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Leonora Sanvitale was born into Parmesan nobility, daughter of Giberto Sanvitale, Conte di Sala, and Livia Balbiana di Belgioso. Her mother died soon after she was born (in childbirth?) and Giberto married again in 1561, this time to Barbara Sanseverina, a local beauty not much older than Leonora herself.

Leonora was brought up in a household with a reputation for patronage; the family had been the principal benefactors and protectors of many artists and musicians, including Il Parmigianino. Giberto and Barbara - and probably Leonora, too - were actively involved in the arts they encouraged. A book of madrigal games was dedicated to them, and letters mention the 'commediette' with which the women of the house amused themselves and others. An anonymous, undated sonnet, Alza rapido Tar, l'humida fronte, praises the voices of 'Tarquinia et Leonora' as they sing together on the banks of the Taro - which ran through Sanvitale lands to the west of Parma. Although neither singer is incontravertibly identified, we may assume that the two are Tarquinia Molza and Leonora Sanvitale. Since Leonora was permanently located at Ferrara after her marriage in 1576, the poem probably dates from the early 1570s, when both Tarquinia and Leonora were more closely allied to the Farnese court.

Leonora Sanvitale in 1562 (Galleria Nationale, Parma). The inscription reads 'Anna Leonora Sanvitale, de MDLXII, anno IIII de la sua etate'.

The first unambiguous reference to Leonora as a singer comes in a letter from her stepmother to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, written in August 1573. The Sanvitale family were on a protracted visit to Rome whilst Giberto was involved in a bitter and lengthy matter of litigation. They had been there at least six months when Barbara wrote to Alessandro, asking him to secure the continuation of Leonora's singing lessons with a 'Cavagliere Vicentio Pitto'. She notes that the girl was making better progress than expected and showed promise, and tells the Cardinal that she will 'bring no little honor to you and satisfaction to me'.  The following year Tomaso Machiavelli writes to Ottavio Farnese that Leonora had 'grown in stature, virtue and manners, with a beauty and and air so sweetly frizzante, that she could enflame, even if it were frozen, the entire kingdom of blessed Love.  When she accompanies her singing with playing, she could inspire verse and enslave the heart, not only of M. Leone. . ., but also the Apollo of Belvedere [a Classical statue on display in the Vatican].

Leonora's marriage to Guilio Thiene, Conte di Scandiano, in 1576, has often been described as a love match - the story goes that Thiene first saw Leonora in 1573, during the family's sojourn to Rome, and began considering the marriage at that point. This is unlikely to be true, however, as in May 1575 Thiene refused to commit to marrying Leonora until he had seen her.  In 1574, Thiene had started negotiations with Don Alfonso d'Este, Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara's uncle, to marry one of his daughters. For her part, in February 1575 Leonora became engaged to Don Cesare d'Avalos, Marchese di Padula and a member of the great Spanish-Italian family that wielded power the length of Italy from Milan to Naples.

The impetus that eventually extracted Leonora from her engagement is not entirely clear. Her father had spent years trying to find the ideal suitor, and negotiations with the d'Avalos family had been lengthy.  But in April or May 1575 something or someone convinced him to favour Thiene as a husband for Leonora. Thiene's mother took rather more convincing, once she discovered the liaison between Leonora and Don Cesare, and so did the Church - either because they needed to be sure that the affair had not gone too far already, or because Don Cesare had used the influence of his eminent cardinal brother to place doubt in the minds of his fellow clergy. In any case, more powerful men were soon involved - the Dukes of Ferrara and Parma, the Prince of Parma and Cardinal Farnese all played a part in securing the marriage contract. The Duke of Ferrara acted as a guarantor for the dowry, which Thiene's mother argued up from 25 million to 30 million scudi. Thiene himself travelled twice to Rome to petition the Pope, and after the second attempt in September 1575, a facoltà di concessa was granted to allow the union to take place. Shortly afterwards, Leonora wrote to Cardinal Farnese, assuring him that she was a dutiful daughter, and that she would do her father's bidding.

