Renaissance and Reformation Vittoria Colonna
by
Abigail Brundin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0077

Introduction

Vittoria Colonna (b. 1490/2–d. 1547) made her name as the author of numerous lyric poems in the Petrarchan style in 16th-century Italy. Her poetry was widely published in printed editions in her lifetime and after, as well as being set to music by many composers. She was admired as an impeccable stylist who manipulated the sonnet form with considerable agility while also demonstrating the appropriate decorum and gravity. At the same time, especially in her later spiritual verses, Colonna pushed the genre in new, innovative directions that proved very influential for successive generations of poets. Although she always claimed to have no desire to see her work circulate beyond a close group of friends, Colonna’s reputation as a literary figure was considerable by the time of her death in 1547. She began composing poetry early in life, but her renown as a Petrarchist grew in the wake of her husband’s death in 1525, when mourning became the dominant theme in her lyrics. She was promoted by Pietro Bembo, who admired her style and seriousness, and she corresponded with many of the major literary figures of her day. Her involvement with the religious controversies of the 1530s and 1540s brought a decidedly evangelical flavor to much of her mature poetic production, and was also integral to her close friendship with Michelangelo Buonarroti. Notably, Colonna was the first secular woman to achieve a high level of literary status in Italy for vernacular production, and her example opened the way for subsequent women writers to publish in all manner of genres. In this she was greatly aided both by her aristocratic status and by her widowhood, which conferred on her a degree of independence and wealth that allowed her the space to write. She resisted a second marriage and devoted her later years to religion and literature, producing some of her most striking spiritual poetry in the years before her death. She also wrote a number of prose meditations, expressing a female perspective on the reformed faith that so influenced her.

General Overviews

Despite her reputation in her lifetime, and her importance in the history of women’s literature in Italy, there have not been many book-length studies of Vittoria Colonna in either Italian or English. This critical neglect is now being rectified, with new scholarship published in recent years that recognizes both the pathbreaking nature of her poetry and her crucial contribution as a role model for later women writers. Thérault 1968 is an exception to the widespread critical neglect of previous decades, as a work that ably traces Colonna’s early intellectual development in the south of Italy. An overview of Colonna’s centrality as a literary role model is provided in Rabitti 2000, an essay that draws attention to the longevity of printed editions of the poetry across the span of the 16th century, and the accomplished nature of the poet’s development of a literary persona. Cox 2008, in the context of a much wider study of women’s literary protagonism in the Italian Renaissance, is particularly helpful in redirecting serious attention to the poet and placing her firmly in the context of the wider phenomenon of women’s increasing participation in cultural production. Cox 2011, similarly, adds to the picture of women’s literary production in the period of the Counter-Reformation, with Colonna as an important reference point for later women writers. The two large catalogues of exhibitions held in Vienna (Ferino-Pagden 1997, in German) and Florence (Ragionieri 2005) draw together a wide sample of current scholarship as well as numerous images. Bassanese 1994 contains an initial bibliography to start students off, although many noteworthy studies have been published since this date. Robin 2007 adds much to our understanding of Colonna’s role as a key player in the literary, religious, and political life of the Italian peninsula during her lifetime. Brundin 2008 is the first monograph in English wholly dedicated to Colonna in a century, and it examines her pathbreaking literary production in the context of religious reform.

  • Bassanese, Fiora A. “Vittoria Colonna.” In Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Edited by Rinaldina Russell, 85–94. London: Greenwood, 1994.

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    Contains a bibliography of works published prior to the early 1990s, and is useful as a starting point for undergraduate reading.

  • Brundin, Abigail. Vittoria Colonna and the Spiritual Poetics of the Italian Reformation. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.

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    An examination of Colonna’s print and manuscript circulation in the 16th century, together with an analysis of her involvement in reform circles and the influence of this religious environment on her literary production.

  • Cox, Virginia. Women’s Writing in Italy 1400–1650. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

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    Considers Colonna alongside her contemporary Veronica Gambara in the broader context of women’s literary participation, and establishes her key role as a model for the tradition of women’s writing that followed in her century and after.

  • Cox, Virginia. The Prodigious Muse: Women’s Writing in Counter-Reformation Italy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

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    Takes account of the later period of female literary production in Italy, seeking to explain the apparent conundrum of an expansion of women’s literary protagonism during a period thought to be one of cultural suppression by the church. Colonna features as a constant reference point for later Italian women writers.

  • Ferino-Pagden, Silvia, ed. Vittoria Colonna, Dichterin und Muse Michelangelos. Vienna: Skira, 1997.

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    Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna from 25 February to 25 May 1997. Published in German, this covers many aspects of Colonna’s life and literary formation, including useful information about her married life on Ischia, as well as considering her famous friendship with Michelangelo. Contains numerous color and black-and-white illustrations, including of all known portraits of Colonna.

  • Rabitti, Giovanna. “Lyric Poetry, 1500–1650”. In A History of Women’s Writing in Italy. Edited by Letizia Panizza and Sharon Wood, 37–51. Translated by Abigail Brundin. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    An introductory essay that establishes Colonna as the role model for later women poets writing in Italian, illustrating the key features of her poetic model and tracing its development in the work of some subsequent women writers.

  • Ragionieri, Pina, ed. Vittoria Colonna e Michelangelo. Florence: Mandragora, 2005.

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    A reprisal of the Vienna exhibition at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, 24 May–12 September 2005, the catalogue contains a number of new articles and illustrations, as well as Italian-language versions of articles published in German in Ferino-Pagden 1997.

  • Robin, Diana. Publishing Women: Salons, the Presses, and the Counter Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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    Considers the role played by women in forming and directing literary culture in Italy in the period, including Colonna’s crucial involvement in different religious and political circles.

  • Thérault, Suzanne. Un cénacle humaniste de la Renaissance autour de Vittoria Colonna, châtelaine d’Ischia. Florence: Sansoni, 1968.

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    Published in French, this wide-ranging study examines Colonna’s early married life on Ischia and in Naples, making illuminating use of local literary sources to trace her intellectual development as a writer.

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