N.p., [Rome]: n.p. [Johann Beplin], n.d., 1512.
Quarto: 20.6 x 14.2 cm.  p. A6
Place, printer, and proposed date from Adams and CNCE. The author’s letter to the reader is dated 31 August, 1512 (“Pridie kal. Septembris M.D.XII.”). Modern limp vellum. A fresh copy with good margins and just a little light staining, the large 4-part woodcut title page border untrimmed. The white-on-black title border features grotteschi, urns, dolphins, cornucopiae, and scrolling vegetal motifs. Extremely rare. EDIT16 locates 4 copies in Italian institutions and 1 in Germany (Bayerische StaatsBibliothek.) OCLC adds 4 copies: Cambridge, Manchester, BN Paris, and Penn (the sole copy in North America). This is the sole edition.
Encomiastic poetry written to eulogize Imperia Cognati, the most celebrated courtesan of Rome and one of the most famous women of the Roman Renaissance, who died 15 August, 1512 at the age of 26. From humble origins Imperia rose to achieve fame, notoriety, and wealth. In her will, she left 50 ducats for the erection of her own marble tomb and bequeathed the majority of her estate -including the luxurious house in which she entertained her suitors- to her daughter, Lucrezia, to whom the courtesan had given birth at the age of fourteen. Before her death, Imperia renounced her sins. Pope Julius II himself gave the benediction at the penitent’s funeral.
From 1508 until her death, Imperia had been the lover of the richest man in Rome, the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, called “the Magnificent” (1466-1520). Imperia moved freely in Chigi’s circle, which included members of the court of Pope Julius II, with whom Chigi shared a strong bond. She interacted with and inspired some of the most renowned writers and artists of the day, among them Raphael, who painted a portrait of Imperia in the guise of Venus on the exterior wall of her house.
The poems in this volume were written at the urging of “Imperia’s bereaved lovers and those who worshipped her as a goddess.” Though they are not explicitly named, readers would have understood the foremost of those admirers to have been Chigi and Angelo del Bufalo, the latter of whom bestowed upon Imperia the house in which she entertained her suitors, including aristocrats and members of the clergy.
The author of the longest poem in this volume, the poet Giano Vitale (Palermo ca. 1485 - Rome 1560), studied Latin literature at Naples and Bologna before coming to Rome, where in 1510 he was accepted into the literary academy of Johannes Goritz (known as Coricio). His poem in praise of Imperia was a great success, earning Vitale entry into the prestigious Accademia Romana. Through Chigi he entered into the orbit of the papacy and would go on to write verses praising and eulogizing numerous popes, from Julius II to Julius III.
In 33 Latin distichs, Vitale celebrates Imperia’s grace and beauty, and her redemption through repentance. The God Mercury consoles the Roman people, who grieve Imperia’s death, assuring them that, having disavowed the sins of her life, Imperia had escaped damnation.
The title page bears an epigram by another member of Chigi’s circle, Blosio Palladio (Biagio Pallai), who earlier in 1512 had composed a poem celebrating Chigi’s Villa Farnesina. Palladio is also -by tradition- believed to have been one of Imperia’s lovers. In six distichs, the poet tells us that the divinities bestowed upon the Romans two extraordinary gifts: Mars gave them an empire (Imperium) and Venus gave them Imperia. As the Romans mourned the fall of the empire, so Imperia’s contemporaries mourned her death. Palladio’s final distich is succinct and poignant: “They lost the world; we lost our hearts.”
The volume includes a second long elegy (35 distichs), “Elegia in mortae Imperiae” by the German émigré poet Caius Silvanus Germanicus (Georgius Sylvanus of Silesia), another of the young humanist poets associated with the academy of Johannes Goritz. Although his poem has strong affinities with Vitale’s, Germanicus adds a new dimension to the theme of divine abduction by drawing Pope Julius II into the narrative.