Alza, rapido Tar, l'umida fronte,
e grazie al cielo e alla tua gran ventura
rendi immortale, e cristallina e pura
l'onda per l'alveo d'or versa dal fonte.
Mira di doppio sol doppio orizzonte
nell'una e l'altra angelica figura,
la cui luce serena ogni ora fura
all'alto carro onde cadeò Fetonte.
D'odoriferi fiori ambe le sponde
di mille bei color dipingi e mostra
quanto sparga d'april Favonio e Flora,
e dolcemente, dov'Eco risponde
ninfe e pastori per l'ombrosa chiostra,
s'odan cantar TARQUINIA e LEONORA.

(anon. MS, 16th cen., Fondo Molza-Viti, Biblioteca Estense, Modena)

The marriage was solemnized in Ferrara in the winter of 1576. The celebrations coincided with both carnevale and the arrival of the feted theatrical troupe, the Gelosi. Leonora and her stepmother, Barbara Sanseverina, instantly became the prime donne of the Ferrarese court. Giulio and Leonora were given the use of one of the finest palazzi in Ferrara, Schifanoia, as their new home.

No sooner than she arrived in Ferrara, Leonora was drafted into the Duke's musical entertainment, raising the speculation that it was Alfonso himself who had encouraged the marriage, as a way of catering for his growing obsession with the female singing voice. Leonora was the only of his singing ladies who was permitted to marry a husband of her own age, and  one of only two to bear children. This may have been the concession she demanded in return for relinquishing her promise to Don Cesare.

If this was the case, then Alfonso's gamble failed to pay dividends for long. Leonora became pregnant in the first year of her marriage, and she retired from the 1577 carnevale celebrations with the onset of labour - to the general dismay of the court. The baby girl was christened Livia (or Sylvia), and Tasso's sonnets to her claim she was as beautiful as her mother. Thereafter, Leonora's presence in the entertainments is recorded throughout the following five years, singing together with Giulio Cesare Brancaccio and Lucrezia Bendidio in 1577, and more generally with her sister-in-law and the other ladies of the court. At least one more pregnancy followed in 1581. This child, a boy named Ottavio, was her last, born on 8 February 1582. Less than six weeks after giving birth she died, on 19 March 1582. Thiene wrote to Cardinal Farnese, saying that he had placed himself in God's hands, who had seen fit to bless him with the joy of his son's birth, only to call Leonora to him. Thiene's grief was genuine, as was Alfonso d'Este's. The day after her death the Duke wrote to Barbara Sanseverina, 'The true love that I bear for your Ladyship and the utmost goodwill that I always bore for the Contessa Leonora, who is in glory, has made me feel the bitter blow of her death with an unsurmountable burden of grief'.

Leonora's beauty and abilities were eulogised by the most eminent poets of the courts she frequented. Her greatest encomiast was without doubt Torquato Tasso, but she also inspired Giambattista Guarini, Muzio Manfredi, Girolamo Catena and Diomede Borghesi. She is often mentioned in letters and documents with her stepmother, and together they inspired a poetic 'contest' between Tasso and Guarini. It is possible that a collection of madrigals now found in the Biblioteca Estense in Modena (MS Mus F1538) may have begun as a musical and literary homage to the pair, similar to the collections for Laura Peverara. If this is the case, Leonora's untimely death may be the reason the volume remained undedicated and unpresented.

Bibliography references (secondary sources):  Belli, 1939; DurMart, 1988; DurMart, 1989; DurMart, 1997; Newcomb, 1981

Archival sources: 
Archivio di Stato, Modena - Cancelleria Ducale, Carteggio particolari; Carteggio ambasciatori; Carteggi principi esteri
Archivio di Stato, Parma - Fondo Sanvitale; Carteggio Farnesiane Estero; Carteggio Farnesiane Interno
Archivio di Stato, Reggio Emilia - Fondo Scandiano
Biblioteca Estense, Modena - Fondo Molza-Viti
Biblioteca Palatina, Parma - Carteggio Alessandro Farnese

Written by Laurie Stras.

Last updated 04 October, 2002.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author and not of the University of Southampton.