On the island of Ischia, near Naples, stands a fortress, a formidable set of battlements and turrets that seem to shoot out of sheer rock, with a vertiginous drop to the sea below. At one point in its history, it housed a convent where the bodies of dead nuns sat in a stone chamber, their decay reminding the surviving sisters of the transience of life. It was to this grim setting that the teenage Vittoria Colonna came to be married in 1509, and it was here that she returned after the death of her husband, to channel her distress through a set of sonnets, the start of an outpouring that would make her the first woman to have a volume of poetry published in Italy.
The Italian Renaissance has no shortage of flamboyant females. Think of Lucrezia Borgia, traduced by slander and gossip, and of Isabella d’Este, greedy for art. Vittoria Colonna’s name has always been there, hovering in the wings, but with Ramie Targoff’s vibrant, timely study, “Renaissance Woman,” she comes into the spotlight.
Colonna’s life, at first glance, is unpromising for a modern biographer. Widowed in her mid-30s and childless, she never remarried, pursuing instead a peripatetic, religious life as a guest in convents all over Italy. Her marriage wasn’t particularly rewarding. Indeed, it seems almost bizarre that such an intelligent, educated woman should have spent years mythologizing a husband who, by all accounts, was an uncouth philanderer.
But in Targoff’s hands the bits of the puzzle fit together beautifully. Here is a woman capable of deep, almost obsessional feeling, with an equal capacity to put those feelings into poetry. Losing herself in “this blind prison of grief,” she finds her literary voice, a wondrous alchemy of deep, even suicidal, emotion:
My own hand, encouraged so often by grief,
would have done it, but then my burning zeal
to find him again keeps holding me back.
Having cut her teeth on earthly love, Colonna then turned her poetic attention to God. An audacious thing for a woman to do, it was made more acceptable by her emphasis on her own unworthiness — a tactic used by talented women throughout history, claiming inadequacy while proving the opposite. But while Colonna may have lived among nuns, her lineage gave her standing in the world. She rubbed shoulders with the great and the good of Renaissance Italy, and her sonnets, oscillating between doubt and transcendence, circulated widely among her friends. In 1538, a printing house in Parma published an unauthorized volume of her work. It would be reprinted 12 times in the nine years before her death in 1547, and its success opened the way for other women writers.
But it’s not just Colonna’s poetic voice that this biography brings alive. Targoff proves herself as good a popular historian as she is a literary critic. These were troubled times in Italy, filled with political and religious upheaval, and she is a terrific guide, navigating us smoothly through complexity, aided and enhanced by the starry cast of characters in Colonna’s orbit. Colonna corresponded with popes and emperors. The poet Bembo sang her praises. Titian painted a notably erotic Mary Magdalene for her. But it is Michelangelo with whom she had the deepest affinity. Theirs was a passionate, platonic relationship. (The collision of those two adjectives makes perfect sense; he described himself as “overwhelmed with grief” at her death.) She sent him sonnets, he sent her drawings. Together they discussed religion.
God was a burning topic in Italy, where a corrupt Roman Catholic Church operated under the storm clouds of the Reformation. In such a volatile climate, being accused of heresy was a constant danger, and Colonna walked a narrow line, communing with men who would later flee or be arrested, her poetry and letters flirting with the language of Calvin and Luther. (As late as the 1980s, a file on her was discovered in the records of Italy’s Inquisition.)
All of which makes her a surprisingly engaging character. What could have been the story of a religious good girl becomes instead the study of a passionate, complex woman with formidable poetic talents: someone who, while embedded in her own age, emerges as a thinker and seeker in tune with a modern audience. Vittoria Colonna has always deserved to be better known. Ramie Targoff’s fine book will surely make that happen.