Imperia Cognati was born in Rome, in via Alessandrina, near the church of S. Maria in Traspontina, in the Borgo district, on 3 August 1486. Her mother was Diana di Pietro Cognati; her father, of whom little is known, was known by the surname De Paris. At 14, Imperia gave birth to a daughter, Lucrezia, the identity of whose father has been debated. G.L. Moncallero offers a convincing -if disturbing- hypothesis, arguing from the available evidence that Lucrezia’s father was Paolo Trotti, who lived with Imperia’s mother (see Moncallero, “Imperia de Paris nella Roma del Cinquecento e I Suoi Cantori Funebri”, 1962).
“It was presumably after the birth of her daughter that Imperia became a courtesan. Fascinating, intelligent, equipped with refined manners and a certain degree of literary education, she soon became one of the premier Roman courtesans. In her home she hosted intellectuals, artists, and men of letters, whom she inspired to exercise -on various levels- their talents: Sadoleto, Filippo Beroaldo the younger, Angelo Colocci, Evangelista ‘Fausto’ Maddaleni Capodiferro, Antonio Lelli, Tommaso Inghirami, Camillo Porcari, Bernardino Capella, Marcantonio Casanova, Blosio Palladio, Alessandro Alessandrini and others, many of whom sang her praises -and sometimes denigrated her- in life and in death.
“Imperia was protected by Chigi and Angelo Del Bufalo, for whose sake it was said that she would kill herself. She first lived in a house in Borgo, on the exterior of which Raphael painted Imperia as Venus. However, from at least 1506 she lived in another house, owned by Del Bufalo. The magnificence and richness of this house, which was described by the novelist Matteo Bandello, who visited Rome in 1506, were remarkable. It was lavishly furnished with carpets, tapestries, and very fine furniture. In a private room with cornices in gold and ultramarine, where Imperia entertained noble men, there was a table with musical instruments, and finely bound books in Latin and Italian. Bandello tells us that Imperia delighted in composing madrigals and sonnets, skills that she learned from Niccolò Campana, called Strascino.
“Imperia died on 15 August 1512, and while some seemed to hint that it was poison which led to her death, Pietro Aretino affirmed that she ‘died well, rich and in her house, and well-honored’.
“Two days earlier she had made her will. In it, after having expressed the desire to be buried in the church of S. Gregorio al Monte Celio, she designated as universal heir her daughter Lucrezia, ‘virginem castam et pudicam’, who was then at the monastery of the nuns of S. Maria in Campomarzio, except for 100 ducats bequeathed to her mother. Among her appointed executors was Agostino Chigi. In her will she stipulated that her tomb -for which she set aside 50 gold ducats- was to be built in San Gregorio on the Caelian Hill. She was indeed interred there but her body was later moved, and the monument has not survived. In the church, she is memorialized by an inscription: ‘Imperia, Roman courtesan who, worthy of such a great name, offered a rare example of beauty for mankind. She lived for twenty-six years and twelve days and died in the year 1512, on August 15th.’ Among the poems composed in her honor, Vitale’s ‘Imperiae panaegyricus’ is among the best. It exalts the beauty and grace of the courtesan, redeemed by repentance before her death.
“In five of the ten surviving documents relating to Imperia or in which she is named she is called Imperia Cognati or Imperia di Pietro Cognati, while in the other five Imperia de Paris or Paridis; of the latter group, however, only her will (dated August 13, 1512) was drawn up while she was alive, all the others after her death. It would therefore seem that Imperia used -and was known by- her mother’s surname. Historians have often given her the name of Lucrezia, which she allegedly changed at some point to Imperia. But Lucrezia was, in fact, the name of her daughter, to whom Imperia gave birth when she was only fourteen years old.”(Franca Petrucci, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Vol. 26)
Gian Vitale’s “Panegyric for Imperia”:
In his introductory epistle, Vitale tells us that he has written his poem to please Imperia’s lovers and those who worshipped the courtesan as a goddess. He constructs his poem accordingly, creating an elaborate myth in which a smitten Jupiter sweeps Imperia up to heaven, where she becomes a goddess who will watch over young lovers from the skies. In turn, those lovers will light incense at her tomb.
The poem opens with the god Mercury extolling Imperia as the “new goddess of Latium”, who in death has taken her place among the stars, joining Andromeda, Ariadne, Ganymede, Hercules, and countless heroes and heroines.
