Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, March 6, 2015

Vittoria Colonna: Poet, Poetic Innovator, and Literary Friend

Vittoria Colonna (1490/2-1547)

A 1520 portrait of Colonna,
by Sebastiano del Piombo
Today, 6 March, is actually the birth date of the famed Renaissance painter, sculptor, and architect Michelangelo--he was born on this day in the year 1475. His birthday offers us the opportunity to remember Michelangelo's passionate friendship with the poet Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547), whose work was praised and highly regarded among her contemporaries but later fell into obscurity.

As Abigail Brunden observes in her biographical note on Colonna for the Italian Women Writers website, "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."

Colonna wrote both secular love sonnets and religious lyrics, rime spirituali; a terza-rima narrative, Trionfo di Cristo (The Triumph of Christ); literary epistles, in particular on religious figures like the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Catherine of Alexandria; and prose meditations on religious topics.

Although she achieved what editor Virginia Cox describes as an "unprecedented level of literary fame and success" before her meeting with Michelangelo in 1538, today her most well-known work is the collection of spiritual sonnets she addressed to him. Her Sonnets to Michelangelo, a manuscript Colonna presented to the poet as a gift in 1540, records their "poetic exchanges," an "explor[ation of] the spiritual issues that occupied them through the medium of the lyric."

Detail of a Michelangelo drawing of
Colonna, when she is about age 50
It's unfortunate, though perhaps not unexpected, that venerable sources like the Encyclopedia Britannica still undervalue Colonna: she is, in its estimation, "less important for her poetry than for her personality and her associations with famous contemporaries, particularly Michelangelo."*

You can judge for yourself. I recommend Cox's excellent dual-language edition of Colonna's Sonnets for Michelangelo. Colonna's meditation "On the Passion of Christ" is included in Susan Haskins's Who Is Mary?: Three Early Modern Women on the Idea of the Virgin Mary. For her analysis of Colonna and "the making of a Renaissance publishing phenomenon," you might also enjoy Abigail Brunden's Vittoria Colonna and the Spiritual Poetics of the Italian Reformation.

*Update, 6 March 2024: The brief Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Vittoria Colonna has been revised, as you will read if you follow the link, but I’ve left in the original language. To see the editorial changes, click here, then open the 24 September 2020 article revision.