Peering back into the mists of time to ascertain how relationships between men and women played out has its challenges, particularly when the era limited contact between the opposite sex of a certain rank such as during the Italian Reformation. Last week, I took readers on a literary design adventure that found the Renaissance master Michelangelo and the sixteenth-century poet Vittoria Colonna dining at La Ménagère in Florence, enjoying the atmosphere filled with whimsical Karman lighting such as the Déjà-Vu Nu chandelier designed by Matteo Ugolini dangling above the table in the photograph above.
The Italian Reformation and Gifting
To ward off the academicians who would want to bang down my door for liable over my date-night riff if they knew of it, I believe some factual information about the pair would be prudent on my part. I’m not sure a person exists who hasn’t heard of Michelangelo but I’m guessing Colonna’s place in history is more obscure for many a fan of the Italian Renaissance.
Her legacy is explored in a book by Dr. Abigail Brundin, which is titled Vittoria Colonna and the Spiritual Poetics of the Italian Reformation. In it, the professor at St. Catherine’s College Cambridge, wrote, “Michelangelo’s acknowledged position as the foremost visual artist of his generation, patronized by popes and rulers, lent him a ‘star quality’ and a celebrity status that caused many of the most powerful individuals of his generation to seek him out, despite his relatively lowly beginnings. Colonna herself also enjoyed some celebrity status (although at all times, of course, carefully qualified by the limitations appropriate to her sex), as testified to by the frequency and popularity of printed editions of her works.”
Colonna was titled, her rank as the Marchesa di Pescara placing her above Michelangelo in stature but only in terms of birth. They met in Rome sometime between 1536 and 1538 while he was working on the Tomb of Julius II and The Last Judgment. In The Letters of Michelangelo, editor E.F. Ramsden notes three meetings that took place at the church of San Silvestro di Monte Cavallo at Capite during which Michelangelo, Vittoria and Francisco de Holanda—a Portuguese artist—among others discussed cultural topics. The latter left a written account of how Michelangelo and Colonna engaged in serious conversations about the status of art and the role of the artist in society. “Her close relations with Michelangelo can only have increased her celebrity, as well as the respect due to her as an artist of the first order able to commune with another such great mind,” Brundin notes, but she also believes it could have hurt her in the end, as critics have had the habit of painting her as merely a muse to a great man rather than the visionary she was in her own right.
Brundin explains, “Despite the difference in status—Colonna was the more aristocratic by far—and the need to negotiate with great care a friendship between two high profile, unmarried individuals, a very real bond clearly developed, one that is documented most compellingly in the poems they addressed to one another, including the gift manuscript of sonnets that Colonna prepared for her friend in around 1540, as well as the three presentation drawings that Michelangelo made for Colonna.”
Referring to Colonna’s creations as a “spiritualized Petrarchan conzoniere” in its purest form, Brundin points out that anything given as a gift required delicacy: “…in a profound sense, the religious reformations of the sixteenth century were a quarrel about gifts, that is, about whether humans can reciprocate to God, about whether humans can put God under obligation, and about what this means for what people should give to each other.”
This last fact was made all the more delicate because Colonna was widowed and Michelangelo had never been married, which meant great care had to be taken lest gifts be misconstrued as proclamations of romantic feelings. That’s what makes my last post during which a modernized version of the pair exchanged gifts in the hopes that a romance could blossom so capricious. Evidence of adoration does show in the eleven-year friendship that plays out in their letters and poetry, but it was a reverence born of mutual respect.
He was 61 and she was 46 when they met, and though some like to play around with their relationship (myself included) the most conservative historians believe their bond remained passionately platonic. Their exchanges wavered between formal and ecstatic, the tenor dictated by the rigors of the social demands of their time and, more often than not, religious undertones.
