Colonna, Vittoria (1490-1547)

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Vittoria Colonna, certainly the most renowned and successful woman writer of her age in Italy, was widely admired by her peers for her impeccable Petrarchan verses and her public image of unimpeachable chastity and piety. Her work went through numerous sixteenth-century editions, but these tailed off after the 1560s and subsequent editorial neglect belies her status at the forefront of literary production by secular women in the Renaissance.

Born into the powerful Roman Colonna clan in 1490 (some sources say 1492), second child of Fabrizio Colonna and Agnese di Montefeltro, Colonna was betrothed at a very young age to Francesco Ferrante D'Avalos, the Marquis of Pescara, in a political manoeuvre that established an alliance between the Colonna and the Spanish throne of King Ferdinand D'Aragona. The marriage was celebrated in 1509 on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, and the couple briefly resided together in the Neapolitan countryside before D'Avalos left on the first of the many military campaigns against the French that were to occupy him for the rest of his life. Colonna herself returned to Ischia, to the court presided over by her aunt by marriage, Costanza D'Avalos, where the well-stocked library and lively court environment probably helped to encourage her own literary aspirations. A single poetic 'Epistle' to her husband, written during his imprisonment by the French in 1512, is all that survives of Colonna's poetry from this early period, but she is cited with enough frequency by contemporary Neapolitan writers to suggest that her work was already enjoying some significant scribal publication in and around Naples, if not further afield.

Her husband's almost constant absence from home, as well as his reputation for valour and heroism in battle, appear to have provided Colonna with the necessary contexts of loss and longing required by the Petrarchan format. This was reinforced in 1525, when D'Avalos died from injuries sustained at the battle of Pavia, and it is no accident that Colonna's activity and fame as a poet grew exponentially from this date. Widowed, independently wealthy, and childless, she retreated into a convent in Rome as a secular guest and resisted all attempts by her family and the pope to arrange a second marriage. The emphasis in her work on spirituality and the contemplative life was reinforced by the chaste and pious persona she promoted publicly, and aided no doubt by her wealth and aristocratic status, she was able to formulate a literary voice which commanded considerable respect whilst preserving the necessary gender decorum.

Colonna's poetry is stylistically impeccable, drawing on the Petrarchan linguistic and imitative models recommended by Pietro Bembo and others in the period, but also, particularly in the more mature work, rich, sensuous and innovative in ways that may surprise the uninitiated reader. Although the earlier, so-called 'amorous' poems are more traditionally Petrarchan in their emphasis on loss and longing for the deceased consort, later 'spiritual' sonnets embrace instead a far more positive celebration of divine love for Christ which is flavoured significantly by the poet's personal interest in the ideas and doctrines of reform.

A first edition of Colonna's Rime was published in 1538, and was followed by twelve further published editions before the poet's death in 1547. A particular feature of this publication history is Colonna's personal distance from all editions of her work that appeared during her lifetime, so that she was able to maintain that her writing was in no way related to any desire for personal fame or acclaim (although this claim is perhaps undermined by the large number of manuscript collections of the sonnets that were also in circulation during the period). A further nine editions of the Rime were published before the end of the sixteenth century, when interest in the genre and its practitioners waned. Since then, attention to the poetry has been sporadic, and serious critical consideration has often been undermined by the tendency towards overly biographical readings of these highly stylised and complex verses.

Colonna's published work is not limited to poetry. She also composed prose works on religious themes, initially as letters, but which were later published in collections of prose meditations and in separate editions. These prose writings demonstrate clearly her interest in religious reform, as well as a concerted attempt to define a role for the secular literary female that draws on the examples of the female 'apostles' who appear in the New Testament and in traditional hagiographies, most significantly the examples of Mary Magdalene, Catherine of Alexandria and the Virgin Mary.

Selected Bibliography:

  • Colonna, Vittoria (2005). Sonnets for Michelangelo. Edited and translated by Abigail Brundin. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Cox, Virginia (2005). "Women writers and the canon in sixteenth-century Italy: the case of Vittoria Colonna." In Strong Voices, Weak History: Early Women Writers and Canons in England, France, and Italy, ed. Pamela J. Benson and Victoria Kirkham. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Dizionario biografico degli italiani. Rome: Istituto dell'Enciclopedia Italiana, 1960-.
  • Ferino-Pagden, Silvia, ed. (1997). Vittoria Colonna: Dichterin und Muse Michelangelos. Catalogue to the exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 25 Feb. - 25 May 1997. Vienna: Skira.
  • Rabitti, Giovanna (2000). "Vittoria Colonna as role model for Cinquecento women poets." In Women in Italian Renaissance Culture and Society, ed. Letizia Panizza, 478-97. Oxford: European Humanities Research Centre.
  • Russell, Rinaldina (1992). "The Mind's Pursuit of the Divine. A Survey of Secular and Religious Themes in Vittoria Colonna's Sonnets." Forum Italicum 26: 14-27.
Submitted by Abigail Brundin, University of Cambridge, 2005.

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