Vittoria Colonna 1492-1547
Colonna is the best-known female poet of the Italian Renaissance. Until the late twentieth century Colonna was better known for her associations with famous contemporaries, such as the artist Michelangelo and the humanist poet Pietro Bembo, than she was for her poetry. Since the mid-twentieth century critics have paid greater attention to Colonna's literary talents, as displayed in her Rime (1538) and in her letters to Michelangelo and others. While Colonna's poetry is conventional in style, relying heavily on Petrarchan forms, it nevertheless displays her mastery of language and forceful imagery. Her Neoplatonic philosophical and theological interests figure prominently in her literary works. Colonna was admired by some of the most respected intellectual, literary, and religious scholars of her day for her Christian piety, gracious personality, and her merits as an artist. Michelangelo called her his “sun of suns” and credited her strength for lifting him closer to God. Colonna is also widely admired by modern European scholars and is gaining world-wide critical acclaim as one of the most extraordinary female voices of the Renaissance.
Colonna was born in 1492, to Fabrizio Colonna, the grand constable of Naples, and Agnese da Montefeltro. In 1509 she married Ferrante Francesco d'Avalos, Marquis of Pescara, a Neapolitan nobleman of Spanish origin and one of the chief generals of Emperor Charles V. They spent most of their married life apart while d'Avalos participated in military campaigns abroad, and they produced no children. D'Avalos was wounded in the battle of Pavia, and died shortly thereafter, in 1525. After her husband's death Colonna devoted herself entirely to religion and writing poetry—often focusing on her late husband—and took up residence in the Convent of San Silvestro in Rome, although she did not join the order. From San Silvestro she entertained visitors, such as Bembo, Michelangelo, and the poet Bernardo Tasso. Colonna was also in contact with those involved in both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. She was kept within the limits of orthodoxy by the influence of her friend and spiritual mentor, the English Cardinal Reginald Pole. She was, however, investigated during the Roman Inquisition in the early 1540s due to her earlier support of the apostate Bernadino Ochino. She became ill in early 1547 and died not long after, with Michelangelo at her side. After her death he wrote a series of sonnets regarding his loss, one of which declares that on her death “Nature, that never made so fair a face, / Remained ashamed, and tears were in all eyes.”
Colonna's works were first circulated in manuscript form within her circle of acquaintances. Her first published collection, Rime, was widely admired by her contemporaries and became a popular success—more than twenty editions of her poems appeared in the sixteenth century alone. The Rime is composed of about 400 poems, commonly divided into the rime amorose (love poems), the rime spirituali (spiritual poems), and the rime epistolari (epistolary poems). The rime amorose, written after the death of d'Avalos, present an idealized portrait of Colonna's spouse. He is depicted as a great and noble warrior, and her love for him takes on a spiritual quality. In her later religious poems, the rime spirituali, Colonna focuses on divine love, with the figure of Christ replacing d'Avalos. Throughout her poetry, Colonna's interest in Neoplatonism is evident; she describes the soul's ascent to the Good and the search for perfection through divine love. Though conventional in its imitation of the techniques used by the Italian poet Petrarch, Colonna's work displays originality in its use of Neoplatonic imagery. Colonna's letters, written to some of the most important figures of her time, are important to historians as well as literary scholars, as they reveal much about the social attitudes of Colonna and her contemporaries.
Colonna was widely admired in her own day, and she continues to enjoy a reputation, especially among European scholars, as one of the Italy's greatest women writers. For many years Colonna was esteemed more for her personality and association with famous male figures than as a poet. By the middle of the twentieth century critics, however, began to pay close attention to the poetic merits of her work. Current scholars are especially interested in examining how the events in her life and her philosophical beliefs are expressed in her poetry, how she uses conventional techniques in innovative ways, how she portrays women in her work, and how she has been represented in a male-authored literary canon. Critics also continue to devote attention to Colonna's personality and unique place in Italian literary history, exploring her relationships with her notable friends and considering the extent of her involvement with the Counter-Reformation. Colonna scholarship in English has historically been limited due to the lack of translations of her work, but there is growing interest in her poetry and the sense of female identity she offers in a literary canon dominated by men.