I decided to tell her story myself. The first thing I did was to map out the places Vittoria had lived and to try to visit them all.
This proved more demanding than I could possibly have imagined, because she was unusually mobile for a woman of her period and class. When her father became Grand Constable of the Spanish-run kingdom of Naples, the family moved to Naples, where they had a beautiful palace in the heart of the city. Upon marrying, she and her husband took up residence on the island of Ischia in the castle that belonged to his family, and also maintained a palace of their own in Naples.
After Vittoria became a widow at the age of thirty-five, she lived for a short time in Rome, then moved back to Marino, and ultimately returned to Ischia, where she stayed for the better part of six years. After this time, she led a very itinerant existence.
Vittoria always came and went from Rome but spent long stretches of time in the cities of Ferrara, Orvieto, and Viterbo. In each of these places, she lived as a lay guest in a convent. Over the course of a few years, which included a sabbatical in Rome, I traveled to every single place that Vittoria had lived. I returned on multiple occasions to Subiaco. Most of my time was spent studying the several hundred letters—both in manuscripts and in the printed Italian volume from the late nineteenth century—that have survived of her correspondence.
Very few of these letters had ever been translated into English, and a certain number of them had never been transcribed from their original handwritten form.
Here was a woman graced with all of the privileges the Renaissance had to offer. She came from one of the most powerful families in all of Italy, was extremely well educated, and had many castles.
She had made an important marriage with the heir to one of the ruling Spanish families in the kingdom of Naples. She was a very talented poet and wrote beautiful sonnets that brought her great fame. She lived an immensely glamorous life as a young woman, regularly attending parties with royalty from all of Europe.
The Secret of Santa Vittoria
She commissioned paintings from Michelangelo and Titian, and was on a first-name basis with the Holy Roman Emperor. At the same time, Vittoria was a solitary person, who in her heart eschewed money and fame. She was profoundly religious and, once widowed, wanted to spend as much time as she could living alongside nuns.
She was also adventurous in her faith and, despite her strong Catholic roots, became a firm believer in some of the core tenets of Protestantism. She resisted remarriage but developed very deep attachments, sometimes bordering on obsessions, with a number of charismatic men. She loved her family, and was loyal to her brother through his many political struggles at the same time that she avoided living with him or her other relatives whenever possible.
No sooner did I think I had her pegged than she slipped from my grasp.
But enough has remained to conjure her up. As we begin to understand not only her extraordinary accomplishments as a poet and writer, but also her complexity as a person, we see in a new light what made the historical moment in which she lived so remarkable. For Vittoria embodied in a single person—in a single woman—many of the qualities that make this period so different from any other; she captured its simultaneous magic and strangeness.
In our learning about Vittoria Colonna, the Renaissance comes to life anew. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on April 17, All rights reserved.
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