[This brief and forceful portrait was written in April of 1995
when I was working towards a full-scale biography of Vittoria Colonna.
It is probably written in too unforgiving and aggressive a tone, but it does provide a brief short biography of Colonna which people who have come to my website and read the poetry have asked me for.]
As I sit down to write this overview, Jane Austen's Emma comes to mind, for this too is a book about a heroine whom I don't expect my readers to like very much.
Vittoria Colonna? Who has not heard of the Colonna? Powerful, rich, and in the Renaissance, occasionally savagely murderous nobles; in the thirteenth century, they terrified Popes; like many another lucky family of their class in Europe, they have hung on there and are still princes today--it was the duty of one Ascanio Colonna (and such was the name of Vittoria's brother, born in the Colonna fortress at Marino in 1500) to inform President Roosevelt that Italy was at war with the United States. The Colonna, says the Joycean or politically correct reader, the kind of people who made history a nightmare for others. But the kind of people (women as well as men) whose actions are always written down somewhere, an external point of reference, the chief players (even if ignored by recent historians) on the historian's stage, and important promoters (doubtless, unconsciously) of that profitable species of popular interest in history which manifests itself as twentieth-century tourism.
And Vittoria? cited in the obligatory paragraph (or footnote) of countless historical tomes. The friend of Michelangelo. Beautiful, pious, and good. And with a seemingly endless series of unhappy poems. Spare me, says the reader, and he or she (rightly) turns away.
It will be my purpose to write a different kind of life than is usually printed about people like Vittoria Colonna. The reader will not find in this book on her and her family and their associates intimations of modern justificatory ideologies, whether stemming from the Enlightenment and French Revolution or from the many reactions against and divagations from such views. The Colonna never kidded themselves that they were operating for anything other than their own or their family interests. And while the point was not simply to become immensely rich, of those people who could lay their hands on any taxes, rents, land, or business profits (still a poor fourth in this period among landed barons), very few forgot these were the basis of prestige, achievement, and leisure. There were so few prizes around and they all glittered. If the words quoted everywhere in this book seem at times startlingly narrow or obtuse, it is because biographers regularly distort the thinking of pre-Enlightenment people. Pride plays a role in our unwillingness to read what is in front of us; but it is also that the truth as these people saw it when they cared to reveal it (which admittedly they try hard not to do beyond the minimum necessary) is so very unpleasant. "Surely they saw farther." If they did, aside from rare brave geniuses like Machiavelli or Thomas More, they kept quiet about it, particularly that wary bunch, Renaissance women. The Colonna were full-fledged members of a class who were the strong people of their world, and if we really are allowed to listen to them, they provide visceral instruction about the workings of our world today.
A wary bunch, Renaissance women. Their silence frustrates us, and when they speak, they avoid committing themselves to anything that could conceivably be used against them. How long we have to read in the chronicles and documents of the period before we find even the barest mentions of them (or, for that matter, anyone below the highest echelons of power); how much extrapolation we must commit ourselves to before we can catch them out. Vittoria Colonna seems to me unusual--indeed, alone--in this period in her willingness to part with money; but as to all but one of the other of her world's demands, she falls to. On money she could be and was (by her wiser relatives) ignored; she had only access to, not power over, her family's and husband's sources of wealth; it is only (but this is was an important only) that she would not remarry. More frustrating to her family and friends because her arguments unassailably repeated the conventional pieties--and, unfortunately, therefore not productive of revealing letters--she failed to show moderation with respect to religion. They accused her of wanting to die; of being, to use F. R. Leavis's phrase, "not, on the whole, for life." I admit that this book is not different from many another on a Renaissance woman in the sense that I too will dwell on slight nuances and on those topics which compell my subject to lift, now and again, here and there, the curtain she has for safety and peace wrapped around herself. This so that we may see those few of her words which do speak to our eyes across the silent centuries.
But in another sense, my discussion will be atypical. Love, is no longer a popular topic in a book with the feminist aim of bringing a partly forgotten woman poet before a modern and, through translation, wider audience; since Mary Wollstonecraft, love has been seen to be what it is--an impediment to worldly achievement--unless, of course, a woman is willing to rise as this or that man's wife or daughter. And more than one third of Vittoria's poems are deeply erotic; their story, she loved a man who did not reciprocate her love; when he died, she, Hamlet-like, refused to say death is common; she was adament against the continual pressure she met to remarry; she insisted that to her this particular man, his presence, his words, his face, his body were irreplaceable. I believe I am not unusual in my willingness to read my subject's life in her verse fiction (the Renaissance sonnet sequence is, as C. S. Lewis said, fascinating because it reads like a novel with the outer events omitted), but I am unusual in my willingness to admit that love, erotic enthrallment of type Vittoria Colonna manifests (and this is common), plays an important and sometimes key role in the lives of women. I understand the desire to despise and dismiss such love, to explain it away as a destructive fantasy, as masochism in some and cant in others, the desire to ignore it as a leisure-time frivolous luxury of the rich--as if poor women did not, do not and should not dream--and as if rich ones were not bartered away even more ruthlessly than the poor and therefore also had no dreams. The dream of a loving and beloved man may only be able to lighten a small corner of many women's lives, but that corner counts. Its existence colors every woman's experience. And Vittoria Colonna was most herself when she startled everyone by refusing even to dream of a reasonable substitute. They kept telling her he is dead; find another. But she would not be used as her society wanted to use women (and men--in this they too were urged "to sell where you can"). Here, Luther-like, she took her stand; on this important topic she wrote her best poetry; here, over-instructed though we may sometimes feel, this Renaissance woman and others I will compare her to still have something to tell us.
