VITTORIA COLONNA PART TWO

DAMON DI MAURO

The lively and compelling style of Il Beneficio di Cristo is evident from the outset when, after having hammered home the consequences of original sin and the misery of man, the free gift of salvation is pressed with urgency: “Let us run to him with the feet of living faith, into the arms of the one who invites us, crying: ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’.”

An excursus is in order here to situate Vittoria Colonna’s spiritual leanings within their wider European context. Sometime in the early 1530s, Vittoria came into contact with “evangelical” circles in Naples and Rome. The term evangelismo has been employed by modern scholars in reference to that very particular pre-Tridentine and proto-Reformation movement in Italy which fused humanistic learning and Augustinian theology, with decided Savonarolan overtones.[1] The hallmark of evangelismo nevertheless was its emphasis on the inner life, since the soul’s relation to God was deemed more important than the formal trappings of the Church. Its foremost proponent was Juan de Valdés, an ardent admirer of Erasmus and an exile from the Spanish Inquisition, established in Naples from 1535.[2] As one scholar writes: “The concept of faith as an existential experience of the believer ‘incorporated in Christ’ and the description of the dramatic journey from regeneration to sanctification, together with his uncommon capacity for the introspection of the mind, were among the most successful contributions of Valdés to the rich and varied religious panorama of the sixteenth century.”[3] While he was careful to avoid anti-Roman polemic, and while he never condoned the renunciation of rite and sacrament, Valdés called for a return to the primitive gospel and looked to Scripture alone to condition Christian consciousness. In his seaside home near Naples, he welcomed the spiritually restless from every corner of the Peninsula, drawn by his reputation as an exegete and a religious guide, for the many crises of European society as well as new humanistic sensibilities had tilled the soil for renewal. Indeed, many of these “evangelicals,” or rather “spirituals” (It. spirituali) as they styled themselves, seem to have come to central New Testament doctrines such as sola fide in part through the influence of Neoplatonism, although cross-pollination with Lutheran teaching was certainly paramount.[4] Already, this sort of Christian humanism had been modeled in the previous century by Lorenzo Valla who had sought to renew theology through a rigorous reexamination of the original biblical texts. Valla’s exegetical program was later to gain the approval of key reformers such as Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin, and his example alone shows that early sixteenth-century reformist spirituality in Italy could be a homegrown phenomenon—as opposed to merely an echo of developments in the German states.[5] It bears remarking as well that another indigenous reform-minded movement, in France, known as the “Circle of Meaux,” may have spurred on Valdesian evangelismo, with the Neapolitan poet Jacopo Sannazaro serving as a possible link between the two.[6] Among its main figures were Guillaume Briçonnet, Bishop of Meaux, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, the first translator of the Bible into French, and Queen Marguerite de Navarre, with whom Vittoria Colonna sustained a close correspondence. At first, these transalpine “evangelicals,” as they have been dubbed in modern times, strove for reform from within and did not intend to break with the Mother Church. By 1525, the Meaux Circle was forced to disband. Briçonnet, Lefèvre, and Queen Marguerite never did leave the Catholic fold, while a number of the Meaux Circle felt compelled to follow a heterodox course. 

