Who was Vittoria Colonna?

We take interest in the inevitably fragmented, contradictory, and changeable person, now visible, now hidden. Above all we take interest in the personality, the shadow or reflex the person sometimes produces for protection or as a challenge.

Little of her mesmerising individualism has been passed on. Extinguished by the Inquisition, Vittoria Colonna disappeared from the collective consciousness of Europe for three centuries.

Vittoria Colonna experienced a remake by history-painters, who, resorting to living models, positioned her - that is to say, a model - as Michelangelo’s Platonic mistress beside the maestro in Neo-Renaissance parlours with a madrigale by Michelangelo, not even a sonnet of her own, in her hand. She was stylised as a pale saint by prudish fin de siècle and demeaned as a “slavish” imitator of her poet-father Petrarca in the twentieth century and in recent exhibitions in Vienna and Florence she stayed as Michelangelo’s muse in the shadow of the genius, as if she was lacking an independent identity. 

Who was she really? No less than the female genius of Italian Renaissance.

Capitalising on her Humanist education, a novelty among female aristocrats in Renaissance Italy, she made intellectual self-fashioning her foremost aim in life. By breaking out of conventional ways of thinking – “her divine mind explored mental regions nobody had discovered so far” (Baldassare Castiglione) – Vittoria Colonna became the female genius of Italian Renaissance. Spurred on by an irresistible impulse to compete with contemporary poets, philosophers, theologians she corrected, enriched, complemented all male literary, philosophical, theological tenets that caught her attention, challenging male  abstractive thought from the viewpoint of a woman committed to the fullness of life.

Advocating religious subjectivity, Vittoria Colonna sided with those theologians of Italy, who, like Martin Luther, promoted justification in the face of God by inner faith alone against rigid scholasticism in the Official Church. Intuitively, she recognised that Reformed Theology based on religious feeling was in need of poetical transfer. As a highly gifted poetess she gave utterance to the new religiousness by composing sonnets instead of prayers. However, the poetess should not be regarded as the mouthpiece of the reform theologians she befriended. Vittoria, a self-reliant female intellectual, is rather a subtly differentiating interpreter of the doctrine of the Spirituali, constantly measuring their doctrine by her own subjectivity, than their reproducing alumna.

On eye-level, the proud Humanist confronted God. Schooled in rational thinking, she profiled herself as a daring critic of rigid dogmatism and challenged Christian myths with breath-taking audacity. From humane ethical principles she defied a godfather, who imposed crucifixion on his innocent son.

As the only daughter of Principe Fabrizio Colonna and Agnese di Montefeltro held in high social esteem, moreover, as the wife of Ferrante d’Avalos, Marchese de Pescara, the great Spanish general of noble Castilian descent, a paragon of loyalty  to his liege lord Emperor Charles V, who gained fame all over Europe as the glorious hero of the battle of Pavia, Vittoria enjoyed  spectacular  performances  in ostentatious Renaissance society, even though she made her splendid appearances mostly on her own without her handsome husband, whom she loved passionately, whereas Ferrante, a womaniser, betrayed his wife in countless amours, pardoning himself, because his wife had been imposed on him in a politically enforced marriage.  

Vittoria made the best of it, obviously enjoying her social status, since she signed all her letters, even the personal ones as “Marchesa de Pescara”.  Although she loved exercising power and created her personal myth, everybody, according to Paolo Giovio, was enthralled with her moral integrity and genuine kindness, her grace, her wit, and personal charm. 

Vittoria’s feminism was Humanist. Capitalising on the movements of Renaissance-Humanism and reformed theology, she demanded human dignity for women and initiated a female renaissance, aiming at intellectual and emotional liberation of women by articulating and overriding oppressive taboos imposed on women by their patriarchs. For instance she got rid of the coercion of widows to mourn in silence. As the first revolting widow, she cried out her pain in her sonnets, her desperation, suicidal temptation, depression, fury, frustrated lust for life, her isolation in an unnatural existence. 

Again, as the first woman in Italian Renaissance, she arrogated the male privilege of love poetry. From a negotiable marital object she mutated into a woman who claimed falling in love as her female right and expressed her longing for her absent, then dead, husband in audacious female love poetry.

First Lady in Renaissance Italy

The eclectic presentation of Vittoria Colonna in secondary literature (twentieth century) offers the reader prismatic   travesties of  Vittoria Colonna, as if she had only been the Platonic mistress of Michelangelo or the poetess of Italian reformation or a saint or a “secularised nun”. These eclectic approaches pigeonhole the complexity of her female genius.

It is in this biographical study that, for the first time, the attempt was taken to offer a live presentation of the outstanding female personality of Italian Renaissance in her unique complexity on the basis of all primary sources.

Only as a widow and in spite of her withdrawal from society after the premature death of her husband (1525), Vittoria Colonna became the First Lady of Renaissance Italy, who exchanged letters with all important literates, theologians, philosophers, all of them being admirers of her “male brains.”  

Which other woman disposed of such an extensive network of relations to important male personalities of her age? She exchanged letters with Emperor Charles V who held her in high esteem, with the Prince of Orange, the commander-in-chief of the imperial armies, with the dukes of Mantova and Ferrara, with all poets, the ill-reputed ones, too, above all with the literary pundits, with Baldassare Castiglione who adored her as “divine”. Pietro Bembo and the poetess became pen pals, who flirted with each other, sparkling with wit and irony.

She sought the friendship of the outstanding reform theologians, who accepted her, as the only woman, in their exclusive spiritual circle at Viterbo. She was close with Gasparo Contarini, one of the great cardinals of the Roman Church in human as well as in intellectual and spiritual respects. In her twelve letters, maintained, because they had been confiscated by the Inquisition, to her “dolcissimo” Morone, the great politician of the papal Curia, Nuncio in Germany  in the heated phase of the Reformation, whose humanity she profiled in an empathetic portrait,  and last but not least with Cardinal Reginald Pole, the cousin of the English King  Henry VIII, and later on Archbishop of Canterbury, who chose her as his substitute mother after his natural mother had been executed by the hangmen of Henry VIII.

For her political and administrative abilities Pope Clement VII nominated her as his governess in the riotous papal town of Benevent, a difficult task she mastered better than her male predecessors.

All her contemporaries praised her male intelligence they denied the female sex in general. The geniuses praised her congeniality.

Vittoria was the first person to be shown his masterwork “il Cortegiano” by Baldassare Castiglione, whose style she analysed empathetically, while he defined the genius of this woman: “Her divine intellect explores regions of the mind still unknown to others.”