A huntress to rival Diana, she stalked the woods of Latium with her nymphs. When the river god Tiber beheld her, his crystalline waters came to a standstill. The god bid Imperia lay aside her bow, for she was destined to rise to the heavens with Jupiter, where together with Mars she would protect the people of Latium. Having delivered his prophesy, Tiber flowed onward toward the sea, leaving an astonished Imperia -abandoned by her startled nymphs- alone by the banks of the river.
Now Jupiter, enthralled by Imperia’s physical beauty and bearing, sends Mercury to bring Imperia to him on Olympus. Juno, enraged, rehearses Jupiter’s past infidelities, unleashes winds and hail, causing earthquakes and floods.
Jupiter, hearing the clamor, clears the sky with his thunderbolt. Thwarted, Juno rues her lot. As she failed to keep Aeneas from the shores of Italy, so too she has failed to keep Imperia from heaven. Imperia’s spirit rises to the heavens, where she shines in the constellation of Cancer and, together with Jupiter, drinks celestial nectar.
In the earthly realm, the people of Rome discover Imperia’s lifeless body, lying on a bed of gold, and weep. “As a tiger weeps for her children born on the hills of Hyrcania and calls them with her weeping, so we weep in Rome”. They carry her to the tomb and placed delicate wreaths of flowers on her coffin. The youth, “who follow sweet Cupid”, burn incense on fragrant fires.
The image of Imperia’s ascent to heaven on a cloud is purely pagan but her apotheosis symbolizes her Christian salvation. In her last agony, the courtesan disavowed her past life, and thereby “broke the weapons of the very god of the Inferno”.
Germanicus’ “Elegy upon the Death of Imperia”:
The mythological theme of divine abduction and mortal sorrow is carried over into the laudatory verses that precede Vitale’s poem, written by Caius Silvanus Germanicus. Germanicus compares his fellow poet to Orpheus, and asserts that if Vitale had been present when Hades abducted Persephone, he would have rescued her and reunited her with her mother. The image of Vitale as a type of Orpheus is also found in two shorter poems in the volume. Alessandro de Alessandrini calls Vitale’s poem Imperia’s “second life” while in Domenico Lelio’s poem, Vitale helps Jupiter win Imperia away from Hades by singing.
In his elegy for Imperia, Germanicus addresses those who believe that no one who has lived badly can achieve salvation by renouncing their previous actions in the last moments of life. For it was Jupiter himself who conveyed Imperia to heaven. On the day Imperia died, 15 August 1512, Rome experienced a freak hailstorm. Germanicus asserts that the hail was actually Jupiter, disguising himself in order to abduct yet another mortal woman, just as he had transformed himself into a shower of gold when to ensnare Danaë (in Vitale’s poem, it is Juno who causes the hailstorm.)
In another departure from Vitale, the youth who mourn Imperia at her tomb do not weep, for they are confident that she does not lie lifeless within. They chisel an inscription on her tomb to that effect:
“Rome believes that under this marble slab Imperia lies hidden. But Rome is deceived. Jove has elevated her to heaven as a new constellation between the two bears, from where she guides the Roman fleets across the sea, just as the bears guide the Greeks and Sidonians.” The reference to Roman fleets would have pleased Chigi, whose own fleet of merchant ships plied international waters. Chigi also financed Julius II’s fleet for his wars in the East.
Germanicus’ poem then takes an unexpected turn. Elevating Imperia to the heavens was not Jupiter’s initial objective. Jupiter had caught sight of the Vatican from Olympus and was struck with admiration for New Saint Peter’s Basilica (at that point under construction for only six years). He descended to earth and sought out its architect, Pope Julius II, “on whom”, says Jupiter, “Olympus could confidently rely and who is capable of imposing laws on the gods [and is] worthy of launching, in my stead, the burning lightning and, together with me, to rule, on a par, my kingdoms.” Venus feared that Jupiter would take Julius, whom Rome sorely needed, with him to heaven. Jupiter relented and, catching sight of Imperia, chose to take her with him in Julius’ stead. The implication is striking. Imperia Cognati, a courtesan, and in the estimation of the King of Olympus, second only to God’s representative on Earth.
Adams V 893; BM STC Italian, 1465-1600, p. 734; Penn only in North America.