Vittoria was Michelangelo’s social superior and, since having frequented reformist circles, was also somewhat of an authority in matters of faith. Michelangelo speaks of her as his spiritual mentor, even addressing her in one sonnet in the most hyperbolic terms: ‘a god speaks through her mouth, so that I, by having listened to her, have been made such that I’ll never be my own again.’


As has been stated, Vittoria Colonna both knew and was known by most celebrated personages of the age. She was very much defined by the company she kept. On that score, two artistico-religious relationships in particular deserve especial treatment here. 

Sometime in the summer of 1540, Vittoria sent a gift manuscript of 102 poems to Marguerite de Navarre, who had requested a personal copy of the fruits of her quill through the French ambassador to Rome. Earlier that same year, the Queen of Navarre had also initiated a correspondence with Vittoria and had expressed a desire to meet face to face.[1]  On one level, nothing would appear more improbable than a friendship between the two noblewomen, since their husbands had fought on opposing sides in the battle of Pavia (1525), during which, as well, Marguerite’s brother, King François I, had been taken prisoner by the imperial forces and subsequently sent into captivity in Spain. On another level, though, Marguerite and Vittoria were destined to find themselves on intimate terms, since they participated in parallel reform circles within their respective countries and shared common spiritual and literary sensibilities. Moreover, in precisely 1540, both Marguerite and Vittoria were increasing beset with various sublunary wrongs and woes, which drove them each to find a refuge in the otherworldly comforts of religion. Theirs was thus a veritable sisterhood of misery. For instance, in France, following the “Affair of the Placards,” François I’s policy toward Protestants became more entrenched and persecutorial. His “Edict of Fontainebleau” in June 1540 initiated summary procedures and gave broad powers to civil and ecclesiastical courts in heresy proceedings. In fact, when Vittoria’s gift manuscript arrived at the French court, it was intercepted by the Grand Constable of France, Anne de Montmorency, who scoured its contents in search of evidence of heretical doctrine, with an eye towards accusing Marguerite herself, but Francis I laughed off the charges and ordered the confiscated manuscript delivered to his sister. On her own end, as we have seen, Vittoria’s relationship with Paul III and the Farnese family was strained to the breaking point due to political and other conflicts, eventually culminating in her irascible brother Ascanio’s ill-advised war on the papacy, which, in turn, resulted in the loss of much of the Colonna family’s land and wealth. It is against this backdrop that three of the five surviving letters between Marguerite and Vittoria were composed. V.-L. Saulnier has dated all three as having been sent to or from Orvieto.[2] Regrettably, here we have to correct the legendary French critic, for Vittoria did not arrive in San Paolo until March 1541. Vittoria was more likely in Rome at the time of the correspondence in question. Nevertheless, there is every reason to believe that the two female poets remained in contact throughout Vittoria’s Orvietan stay and beyond, for in the third letter Marguerite manifests an ardent desire for the relationship to continue, either in print or in person: 


…it is necessary that you continue to pray and write your useful letters without becoming tired of sending them, since the friendship that was started by reputation has now grown so much because I have it reciprocated in your letters. I therefore desire your letters more than ever, but my greater wish is to be so fortunate as to hear you speak in this world of the happiness of the one to come.[3]


However, the true value of the 1540 epistolary exchange between Vittoria and Marguerite is that it sets into relief the état d’âme of both women on the eve of Vittoria’s San Paolo retreat, in that current circumstances had forced temporal concerns to recede from view and had given primacy to the spiritual. Thus Marguerite writes to Vittoria, thanking her for showing “…the difference that exists between worldly and external triumphs and honors, and the beauty and loveliness of the daughter and true spouse of the one and great King, God, which are interior and well-hidden qualities.”[4]