Luther leads me to Vittoria's other obsession, religion. A discussion of her and her friends' peculiar brand of the new Protestant sensibility takes up one-third of my book. Vittoria's Evangelical tendencies are still--hard to credit I know--controversial. Depending upon whether the writer feels compelled (for reasons which are usually obvious) to place Vittoria in a Catholic or Protestant camp, she is famous or infamous for immediately and ostentatiously dumping her favorite friar when it became clear he was to be hunted out and destroyed as a heretic (she even sent his papers to the enemy camp). It is in the area of religion that I suspect some will find her behavior hard to stomach, for while I will not make her act of moral cowardice to be anything other than that, my study of her will show that her religion was inseparable from her politics and her character, as is everyone's. Her politics were those of her father, husband, and adopted son, precariously landed barons who supported themselves as condottiere, and they write to her as if compelled by some species of paranoia (and she responds in kind) which all three would defend as the prudent behavior of people who have long had many enemies, who know these people are hard to spot and ruthless, and have learned to deal ruthlessly in turn and be hard to spot themselves. These people qualify Ben Franklin's "We must all hang together or we will all hang separately" thus: we need not resort to such chancey combinations at all if we will only hide what we do and hang them first.
This is not to say she did not in her public life in some measure deserve the compliment of good: if my reader will agree that goodness may be defined as altruistic deeds and real kindnesses which do not work to the actor's own interest, he or she will by the end of this book have also to agree we must grant Vittoria Colonna the Calvinist imprimatur, although here we will have to swallow a letter by her defending a man who shot a chained prisoner at point blank range when it was politically expedient to do so because he had been her dead husband's friend. Her sheerly religious poems (those which are not also political and there are many) do tell a slightly different story about why people were moved by her goodness, one of a hard-earned mysticism (she worked at it); in her poetry ecstacy was what she sought, total union with Christ; her story here, a classic conversion experience, which nonetheless did not wholly reassure her, for in Vittoria there also dwelt the kind of fearful fideism found in Pascal. The Evangelism of Vittoria and her friends is hedged around by a flickering skepticism born of their personal associations with Popes and Emperors; although for safety's sake Vittoria and her friends avoid public acknowledgement of the implicit result of the doctrine of salvation by faith alone (the elimination of the middleman priest and his corrupt expensive establishment), and they defend certain indefensible people for indefensible reasons, there is in Vittoria a deep-seated need to find peace in a love which is not of this world, utterly disinterested, inalienable, and who else is there but the new Christ, His benefits. The birth of a new religion which Vittoria will mirror for us (as she did for her contemporaries) since it was a genuinely individual response of her own to the barbed world of newly rich courts and governments, riddled (like their bases, cities and rural countryside) with greed, stupid forms of pride, ignorance, cruelty and the rest, powerful organizations who could and did try to destroy everyone and anyone who got in their way through wars and their local monopolies on violence. Her world was remarkably similar to our own, and the old religious and political fanaticisms help us to understand the new.
As to the two other terms of the conventional compliment ceaselessly reiterated everywhere (beauty and piety), I will use them as buzz-words or keys to a Renaissance milieu in which an individual had psychologically to survive somehow. In the Renaissance all upper-class women are by definition beautiful; Italian women in particular all have blonde hair. Vittoria is no exception to this if we were simply to quote and believe the words of praise written to and about her, but, and as this is so intensely important I must ask my reader's forgiveness for here at the start stressing what is today conventionally regarded (at least by our elite) as distasteful foolish talk, Vittoria was homely. Of course, beauty is not to be defined by a magazine mentality, but in the one poratrait whose provenance suggests it might actually reflect something of what she looked like she is apparently distressingly plain--I say apparently distressingly because the history of her biography is replete with attempts to argue for other portraits of more prepossessing women. She was small (her grandnother is said to have been tiny), sallow-skinned, and somewhat dumpy; her nose was straight but very thin and pointed down over a small thin mouth between two closely-set large eyes. Her cheeks are flat. Her body looks awkward in her dress. Close study of the eyes may suggest to a sympathetic viewer something reflective; there is a quiet dignity in her bearing, but no-one could call this woman attractive. Her lack of any brilliance in her appearance shaped her character, affected her husband's attitude towards her (one of his mistresses taunted him because he did stay with this Leah when he could have a Rachael). It is an important element in her story.
