Colonna, Vittoria (c. 1490–1547)

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Colonna, Vittoria (c. 1490–1547)

Italian poet and religious reformer whose friendships and correspondence with notable writers of the day contributed to her fame. Name variations: Marchioness of Pescara. Born probably 1490 (some sources cite 1492) in Marino, Italy; died in Rome on February 25, 1547; daughter of Fabrizio Colonna (member of the powerful Colonna family and an influential soldier) and Agnese da Montefeltro also known as Anna da Montefeltro (daughter of Federico, duke of Urbino); betrothed at age four to Francesco Ferrante d'Avalos (son of an important Spanish family resident in Italy); they were married in 1509; children: none, although she raised her husband's orphaned nephew.

Wrote poetry throughout her adult life, although most poems were composed after the death of her husband (1525); active in reform of Catholic Church; corresponded with many notable contemporaries. Her biography was written by Isabella Albrizzi in 1836.

The events that shaped Vittoria Colonna's life serve also to obscure her contributions. Although she wrote some poems early in adulthood, by far the greatest number of her poems were composed in response to the death of her husband, who was killed in one of the many battles of the 16th century in which control of the Italian peninsula was being contested. Her wanderings after his death, and his friendships with literary people of her day, spurred her into correspondence. Yet historians have tended to focus their attention on the wars that were the cause of her writings, and literary critics have been so overawed by the accomplishments of her correspondents that they see Colonna as a footnote on the page of Cardinal Pietro Bembo, Baldassare Castiglione, even Michelangelo, whose fame surely rests on his accomplishments in the figurative arts, not poetry.

The record of her early life is blank. She was probably born in 1490, although some records say 1492. Judging by her later literary output, she was evidently well educated in both classical and contemporary literature. Her father's family had long been important in Rome, as her mother's had in nearby Urbino. In the storm that was brewing for control of the Italian peninsula, young Colonna was used as a pawn: she was betrothed at the age of four to Ferrante d'Avalos, son of the marquis of Pescara, scion of a powerful Spanish family residing in Italy (at that time, Spain was the center of the Holy Roman Empire). Ferrante I, the king of Naples, had a hand in arranging this match. One tradition holds that she went to live with her future in-laws at an early age, and this certainly would not have been unusual at the time. What is known for certain is that the marriage was celebrated when Colonna was in her late teens, on December 29, 1509, in a magnificent ceremony in Rome.

The young couple immediately went to live in Ischia, a small island off Naples, then the most populous city on the peninsula, where they are known to have visited the humanist Jacopo Sannazzaro at his Neapolitan villa. Although most of Vittoria's early work is lost, it is likely that she began to write her poems during this time. In 1510, her father left Marino to fight on the side of the Spaniards and Pope Julius II (best known today as Michelangelo's patron) against the French, and her husband left shortly afterwards to join in the struggle. In his absence, Colonna took charge of her husband's young orphaned nephew Alfonso d'Avalos.

As with most educated, upper-class women of the day, Colonna was expected to run the household in her husband's absence. She was probably accustomed to seeing her mother fulfill this role, but, nonetheless, it must still have been a heavy responsibility. Her husband, who participated in many battles, was wounded and taken prisoner at the battle of Ravenna. In 1525, he died of his wounds in Milan, while being held hostage. Colonna was on her way to him when news of his death reached her in Viterbo (near Rome), and she turned back to Ischia.

A childless widow, with more than enough money to live on, had several options. At first, after turning down several suitors, she thought of entering a convent, but Pope Julius' successor, Clement, convinced her otherwise. Instead, she spent the rest of her life traveling from convent to convent (in the Renaissance, convents frequently served as high-class hotels for unattached gentlewomen), writing poems, and involving herself in religious matters and in the arts. In 1544, she settled in the Benedictine convent of St. Anne in Rome.

Shortly after her husband's death, Colonna began writing the enormous corpus of poems that occupied much of her time. She says in her poetry that writing was an outlet for the tremendous grief she felt at her loss. Modern critics have sometimes cast doubt on the sincerity of her grief, citing her husband's long absences and his open relationships with mistresses in various cities during his military campaigns. It must be remembered, however, that this was an arranged marriage, that the couple, who had known each other all their lives, knew from early childhood that they were to be married. Even if, as is probable, their marriage did not correspond to the modern ideal, the two had close ties. Colonna, in fact, continued after her husband's death in her role as adoptive mother of her husband's young nephew and maintained a close friendship with Ferrante's aunt for the rest of her life.

