Jump to: navigation, search

Louisa Sigea, Spanish writer, c. 1520-1560

By Nieves Baranda, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid

Luisa Sigea was the most prominent woman humanist of the Spanish and Portuguese Renaissance, not only because of her extensive knowledge of Classical culture, but also because she wrote a long poem and a prose dialogue in Latin, plus several letters, and she was esteemed and admired by a good number of European scholars. Her memory and name, model for the highly educated woman, went beyond the Iberian boundaries to France, Italy and Germany where she was mentioned among other illustrious women, famous for their command of highbrow culture. Besides, she even managed to do what most women could not: earn her living through this professional erudition which made her conscious of her own value and of her similarity to the male scholars whom she considered her peers.

Luisa Sigea was born around 1520 probably in Tarancón (Cuenca province) or in Toledo, Spain. Her father, a person of utmost importance in her life, was French but he had studied in the recently founded Alcalá de Henares University, one of the most advanced centres in the study of Classical and Biblical languages, since the Biblia políglota ('Polyglot Bible'), written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, was produced there. After graduating, Diego Sigeo became the teacher of lady María Pacheco’s children in Toledo, and he married. All of his children were born before 1522, because that year the Comunero rebellion in Spain was quelled by royal forces and Lady Maria Pacheco, wife of one of the principal rebels, managed to flee to Portugal accompanied by some of her servants, Diego Sigeo being among them. He remained by her side until 1530 when he was appointed as teacher at the Duke of Bragança’s court.

It is not clear if the Sigeo family travelled to Portugal shortly after 1522, but Luisa states several times that she was educated by her father and other teachers, so we have reason to believe that his children moved to Portugal soon after he did and that he took charge of their teaching there. It was strange for women to receive an exquisite Classical education so Diego Sigeo had an objective in mind when he began teaching his daughters, Angela and Luisa, as well as his sons. It could be either to find a post in some court as Latin ladies, teachers or secretaries (he knew there were several of them at the Spanish court), or to get them a place in a convent where Latin was needed for prayer and liturgy and where a good command of music meant being admitted without dowry. He probably dedicated resources to his two daughter’s education with the royal court in mind, and they both became proficient musicians, even though Angela is said to have exceeded Luisa playing. They both knew Latin and Luisa learnt Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, as well as modern languages.

In order to make the most out of this extensive knowledge, in 1540 Luisa sends a letter written in Latin to Pope Paulus III. It is probably her father who impels her to do so, and it is an Italian humanist, Girolamo Britonio, who takes the letter to Rome. Sometime later he will write a description of Lisbon where he pictures Luisa as a beautiful woman playing at court and praises her poems, pointing at the elegance of her Latin and Greek verses (Vlysbonae Regiae Lusitaniae vrbis, Carmen, 1546). In 1542 Luisa becomes part of the Portuguese court service. She is mentioned in the Livros de moradía ('personnel registry') of Queen Caterina between 1543 and 1552 as “moça de câmara” ('chambermaid'), or as “donna Luisa de Sygea, latina” ('lady Luisa Sigea, latinist'). During that time her salary was of 16.000 reis per year, quite more than was paid to any of the other chambermaids (Joana Vaz received 10.000 reis in 1550), meaning that although she did not belong to the group of the noble ladies-in-waiting, her abilities were highly esteemed at court. She did not work for the Queen but she served her niece, Princess Maria of Portugal, daughter of King Manoel and one of the richest heiresses in Europe. In fact, her wealth became a State problem as it was difficult to pay the dowry and it could also mean giving advantage to a rival country, so despite several marriage negotiations (even with King Philip II of Spain) she never married and she lived in her own court surrounded by a refined retinue. In this privileged milieu, for a woman of her social origin, Luisa had unique opportunities to develop her capacities and to increase her learning, as well as to meet intellectuals, ambassadors, Church prelates, and to be known by them too, because Princess Maria’s court attracted them all and was a meeting place in Lisbon.

The court years were the most fruitful period in Luisa Sigea’s life as she was able to develop her intellectual prowess. In a letter to Philip II of Spain she asserts that she is Princess María’s Latin teacher, as Britonio stated, she can write and show off her poems, she has access to the royal library, and she has even been granted a leave from some of her duties in order to write one of her major works, the Dialogue. We must also consider the many relationships inherent to courtly life, as shown by her Latin letters to the Pope (1546, 1547), to the Papal Nuncio Pompeo Zambeccari (he had presented her with Vittoria Colonna’s poems), and to the Hungarian ambassador.

Her two major works were written during this period. In 1546 Philip II of Spain, once more a widower, is looking for a new bride and there are negotiations between the Portuguese and the Spanish courts. Sigea writes a small Latin poem, Syntra, dedicated to her mistress. She describes the Sintra forest (a place near Lisbon) where she meets a nymph emerging from a lake. This mythological being announces the future wedding of her mistress with a noble man with a sceptre ruling the world. Her second work, the Duarum virginum colloquium de vita aulica et private, written in 1553, is much more interesting and complex. The Colloquium is dedicated to the Princess. In the preface, Luisa shows her gratitude for the leave granted to her to write her work, for having a place to do it, and for the possibility of using the library ['musaeum'] and the best books in it. She declares that thanks to this and sleepless nights she has broadened her knowledge and concluded her work. The Latin Colloquium is a conversation between two girls, Blesilla and Flaminia, discussing whether courtly life or a life away from court is better. This was one of the dearest topics for the humanists: the debate on ways of life, bucolic values, and happiness. Although Sigea is worried about sources and classical quotations and does not include her own experience as part of the arguments, we must not forget that this work was written shortly before she married and left the Portuguese court to go to Spain. Her life, her doubts as well as her reflections, become a part of this highly stylized literary work.