Perhaps no other aspect of Vittoria’s life has been more scrutinized than her association with Michelangelo. This is in part because their relationship sheds light on Valdesian spirituality in Italy prior to the formation of the Roman Inquisition (1542) and the convocation of the Council of Trent (1545). We know that Vittoria and Michelangelo were in frequent contact during her stay at San Paolo. In a letter to his nephew Lionardo Buonarotti, composed in 1551, Michelangelo states: “I have a little book in parchment that she gave me about ten years ago, in which are a hundred and three sonnets… I have in addition many letters she wrote me from Orvieto and Viterbo….”[5] Regrettably, these missives are now lost. We can only guess something of their tenor based upon what we know of the ascendancy Vittoria had over Michelangelo’s soul. It is not certain when the two first met, although from the moment Vittoria took up residence at the San Silvestro convent in Rome (1538-1539), they were in regular communication. In spite of what we might consider the prerogatives of artistic genius, Vittoria was Michelangelo’s social superior and, since having frequented reformist circles, was also somewhat of an authority in matters of faith. This is why Michelangelo speaks of her as his spiritual mentor, even addressing her in one sonnet in the most hyperbolic terms: 

A man within a woman, or rather a god
speaks through her mouth, so that I,
by having listened to her,
have been made such that I’ll never be my own again.[6]

 Sometime in 1540, which is to say, just prior to her Orvietan retreat, Vittoria composed a collection of one hundred and three devotional sonnets and sent the manuscript to Michelangelo as a gift. (This is alluded to above in the letter to Lionardo Buonarotti.) In reply, the overwhelmed artist confessed that his initial reflex was to reciprocate. However, he soon perceived that the practice of exchange and along with the ensuing sense of obligation violate the very notion of a gift, and he thus draws an explicit parallel with divine grace: “Then, having recognized and seen that the grace of God cannot be bought, and that to have it with discomfort is a grave sin, I say the fault is mine and willingly I accept these things.”[7] Fortunately for us, Michelangelo did reciprocate, and the “presentation drawing” which he composed for Vittoria in return constitutes perhaps the quintessential example of Italian Reformation art. The Colonna Pietà now hangs in the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston:

In a sonnet accompanying the piece, Michelangelo further muses on the nature of gift giving or, more exactly, on the gifting of creative works, for these are not like other commodities of exchange, but are themselves gift-like, in that their worth is incommensurable. Again he draws a parallel with divine grace: “For a heavenly gift cannot, even with a thousand attempts, be paid by the sole efforts of one who is mortal.”[8]

Scholars have shown that in the “Colonna” Pietà Michelangelo intended in some measure to reflect back to Vittoria the reformist teachings which he had found in her own writings. To be sure, the “Colonna” Pietà stands in stark contrast to Michelangelo’s earlier and more famous rendition, currently in St. Peter’s, in which the deposed Christ lies cradled in the Virgin’s lap. While the latter group is Marian in orientation, with a configuration that is foreshadowed by that of the Madonna and child tradition, the former is consciously Christocentric. Michelangelo’s new depiction is enigmatic in that the front-facing Christ, his arms still in sacrificial pose, appears deceased yet strangely recumbent, pathetic yet somehow victorious. Michelangelo has focused on that most self-revelatory moment of Salvation History, which was so pregnant with meaning for Vittoria, namely the interval between Crucifixion and Entombment, in which true “evangelical” faith could be tested. In her own works, Vittoria celebrated those biblical figures such as the Virgin Mary, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and Mary Magdalene who manifested belief or displayed courage when all seemed lost, post mortem and ante resurrectionem. Similarly, in the “Colonna” Pietà the Virgin’s effort to uphold the Man of Sorrows, her gaze and arms lifted toward heaven in a mingled expression of joy and grief, nevertheless points to the efficacy of his sacrifice as well as the triumph of her faith. In spite of her boundless suffering, she manages to hope against hope and to find life in the Savior’s death. 

