A Review of Abigail Brundin, Vittoria Colonna and the Spiritual Poetics of the Italian Reformation

Madonna of Charity, anonymous Neapolitan artist, Sant'Antonio di Padova, Ischia (on one side this idealized portrait of Colonna, and on the other an idealized portrait of Costanza d'Avalos, as donors)

This review was written for Renaissance Quarterly in the summer of 2008. It was rejected on the grounds of length. It is no longer than many reviews which appear in this journal. I got a barbed rejection from William Stenhouse of RQ. What he objected to was my evaluation of this new book in context and my evaluation of the translation as a new crib rather than real poetry.

Abigail Brundin. Vittoria Colonna and the Spiritual Poetics of the Italian Reformation. Hampshire: Ashdate, 2008. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2008. xvi + 218 pp. index. bibl. $99.95. ISBN: 978-0754640493.

Previous to Vittoria Colonna and the Spiritual Poetics of the Italian Reformation, Abigail Brundin's contributions to the centuries of texts and recent scholarship and criticism of Colonna's poetry have taken the form of essays and an edition of some of Colonna's religious poetry in the University of Chicago's "The Other Voice" series. In her new book she reworks and adds to the matter of one of her essays (Vittoria Colonna and the Virgin Mary, Modern Language Review, 96 [2001]:61-81) where she built on an important monograph by Domenico Tordi in which he described and listed the poems in a manuscript of Colonna's poetry he thought intended for Marguerite de Navarre. As she says in Chapter 4 (108), the Ashburnham ms (her title, the ms is labelled L in Bullock's 1982 edition of Colonna's Rime) is made up of "an eclectic mix" of mostly highly religious, early and later, better and inferior poems. From its contents and the extant correspondence about the arrival of the ms at the court of Marguerite de Navarre, she nevertheless thinks it was put together as a gift to Marguerite de Navarre.

Brundin argues further that in this ms Colonna's choice of poems, ordering, and content reveals an proto-feminist perspective, with a Marian emphasis, an arrangement of poems where religiously-inspired female exemplars (e.g., Mary Magdalene). Brundin says the content of these poems supports "a new aristocratic matriarchal lineage" (131) within a poetics of evangelical doctrine intended to benefit "amorose donne" (159). The manuscript's penultimate poem is a "lament over the death of Pompeo Colonna" (122), Vittoria's cousin who wrote a treatise dedicated to Vittoria where he argued women were equal to men, based on attributing to them masculine qualities ("fortitude," "magnanimity," warlike traits). Pompeo found these in Vittoria herself and argues "women free of male control as widows or unmarried girls should have freedom to act independently." Brundin uses this poem and Pompeo's treatise as well as a poem by Girolamo Fracastoro to Marguerite where he imputes to Marguerite "virile" and masculine traits to reinforce this dual argument the manuscript is proto-feminist and Marian, and both Vittoria and Marguerite "highly respected for their ability to act and manoeuvre in an arena dominated by powerful men" (122-26).

In Chapter 5 as in her previous articles, she presents supporting evidence that the ms was for Marguerite de Navarre. This evidence consists of a valuable analysis of three letters Colonna wrote to her cousin, Costanza d'Avalos Piccolomini: Brundin disagrees with those who have dismissed the letters as conventional and dull, and argues that the Virgin Mary is radically altered to be a transformative spiritual teacher. Brundin concludes with describing "outspoken and erudite Virgins" in the poetry of Marguerite and a sonnet manifesting Calvinistic self-torment by Marguerite's daughter, Jeanne d'Albret. She intends to make us feel we have come in contact with a community of women who "understood" and "appreciated" the Ashburnham manuscript (127-31).

