A Poem In Memory of Fillide Melandroni?

Caravaggio Blog

In his Ars Poetica Horace wrote that poetry resembles painting. Some works will captivate you when you stand very close, others if you are at a greater distance. One prefers a darker vantage point, another wants to be seen in the light as it feels no fear before the penetrating judgement of the critic. This poem pleases only once, that one will give pleasure even if we go back to it ten times over. In Horace’s view poetry deserved the same careful consideration that in his day was reserved for painting. Painting and poetry are two equitable, friendly neighbours. Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno degli Deiis indeed a work one should go back to time and again, a poem that needs time to unfold itself for the appreciation of the reader.

I am extremely lucky to have meanwhile laid my hands on a copy of Lo Scherno degli Dei myself, this edition published in Milan, in 1625. The sense of urgency to solve the mystery only gets stronger when I start reading a poem that is included in the same Lo Scherno degli Dei edition, which is virtually unrecorded in Baroque poetry studies. The title is Fillide civettina (also included in the original 1618 edition), which may be translated as ‘Fillide, the Flirt’. Fillide? The name rings a bell. Caravaggio’s favourite model was called Fillide Melandroni, a courtesan. He did a portrait of her, now lost, painted with a highly sophisticated sensuality.

Bracciolini’s Fillide civettina (1618)

Bracciolini portrays Fillide as someone whose beauty can be bought, metaphorically as well as literally. Fillide tries to seduce some of the most notable figures, but her identity remains a mystery to the reader. As with Bracciolini’s Lo Scherno degli Dei, for a correct interpretation of his Fillide civettinaI am again guided by Maria Cristina Cabani’s responses to the assumptions I had put forward to her. Can we recognize Caravaggio’s model Fillide Melandroni in Bracciolini’s Fillide civettina? The poet portrays his protagonist as a lady who, like a butterfly, flits from one flower to another. But there is also a critical note that emerges from Bracciolini’s Fillide civettina: since her love is shared, Fillide loses respect, as is shown in stanza eight. Here the poet urges his protagonist to change her conduct, as her frivolity can only bring her ruin. The reader gradually gets the impression that Bracciolini is alluding to a real person. The poet embeds his conceits in a context of judicial terms, such as ‘indissolubile contratto’ and ‘testimoni’, from which an unfaithful woman emerges who is likely to betray her lover and future husband. The terms ‘unbreakable contract’ and ‘witnesses’ refer to a promise of marriage that, in the poet’s opinion, Fillide is likely to break. In the thirteen stanzas, the poet portrays her through the eyes of someone who had loved her. But through whose eyes, probably not Caravaggio’s. Is my premonition correct that Bracciolini created a poem that alluded to a protagonist in the Caravaggio-Ranuccio Tomassoni conflict, Fillide Melandroni, who had indirectly sparked the 1606 tennis match and ensuing duel? Melandroni was Caravaggio’s favourite model and Ranuccio acted as the young courtesan’s pimp.

Portrait of Fillide Melandroni, Caravaggio, destroyed in WW2.

Fillide civettina = Fillide Melandroni

It is difficult to enter Bracciolini’s mind and fully appreciate all the burlesque angles he conceived, but in his Fillide civettina he may indeed be referring to a prostitute. For me the poem evokes reminiscences of Caravaggio’s favourite model, Fillide Melandroni, who had also conquered the hearts of prominent figures. Is it through the eyes of Melandroni’s aristocratic lover Giulio Strozzi, I begin to wonder, that Bracciolini composed his Fillide civettina? This lawyer-poet had formally proposed to Melandroni, probably soon after Caravaggio’s death in 1610, or even earlier. The Strozzi-Melandroni relationship turned into a heart wrenching affair. At the instigation of Giulio’s family, Fillide was exiled from Rome in 1612, because it was thought that she had a bad influence on him. But the Caravaggio biographies I have consulted so far on the matter do not provide any hints of Fillide Melandroni having possibly obstructed the marriage to Giulio. I gather it was rather Giulio’s family who had done their utmost to prevent a wedding. Was there indeed a marriage contract that Fillide ignored, the betrayal of her future husband, as Bracciolini suggests, and of ‘testimoni’ in an obvious lawsuit following the conflict? I need to find out more about the Giulio Strozzi-Fillide Melandroni relationship to establish if it was perhaps through the eyes of the lawyer-poet that Bracciolini portrayed his Fillide civettina. Had Bracciolini and Giulio Strozzi been in touch personally, during which Strozzi confided to Bracciolini over a possible lawsuit about a pre-marital contract that had been broken by Fillide Melandroni?

Bracciolini and Strozzi

I soon find that Francesco Bracciolini and Giulio Strozzi round 1610 are working in apparent conjunction as pioneering translators of Spanish literature, Bracciolini being described as the first translator of Cervantes’ Don Quichote. The year is 1610. Very recently Iole Scamuzzi, in her study Il curioso impertinente fra Spagna e Italia (2010), devoted a chapter to the two poets whose literary activities and interests converged in the pieces they compiled. At first these translations were not meant for publication, being experimental manuscripts that were restricted to their intimate circle of friends. It is inconclusive how Bracciolini and Strozzi were able to communicate. Bracciolini lived in his native Pistoia in Tuscany where he is supposed to have sought an ecclesiastical career, obviously in combination with his literary activities for the Medici family. Giulio Strozzi was active in Rome at the time, as ‘protonotario apostolico’. The communication between the two poets may have been through the academies they were members of. Furthermore, just like Bracciolini, Giulio Strozzi was closely connected to the de’ Medici family throughout his career. He wrote several epitaphs honouring recently deceased Medici princes.

This was a time when Giulio Strozzi became one of the most important cultural figures in Rome, particularly in the intellectual atmosphere of the Roman academies. The literary evenings held at Rome’s academies, especially the Accademia degli Umoristi, were probably the fertile setting where the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis theme gestated. The poets who, between 1610-1625, experimented with ball-related poetry were all Umoristi. The Umoristi’s main activities included the recitation and composition of poetry that mocked established, literary traditions, in particular the serious use of mythology in Italian verse. Both Bracciolini and Giulio Strozzi feature in the long list of Umoristimembers, until 1608, when Strozzi was involved in founding an academy of his own, the Accademia degli Ordinati.

It is quite feasible that Bracciolini, in his account of the tennis match between Apollo and Hyacinth of his Lo Scherno degli Dei, employed a principal example of a match with un unfortunate ending that had stuck in his memory. The poet may have included his Fillide civettina in the same 1618 edition to puzzle and confuse his readers even further. Were the Apollo and Hyacinth tennis episode and his poem about an unfaithful courtesan called Fillide related? As we saw, all ‘burlesco mitologico’ works of the time played with allusions to contemporary reality, through burlesque interpretations or travesties of real events, to show disapproval of certain behaviour. The real identity of Fillide civettina is not yet done and dusted, but I now possess enough ammunition to work towards the ultimate challenge of the upcoming presentation.