With respect to cisalpine evangelismo, chief among Juan de Valdés’ followers were Bernardino Ochino[7], Pietro Carnesecchi[8], Marcantonio Flaminio[9], Pier Paolo Vergerio[10], and Pietro Vermigli.[11] It has not been established whether Vittoria Colonna ever actually met Valdés, though she appears to have possessed a copy of his commentary on Saint Paul’s epistles.[12] What is beyond dispute is that Vittoria gravitated in the same circles as Valdés, and that many of his intimates were her intimates, above all the Capuchin General Bernardino Ochino, with whom she was especially close. Indeed, some critics believe that much of Valdesian spirituality came to Vittoria through the circuitous route of Ochino’s undulating and suave sermonizing and prose.[13] Later, after Valdés’ death in 1541, a circle of spirituali regrouped around the exiled Reginald Pole, along with Vittoria Colonna herself in a central role, in the city of Viterbo, where the English cardinal had been appointed governor. In the few years leading up to the Council of Trent, this reformist cenacle, which has been called the ecclesia Viterbiensis, gathered regularly for colloquia in which participants gave informal sermons and delved into different matters of renewal. But they were not merely a quiet conventicle, basking in the beatitude of their studies. Rather, they set about the business of spreading Valdesian theology, mainly through their efforts to revise and publish Benedetto da Mantova’s Il Beneficio di Cristo[14], which had been circulating among them in manuscript form and which was tantamount to their manifesto.[15] The formula “the benefit of Christ” had frequently been on Valdés’ lips, for it summed up for him the evangelical teaching of gratuitous salvation. According to one theory, the plan was also hatched to flood the market with the treatise—indeed, tens of thousands of copies were printed[16]—in order to pressure, if possible, the upcoming Council of Trent into approving the doctrine of justification by faith.[17] And as a delegate to the council, Reginald Pole would soon seek a compromise with the Protestants on just this point, a position that would later cause him to be in very bad odor with the Roman Inquisition. In all events, much scholarly ink has been spilled over Il Beneficio di Cristo, which was the most popular and influential devotional work of sixteenth-century Italy.[18] Its success was due in part to the unpretentious way in which it presented itself to its readership, eschewing theological jargon for clear and engaging exposition. Its lively and compelling style is evident from the outset when, after having hammered home the consequences of original sin and the misery of man, the free gift of salvation is pressed with urgency: “Let us run to him with the feet of living faith, into the arms of the one who invites us, crying: ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’.”[19] The concentric aims of Il Beneficio di Cristo are to edify, to transmit the joy of divine grace, and to exhort to live by justified faith. If the doctrine of sola fide is carefully supported by appeal to the authority of Church Fathers, the reformed sources—Luther, Melanchthon, Valdés, and Calvin—are just as carefully concealed. Nowhere to be found are references to the Institutional Church. Not surprisingly, the Council of Trent condemned Il Beneficio di Cristo in 1546, and it was put on the Index of prohibited books in 1549. Translations in Croatian, English, French, and Spanish soon proliferated throughout Europe, but in Italy the Inquisition’s ferocious pursuit of the text was so unremitting that within a few decades almost all copies had disappeared. 

Portrait of Cardinal Reginald Pole (1540s) by Sebastiano del Piombo (The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia)

Suffice it to say, Vittoria Colonna found in evangelismo a new outlet for her poetry, well suited to her own religious and lyric sensibilities. Her rime spirituali would “grow organically”[2o] out of her earlier rime amorose in that there was a natural transfer from the apotheosized image of d’Avalos to the ultimate object of her affections, the Son of God. The very first sonnet of her spiritual canzoniere attests to this Christocentric shift:

Since my chaste love for many years

kept my soul aflame with the desire for fame, and it nourished

a serpent in my breast so that now my heart languishes

in pain turned towards God, who alone can help me,

let the holy nails from now on be my quills, 

and the precious blood my pure ink,

my lined paper the sacred lifeless body,

so that I may write down for others all that he suffered.

It is not right here to invoke Parnassus or Delos, 

for I aspire to cross other waters, to ascend

other mountains that human feet cannot climb unaided.

I pray to the sun, which lights up the earth and the

heavens, that letting forth his shining spring

he pours down upon me a draught equal to my great thirst.[21]

The final tercet announces as well her most telling adaptation, for the previous Petrarchan solar imagery associated with her departed will be reworked into a leitmotiv for her “vero Sol.” Henceforth, hers will be a reformist Petrarchism. The whole panoply of stock phrases and images will continue to be employed, but infused with New Testament accents as well as the very sensuous and mystical language of Valdesian spirituality.

Notes

[1]  The locus classicus on the subject is Delio Cantimori’s Eretici italiani del Cinquecento, Florence: Sansoni (1939). For a more up-to-date treatment, see Paolo Simoncelli, Evangelismo italiano del Cinquecento (Rome: Istituto storico italiano per l’età moderna e contemporanea, 1979).

[2]  For a recent treatment of Valdesian theology, see Salvatore Caponetto, The Protestant Reformation in Sixteenth-Century Italy, trans. Anne C. Tedeschi and John Tedeschi, Sixteenth-Century Essays and Studies, 43 (Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999), 63-75.

[3]  Ibid., 66.

