Christine de Pizan

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Friday, October 26, 2018

Olympia Morata, Scholar, Teacher, and an "Italian Heretic"

Olympia Fulvia Morata (died 26 October 1555)


Olympia Fulvia Morata was the daughter of the Italian humanist Fulvio Pellegrino Morato. A Mantuan, he was exiled from the city by 1517 (for unknown reasons) and made his way to the Este court in Ferrara. There he was appointed to oversee the education of the two youngest sons of the duke, Alfonso I. And there, in Ferrara, he married Lucrezia Gozi. Their eldest daughter, Olympia Fulvia Morata, was born in 1526; her father provided her with an excellent classical education. 

Olympia Morata, c. 1550
But in 1532, Morato left Ferrara--again, the reasons aren't clear--and took his family to Vicenza, in the Veneto, where he secured a post as a public master of Latin. He also gave lectures, wrote, and published.

During the years of his absence from the Este court, Morato also spent time in nearby Venice and began not only expressing anti-clerical views but also opening his home to young intellectuals for discussions of the work of religious reformers like Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.

All of which drew attention from the Council of Ten in Venice, anxious about the dangerous effect of teachers like Morato on the religious views of their students. Papal legates arrived in Venice in order to investigate, and prosecutions followed. Although Morato was not accused of heresy, he felt himself to be in some danger and, after six years of absence, he returned to Ferrara.

Back in Ferrara, Morato was once again appointed to oversee the education of two young sons of the Este court, these the children of the new duke, Ercole II, and his mistress, Laura Dianti. Morato also took up a position teaching rhetoric, oratory and Latin authors at the University of Ferrara.

The court to which Morato returned had become a refuge and support for religious dissidents, especially those fleeing from France. The duchess of Ferrara, Renée of France, had grown up under the influence of her aunt, Marguerite of Navarre, a supporter of French Huguenots. Renée had carried her reformist views with her to Ferrara, and she had begun to shelter to religious dissidents, including John Calvin, whom she met in 1536 as he fled persecution in France. She also fostered intellectuals like the poet Vittoria Colonna who also found themselves investigated for their religious views.

Soon after her father's return to Ferrara, between 1539 and 1541, Olympia Morata joined the court of the duchess of Ferrara, where she was to be the companion of Renée's daughter, Anna d'Este. There she continued her studies, earning praise as a prodigy of learning. As Jennifer Haraguchi notes in her biographial essay on Morata, the young woman, still in her early teens, "was considered a 'fanciulla prodigio,' and won the praise of many intellectuals for her fluency in Latin and Greek."

A poem from this period reflects on Morata's aspirations and her sense of herself:
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 the twin-peaked Parnassus.
Other women perhaps delight in other things,
     These are my glory, these my delight.
While at the ducal court, Morata shared tutors and texts with the young Anna, but these educational opportunities came to an end in 1546 when Morata returned home to take care of her sick father. After his death in 1548, Olympia Morata attempted to return to court, but she met with obstacles--her father's interest in Protestantism (some sources indicate he converted to Calvinism before his death) and her own religious sympathies may account for some of the problems. But during Morata's absence, Anna d'Este had been married to a French prince, a member of the Guise family, and had left Ferrara--Morata was no longer needed as a companion. And, finally, increasing pressure on the Calvinist sympathies of the duchess may also have prevented Morata's return.

Having lost her father, her friend, and her position at court, Morata remained in her mother's house, and it seems to have been during this period that she herself became a Protestant. She continued her her correspondence with other intellectuals, including one through whom she met a student who had come to study medicine in Ferrara, Andrew Grunthler of Schweinfurt.

In 1550 she married Grunthler, and within a few years the two left Ferrara, taking Morata's younger brother with them, at least in part to evade the Inquisition. Grunthler found a position in Schweinfurth, a Protestant town, where he was physician to Spanish troops that had been stationed there. The couple were caught between opposing forces in the city when religious tensions broke out into war--a Protestant town, pillaged by the Spanish soldiers garrisoned there, trying to withstand the emperor's troops that were besieging Schweinfurth. The city suffered famine, bombardment, plague, and fire.

They were eventually able to escape to Heidelberg, where Grunthler took up a medical lectureship. Olympia Morata began to tutor Latin and Greek.

She did not live long, however. She died on 26 October 1555, just twenty-nine years old. Two months later, her husband and brother were also dead. She is buried, with her husband and brother, in St. Peter's Church, Heidelberg.

Much of Morata's work was lost--some during the siege of Schweinfurth and the hasty flight from the city, some when Renée of France's archive at the ducal court was destroyed in 1559 by the Roman Inquisition.  But Morata's husband sent Morata's surviving work to Celio Secondo Curione, who had been Fulvio Morato's friend and who had been one of Olympia's most dedicated supporters and a life-long correspondent.

An Italian humanist scholar, Curione had fled the Inquisition himself, eventually winding up at the University of Basel. Curione published Olympia Morata's collected work (in editions of 1558, 1562, 1570, and 1580): fifty-two letters (most written in Latin), two dialogues (in Latin), two declamations (in both Greek and Latin), eleven poems (eight in Greek and three in Latin), translations of seven Psalms (in Greek), and the first two stories of Boccaccio's Decameron (in Latin).

Curione's 1580 edition of
the works of Olympia Morata

For Haraguchi's essay, part of the University of Chicago's Italian Women Writers database, click here. An extended account of Morata's life and work, in addition to a complete edition of her texts, is Holt N. Parker's The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic

Jules Bonnet's full-length biography of Morata, The Life of Olympia Morata: An Episode of the Revival of Letters and of the Reformation in Italy, is dated in style and tone (it was originally published in 1854), but it is still a useful source. The biography is prefaced with an extended account of the Reformation in the Italian states, a geographical area not often considered by those reading about the Protestant Reformation. There is also an excellent contextual essay focusing on Renée of France and her daughter, Anna d'Este. And best of all? You can access the entire book via Google Books! (Click here.)