As time went on, Colonna idealized her dead husband and used her future meeting with him as an analogy for the mystical union with Christ. Gradually, her theme turned to religion and philosophy; the poems were widely circulated and eventually published. As befits a "gentlewoman," Colonna never involved herself directly in their publication, although five editions appeared in her lifetime (the first in 1538). The poems remained popular, with many more editions appearing throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

As she traveled, Colonna took pains to meet the poets in the various cities where she stopped. When she moved on, she remained in contact with many of them, writing letters and exchanging poems. Many of these letters, which have been preserved, show her deep interest in the arts as well as her relationships with other writers. She also was friendly with many of the women who, like her, were in charge of their households while their husbands were at war. Some of these women ran literary circles that were the precursors of the "salons" that were to arise on the Continent in the next century. Though, in comparison, Colonna's correspondence with other notable women is scanty. The early Renaissance was an important era in the development of women writers, and Veronica Gambara and Gaspara Stampa contributed important works to Italian literature. They certainly knew of each other, and Colonna possibly met Stampa.

Colonna was highly regarded by her fellow writers. Baldassare Castiglione, in fact, entrusted her with the manuscript of his most famous work, The Courtier, before it was printed (she appears to have violated his trust, circulating the manuscript until he grew so afraid that someone else would print it that he ordered a rush revision and printing). Among her literary friends, she numbered such giants as Bembo, Luigi Alamanni, Pietro Aretino, Lodovico Ariosto, as well as writers of lesser rank.

Colonna's most famous literary friendship was with Michelangelo Buonarotti, who, aside from his genius in the figurative arts, was an accomplished poet and neo-Platonist philosopher. In fact, although most agree that Colonna was the superior poet of the two, her accomplishments have long been overshadowed by an evaluation of her as "Michelangelo's friend." Their first meeting probably took place in 1538, when she was 47 and he was 63. Their passionate friendship appears to have been immediate. She sent him her poems. He addressed some of his finest sonnets to her, made drawings for her, spent long hours as her companion, and asked her opinion of his works. She wrote glowingly of them, including his Pietà and a Crucifixion that he made especially for her. Her move to Orvieto and Viterbo in 1541, when her brother Ascanio Colonna rebelled against Pope Paul III, did not lessen the intensity of their relationship, and they continued to visit and correspond as before. She returned to Rome in 1544, staying as usual at the convent of San Silvestro.

Though Colonna continued to write sonnets lamenting the loss of her husband, many of her poems written later in life were religious in theme, depicting the vanity of human attachments and the importance of religious faith. Well versed as she was in the humanist neo-Platonic philosophy (as was Michelangelo), she managed to balance this viewpoint with orthodox Christianity, seeing this philosophy as a way of returning the church to its original principles. Aside from her shorter poems, she is the author of a long poem, "Trionfo di Cristo" ("Triumph of Christ"), modeled on Petrarch's "I Trionfi" ("The Triumphs"). Like Petrarch, she used the difficult rhyme scheme, called the "terza rima," invented by Dante for the Divine Comedy. In this verse, the lines (all of 11 syllables) have an interlocking rhyme scheme: ABA BCB CDC DED, etc.

Colonna was an advocate of church reform. The early 16th century was a period of political and religious turmoil. The Catholic Church had become increasingly corrupt, with popes openly keeping mistresses, priests accepting bribes, monks and nuns living riotously in their monasteries. At various times, reforms had been attempted. Various religious orders were founded in a bid to return to the simplicity and charity envisioned by Christ (most notably, the Franciscans and the Poor Clares in the Middle Ages), but even these orders were subject to the same corruption that infected the main church. The Franciscans, in an attempt to return to the principles of their founders, formed a splinter group, nicknamed the "Capuchins," and Colonna was vigorous in her defense of this group. Unfortunately, these small efforts at reform did not halt the steady decline of the church, and the Inquisition and the Reformation followed shortly after her death.

Oh what a magnanimous maiden, oh what a truly famous and divine name!

—Cardinal Pompeo Colonna

After a brief illness, Vittoria Colonna died at the convent of San Silvestro on February 25, 1547. At the time of her death, 22 volumes of her poems were in print. The most celebrated of her literary output appears to have been her early poems concerning her husband. For a time, her popularity diminished, many found her style cold and formal. Recently, however, critics have begun reevaluating Colonna's writings, recognizing her contribution to literature and philosophy.


Colonna, Vittora. Rime. Edited by Alan Bullock. Florence: Gius. Laterza and Figli, 1982.

Jerrold, Maud F. Vittoria Colonna, With Some Account of Her Friends and Her Times. NY: Dutton, 1906.

Reumont, Alfred von. Vittoria Colonna, marchesa di Pescara: Vita, fede e poesia nel secolo decimosesto. Torino: E. Loescher, 1892.

suggested reading:

Luzio, A. Vittoria Colonna. Modena, 1885.

Roscoe, T. Vittoria Colonna. London, 1868.

Visconti, P.E. Le Rime di Vittoria Colonna. Rome, 1846.

Tracy Barrett , Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee