Serena Baiesi (Università di Bologna)
Writers: Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s Response
Embodying freedom of expression in art and life, the figure of the Italian improvvisatrice exerted an important
influence on British women writers of the Romantic period. Extemporaneous authors such as Teresa Bandettini,
Fortunata Sulgher Fantastici and her daughter Massimina, and Corilla Olimpica were celebrated in Italy, as well as
in Britain, for their public performances and opened up new expressive possibilities for contemporary women
writers. This essay examines the phenomenon of the Italian improvvisatrici as models for British women writers,
and thus as an important source for the development of a female Romanticism in British literature. An initial re-
construction of the distinctive features of this popular figure in the Italian tradition provides an introduction to its
diffusion in British culture, where it flourished in narrative and fictional forms, rather than in practice. The differ-
ences, as well as the contacts, between the Italian and British traditions will be highlighted through references to
the figures of Corilla Olimpica, the inspiration for Madame de Staël’s Corinne, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon, who
often represented improvvisatrici in her poems, and whose methods of composition were frequently compared with
those of an extempore poet.
S’avvi chi porga al canto
Facile un argomento,
Ho il cantar talento
Il canto scioglierò.
Poiché render più grazie
Sarebbe cosa dura;
Dunque il pensier procura
Render altra mercé.1
The Italian improvvisatrici had a great influence on British women writers between the end of eighteenth and the middle of the nineteenth centuries. They embodied female freedom of expression in art and life. They were acknowledged in Italy, as well as in Britain, for their public performances, and became the heroines of a new European Romantic literature, especially that produced by women writers.2 By examining the Italian improvvisatrici as models of inspiration for British women writers, this essay seeks to identify this phenom-
1 ‘Come forth those who propose an easy topic for my song, I have the singing talent and so I will intone my song. Since it would be hard to give better thanks than these, so my thought will be left to a different mercy’. Teresa Bandettini, ‘Ringraziamento per un’Accademia datale’, in Alessandra Di Ricco, L’inutile e il meraviglioso mestiere: poeti improvvisatori di fine Settecento (Milan: Franco Angeli, 1990), p. 168 (all translations into Italian are mine, except where otherwise indicated).
2 One of the first studies on the literary figure of the improvvisatrice is Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1976), which dedicates an entire chapter to the myth of Corinne.