was the daughter of Fabrizio Colonna and Agnese di Montefeltro. Her father was
a valiant commander of militia who had served Charles VIII in the war for the
conquest of the kingdom of Naples. Vittoria Colonna was born in Marino, near
Rome, in 1490. The date of birth is however contested because some historians
place it in 1492. After a childhood spent in the cast of her family was
destined to marry Ferdinando d’Avalos, Marquis of Pescara. Through this marriage,
Fabrizio Colonna intended to make his military service in favor of the
Spaniards, taking advantage of the links that the Avalos had with Iberians.
Colonna was disappointed with the lack of gratifications by Frenchman Charles
VIII for his contribution to the conquest of the kingdom of Naples. In 1501
Pope Alexander VI, allied with the French, required all the possessions of the
Colonna, while Fabrizio, with his family, was the guest of the d’Avalos family
in Ischia. Colonna stayed on the island for a long time, during which he
married his daughter with Ferdinando Francesco d’Avalos.
Vittoria Colonna celebrated her marriage with Ferdinando d’Avalos on December 27, 1509, in the Aragonese castle in Ischia, owned by the groom’s family. The marriage was of great luxury. It is still remembered today in the island with a commemorative parade. The two bridegrooms established their residence in Ischia where Vittoria lived until 1536.
The two stayed together for a short time. Only two years after the marriage, Ferdinando enlisted in the army of the against French league wanted by Pope Julius II to whom the kingdom of Naples also adhered. His father-in-law Fabrizio Colonna enlisted with him. In 1512 the two commanders participated in the battle of Ravenna which ended with the defeat of the league. Both were captured by the French and held prisoners first in Ferrara and then in Milan. One of Vittoria’s first poetic compositions was in this period, “Le Epistole”, a poetry full of nostalgia devoted to her husband, prisoner of French. Ferdinando d’Avalos was released following the intervention in his favor of one of the most powerful noblemen in Milan, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, his relatives, who paid a ransom of six thousand ducats.
Vittoria Colonna could not enjoy much of her husband company since in 1513 Ferdinando d’Avalos was appointed commander of the Spanish army to the dependencies of his friend and relative Prospero Colonna. Immediately afterwards, unsatisfied with the assignment received, he went to Valladolid to meet Emperor Charles V to ask him for the supreme command of the Spanish expedition in Italy.
Meanwhile Vittoria cultivated her passion for
poetry. In Naples she met and made friends with the poet Jacopo Sannazzaro and
with Gaetano di Tarsia. She went to Rome to meet Pope Leo, she had relations
with several literate, including Pietro Bembo. In 1520 she had her father’s
death, followed shortly after that of his mother. Since she had not had
children, she adopted a young cousin of her husband, Alfonso del Vasto, and
curated his education.
In 1525 Ferdinando d’Avalos was appointed lieutenant of the emperor and commander of the Spanish expedition against the French. The Spaniards were defeated in the Battle of Pavia on February 24, 1525. Unfortunately, in December of that year, the wounds reported to Pavia caused the Ferdinand’s death. Vittoria, aware of the serious condition of her husband, was coming to Milan where he was. The news of his death came Vittoria to Viterbo. Vittoria’s turmoil, which was deeply in love with Ferdinand, made her go deep into depression. She wanted to go in a convent. She was dissuaded by his family. Even Pope Clement VII advised them not to enter the convent; rather, the Pope entrusted the marquess to the Benevento government, position that was already of the deceased husband.
Later on the relationship between the Colonna family and the pope made worse and Vittoria decided to retire to her beloved Ischia. This decision saved her by the dramatic “Sack of Rome” carried out by the Lutheran troops of the German army in 1527. She helped, from her ischitan castle, some of her Roman friend prisoners of the landsknechts, paying her a ransom. In that time she met Juan de Valdes and Bernardino Ochino. The two were proponents of a church renewal. They were followers of Franciscan pauperism and Erasmus theories.
Juan de Valdes was born in Spain in 1505. He lived in Naples for a long time. His home on the Chiaia Riviera was the center of gathering of curious scholars or Valdes’ adepts and ecclesiastics. Among the visitors of his home there were bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Bernardino Ochino, vicar general of the Cappuccini Order, was one of his most faithful supporters, along with Pietro Carnesecchi, Vittoria Colonna and Giulia Gonzaga. In 1531 Juan de Valdes was named secret secretary of Pope Clement VII. With the death of Pope Clement began the Church’s suspicions about the goodness of the Erasmian theories of Valdes, too close to Lutheran reform.