Piety is a complicated word in the Renaissance; it isn't just used of people who are devoted religiously, but of those who are devoted socially. It also includes notions of respectfulness and obedience. The epithet rarely occurs in praise of men and then usually does refer basically to religion; when used of women it is also intended publicly to shore up an ideal of someone who is obedient to parents, husband, and various other of society's respectable authority figures. I will not deny that Vittoria was devoted in the first way--though in a way which was sufficiently unorthodox to attract unsafe rumors, spies and obstacle-makers; she was also mostly devoted in the second, the main exception being that drawn line at more marriages. But we can say in modern exoneration of her that her epistolary poems and some of her letters show that her way of being loyal was not always to make everyone comfortable (which seems to be against the political grain nowadays); and in private, she did not say "my family right or wrong." In one scathing sonnet, as from a great height, she heaps scorn on her brother who in a letter she accused of murdering countless people and destroying the Colonna patrimony "for three cows." In the first extant letter we have from her to her husband she berates him for uselessly fomenting dissention against her uncle; her point is the hard one that he will be laughed at and instead of gaining the promotion (over her uncle) and wealth he hungers for, he is behaving worse than uselessly, for he deprives himself of the peace of mind that comes from silence, and, as Dr. Johnson called it, the art of forgetting. And maybe he puts that promotion and those prizes further in the distance. A typical sentence in this raw letter reads: "Therefore, my Lord, consider, think again. Look to see if your power to reciprocate wounds does not consume and reduce you in the end to a laugh, to the gossipy murmurings of the average person" (FMTordi, XLXXXII, 323-5). Of course, no-one today will (as her husband did not then) warm to such discourse; she accepts and then manipulates her husband through what is most sordid in human nature (as in the nice hit at his snobbery in that last line). As I have said, we may not always feel keen on what Vittoria Colonna will bring us in contact with; but I can offer these this mitigation. When most obfuscating she is still always intelligent, always ultimately pragmatic, and will grasp and penetrate to significant points about the realities of her world. If the reader will learn something about how women lived and felt in their private lives before the French revolution, here are a plethora of documents to read. We will not have to argue from a lack of evidence which is all too often the case in studies of early modern women. And if the emotions need to be touched, I can guarantee my reader will be able to say of Vittoria's story when I am through that had she been less conventionally "pious" (in the full and to us ambiguous Renaissance sense), she would have been much happier.
Her unhappiness leads me to the last remark commonly made about Vittoria Colonna and the reason I have written a book on her and concluded it with a series of translations of her poems. Vittoria Colonna was a great and interesting poet. Let me recall here that countless readers have for more than four centuries kept her poems in print in literally hundreds of books (counting the anthologies as well as books which contain either selections or "complete" versions of her poems). She is not happy, but why is happiness a criterion in her and other women's cases (was Michelangelo happy in his poems? is Larkin?) And she is no "maudlin poetess" (the accusation hiding behind this buzz word); on the contrary, in her poems, she is by turns sufficiently fierce and passionate, unpredictable and sophisticated, (in effect) suicidal, and sly and ironic to make any male Colonna (himself behaving similarly on the battlefield or in the court chamber) proud of her. About a quarter of Vittoria' poems are epistolary, numbers of them compelling poems to particular people on particular events; these are highly varied in mood; there are are poems of livid wrath directed at the Pope, of stern dignity to Charles V, of grief over someone's death, of celebration and praise of a fellow-poet's work. There are also among these epistles poems in which she answers a poet, who then answers her, to which she then responds, exchanges between her and another woman poet who often appears with her in anthologies of women poets, Veronica Gambara, between her and Luigi Tansillo, a Neapolitan poet who makes his obligatory appearances in anthologies of Renaissance and Italian poetry. Her religious poems I have mentioned; there are also small sequences within the larger movement directed to specific religious figures, to the Virgin Mary, to Mary Magdalen; I have included an exquisitely tender nativity sonnet in my selection. In the biography proper the reader will forgive me if I have lingered over her connections with fellow poets. These are the pleasant parts of her life: we will study poets and scholars who were glad to call themselves her friend not just because she was a Colonna (though no-one could lose sight of this) but also because she was an equal working in the same field and her work of living interest to others writing in the same mode. Perhaps I should have reserved a full chapter for her relationship with Pietro Bembo whose reconfiguration of the Petrarchan tradition shaped Vittoria's sequence; but I have instead devoted the one separate chapter in this area that I allowed myself about her friendship with poets to Michelangelo and his and her interconnecting poetry. Not that he wrote more poems to her than he did to other people (she is but a minor movement in his oeuvre) or that he wrote more poems to her than anyone else did (this role goes to a brilliant Neapolitan poet in his own right, Galeazzea di Tarsia and the father of Torquato, Bernardo Tasso); but that that he was an outstanding genius and, although he was likely to walk out in disgust on many an aristocrat, was proud to be her friend and willing to reveal himself to her. And their moments together were, by a happy stroke of luck, documented at length and took the form of conversations about art.
For the reader should make no mistake about this book: I myself sympathize with Vittoria, admire her, and have tried to make her character understandable and meaningful to a twentieth-century reader. But I have been fired more by a love of poetry and a belief that the kind of poetry Renaissance women wrote, of which Vittoria's is a supreme example, ought to enter the canon today with a less propagandistic interpretation attached to it. In a sense the rest of this book is this interpretation.