Not only does the Colonna Pietà illustrate the “evangelical” doctrine of sola fide, but Michelangelo’s representation of a powerful and confident Virgin, who, rather than collapsing in anguish over the Crucified, now upholds him in majesty, mirrors as well Vittoria’s own “reformed Mariology,”[9] as elaborated in her works. In a latter prose meditation Pianto sopra la passione di Cristo, Vittoria emphasizes the Virgin’s multifaceted relationship to Christ as mother, wife, daughter, and disciple, thus proving to be a role model for women and an exemplar for all believers. No longer does Mary appear as the Mediatrix of salvation, but she becomes the maestra who disseminates the Gospel message, in that she leads the way to a living faith. As Vittoria writes: “For, since all the treasure that the Christian may obtain is born of a true faith, and since we have received that faith from the Virgin, for without her it would have been extinguished, then we must remember how great is our obligation to her….”[10]

Had Vittoria lived long enough, alas, she would most certainly have been tried for heresy, for we know that the Inquisition opened a posthumous file on her.[11] Her departure from this transitory existence in her fifty-fifth year was probably a mercy, for the day of evil was indeed drawing nigh. In her last will and testament, six years after her sojourn in Orvieto, she did not forget the faithful sisters of San Paolo, according them one hundred crowns, a conspicuous sum given her relatively short stay.[12] For her, their company must have been a haven in the most troubling of troublous times. 


The drawing by Michelangelo, used on the Home Page of this essay, in pen and brown ink over black and red chalk from around 1525 has been identified as a portrait of Vittoria Colonna (British Museum).

[1]  On this subject, one will consult with profit, Barry Collett, A Long and Troubled Pilgrimage: the Correspondence of Marguerite d’Angoulême and Vittoria Colonna, 1540-1545. Studies in Reformed Theology and History, new series, 6 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 2000).

[2]  See Verdun-Louis Saulnier, “Marguerite de Navarre, Vittoria Colonna et quelques autres amis italiens de 1540,” in Mélanges à la mémoire de Franco Simone: France et Italie dans la culture européene. Vol. I: Moyen Age et Renaissance (Genève: Slatkine, 1980), 284, 291, 293.

[3]  The translation is that of B. Collet, op. cit., 114. We cite the original Italian as printed in the Carteggio, op. cit.: “…è necessaria la continuanza delle vostre orationi et le frequenti visitationi delle vostre utili scritture, le quali io vi prego che non vi anoii di continuare: imperò che l’amicitia, cominciata per la fama, è tanto accresciuta per haverla veduta nelle vostre lettere reciproca, che più che giamai desidero di haverne, et anchor più di esser così aventurosa che in questo mondo possi di Voi udir parlare della felicità de l’altro” (203-206).

[4]  B. Collet translation, ibid. Again, the original Italian is cited form the Carteggio, op. cit.: “…la differenza, ch’è da’ triomphi et dignità mondane et esteriori alla beltà et ornamento della figlia et vera sposa del solo et del gran Re, la quale è interiore et ben a dentro” (203).

[5]  Cited in Domenico Tordi, Il codice delle Rime di Vittoria Colonna… (Pistoia: Flori, 1900), 11.


   Un uomo in una donna, anzi un dio
    par la sua bocca parla,
    ond’io per ascotarla
    son fatto tal, che ma’ più sarò mio.

Cited in Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Poetry of Michelangelo, ed. and trans. James M. Saslow (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 389.

[7]  “Dipoi riconosciuto e visto che la gratia d’Iddio non si può comperare, e che’l tenerla a disagio è pechato grandissimo, dico mie colpa, e volentieri dette cose accecto.” Quoted and translated by Alexander Nagel, “Gifts for Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna,” Art Bulletin 79 (1997), 650.

[8]  “C’un don celeste mai con mille pruove / pagar può sol del suo chi è mortale.” Ibid., 651.

[9]  The expression is Abigail Brundin’s, op.cit., 142.

[10]  “Per tanto, nascendo quanto tesoro puo havere il Christiano, dalla vera fede; e havendolo ricevuta dalla vergine Maria, che senza lei sarebbe stata estinta; è da pensare, quanto sia l’obligo, che noi le habbiamo…” Ibid., 141.

[11]  See Pagano and Ranieri, Nuovi documenti…, op. cit.

[12]  See Tordi, art. cit., 511


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