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.
Rime [revised edition 1539] (poetry collection) 1538
Rime [edited by Pietro Ercole Visconti] (poetry collection) 1840
Rime e lettere [edited by E. Saltini] (collection) 1860
Lettere inedite [edited by Giuseppe Piccioni] (correspondence) 1875
Carteggio [edited by Ermano Ferrero and Giuseppe Müller] (correspondence) 1889
The “In Memoriam” of Italy: A Century of Sonnets from the Poems of Vittoria Colonna (poetry collection) 1894
Sonetti in morte di Francesco Ferrante d'Avalos Marchese di Pescara [edited by Tobia R. Toscano] (poetry collection) 1982
G. K. Brown (essay date 1933)
SOURCE: Brown, G. K. “Vittoria Colonna.” Italy and the Reformation to 1550, pp. 235-39. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1933.
[In the following excerpt, Brown considers the events surrounding Colonna's life and her religious attitudes, claiming that she was interested in Lutheranism only insofar as it denounced the ecclesiastical abuses of the Catholic Church, and that the poet could in no way have been regarded a heretic.]
Vittoria Colonna, who was a close friend of the great Italian painter and sculptor, Michelangelo, went through an experience similar to that of other noble ladies of the time. … Widowed at thirty-three years of age in 1525, she was, … attracted towards the close study and practice of piety. This instinct for religious things was inherited from her mother who was a model pilgrim and subjected herself to the strictest austerities. These practices Vittoria imitated with such fervour as to cause the intervention of her trusted adviser, Cardinal Pole, who urged moderation. She decided to visit the Holy Land, and secured a brief, dated March 3rd, 1537, authorising her to undertake a journey of whose hazardous nature she was reminded in the brief itself. If the project did not materialize, it must not be assumed that a change in her religious inclinations had taken place. She continued to avow her sincere attachment to the Holy See,1 although she now claimed in the face of Pole's opposition the right to examine the teaching of the Church. It was all in vain that her spiritual adviser requested her to “confine herself within the limits which were imposed on her sex.”2
Hence, we find her pursuing the path trodden by Luther and Valdés; moving from an intense personal conviction outwards to the conception of a purified Church. She shared with others, fervent ecclesiastics and laymen, the ardent desire for the abolition of abuses, the Catholic reform of the Church. This made her seek those whose ideals were similar to her own, and whilst not in any way severing herself from Pole, she found other friends in Morone, Flaminio, Ochino, Priuli, and Vermigli. Two of these became distinguished apostates, and all alike were viewed with suspicion at Rome. Vittoria had dealings with the most heterodox and the most orthodox. She was, besides being greatly interested in the Cappuccini, greatly fascinated by the Order's famous General, Ochino, whom she evidently gave some grounds for hoping that she would not be unfriendly to him when his defection took place. She was also on the most intimate terms with Carnesecchi, Marguerite of Navarre, Giulia Gonzaga, and Caterina Cibo. It is therefore small wonder that towards the end of her life the Holy See not only considered her as a heretic but also as a propagator of the seeds of heresy.
It is unfortunate that such writers as M'Crie were unable to gain access to the documents which since his time have come to light. In one of the most famous of these, the “Estratto del Processo” of Carnesecchi, there is some light thrown upon Vittoria's position. No one knew her better than the Protonotary, who says of her: “the marchessa...
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Eva Maria Jung (essay date 1951)
SOURCE: Jung, Eva-Maria. “Vittoria Colonna: Between Reformation and Counter-Reformation.” The Review of Religion 15, Numbers 3-4 (March, 1851): 144-59.
[In the following essay, Jung argues that Colonna's importance lies in her religious personality and moral perfection, rather than by her skill as a writer or her connections to important figures in art and literature.]
Vittoria Colonna was called “divine” already during her own lifetime. Michelangelo said of her that she was “a man—nay, a god in a woman.”1 This idealization of her was handed down uncritically by succeeding centuries, like an old ikon bequeathed by one generation to another, and...
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Ronald H. Bainton (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: Bainton, Ronald H. “Vittoria Colonna.” In Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, pp. 201-18. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1971.
[In the following essay, Bainton surveys Colonna's life and career, examining how she gives voice in her experiences, as well as discussing her friendship with Michelangelo, and exploring her Christian faith and reaction to the Roman Inquisition.]
Vittoria Colonna is best known of all the Italian women treated here because of the inspiration which she afforded to Michelangelo. That inspiration was religious, and her religion must be understood before the subject can be approached. She was another of the high born...
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Dennis J. McAuliffe (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: McAuliffe, Dennis J. “Vittoria Colonna and Renaissance Poetics, Convention and Society.” In II Rinascimento: Aspetti e Problemi Attuali, edited by Konrad Eisenbichler and Olga Zorzi Pugliese, pp. 531-41. Firenze: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1982.
[In the following essay, McAuliffe discusses the aesthetic assessments made of Colonna's poetry and the different criteria used for evaluation by Renaissance and modern reader. He also considers her use of conventional techniques, and concludes that Colonna's poetry reveals a depth of critical understanding even as it relies on established rules of composition.]
Vittoria Colonna is far better known as an historical...
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Dennis J. McAuliffe (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: McAuliffe, Dennis J. “Neoplatonism in Vittoria Colonna's Poetry: From the Secular to the Divine.” In Ficino and Renaissance Platonism, pp. 101-12. Ottawa, Canada: Dovehouse Editions, 1986.