In 1552 Luisa Sigea married Francisco de Cuevas and received 25.000 reis from her mistress. He belonged to a noble family from Burgos and was “ayuda de copa” ['cup valet'] to Queen Juana of Spain (Emperor Charles V’s mother, secluded because of her mental instability) in her Tordesillas palace. There is no information regarding how Luisa met her husband though there was frequent contact between the Spanish and Portuguese courts because both Royal families had narrow links and negotiations, and Philip II’s marriage had surely increased these relations. After marrying in 1552 she remained at court until 1555 when she moved back to Spain. When Queen Juana died that same year Luisa’s husband was free to move to his hometown, so the couple was reunited in Burgos. The following year, and until 1558, Francisco Cuevas became “secretario español” ['Spanish language secretary'] of Empress Maria of Hungary. He explains in a letter that he was told to serve the Queen of Hungary and the Queen of France (Maria of Hungary was Princess Maria of Portugal’s aunt, and the “Queen of France” was her mother, married to François I) “y que también sirviese Luisa Sigea, su mujer, por las habilidades que tiene y por haber enseñado a la Infanta de Portugal” [“and that his wife, Luisa Sigea, serve as well because of her abilities and because she had taught the Portuguese Princess”]. In August 1557 Sigea’s daughter is born and Luisa writes some letters to the Empress because, although she gets paid all the same, she cannot fulfil her duties for some time.

When the Queen of Hungary died, Luisa Sigea and her husband went to Burgos. From there she wrote letters to some notables asking for a job, at first either for her or her husband, and later only for herself. She was not successful. Nobody seemed to need a highly educated female scholar. In 1562 King Philip had married Elizabeth of Valois and her retinue was being established in Toledo, so Sigea was hoping to get a position there, which she never did. Living in Burgos, an important business centre, and leading a house-wife’s life probably made her feel dull. She considered herself a scholar, she was used to life at court and to being in the midst of an elegant and intellectual world, and now she missed it. Some of her last letters reflect a depressive mood. She died in 1562 not having returned to courtly life, the place where she could create her literary works, since after that moment she seems to have written only letters.

Luisa Sigea’s name became synonymous with ‘wise woman’ for Spanish scholars. Her father was patron to a late edition of the poem Syntra in Paris in 1566. This edition included in the paratexts her letter to Pope Paulus III dedicating him a copy of Syntra, as well as eulogistic poems to the book by Portuguese or Italian humanists: Jorge Coelho, Gaspar Barreiros, Girolamo Britonio, Andres Resende and Claudio Monselli. Besides these paratexts other books mentioned her as illustrious woman of great knowledge: Juan Vaseo (Chronici rerum memorabilium Hispaniae, Salamanca, 1552), Guillaume Postel (Tres-merveilleuses victoires des femmes, Paris, 1553), Andreas Schott (Hispaniae Bibliotheca, Frankfurt, 1603), Pietro Paolo di Ribera (Le glorie immortali de’ trionfi et heroiche imprese d’ottocento quarantacinque donne illustri, Venezia, 1609), among other Spanish and Portuguese authors. Nonetheless, these mentions seem to be based neither on the reading of her poem nor works (the Colloquium has only one manuscript copy) but on the feat of a woman sending a letter to the Pope written in five languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, and Arabic), so their most probable common origin is Postel, who was told by Pope Paulus III to write the answer to Luisa, as he states.

Luisa Sigea was an exceptional woman not only for her extensive knowledge but also because she considered herself a scholar. Her letters reflect some of the typical roles of the humanist amiability: she asks for advice but she also gives it to a younger woman; she presents herself proudly; she flatters the notables; and she writes emblems, conversations, or the end of love in solitude. After her time she became part of a national pantheon of wise women, in which names were used to demonstrate how cultivated and civilized a country was. This process turned those women into mere names and erased their real contributions and values in their culture.


  • L. Sigea, Duarum virginum colloquium de vita aulica et privata, translated to French by O. Sauvage, Dialogue de deux jeunes filles sur la vie de cour et la vie retraite (1552), París, Presses Universitaires de France, 1970.
  • M. R. Prieto Corbalán, Luisa Sigea. Epistolario latino, Madrid: Akal, 2007 (biography and translation of the Latin letters into Spanish)
  • L. Bourdon y O. Sauvage, “Recherches sur Luisa Sigea”, Bulletin des Études Portugaises, XXXI (1970), pp. 33-176 (biography and edition of the letters)
  • S. Thiemann, Vom Glück der Gelehrsamkeit. Luisa Sigea, humanistin im 16. Jahrhundert, Göttingen, Wallstein Verlag, 2006 (biography and study of the Colloquium)

More information and sources in: BIESES (Bibliography of Spanish Women Writers)

AsK October 2011

Personal tools