Renaissance and Reformation Tullia d'Aragona
Julia L. Hairston
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0322


Tullia d’Aragona (b. 1501/5–d. 1556) was an Italian Renaissance courtesan and woman of letters who experimented in diverse literary genres—lyric poetry, prose dialogue, and epic. D’Aragona was both celebrated and vilified in her day, and much contemporary criticism still ponders the degree to which d’Aragona’s identity as an author was enabled or impeded by her role as a courtesan. Roman by birth, she traversed numerous cultural centers of 16th-century Italy—Rome, Florence, Siena, Venice, and Ferrara—participating in the political, literary, and musical coteries of each. D’Aragona maintained a long-term relationship with Filippo Strozzi, Florentine banker and ultimately leader of the Florentine exiles known as the fuoriusciti, before his death by suicide in 1538. D’Aragona also served as a muse to figures such as Girolamo Muzio, Philippe Verdelot, Bernardo Tasso, Sperone Speroni, Benedetto Varchi, and possibly Sebastiano del Piombo. Her Dialogue On the Infinity of Love (Venice: Giolito, 1547) contributed to the ongoing debate regarding the role of love as a social phenomenon and as a guide to self-knowledge. As a poet, d’Aragona engaged in the language of courtly compliment, but she also brought structural novelties to the genre of the sonnet sequence. Also published by Giolito in 1547, her canzoniere is best characterized as a choral anthology as revealed by its title Rime della Signora Tullia di Aragona et di diversi a lei (Poems by Tullia di Aragona and by Others to Her) for it includes poems by her and to her by a diverse group of Italian poets, courtiers, and other men. The final years of d’Aragona’s life, from her return to Rome by 1549 until 1556, when she died, were likely dedicated to completing her epic poem entitled Il Meschino, altramente detto il Guerrino (The Wretch, Otherwise Known as Guerrino), which was published posthumously in 1560 by the Sessa brothers in Venice. It figures as the first epic poem authored by a woman (although some critics—since 1891—have disputed her authorship).

General Overviews

Famous in her own time, d’Aragona’s works continue to be mentioned by literary historians in the centuries following her death, and an explosion of scholarship about her occurred in the closing decades of the 19th century. Numerous archival documents were published to complement the new editions of two of her three works that had already appeared, and it is from this point that d’Aragona is represented with her dual identity of courtesan and author. Three scholars—Salvatore Bongi, Guido Biagi, and Enrico Celani—were particularly active, although the main contributions are found in Biagi 1886 and Bongi 1890. Masson 1976 is an important point of departure for late 20th-century publications, although because of her book’s topic she frames d’Aragona primarily as a courtesan, preserving the dual identity first emphasized in late 19th-century criticism. Since then critics, mostly of feminist orientation, tend to emphasize d’Aragona as a writer and have developed commentary on her texts in relation to the preceding literary tradition (Dante, Petrarch, Bembo, Plato, Aristotle, Ficino, Leone Ebreo) as well as to other women authors (Colonna and Gambara.)

  • Biagi, Guido. “Un’etèra romana: Tullia d’Aragona.” Nuova antologia series 3, 4.16 (1886): 655–711.

    Biagi romanticizes and narrativizes Tullia d’Aragona’s life to a certain extent, using documents, letters, and her poetry to tell his tale. He does publish all the letters to Varchi in their entirety and notes the relationship with Filippo Strozzi, but was unaware of its duration. Later reprinted and slightly revised as “Tullia d’Aragona,” in Fiorenza, fior che sempre rinnovella: quadri e figure di vita fiorentina (Florence: Battistelli, 1925), pp. 137–261.

  • Bongi, Salvatore. “Rime della Signora Tullia di Aragona; Et di diversi a lei.” In Annali di Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari. Vol. 1. By Salvatore Bongi, 150–199. Rome: Principali Librai, 1890.

    Remains a rich resource regarding Tullia d’Aragona’s biography and contextualization in 16th-century Italian culture. His 1886–1887 articles laid the groundwork for this essay, which incorporates a transcription of her last will and testament (overlaps with Celani 1891). Theorizes the dual Tullia (courtesan and writer) and offers numerous bio-historical elements with relatively reliable bibliographical references.

  • Celani, Enrico. “Introduzione.” In Le rime di Tullia d’Aragona cortigiana del secolo XVI. By Enrico Celani, iii–lxiii. Bologna, Italy: Romagnoli Dall’Acqua, 1891.

    Compared to Bongi and Biagi, Celani does not present new archival material but reprints portions of their discoveries. Emphasizes her identity as a courtesan and is the first to doubt d’Aragona’s authorship of the Meschino; also suggests that some of her poems may have been authored by Varchi.

  • Cox, Virginia. Women’s Writing in Italy, 1400–1650. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

    Positions d’Aragona, alongside Laura Terracina, as a new female author to emerge after Vittoria Colonna’s death, suggesting that this inheritance is due to her attitude to print and her socioeconomic status. Cox views d’Aragona within a tradition of Italian women writers; nonetheless, she advances doubts about her authorship of all three of her works.

  • Hairston, Julia L. “Introduction.” In The Poems and Letters of Tullia d’Aragona and Others. Edited and translated by Julia L. Hairston, 1–54. Toronto: Iter, 2014.

    Offers new archival research about her social origins and much historical detail about the men with whom she associated. Gives English translation of much secondary material, including many historical documents. Reproposes Bongi’s idea of d’Aragona’s dual identity and hypothesizes the turning point as 1537 when Strozzi was imprisoned.

  • Masson, Georgina. “Tullia d’Aragona, the Intellectual Courtesan.” In Courtesans of the Italian Renaissance. By Georgina Masson, 88–131. New York: St. Martin’s, 1976.

    First significant work in English; presents interesting details from Biagi (cited), Celani, and Bongi (not cited.) Although less moralistic and marginally proto-feminist, Masson ultimately represents d’Aragona as a cold, calculating courtesan and defines too many men in Tullia’s life as “lovers.” Her title adapts Alfonso de’ Pazzi’s “courtesan of the academicians.”

  • Russell, Rinaldina. “Tullia d’Aragona.” In Italian Women Writers. Edited by Rinaldina Russell, 26–34. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.

    Good short biography, although description of d’Aragona as a prostitute who used literature predominates. First to emphasize the originality of d’Aragona’s view of love as having a sensual and spiritual component while noting d’Aragona’s different theoretical stance from Muzio and Varchi. Reaffirms Celani’s reservations about d’Aragona as author of the Meschino.

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