[In the following essay, McAuliffe examines the cultural, intellectual, and emotional environment in which Colonna wrote her poetry, maintaining that Colonna's Neoplatonic theological and philosophical preoccupations were the media through which she filtered her experiences.]
In this discussion of Neoplatonism in Vittoria Colonna's poetry I describe, first of all, the cultural, intellectual, and emotional circumstances in which these influences first manifest themselves....
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Joseph Gibaldi (essay date 1987)
SOURCE: Gibaldi, Joseph. “Vittoria Colonna: Child, Woman, and Poet.” In Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, edited by Katharina M. Wilson, pp. 22-46. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Gibaldi presents an overview of Colonna's life and career, discussing her relationship with other famous figures or her time, the reaction to her poetry by her contemporaries, and the general subjects, themes, and imagery found in her poetry.]
Ludovico Ariosto devotes one of his most famous digressions in Orlando Furioso to the many excellent women writers of his age—those who abandoned the needle and cloth and joined...
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Rinaldina Russell (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: Russell, Rinaldina. “The Mind's Pursuit of the Divine: A Survey of Secular and Religious Themes in Vittoria Colonna's Sonnets.” Forum Italicum 26, No. 1 (Spring, 1992): 14-27.
[In the following essay, Russell considers a pattern in Colonna's poems of moving upward from a sorrowful condition towards a sublime state of peace, understanding, and connection with the divine.]
Since the earliest publications Vittoria Colonna's poetry was organized in two distinct groups: the Pirogallo's edition of 1538, which gathered he poems in remembrance and praise of her husband, Ferrante d'Avalos, and the Valgrisi edition of 1547, which brought to light the poetry...
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Fiora A. Bassanese (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Bassanese, Fiora A. “Vittoria Colonna.” In Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Rinaldina Russell, pp. 85-94. Wesport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Bassanese offers a brief biography of Colonna and examines the Petrarchan styles and themes in her poetry—including memory, the ideas of Neoplatonism, and Christian spirituality—and surveying the response to her work by critics in the twentieth century.]
In her life and in her writing, Vittoria Colonna embodied the ideals of noble Renaissance womanhood: chastity, honor, decorum, gravity, and piety. Acclaimed in life, she...
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Fiora A. Bassanese (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Bassanese, Fiora A. “Vittoria Colonna, Christ and Gender.” Il Veltro 40, nos. 1-2 (1996): 53-57.
[In this essay, published in an abridged version in 1996, but never before published in the complete version below, Bassanese explores the influence of cultural and literary gender norms on Colonna's interpretation of herself in her poems on love and spirituality.]
Vittoria Colonna, woman and poet, ideally suited Renaissance taste. Her unimpeachable virtue, talent, noble blood, and equally noble spirit distinguished her from other great ladies, making her the living embodiment of a cultural ideal. This elevation of Colonna to a paragon of femininity is in...
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Dennis J. McAuliffe (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: McAuliffe, Dennis J. “The Language of Spiritual Renewal in the Poetry of Pre-Tridentine Rome: The Case of Vittoria Colonna as Advocate for Reform.” II Veltro 40, Nos. 1-2 (1996): 196-99.
[In the following essay, McAuliffe argues that Colonna's calls for reform of the Church may have been more pointed than acknowledged by previous critics, showing evidence in several of her sonnets.]
Carlo Ossola has written eloquently about Vittoria Colonna's spirituality in his introduction to Juan de Valdés' Lo Evangelio di San Matteo (Roma: Bulzoni, 1985, pp. 82 ff.). His concern is the expression of Valdesian spirituality in her Canzoniere. He calls it an...
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Sara M. Adler (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Adler, Sara M. “Strong Mothers, Strong Daughters: The Representation of Female Identity in Vittoria Colonna's Rime and Carteggio.” Italica: Journal of the American Association of Teachers of Italian 77, No. 3 (Autumn, 2000): 311-30.
[In the following essay, Adler argues that Colonna's poems and letters reveal pride in her gender and an intention portray it favorably. Adler also shows how Colonna presents attractive images of herself and other women, and examines how her positive sense of female identity serves as a model for contemporary women writers.]
In her essay “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” Joan Kelly answers her question in the...
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Rinaldina Russell (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Russell, Rinaldina. “Vittoria Colonna's Sonnets on the Virgin Mary.” In Maria Vergine nella Letteratura Italiana, edited by Florinda M. Iannace, pp. 125-37. Stony Brook, NY: Forum Italicum Publishing, 2000.
[In the following essay, Russell examines the sonnets on the Virgin Mary found in the 1546 edition of Colonna's religious verse and finds them interesting because of their Christocentric character and sympathy to the doctrines of religious reformers.]
Vittoria Colonna's sonnets celebrating the Virgin Mary are of two-fold interest. For the scholar of literature they are a significant although minor aspect of Colonna's literary production; for the...
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Jerrold, Maud F. Vittoria Colonna: With Some Account of Her Friends and Times. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1906, 336 p.
Full-length biography of Colonna that admires her gentleness, love of wisdom, and mysticism.
Roscoe, Mrs. Henry. Vittoria Colonna: Her Life and Times. London: MacMillan and Company, 1868, 371 p.
First book-length biography of Colonna in English; includes translations of selected poems.
Bullock, Alan. “Three New Poems by Vittoria Colonna.” Italian Studies 24 (1969): 44-54.
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