In an account of her stay in Florence in 1785, Hester Lynch Piozzi (Samuel Johnson’s adored correspondent) singled out special praise for two women famous in that city for reciting, spontaneously, perfectly shaped verses on any given subject. One of these, Corilla Olimpica (not her real name) had been crowned with laurel in Rome, only the third poet laureate in modern history, and the first female so crowned. A younger woman, Fortunata Fantastici (her real name), achieved celebrity status singing and reciting intuitively in rhyme. She toured the country, playing crowded salons and some of the nicer theaters. A third improvising poet, Teresa Bandettini, was Fortunata’s younger friend and professional rival, and Corilla’s designated successor. She transported her audiences by dancing as she composed poetry on the spot, dressed in Grecian gauze.
These three, and other extempore poets of both genders, seemed to British travelers of the Romantic age to present the very embodiment of poetic afflatus, of the spirit that sings unimpeded through the poet the way the wind sings through the Aeolian harp. They performed with the emotional intensity of the creative moment on full display in pursuit of a sort of freedom, a pursuit that has endured through several art forms into modern times.
The canon left them out. Their improvisations were criticized for not holding up to scrutiny, and the small amount of work that they published simply failed to appeal to the changing tastes of the 19th century. The University of Chicago maintains a substantial collection of Teresa Bandettini, otherwise their works are scarce in most North American and British libraries.
When Maria Maddalena Morelli Fernandez (Pistoia, 1727-Florence, 1800), known as Corilla Olimpica in Arcadia, was crowned Poet Laureate before the Pope on the Capitoline Hill in Rome in 1776, the Italian literary world cracked in half. Corilla’s gender was an issue. Many honored members of the Arcadian Academy quit the order and formed their own group, the Academy of Strong Men. There followed reams of pamphlets and broadsides back and forth either defaming her or defending her. The author of one satirical drama about the coronation was arrested and condemned to death (but was released after just a few months in prison).
The fact remains that Corilla Olimpica was one of the most admired of the improvising poets who so fascinated Hester Piozzi and, later, Byron and the Shelleys. She lived the life of a rock star. She married briefly, then abandoned her husband and child to follow her muse into theaters and palaces, living off the patronage of the rich and famous. Casanova knew her, Mozart performed for her, the Hapsburg Empress Maria Teresa promoted her, and the poets and musicians of the day–Metastasio, Pindemonte, Zanotti, Nardini, and others–fought over her. It is traditional to mention that Corilla Olimpica was at least in part the model for the title character of Madame de Stael’s novel, Corinne.
Devoted to the spontaneity of the live performance, Corilla Olimpica published very little. A few sonnets appeared in ephemeral publications of the Arcadian Academy. A brief pamphlet of poetry dedicated to the Empress Maria Teresa was printed at Bologna in 1763, and the great printer Giambattista Bodoni of Parma printed a two-page sonnet of hers in praise of Cornelia Knight in 1794. These publications are extremely rare. Collectors of this poet must look to ephemera such as contemporary reviews, announcements, and the considerable body of argument surrounding her coronation.
Bodoni was one of her admirers. To commemorate the laurel coronation at the Capitol, Bodoni collected the orations and gratulatory verses delivered at the event and published them in 1789 as the Atti della solenne coronazione (Acts of the solemn coronation of … Corilla Olimpica; Fig. 1). Bodoni himself wrote the starstruck preface, signing it with his anagrammatic Arcadian name, Obindo Vagiennio. He also closed the volume with a laudatory sonnet of his own, one of very few known poems by the master printer. The last lines of the sonnet commend the printed book to Corilla with a Horatian sentiment, “it seems to me that from these printed leaves of paper a monument emerges more lasting than bronze or marble.”