Renaissance Woman: The Life of Vittoria Colonna by Ramie Targoff; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 352 pages
“Poetess and friend to Michelangelo” is the descriptive text accompanying a portrait of Vittoria Colonna in her family’s still-standing palace in Rome, the Palazzo Colonna. Imagine if Sylvia Plath’s epitaph were “Wife to Ted Hughes,” or if Gertrude Stein’s were “Member of Picasso’s crew.” In a new biography, Ramie Targoff provides a richly layered account of how Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547) was so much more than a poet and friend of the famous. She was a popular writer of spiritual and secular poetry, a marchesa and diplomat during the chaos of Renaissance Italian warfare, a religious philosopher, and, as the first published woman poet in Italy, a pioneer.
Targoff starts Vittoria’s story not at the beginning — we learn little about her youth — but upon the death of her husband Ferdinando Francesco d’Ávalos from injuries during the Battle of Pavia (1525), part of an ongoing war between Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and France. Ferrante, as he was known, was not a perfect husband; he was unfaithful and absent. Yet in death, he assumed a role greater than that of marquis or military leader: He became the subject of a series of sonnets Vittoria wrote while in mourning. Targoff explains that at the time, women were the subjects, not the creators of sonnet cycles, and their writing was never circulated in print, with few exceptions. By the time Vittoria’s sonnets were published in 1538, she was already famed for her verse — in addition to her noblewoman status, as a member of the distinguished Colonna family — and her renown grew with each new edition issued of her works. Twelve were published during her lifetime.
The editor of the first unauthorized edition of Vittoria’s poetry justified its publication in a dedicatory letter: “I consider it less of an error to displease one woman (however rare and great) than to deny so many men what they want.” (The first copyright law was still a few centuries away, but intellectual-property theft was clearly on the editor’s mind, even if he wouldn’t define it as such.) While his decision now carries a rank stench, by the end of the century, Targoff notes, about 200 women had had their poetry published in Italy — compared, for instance, to 17 in Elizabethan England.
Targoff is a professor of English literature at Brandeis University, and some of the most compelling passages of the biography are those in which she sets aside historical recounting and turns to analysis of Vittoria’s poetry. The sonnets from Vittoria’s newly widowed phase precisely follow the structure perfected by Petrarch in the 14th century, yet within those strictures, she wrote with deep, almost uninhibited honesty. “To work through the full collection of her sonnets,” Targoff writes, “ … is to glimpse Vittoria as intimately as possible.” We see her pain, her humility, and her ambivalence about turning her suffering into art: “My grief pushed me to write, and yet I found/no style worthy of my noble cause,/so that I carry hidden in me the pain/of my error, so much that it hurts my heart.” The poem ends with a powerful resolution to restrain her despair, externally at least: “The time has come for me to hide the fire/that burns within, and dry my outward tears,/only those in my heart will live and die.”
In the early sonnets, Vittoria also contemplated what would become her life’s commitment, as well as the sole focus of her later verse: her religiosity. “I am left only to see if I have/reason enough within me that I might/turn my unsound desires to better works,” one poem concludes, a culmination that, Targoff describes, carries echoes of the Catholic concept of “works alongside faith as the means to salvation.” Vittoria was a prominent Catholic, to the extent that she corresponded with popes about, for instance, her wish to transform a Neapolitan house into a haven for religious women. (Pope Clement gave his approval, although the nunnery never came to be.) However, she was in her twenties when Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were published, and her religio-intellectual study in subsequent years comprised an exploration of Protestant beliefs — despite the risks involved in such exploration.
Partly because of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and partly because of the conflicts and shifting alliances among the regions of a not-yet-unified Italy, the Holy Roman Empire, and others, Vittoria’s Renaissance Italy was one of constant discord. Vittoria was hardly an idle observer of the strife. Rather, she was a prolific correspondent with key political figures, as well as an important negotiator during a feud between the Colonna family and Pope Paul III over, in part, the pope’s imposition of a new tax on salt. Vittoria’s story, told with meticulous research and admirable skill by Targoff, is a testament to the occasionally usefulness of clichés: Her pen really was mightier than so many swords put together. — Grace Parazzoli