LUCREZIA BENDIDIO

CONTESSA MACCHIAVELLI (b.1546/7)

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Biography

Lucrezia Bendidio was the daughter of a Ferrarese nobleman, Nicolò Bendidio, a close adviser of Duke Alfonso II d’Este. She began court life at the age of thirteen as a lady-in-waiting to Alfonso’s first wife, Leonora de’ Medici. By 1561, after the death of the Duchess, Lucrezia had entered the service of the Duke’s sister, the Princess Leonora d’Este. During this year, on a visit to Padua with her mistress, Lucrezia was introduced toTorquato Tasso. The meeting propelled the young poet into the creation of his first canzoniere of amorous and encomiastic poetry, and the profound friendship between them was the source of over one hundred poems written throughout the span of his life. Over thirty-two of these verses, written during the first flush of his courtly devotion, were published in 1567 in Le Rime de gli Academici Eterei, a collection containing verse inspired by Lucrezia during the Paduan visit.
 

Avean gli atti leggiadri e ’l vago aspetto
già rotto il gelo, ond’ armò sdegno il core,
e le vestigia de l’antico ardore
conoscea già dentro al cangiato petto;
e nutrir il mio mal prendea diletto
con l’esca dolce d’un soave errore
sí mi sforzava il lusinghiero Amore
che s’avea ne’ begli occhi albergo eletto:
quand’ecco novo canto il core percosse,
e spirò nel suo foco; e ’n lui più ardenti
rendé le fiamme da’ bei lumi accese.
Né crescer sí, né sfavillar commosse
vidi mai faci, a lo spirar de’ venti,
come il mio incendio allor forza riprese.

Torquato Tasso, in Le Rime de gli Academici Eterei

In 1562 she was married to a widower, Conte Paolo Macchiavelli, older than she and reputedly a dissipate and excessive libertine. The marriage was unhappy and without issue, although Bendidio adopted a two-year-old boy, Cesare Ligurio, in 1583.  Lucrezia’s four sisters, Isabella, Vittoria, Taddea and Annina, were also members of the court. Isabella became the wife of Cornelio Bentivoglio, one of Alfonso’s must trusted courtiers. Taddea married one of Alfonso’s secretaries, the poet Giambattista Guarini, and was mother to one of the singers of the 1580s concerto, the fated Anna Guarini.
From her earliest years, Lucrezia was celebrated particularly for the beauty of her voice. One of the verses in the Eterei volume, by Ridolfo Arlotti, is written ‘sopra il canto della signora Lucrezia Bendidio’. Four years after the publication of this poem, Lucrezia and her sister Isabella featured in the earliest recorded public performance by the women of Alfonso’s court. The occasion, in August 1571, was the visit of two sons of Emperor Maximilian II, nephews by marriage to both the Duke of Mantua and the Duke of Ferrara. The two courts met at the Farnese garrison town of Brescello, on the Po river, for a grand celebration which included dancing and a ‘consertoni’ of more than 60 musicians. Lucrezia and Isabella were prevailed upon – in fact, ordered – by the Duke to sing for the princes, despite the fact that their mother had died only four days previously. The event was reported by the Florentine ambassador, Bernardo Canigiani: ‘and inside [to the sound of] a harpsichord played by Luzzasco, Signora Lucrezia and Signora Isabella Bendidio sang solo, and together, so well and so sweetly that I do not believe that it is possible to hear better’.
Although Lucrezia’s position at court was almost certainly greatly enhanced by her vocal prowess, she also gained influence, however questionable, as the mistress of Duke Alfonso’s brother, Cardinal Luigi d’Este. From the late 1560s, she was openly involved with the cardinal, with apparently more than just a tacet policy of non-interference from the Duke. One of the Duke’s secretaries, court archivist and poet Giovanni Battista Pigna, also chose Lucrezia to be his muse, and asked his colleague Guarini to annotate a manuscript copy of his canzoniere for her, and furthermore to dedicate it to her mistress, the Princess Leonora. The collection was entitled Il ben divino – the love of God, or ‘il ben di Dio’. This gesture, together with Pigna’s obvious devotion, was enough to prompt the Duke to remind him of Lucrezia’s ‘special relationship’ with Cardinal d’Este.  

