Tagliente on Love

By A. S. Osley
Date Added: 17/07/2009


Very little is known of the lives of the early Italian writing-masters: they had no Vasari. Yet anyone who repeatedly studies their works can detect a flavour of distinctive personality. Giovannantonio Tagliente, for example, emerges as an expansive character with the common touch. He was the only professional teacher among them. In his job as trainer of young Venetian secretaries he had to set homework, to mark it and to coach individual pupils. He liked people, and he liked teaching; and, a true son of the Serenissima, he had a shrewd business sense.

We can see this from the series of original little books, designed to instruct, improve and entertain a wide public, which he brought out between 1515 and 1527. There was a primer of arithmetic (Thesauro universale, 1515), a reading manual (Libro maistrevole, 1524), a letter-writing manual (Componimento di parlamenti, c. 1524), an accounting manual (Luminario), and a fme book of patterns for embroidery (Essempio di recammi). His famous writing-book Lo presente libro should be seen as part of this popular, didactic output.

The Componimento di parlamenti contained specimens of model letters – a merchant to his son, correspondence between scholars and drafts of an ecclesiastical and political kind. We can assume that a man of Tagliente's gregarious nature not only concerned himself with the writing of official communications but was often approached for assistance with personal letters. At any rate, the Componimento was quickly followed by a collection of model love-letters, the Refugio di amanti. Although the book is printed in type and has no examples of handwriting, its contents perhaps merit a short article as portraying a little of the environment in which Tagliente worked.

The preface to the book is brief Tagliente refers to his recently published Componimento (not, however, naming it) and says simply that he has been urged by 'persons of great understanding' to print a number of love-letters and replies 'appertaining to many lovers of all classes in a diverse variety of situations in certain Italian cities'. The collection consists of 31 pairs of letters and answers, and one diatribe by an anonymous, disappointed suitor. In 19 cases the correspondence is opened by a man, and in 6 by a woman. Ages of the men range from 18 to 40, and those of the women from 18 to 36. Despite the claim in the preface, the range of classes is limited. The women are typically 'a girl of 18', a 'noble widow', or a 'married woman'. Among the men are a count, two students, a merchant, and a 'rich man of the people'.

The following are some illustrations of the kind of scenario used by Tagliente: Messer Fabritio, who is a gentleman of Parma and a handsome young man of 18 is in love with Madonna Dorothea, a beautiful girl of the noble house of Vececonti in Sicily, was invited by her to write some love-letters. He wants to meet her wishes but, although he has written several times, she has never replied. So in the letter that follows he complains miserably to her.

Madonna Candida, a gentlewoman from the Apulian town of Lezze, is in love with Messer Urban, a merchant of Mantua. Having lavished on him in all the fruits of her love, she begs him not to break faith with her and wishes him to come and see her every day. She writes him a letter containing these and other particulars.

A widowed gentlewoman of Ravenna called Lelia di Tarsia is abandoned by her lover Messer Pontiano and sends a letter of complaint to him.

Messer Eustachio, a gentleman of Turin, is a young student of 23. After seeing Madonna Lionarda, the wife of a knight, in a carriage with other women watching some rustic fellows dancing in a village, he falls in love with her. When he gets home, he writes to her the letter which follows.

Let us look more closely at a triple exchange of letters between Loigi (i.e. Luigi), son of Messer Andrea of Ravenna, a young man of 24 who is 40 in love with Madonna Fabia di Rasponi, a beautiful girl of 18. He sends his first letter to her secretly by a servant. He begins by declaring his feeling towards her, which 'increases daily and in my firm opinion, is none other than the unconquerable force of love. I come as a new soldier to its piercing arrows... You are the sole ruler of my life, the only guiding star for my happiness and the unique refuge for my cruel, unending torments. Since I am sure that you clearly appreciate my love, I eagerly want you to send me two words in reply to this letter'.

This did not, apparently, come as a surprise to the lady. 'God knows, noble Messer Loigi' she answers 'with what fearful apprehension I have set myself to write these few words, as I continually glance round in case some-one in our household should see me writing'. She admits that she reciprocates his affection and begs him to be a discreet and silent guardian of their love, employing the same servant to bring his next letter. Loigi is of course overjoyed to receive her response. 'In my solitude I faithfully hold your beloved and precious letter in my right hand and kiss it from time to time... Every time I recall the whiteness of your delicate features and the heavenly flame that sparkles from your flashing eyes, I feel restored to the very marrow of my spirit'. He begs her not to fail to show herself at her usual window so that he can look upon her.

Fabia is clearly worried lest her secret be discovered. In her reply she tells Loigi how pleased she is to be loved by a man who keeps his passion in the deepest recesses of his heart. She continues somewhat suggestively: 'When I was a little girl of 10, r remember my aunt, a woman of 67, often used to say that many women of standing would yield the full fruit of their love without too much entreaty if only they could confidently rely on the discretion of their lovers'. She agrees to show herself at her window in accordance with his wishes.

In his third letter Loigi seizes his opportunity to turn her misgivings to account. 'You could bestow well-being and happiness upon me if: one evening at dusk, you were willing to come to the top of your garden, where I could exchange a few modest, respectful words. . . For I fear lest a continual exchange of letters will unfortunately become known. . . and we should incur not only gossip but danger to life, whereas if we carefully arrange to meet and talk as darkness falls, our affairs will be much more secure'. The final letter in this series enables us to predict the outcome of their association. She informs him that she will fix a day by showing herself at her window overlooking the garden. That same night he is to come to the garden, where he will find two ropes, one white and one green tied to the window. He must be unaccompanied and not arrive before the third hour.

After perusing the artificial and stilted diction of these letters with their rather theatrical situations, one is tempted to ask whether men and women would find such models useful in real life. Or was the book bought for a good 'romantic' read? Probably the answer to both questions is 'yes'. The title-page is certainly unequivocal; it 'teaches persons who are falling, or have fallen, in love how to compose letters and reply to them'. Tagliente's love-book went into many editions and was read long after his death.