This Ashburnham ms remains as yet unpublished. Instead of publishing these poems (which are apparently some of them inferior), in 2005 again building on another find of a hitherto undescribed manuscript (by Enrico Carusi), and subsequent scholarship (by, e.g., Emidio Campi), Brundin edited, translated and published a manuscript of 103 sonnets (labelled V2 by Bullock). This she argued was carefully prepared for Michelangelo. Chapter 3 of the present book relies on the work of Natalie Zemon Davis (The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France), James Saslow's annotated translation of Michelangelo's poetry and various studies of neoplatonism and evangelical thought of the era, plus Brundin's own interpretation of Colonna's correspondence with Reginald Pole, to argue that the manuscript was chosen and arranged by Colonna as a gift to Michelangelo. In this book she shows (using Arthur Nagel, "Gifts for Michelangelo and Victoria Colonna," Art Bulletin, 79:4 [1997]:647-68) that the content of the poetry in this ms coheres in doctrine and feeling with the drawings Michelangelo made for Colonna. Brundin's method is to set these poems in their historical context and read them as highly emotional evangelical poetry which is intended to teach us (and Michelangelo) the doctrine of justification by faith. As opposed to Brundin's introduction to her "Other Voice" edition, where she attempts to explain the beauty and power of these poems as poetry, Brundin's close reading here serves to bolster her argument throughout (but emphatically in Chapter 1) that Colonna saw herself as a "professional" writer the content of whose work, and whose super-respectable stance and presumed efforts on behalf of its dissemination show her to have been acting as an agent making a career for herself in the modern and male sense.

Although (Brundin concedes) in this era manuscript circulation was the socially-acceptable form of publication for the upper class and (without acknowledgement) women, and Colonna's imagined audience is an admiring, sympathetic, virtuous (or religious), educated, and middle to upper class reader, she argues that publication in the marketplace was as a criteria for self-respect and central aim for Colonna. Colonna is presented as a proselytizer, someone ambitious for what might today be called a career. Since we have not yet settled how to, or begun recognizing real or effective agency, Brundin turns to what we find in the marketplace to support this thesis: she demonstrates how unusual was the respectful annotation an edition of some of her poetry received (by Rinaldo Corso, 163-68), how Colonna's poems were seen as useful by those who marketed such poetry (e.g., Ludovico Martelli, 170-73). Again building on the work of others (Victoria Kirkham), Brundin analyses the poetry of Laura Battiferra degli Ammanati to suggest that Battiferra wrote and behaved like a "professional" or effective agent (a businesswoman?). Proselytizing emerges as inseparable from the desire to have a public career among the religious, elite, erudite and powerful (the "very highest of academic circles, 184-89) of the era.

When much argument and decisions on what to print and how to label texts hinges on believing Colonna instigated a manuscript or materials for an edition, directed an amanuensis, and chose texts with a specific individual or imagined group of like-minded people in mind, it is important to remember there is no self-evident proof that we are not imputing agency to Colonna. Her connections and the continual public praise of her would lead people to attribute active patronage and activity on their behalf to her. Also that other respected scholars (e.g., Carlo Dionosotti, Tobia Toscano) keep arguing there is insufficient evidence to prove that the Ashburnham ms was a gift set up by Colonna for Marguerite and V2 made up of poems written for Michelangelo.

Nonetheless, the value of Abigail Brundin's second book is that it is a mine of information about Colonna in English. Vittoria Colonna is brought publicly to the attention of modern Renaissance scholars in accessible formats which allow for the compilation of much historical information hitherto scattered, difficult to find, in languages not translated into English. The value is not in Brundin's interpretation or evaluation of the poems. In two brief framing chapters of her book (1-13, 191-92), Brundin dismisses the Petrarchan tradition of erotic poetry, of retreat and retirement, of idyllic and satiric pastoral as irrelevant to most people today, and twice quotes a 1926 Italian writer as expressing (again) how most people regard such poetry: "a chronic illness of Italian literature" (2). She dismisses literally hundreds of years of poetry and sympathetic criticism and countless witnesses (naming only Lauro Martines) in her reductive disdain for an "escapist 'alternate world" (5); she blames the obscurity and boredom with Colonna's poetry (and Bembo's too) many readers have testified to to their being thought to belong to this inferior body of poetry. The tedium some have felt while reading Renaissance sonnets has more plausibly been attributed to the use poets made of them to curry favor and network with powerful people no longer of interest nor thought well of today or their telling deliberately obscured stories of the lives of people whose outlook and circumstances a modern reader can understand only through historicism or biography. Brundin's energy in all her publications has been on behalf of explaining Colonna's religious perspective in her religious and love poetry, making the religious perspective the one that counts, and arguing the early unqualifiedly erotic portion of it should be regarded as juvenilia.

