mantua in the late sixteenth century. Gonzaga appeared at the periphery of several Inquisition trials, and in June 1567 was herself tried on suspicion of heresy. Because of her social status and family connections, arrangements were made for the trial and her subsequent abjuration to be conducted quickly and in secrecy. Although Gonzaga expressed amazement and dismay that she could have come under suspicion, her published letters echo many heterodox opinions current at the time. Gonzaga died in Mantua in 1576. 

"During the years of her husband's imprisonment, Gonzaga established contacts with important figures from the Venetian literary world, including Lodovico Dolce, Lodovico Domenichi, Luigi Groto (the "Cieco dell'Adria") and Ortensio Lando. By the early 1550s, an informal salon had sprung up around her palazzo in Fratta, partially organized by Giovan Maria Bonardo. Gonzaga also became an integral part (although not an official member) of the Accademia dei pastori frattegiani that included Girolamo Ruscelli, Girolamo Parabosco, and Orazio Toscanella. Many of these men praised her in their own compositions, helping to cement her reputation as an exemplar of womanly virtue and literary erudition. It was likely during this same period, in which Gonzaga's contact with writers from all over northern Italy was at its most intense, that she was introduced to the religious debates and discussions that flourished in Italy in the years before the Counter-Reformation reached the peak of its repressive influence.

"The contacts Gonzaga made through the Pastori frattegiani were almost certainly behind the creation and promotion of her 1552 epistolario. Presented as a reflection of female virtue and erudition (the subtitle explains that the letters demonstrate "the glory of the female sex"), the work was positioned within the ongoing debates over women, or querelle des femmes, characteristic of sixteenth-century literary culture. The letters present a portrait of Gonzaga as a loyal and devoted spouse who works tirelessly for the release of her husband, while at the same time underscoring her many connections to literary culture and the breadth of her knowledge. The representation of Gonzaga as a wife who writes only to seek mercy for her husband is further belied by the widely varying descriptions of Manfrone included in the collection, which does not shrink from addressing him critically. Gonzaga situates herself as a figure of moral as well as literary authority by dispensing advice to her correspondents on a number of topics, including chastity and temperance. Beneath her conventional admonitions, however, lies a deeper subtext of religious dissent that presages her later Inquisition trial. This can be seen in her privileging of the direct reading of scripture, her frequent references to the Lutheran tenet of justification by faith alone, and her anticlericalism.

"Many of Gonzaga's published letters were written expressly for the purpose of publication, or at least heavily revised for print. They address a wide range of correspondents, from family members to literary, political, and religious figures. The person most frequently named in Gonzaga's published letters, however, is Ortensio Lando, with whom she had a complex literary relationship. Prior to the publication of the Lettere, Gonzaga appeared as an interlocutor in a collection of "women's" letters that were actually written by Lando; she also plays a primary role in several other works by Lando. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that Lando was involved with the publication of Gonzaga's letterbook in an editorial capacity, but debate continues as to the extent of that involvement. Gonzaga's own contemporaries held her to be the work's true author and existing manuscript evidence demonstrates that she was an active letter writer. Although Gonzaga's contemporaries referred to her as a poet as well as the author of an epistolario, none of her verse survives today."(Meredith Kennedy Ray)

For the debate over the authorship of the 'Lettere', by some considered "una delle solite finzioni del Landi" and the complex literary relationship between Lando and Gonzaga, see Ray, 'Textual Collaboration and Spiritual Partnership in Sixteenth-Century Italy. The Case of Ortensio Lando and Lucrezia Gonzaga', Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 62, no. 3 (Fall 2009), p. 694-747)

Further reading: Ray, "'A gloria del sesso feminile': The 'Lettere of Lucrezia Gonzaga as Exemplary Narrative." Chapter 3 in Writing Gender in Women's Letter Collections of the Italian Renaissance, p. 81 ff.)


Provenance: With a 19thc. manuscript biography of Gonzaga on the f.f.e.p. and a genealogical table "Descent of the family of Gonzaga, as far as may serve to illustrate these letters…" on the final blank leaf and two rear free endpapers.

1) 'Moira Hastings, her book' (eighteenth-century ownership inscription), possibly a name adopted by Elizabeth Rawdon (née Hastings, 1731-1808) following her marriage in 1752 to John Rawdon, 1st Earl of Moira (1720-1794).

2) Lady Charlotte Rawdon (c.1769-1834), daughter of John Rawdon, 1st Earl of Moira (1720-1794) and Elizabeth Rawdon (inscription, 'Given to my dear Daughter & beloved Friend Lady Charlotte Rawdon')

3) Sophia Frederica Christina Hastings (1805-1859), Marchioness of Bute and daughter of Francis Rawdon-Hastings, 2nd Earl of Moira and 1st Marquess of Hastings (1754-1826) (bookplate).

Erdmann, A. My gracious silence, 109; Ferri, P.L. Biblioteca femminile italiana, p. 189; Melzi, G. Anonime e pseudonime, I, 468; Adams G863; STC Italian p. 309