Vittoria lived in Naples for long periods, in the palace of Avalos del Vasto, the residence of her husband’s family, a building that is located on the present day in via dei Mille, deeply restored in the mid-eighteenth century. Marquess Colonna met literate and church men in the city. She was a follower of the pauper and reformist ideas of Valdes and Ochino, to whom Michelangelo Buonarroti seems to have joined. Michelangelo had a close friendship with Vittoria, with whom, apart from sharing religious ideas, shared the artistic ideas. The artist encouraged her in her poetic compositions, which testified to her deep faith: “Le rime spirituali” (The spiritual rhyme), “Pianto della marchesa di Pescara sopra la passione di Cristo” (Weeping of the Marquise of Pescara over the passion of Christ), or they showed the love she had brought to her husband: “Sonetti in morte di Francesco Ferrante d’Avalos marchese di Pescara” (Sonnets in the death of Francesco Ferrante D’Avalos marquis of Pescara).
In 1531 Vittoria moved to Rome to escape the plague that struck the island of Ischia. She was able to measure her fame and influence on the world of the church by siding herself for the Cappuccini order, in disgrace with the high priests of Rome. The Capuchins, at that time, did not enjoy good reputation among the Roman church authorities because of the Franciscan rule they had adopted. That rule, so far away from the luxury of the church in Rome, was a bad example for the faithful, who could compare the two interpretations of the gospel. At that time there were ferments in Italy that considered positively the Lutheran reform that a few years before had affected the German church. The spirit of Luther’s gospel was, at least in part, shared by Valdes, Ochino and Michelangelo Buonarroti, as well as by the same Vittoria Colonna. These members of the church’s renewal were then accused of disguising their accession to the Protestant reform in order not to engage in church worries and continue to influence the pope’s decisions.
In 1537 Vittoria Colonna moved to Ferrara as she planned to organize a trip to Holy Land. In that city, that a few years earlier had received the visit of Martin Luther, there is a fervor and ferment that also involved Renata of France, spouse of Hercules II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Because of bad health, and because she was fully involved in the cultural revival of the city, Vittoria abandoned the idea of going to the Holy Land. Because of the humid climate of Ferrara, which negatively affected her ill-health, the poetess decided to leave the city, following Bernardino Ochino in his journeys between Bologna, Pisa and Lucca, where he held his sermons that kept him closer to Martin Luther. The reformist group around Juan de Valdes was under church surveillance for suspected heresy.
Controversies began between Pope Paul III, of Farnese family, and Ascanio Colonna, brother of Vittoria. The pope accused the Colonna of having somehow favored the sack of Rome. Vittoria tried to connect again good relations between Ascanio and Paul III. She favored the marriage between her nephew Fabrizio and Vittoria Farnese, to strengthen the peace between the two families. The motive for the definitive break of relations was the establishment of salt tax that Ascanio, by virtue of an old privilege, refused to pay the papal tax. In 1541 there was a military confrontation between the two. Ascanio was defeated by Papal troops in Paliano. All the Colonna’s belongings were requisitioned by the pope. Vittoria, who had finally sided with her brother, found wise to leave Rome by going to Orvieto, then moving to Viterbo.
The poetess became acquainted with Reginald Pole in this city, an English cardinal, sympathetic to Valdes’ theories. Reginald Pole had fought the Anglican schism and, if he did not join, he had moved to Rome. In 1541 the Pope sent Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, a good friend of the Colonna and Cardinal Pole, to the Regency of Regensburg, where he tried to reconcile with Catholics and Protestants. A draft agreement was signed that partially recognized the theory of justification advocated by Protestants. Contarini sent the draft to Vittoria Colonna and Reginald Pole, who found it acceptable, because they presented it to the pope. Paul III was firmed in rejecting the agreement which, in his view, compromised the theory of “salvation through works” of Catholic doctrine. Paul III determined the definitive schism between Protestants and Catholics with this rejection. The pope and the Roman curia suspected more and more of the group of followers of Valdes then their supporting the agreement with the Protestants. In 1542 Bernardino Ochino was accused of heresy. Since the Colonna and the Pole took the distance from his most extreme positions, he fled in Switzerland, a completely reformed nation, where he was welcomed by Calvin. Ochino became a Protestant pastor in the city of Geneva, married an Italian and had five children.
Vittoria’s health was now undermined by the maladies and in 1544 she returned to Rome, hosting her in the convent of St. Anna. she met Michelangelo in the city and renewed friendship between the two. The last years of the marquess’s life were marked by devotion and reverence for her by all her many acquaintances. Michelangelo gave her some of his drawings. She spent the last days of life in the Roman house of Giulia Colonna, where she died on 25 February 1547.
After the death, Vittoria Colonna was inquired by the ecclesiastical court for suspicion of heresy. Probably her death saved her from a trial and a conviction. Many of her friends took distances from her so they did not get involved with the suspects. Michelangelo, who was faithful to her until the end and even later, depicted her in his picture of the “crucifixion” in the character of Maddalena.
Despite suspects of heresy, Vittoria Colonna, besides being one of the greatest poets of the time, was a protagonist of her time, succeeding in influencing, with her ideas, literate philosophers, poets, as well as church theologians and exponents.
(Photo at the top: Castello Aragonese, Ischia, Otrebor81, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0)