This is not the place to cite books upon books and explicate arguments on behalf oflove poetry and complicated philosophical, political and social contexts (as far-reaching as and far more humane than some of the Calvinistic doctrines Brundin explicates). I have nothing to say against the idea Colonna's unqualifiedly devotional poetry (I'd call it) is effective, though perhaps more for those who are religious than for those who are not. I have translated all Vittoria Colonna's poetry and am aware of the seeming wild abandonment of rationality in the religious poems, their deep sense of the body as at once fleshly, intensely physically overwhelming while endowed by a mysterious spirit who enables the poet to hallucinate visions whose transcendance is as painful and alive as the tormented verse of her early years. As Brundin remarks in her edition of V2, the 22nd sonnet contains a Petrarchan metaphor where an individual is likened to a small boat in a tempest is transformed by an unusually "bold and less rationalistic frame" (VC: Sonnets for Michelangelo, "Introduction," 37) such that the poet's soul abandons herself to devotional hallucinations: "If my mind/seems distanced, confused, it's that He absorbs/all my thoughts; deep inside His great stillness,/intent I listen for a sound barely/heard ... " (my translation, at http://www.jimandellen.org/vcsonnets/vcsonnet134.html). Yet there are many parallels in the sonnets in this manuscript with a manuscript lately separately edited by Tobia Toscano (Vittoria Colonna, Sonetti in Morte di Francesco Ferrante ... Edizione del ms. XIII.G43, Mondadori, 1998; N in Bullock's edition), a remarkably set of extraorinarily beautiful poems (chosen with an unerring taste) whose dominant trend is erotic. I would agree (paradoxically perhaps) that the best of Colonna's poems are those where she drops Petrarch (a male authorizing a female) and reaches for a sublime coming out of female drive into thantos, e.g., XLV: "now freed by these idealizing reveries she flies from/the physical pain in my wretched womb,/so if this mortal hurt overwhelms me/the faster will I slip off beyond pain" (Toscana, 100; seee my translation.

There is also in this book a dismissal of important feminine elements found in all Colonna's poetry and a valuation of masculine traits (as for example outlined in Pompeo Colonna's treatise) and careerism as such. In addition, Brundin does not distinguish vitally alive poetry which speaks to people today from poetry which is of historical interest. The result is a dulling of what Colonna has for centuries and can today still be read for. What makes her matter. This must be countered by anyone who cares about women's poetry and wants to understand it and see it valued and read. Over the centuries women have favored and shaped genres which favor exploration of the emotional lives permitted or enforced on them; developed original thought through use of motifs of imagined retirement; used sentiment in poetry to sympathize with those they identify with, often the powerless, and to create friendships with other women and counter-universes for themselves where they can invent and live out a repertory of selves not permitted elsewhere to them. It has also been, understood to be, and is a form of life-writing (see, e.g., Paula Backscheider's Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and Their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005])

Brundin's repeated dismissals of of "unhelpful biographism" (passim, and typical of the style of this book) wipes away the social conditions and actual lives which make other feminine traits and kinds of feminism than those Brundin includes understandable, traits and themes which recur in much women's poetry (and Colonna's too), and are central to criticism and an understanding of it. One of Colonna's great poems is her scathing verse letter to Pescara, written on the occasion of his 1512 defeat at Ravenna and imprisonment; it is perhaps the only poem we have by Colonna written before Pescara's death, is occcasional, and fits into the heroide tradition, with the important difference that many of the circumstances related are autobiographical and may be elucidated best by external documents. Another is her plangent epistolary Ovidian heroide (the concluding poem of the manuscript Bullock used for his first set of poems (F1), which situates Colonna in a tradition of abandoned, unjustly treated, justly angry and anguished women. There is a woman's canon, one not generally known because we have not had centuries of sympathetic reprints and criticism of it, and when important elements in that canon are denied sympathy today, we participate in the continuing erasure of it.

Ellen Moody
George Mason University

Marino, once the Colonna fortress/lair outside Rome, now a small town on a hill reachable by train or car

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