Olympia Morata (1526-55) was a remarkable woman who was educated in the ducal court of Ferrara, fell out of favor, and left with her husband for his home town of Schweinfurt in 1550; they were forced by the wars of religion to flee in 1554 to Heidelberg, where she died the following year. In her short life she became known as a great scholar and writer, admired all across Europe (by those who did not revile her as a “Calvinist Amazon”) and an inspiration to all women scholars. A new book, The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic, edited and translated by Holt N. Parker, presents all of her writings that survive (most were lost in the siege of Schweinfurt) along with an introduction that is, amazingly, both erudite and compellingly readable. On her marriage:
Thus far, Morata’s life follows a pattern common to many of the learned women of early modern Europe: a brief burst of erudition, which enjoyed masculine encouragement only as long as the scholar remained a young girl. Once she became older, no longer merely a curiosity for display but a potential disturbance to the order of things, she was married off, and her talents absorbed in child rearing and domesticity.
Two things made Morata’s story different. One is the extraordinary nature of her talents and her determination to pursue her study of “divine letters” despite circumstances far more horrific than mere disfavor at court. The other was the nature of her marriage and her husband. It was at this bleak period of her life, when she had lost her father, her childhood friend, and her position at court, that she found a partner in a marriage that seemed to both husband and wife to be literally made in heaven: “He has also given me as a bride to a man who greatly enjoys my studies”… Andreas Grunthler was a relative of Johannes Sinapius’s and a brilliant medical student, deeply learned in Greek… In him Morata found what the “silly women” and men of the first Dialogue had declared impossible, “a man who would prefer you to be educated than to be rich.”
Morata and Grunthler were married sometime in late 1549 or early 1550, and Olympia composed a Greek poem for the occasion… The letters and all the testimony of their friends paint a picture of a remarkable marriage. It was clearly a love match… Her letters to him are deeply moving and remind us (if we need reminding) that in the Renaissance, Latin was a living language, so much so that a learned German married to a learned Italian might well conduct their loves and lives in it. Their marriage was conceived by the couple themselves as a match between equals, and looked upon by their friends as such…
And on her Latinity:
Her Latin is simply splendid. She ranks as one of the great stylists in an age of talent. Her prose is a flexible instrument, always correct but capable of ranging from the most formal (for example, in her letters to Vergerio) to the most conversational (for example, in her dialogues and her letters to her husband). Her writing is deep-dyed in classical literature. She lightly tossed off allusions, which she expected her equally learned readers to catch. I have attempted to note in passing only the more obvious ones. I have doubtless missed many others.
I will take the word of Prof. Parker (whom I have known for many years) for her Latin, not one of my favorite languages, but I can vouch for her excellent Greek. I will limit myself to quoting one poem, her defiant “To Eutychus Pontanus Gallus,” followed by Parker’s translation (I have transliterated the Greek, silently emending one typo):
oupote men xumpâsin eni phresin hêndane tauto
koupote pâsin ison Zeus paredôke noon.
hippodamos Kastôr, pux d’ ên agathos Polydeukês,
ekgonos ex tautês ornithos amphoteros.
kagô men thêlus gegauia ta thêluka leipon
nêmata, kerkidion, stêmona, kai kalathous.
Mousaôn d’ agamai leimôna ton anthemoenta
Parnassou th’ hilarous tou dilophoio khorous.
allai terpontai men isos alloisi gunaikes.
tauta de moi kudos. tauta de kharmosunê.
Never did the same thing please the hearts of all,
and never did Zeus grant the same mind to all.
Castor is a horse-tamer, but Polydeuces is good with his fist,
both the offspring of the same bird.
And I, though born female, have left feminine things,
yarn, shuttle, loom-threads, and work-baskets.
I admire the flowery meadow of the Muses,
and the pleasant choruses of twin-peaked Parnassus.
Other women perhaps delight in other things.
These are my glory, these my delight.