In giri or lunghi, or scarsi, or doppi, or soli
or alti, or bassi, netta voce sgorga:
e con silenzio e strepito la ingorga
il vostro augel, perché a me morte involi.
Così la notte non con sciocchi voli,
ma con canti leggiadri, fa ch’io sorga
da la quiete orba di tempo e scorga
ne le tenebre mie vostri due soli.
Prendea da voi, mentre correva il giorno,
modi dolci da usar: da voi maestra
del concento che i cor ne disacerba.
Tacendo voi, de le stelle al ritorno,
seco provar solea se gli era destra
l’arte imparata, e lo stil anco serba.

Giambattista Pigna, Il ben divino

 
One presumes that Lucrezia continued to sing for the Duke throughout the 1570s, although documents do not record many more semi-private performances until the second half of the decade. A hastily arranged reception for the French king Henri III in July 1574 included private music at the Duke’s ‘tavolino’, but vocal performances by the ladies of the court are not specifically mentioned. The arrival at Ferrara in 1576 of Leonora Sanvitale seems to have provided new impetus for the Duke’s entertainment, for thereafter regular concerts were offered, reported by the Florentine ambassador and other visitors to the court. Lucrezia and Isabella, Leonora and a select band of other Ferrarese noblewomen performed singly and together, and even on occasion with male singers, but always with the accompaniment of Luzzaschi at the harpsichord or Hippolito Fiorino on the lute.
Although relatively frequent, these performances were not yet on the scale of the 1580s concerto, presumably with time allowed for the women to prepare and rehearse their parts. As the Duke’s appetite for his musica segreta grew, the possession of a beautiful voice became insufficient on its own to fulfill his need for quality, quantity and variety. As a new generation of singers were introduced to the concerto, either already skilled or young enough to be trained in the arts of self-accompaniment and spontaneous ornamentation, Lucrezia lost her central position in the entertainments. She had not the skills to keep up the pace, and resented her deposition deeply and publicly.

 

Qual più rara e gentile
opra è de la natura o meraviglia,
quella più mi somiglia
la donna mia ne’ modi e ne’ sembianti.
Dove fra dolci canti
corre Meandro o pur Caistro inonda
la torta obliqua sponda
un bianco augel parer fa roco e vile
nel più canoro aprile
ogni altro che diletti a meraviglia:
ma questa mia, che ’l bel candore eccede
de’ cigni, or che se ’n riede
la primavera candida a vermiglia
l'aria addolcisce co’ soavi accenti
e queta i venti — col sua vago stile.

Torquato Tasso, Rime

 

Lucrezia’s decline at court continued in the early years of the 1580s. Her relationship with Luigi waned, and she lost her formal position and the protection of Princess Leonora, who died in 1581. When her stepdaughter, Violante Macchiavelli, was married to Conte Guilio Tassoni, the groom made it a condition of the marriage that his wife was to have nothing more to do with her stepmother, causing great distress to Lucrezia. During a banquet, Lucrezia and Tassoni exchanged base insults – she called him ‘franciosato’ (i.e. suffering from ‘the French disease’, or syphilis), he called her ‘una vacca pubblica’. Thereafter she became involved in litigation with her stepdaughter over her dowry, a dispute that eventually needed the intervention of the Duke.
Her friendship with Tasso, however, did not suffer. Lucrezia was allowed to accompany him in his carriage on the way to his hospitalization at San Francesco in 1577, and to correspond with him over the next ten years during his imprisonment in Sant'Anna. His last poem for her, Qual più rara e gentile’, is presumed to have been written in 1585. The date of her death is not known.
Lucrezia Bendidio went from being one of the central figures of the court to being a virtual pariah in a relatively short time. Her fall from grace at Ferrara in some ways echoes that of Tarquinia Molza. The seemingly socially lethal combination of musical ability with non-marital sexual conduct was tolerated for many years in Lucrezia’s case, but with the balance gradually and inexorably tipping against her. The paradox lies in the fact that only when she was removed from both dubious activities did she lose her social acceptability completely. Perhaps her public bitterness at being excluded from the new musica secreta was the deciding factor; as long as singing was her duty, it was respected and respectable, but through vanity to wish herself part of the dangerous spectacle, she in some way may have magnified the implications on her character of her adultery. Though the court could not wholly reject her – she was, after all, a Bendidio and a countess – her humiliation was in the distance with which she was treated.

Bibliography references (primary sources): Eterei, 1567

Bibliography references (secondary sources):  Bertoni, 1922; CampSol, 1888; Ceserani, 1966; DurMart, 1988; DurMart, 1989; DurMart, 2000; Newcomb, 1981; Solerti, 1891; Tasso/Vendittis, 1965

Written by Laurie Stras.

Last updated 04 October, 2002.

The views expressed in this document are those of the author and not those of the University of Southampton.