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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Agnolo Firenzuola (1493–1545)

THIS Italian poet and littérateur was born in Florence, September 28th, 1493. He received his name from the town of Firenzaola among the Apennines, where his family originated. Agnolo spent his youth in Siena and Perugia, studying law and living a gay and wild life of pleasure. For a short time he practiced his profession in Rome, but abandoned it to become a monk at Vallombrosa. After the death of Clement VII. he went to Florence, and finally settled at Prato as abbot of San Salvatore. Some authorities have disputed that he ever became an abbot, for the records of his dissolute career do not accord with a monastic life. But whether abbot or gentleman of leisure, a severe illness took him to Prato, where he spent many happy years. He died there or at Rome, about 1545.

When in Rome he formed a friendship with many eminent men of letters, and his own writings attracted much attention. His adaptation of ‘The Golden Ass’ of Apuleius became a favorite book, and passed through many editions, and his original works were esteemed for their diction and brilliancy. Firenzuola wrote satirical and burlesque poems; two comedies, ‘I Lucidi’ and ‘La Trinuzia’; ‘Discorsi degli Animali,’ imitations of Oriental fables of animals; ‘Ragionamenti Amorosi,’ novelettes or tales after the fashion of Boccaccio; ‘Dialogo della Bellezza delle Donne,’ and other works. He also wrote a few love poems and ballads, one of the most admired of which is ‘Orozza Pastorella.’ The first edition of Firenzuola’s works appeared in 1548, and they have been frequently republished. The best editions of the ninetheenth century are in 5 vols., Milan, 1802; and in 2 vols., Florence, 1848. In his ‘Renaissance in Italy’ (London, 1881), J. A. Symonds says:—

  • “The charm of Firenzuola’s ‘Novelle’ is due in a large measure to his style, which has a wonderful transparency and ease, a wealth of the rarest Tuscan phrases, and a freshness of humor that renders them delightful reading. The storm at sea, in the first tale, and the night scene in the streets in Florence, in the third, are described with Ariostean brilliancy. In point of subject-matter they do not greatly differ from the ordinary novels of the day, and some of the tales reappear in the collections of other novelists. Most of them turn upon the foibles and vices of the clergy….
  • “Firenzuola prefaced his novels with an elaborate introduction, describing the meeting of some friends at Celso’s villa near Pazolatico and their discourse on love. From discussion they pass to telling amorous stories, under the guidance of a Queen selected by the company. The introductory conversation is full of a dreamy, sensualized, disintegrated Platonism. It parades conventional distinctions between earthly and heavenly love, between the beauty of the soul and the beauty of the body; and then we pass without modulation into the regions of what is here called accidenti amorosi.
  • “The same insincere Platonism gives color to Firenzuola’s discourse on the ‘Beauty of Women,’—one of the most important productions of the sixteenth century in illustration of popular and artistic taste. The author imagines himself to have interrupted a bevy of fair ladies from Prato in the midst of a dispute about the beauty of Mona Amelia della Torre Nuova. Mona Amelia herself was present; and so were Mona Lampiada, Mona Amororrisca, Mona Selvaggia, and Mona Verdespina. Under these names it is clear that living persons of the town of Prato are designated; and all the examples of beauty given in the dialogue are chosen from well-known women of the district. The composition must therefore be reckoned as an elaborate compliment from Firenzuola to the fair sex of Prato.”
  • The scene of the famous dialogue is laid in the convent grounds of Grignano, and Celso is supposed to be intended for Firenzuola. He analyzes and criticizes the form, proportion, and colors of the female type from the point of view of the artist, sculptor, and fastidious gentleman of taste. The ‘Dialogo della Bellezze delle Donne’ was first published in 1548, without the place of publication. It was reprinted in Florence in the same year. Many editions appeared, and a French translation, called ‘Discours de la Beauté des Dames,’ was issued in Paris in 1578. It was translated into English by Clara Bell, and printed with an introduction by Theodore Child (London, 1892), under the title ‘Of the Beauty of Women.’ Of it Mr. Child says:—

  • “Firenzuola’s ‘Dialogue on the Beauty of Women,’ which is here presented for the first time in the English tongue, seems to us worthy of the honors of translation and of perusal for other reasons than those of mere antiquarian curiosity. Our ideal of feminine beauty is doubtless different from that of Botticelli, Perugino, Antonio Bazzi, Bellini, Leonardo, or Titian; and yet, by the ardent and continual study of the masterpieces of these and other painters, we certainly influence our modern ideal in some subtle and unanalyzable way. The life of great works of art is eternal. In each succeeding age they acquire new eloquence and impart fresh lessons to those who study them. They retain an inexhaustible power of suggestion and boundless capacity of interpretation. It is in the interpretation of the painting of the Italian Renaissance that the Dialogue of Firenzuola seems to us to be of singular interest; and above all in its suggestiveness to modern women, and in its implied doctrine that beauty is to be pursued, and within certain limits to be attained, even by those whom nature has not lavishly favored…. The Florentine was curious, perhaps, rather than sentimental; his analysis of the beauty of women is strictly æsthetical; his admiration active and impressionist, so to speak, rather than contemplative. Had he lived in our times, he would have noted with incomparably delicate touch the familiar gestures which contemporary costume involves, and all the pretty movements that accompany the raising of a veil, the arrangement of the hair imperceptibly ruffled by the indiscreet breeze, the coquettish effort made in taking off gloves and adjusting rings and bracelets, the furtive application of the powder-puff and of the precious unguent that imparts intensity to roseate lips. At the same time he would have paid little attention to the naïveté of the eye and the gravity of the heart. The beauty of women which Firenzuola admires and analyzes is exterior, plastic, and material…. Many of Firenzuola’s remarks may seem perhaps a little vague and general, but they become less so when we read them in connection with the monuments of plastic art contemporaneous with the life of the writer. In the figures of the frescoes of Ghirlandajo, of Piero della Francesca, of Antonio Bazzi, and more particularly in the marvelous women that we admire in the frescoes and pictures of the Florentine Botticelli, we recognize those refinements of bearing and expression of which Firenzuola speaks; we divine an ideal of feminine beauty corresponding with his; and we realize the charm of those high and pure foreheads ‘shining almost like a mirror.’”