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.