Lucrezia Tornabuoni de' Medici: Sacred Narratives Edited and Translated by Jane Tylus The University of Chicago Press Iidike so many women in history, Lucrezia Tornabuoni de' Medici (1425-82) is known chiefly for the men in her life. There was her husband, the gouty Piero de' Medici, and her son Lorenzo the Magnificent, under whose rule the cultural life of Renaissance Florence bloomed. I should add, however, that she also happened to be an interesting person in her own right.
Tornabuoni was an educated woman who corresponded with scholars and rubbed shoulders with royalty. As her husband's health deteriorated, she became increas ingly involved in the running of Florence, acting as adviser, diplomat, patron of the arts and tireless worker for charity. She left behind her a remarkable legacy, including two grandsons who became pope and a significant body of religious verse.
Sacred Narratives is the first major collection of Tornabuoni's poems. Do not be put off by the title – it does not do justice to the range or emotional power of poems that deal with everything from a struggle with a big fish to the slaughter of a mighty general by a seductive, sword-wielding Jewish widow.
The book consists of laud (songs of praise about the birth and death of Christ) and stork sacre (poetic narratives inspired by the lives of biblical figures). It is these stone sacre or sacred narratives that form the bulk of the volume. There are five collected here, based upon the lives of John the Baptist from the New Testament, and Susannah, Tobias, Judith and Esther from the apocryphal hooks of the bible.
Tornabuoni's choice of stories is intriguing. Why does she draw so heavily upon the lesser-known hooks of the Apocrypha? She appears to have selected her characters either because of their important to Florence (John the Baptist, for instance, was the city's patron saint) or their relevance to her own life.
It is not surprising that Old Testament heroines such as Judith; and Esther appealed to Tornabuoni. While Susannah's . portrayal is typical of women in literature (she is pious, beautiful,' ' a victim of a male plot) Judith and Esther are more problematic. Both are brave women who use their beauty and influence in order to rescue their people from annihilation. They reflect the ambiguity of Tornabuoni's own position as a potentially powerful-, woman, limited by the confines of. her sex.
The sacred narratives are more than just retellings of biblical stories; Tornabuoni is a natural storyteller and she brings to these poems a heightened sense of • drama and pathos and a woman'g eye for detail. Moving away from'' the military and political concerns.: of the Bible, she tunes into the plight of individuals, elaborating the • stories with poignant lamentations and moving accounts of parents parting with their sons.
Tornabuoni was a pious woman and .. her motivation for writing these poems is primarily moral. She warns her readers (or listeners) to ' the point of tedium of the dangers of pride and the need to place one's trust in God. At the same • time, she sets out to "please" her readers' with her lively characterisation (she is particularly hot on nagging wives) and her capacity for joyful and sensuous description.
Tornabuoni's work has . been neglected over time,' dismissed perhaps because of the exclusively . religious nature of her verse. . . There has been a revival of inter-" est in her, however, since the recent publication of some of her letters. In her extensive and diligently researched introduction to this book, editor Jane Tylus argues for Tornabuoni's importance both as a poet and as a Tornabuoni will not be numbered among the great poets of the Renaissance. Nevertheless, .
we can be grateful to Tylus for bringing to light a confident poetic voice from an age when women ' were scarcely heard at all.