[4]  On Neoplatonism’s role, see Concetta Ranieri, “Premesse umanistiche alla religiosità di Vittoria Colonna,” Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa 32 (1996): 531-548.

[5]  On this subject, see Brundin, op. cit., 40-41.

[6]  See Brundin, ibid., 41-42.

[7]  Capuchin preacher known for his eloquence and zeal. When summoned to Rome in 1542, suspecting a charge of heresy for his tendency to the doctrine of justification sine operibus, he fled to Geneva and embraced Protestantism. He eventually ran afoul of the Reformers for his views on divorce and the Trinity, and died in obscurity. For a full biography, see Roland H. Bainton, Bernardino Ochino esule e riformatore senese del cinquecento, 1487-1563 (Firenze: Sansoni, 1940).

[8]  Thrice tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition, he was executed in 1567.

[9]  Humanist poet thought to have revised and published Benedetto da Mantova’s Il Beneficio di Cristo, the most popular devotional book of the sixteenth century in Italy.

[10]  Jurist, papal nuncio, and later bishop. He was investigated by the Venetian Inquisition and fled Italy to avoid persecution.

[11]  Augustinian preacher and abbot influenced not only by Valdés, but by Martin Bucer and Zwingli as well. He came under suspicion for heresy and, summoned in 1542 to appear before a chapter of his order in Genoa, fled to Zurich. In 1547, he was invited by Thomas Cranmer to England and was appointed Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

[12]  See Carteggio di Vittoria Colonna Marchesa di Pescara, 2nd edition. Edited by Ermanno Ferrero and Giuseppe Müller with a supplement by Domenico Tordi (Turin: Ermanno Loeshcer, 1892), CXLII, 240. The manuscript copy was a gift from Giulia Gonzaga, to whom Valdés had dedicated the commentary. It wasn’t published until 1566, by his followers, in Venice.

[13]  See in particular Emidio Campi, Michelangelo e Vittoria Colonna: Un dialogo artistico-teologico ispirato da Bernardino Ochino… (Turin: Claudiniana, 1994).

[14]  Don Benedetto was a Benedictine black monk who had composed the treatise while staying in a monastery of his order near Mt. Etna in Sicily. He later yielded it to his friend Marcantonio Flaminio so that it could be corrected and polished.

[15] The Viterbo circle’s program has been featured in a rather portentous PBS documentary Secrets of the Dead which was broadcast in May 2009. 

[16]  If we are to believe some sources, 40,000 copies were printed in Venice alone, a number which must be inflated, which doesn’t negate the fact that the imprint was omnipresent and went through several editions.

[17]  See Massimo Firpo, Tra alumbrados e ‘spirituali’: studi su Juan de Valdés e il valdesianesimo nella crisi religiosa del ‘500 italiano (Firenze: Olschki, 1990), 127-153.

[18]  On its fortune, see Il Beneficio di Cristo con le versioni del secolo XVI, documenti e testimonianze, ed. Salvatore Caponetto (Firenze: Sansoni; Chicago: Newberry Library, 1972), 497 sq.

[19]  “Corriamo con li passi della viva fede a lui nelle braccia, il quale ci invita gridando: ‘Venite a me tutti voi che siete affannati e aggravati, e io vi recrearò,” ibid., 19. The refence is to Matthew 11:28.

[20] The expression is from the pen of Abigail Brundin, Sonnets for Michelangelo, ed. and trans. by Abigail Brundin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 20.

[21] 

 Ibid., 57. The original Italian reads as follows:

         Poi che ‘l mio casto amor gran tempo tenne

L’alma di fama accesa, ed ella un angue

         In sen nudriò per cui dolente or langue

Volta al Signor, onde ‘l rimedio venne,

I santi chiodi omai sian le mie penne,

E puro inchiostro il prezioso sangue,

Vergata carta il sacrocorpo exangue,

Sì ch’io scriva ad altrui quel ch’ei sostenne.

        Chiamar qui non convien Parnaso o Delo,

Ch’ad altra aqua s’aspira, ad altro monte

Si poggia, u’ piede uman per sé non sale.

        Quel sol, che alluma gli elementi e ‘l cielo,

Prego ch’aprendo il suo lucido fonte

Mi porga umor a la gran sete eguale.

 

A complete Bibliography of all references in Professor DiMauro's essay can be found here.