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Article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Vol. VI
p715
Vittoria Colonnaa

Colonna, Vittoria (1490‑1547), marchioness of Pescara, Italian poet, daughter of Fabrizio Colonna, grand constable of the kingdom of Naples, and of Anna da Montefeltro, was born at Marino, a fief of the Colonna family. Betrothed when four years old at the instance of Ferdinand, king of Naples, to Ferrante de Avalos, son of the marquis of Pescara, she received the highest education and gave early proof of a love of letters. Her hand was sought by many suitors, including the dukes of Savoy and Braganza, but at nineteen, by her own ardent desire, she was married to de Avalos on the island of Ischia. There the couple resided until 1511, when her husband offered his sword to the League against the French. He was taken captive at the battle of Ravenna (1512) and conveyed to France. During the months of detention and the long years of campaigning which followed, Vittoria and Ferrante corresponded in the most passionate terms both in prose and verse. They saw each other but seldom, for Ferrante was one of the most active and brilliant captains of Charles V; but Vittoria's influence was sufficient to keep him from joining the projected league against the emperor after the battle of Pavia (1525), and to make him refuse the crown of Naples offered to him as the price of his treason. In the month of November of the same year he died of his wounds at Milan. Vittoria, who was hastening to tend him, received the news of his death at Viterbo; she halted and turned off to Rome, and after a brief stay, departed for Ischia, where she remained for several years. She refused several suitors, and began to produce those Rime spirituali which form so distinct a feature in her works. In 1529 she returned to Rome, and spent the next few years between that city, Orvieto, Ischia and other places. In 1537, we find her at Ferrara, where she made many friends and helped to establish a Capuchin monastery at the instance of the reforming monk Bernardino Ochino, who afterwards became a Protestant. In 1539 she was back in Rome, where, besides winning the esteem of Cardinals Reginald Pole and Contarini, she became the object of a passionate friendship on the part of Michelangelo, then in his sixty-fourth year. The great artist addressed some of his finest sonnets to her, made drawings for her, and spent long hours in her society. Her removal to Orvieto and Viterbo in 1541, on the occasion of her brother Ascanio Colonna's revolt against Paul III, produced no change in their relations, and they continued to visit and correspond as before. She returned to Rome in 1544, staying as usual at the convent of San Silvestro,b and died there on the 25th of February 1547.

Cardinal Bembo, Luigi Alamanni and Baldassare Castiglione were among her literary friends. She was also on intimate terms with many of the Italian Protestants, such as Pietro Carnesecchi, Juan de Valdes and Ochino, but she died before the church crisis in Italy became acute, and, although she was an advocate of religious reform, there is no reason to believe that she herself became a Protestant. Her life was a beautiful one, and goes far to counteract the impression of the universal corruption of the Italian Renaissance conveyed by such careers as those of the Borgia. Her amatory and elegiac poems, which are the fruits of a sympathetic and dainty imitative gift rather than of any strong original talent, were printed at Parma in 1538; a third edition, containing sixteen of her Rime Spirituali, in which religious themes were treated in Italian, was published at Florence soon afterwards; and a fourth, including a still larger proportion of the pious element, was issued at Venice in 1544.c

A great deal has been written about Vittoria Colonna, but perhaps the best account of her life is A. Luzio's Vittoria Colonna (Modena, 1885); A. von Reumont's Vita di Vittoria Colonna (Italian corrected edit., Turin, 1883) is also excellent; F. le Fèvre's Vittoria Colonna is somewhat inaccurate, but T. Roscoe's Vittoria Colonna (London, 1868) may be recommended to English readers; P. E. Visconti's Le Rime di Vittoria Colonna (Rome, 1846) deals with her poems.

[L. V.*]


Thayer's Notes:

a This article goes a bit beyond the usual focus of my site, but poking around online for a simple yet comprehensive biographical sketch of her to link to from another page, I found nothing else as good out there. Wikipedia, bless 'em, cribs the article whole, and does add a couple of details, also making a few cosmetic changes (at least one of them ill-advised due to a misunderstanding) — but omits the discussion and critical appreciation of her poetry and replaces this older bibliography, specific to Vittoria Colonna, by a much less good modern reading list of two books, a scholarly paper, and a dictionary entry that focus not on her, however, but on feminist literature: it thus seemed best to put the original Britannica entry online.

b It is usually stated that she retired to the convent attached to the church of S. Anna dei Falegnami, and that she died there. The actual place of her death is somewhat doubtful, however: for details see my note to Gregorovius, Wanderjahre in Italien, ch. 50 (tr. Roberts).

c A sample of her verse — a sonnet, in the original text accompanied by an English translation — can be found at Elfinspell.

Page updated: 24 Dec 12