Letters of Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna
A handful of letters are important in shining a light on the fact that their relationship was an equal one despite her rank, and in the timeline of their relationship, 1540 was a busy year for their alliance. This first letter references the Crucifixion (pictured below), which Vittoria is said to have commissioned from Michelangelo. He is answering an entreaty from her, annoyed that she has grown impatient in not receiving it. She has sent him an unfinished drawing or model that she already possessed as a reminder, and the fact that she sent it by an intermediary angered Michelangelo.*
He wrote, “Seeing that I am in Rome, I do not think it was necessary to have left the Crucifix with Messer Tommao and to have made him an intermediary between your ladyship and me, your servant, to the end that I might serve you; particularly as I had desired to perform more for you than for anyone on earth I ever knew.”
He reminds her that he’s up to his neck in responsibility on The Last Judgment, noting, “the great task on which I have been and am engaged has prevented me from making this known to Your Ladyship. And because I know that you know that love requires no task-master, and that he who loves slumbers not—still less had he need of intermediaries. And although it may have seemed that I had forgotten, I was executing something I had not mentioned, in order to add something that was not expected. My plan has been spoilt.”
The annoyed artist then quotes Petrarch—“Mal fa chi tanta fè…”, which means, “He who so soon forgets such faith does much wrong.” It isn’t known whether he is alluding to one of the three known works of art he created for Vittoria when he mentions “something that was not expected” or whether this surprise was ever finished but his ire was evident. I like to think it might have been one of the pen-and-ink portraits identified as drawings of her illustrating this post, but that is just me popping into a romantic fantasy mode yet again.
The Challenges of Gifting During the Italian Reformation
It’s no surprise he is quoting Petrarch to her, as they were both swept up in the Petrarchism that was all the rage during the beginning of the Italian Reformation among a certain set of intellectuals who exchanged their views mostly in secret to protect themselves from being persecuted for their beliefs. It was a wild time in religions and relational politics, as the sixteenth-century opened with an embracing of Petrarchan zeal so wholehearted that courtiers denied their passions in order to live out the same unrequited angst the poet had perfected. But Vittoria was angling toward a different type of poetic beautification, which unfolds in a book of sonnets she wrote for and gifted to Michelangelo in 1540 titled Canzoniere Spirituale.
If read in light of the religious aspects she hoped to convey, the sonnets seem spiritually ecstatic; if a romantic fervor toward a man is considered the point given she had gifted it to him, they could be read as especially steamy. This is the burden of trying to nail down as full a view of historical context as possible, which I believe Brundin accomplished beautifully in her book.
According to the professor, this letter from Michelangelo to Vittoria could possibly reference his receipt of her sonnets: “I wished, Madam, before the collecting of the things that you have tried many times to give me, in order to receive them as worthily as I could, to make something by my own hand for you: but recognizing that the grace of god cannot be bought, and that it is a grave sin to receive it with a sense of discomfort, I admit that the fault is mine and willingly accept these things: and once I have them, not through having them in my house but through myself dwelling in their house, it will seem to me that I dwell in paradise: so that I will be even more indebted to your ladyship, if it is possible to be more indebted than I already am.”
Taking my caveat about context to heart, one instance in which such care must be taken with interpretation of this relationship is the connotation of the word “paradise” in the last sentence. In a religious context, it is decidedly different than it is in a sensual one or even in a tone alluding to formal courtship.
In pointing out the delicacy that drove the interaction between the two, Brundin notes that Michelangelo had used the term “things” in reference to poetry by Colonna in another instance. He did so in a letter to his nephew Lionardo di Buonarroti composed four years after Vittoria’s death. In it he states that the Marchesa of Pescara had given him a little book made of parchment “in which are one hundred and three sonnets, not counting the ones that she sent to me from Viterbo on paper…”
The sonnets he mentions are rime spirituali from Vittoria’s later period of writing. Brundin believes that only seventeen of the 103 poems included in the manuscript had been published at the time the gift was prepared. I enjoyed very much how the professor presents the poet’s mindset and her powerful place in a circle of movers and shakers of that time, which included major artists like Michelangelo, as well as courtiers, popes and other literary luminaries. If you want to gain a thorough understanding of Colonna’s life and her world, I would highly recommend this book.
Though the sonnets that Vittoria and Michelangelo wrote about and to each other hold evocative and sensual language, Brundin makes the case that this relationship was very Petrarchan in that the feelings were never meant to be consummated by two mortals—that the emotions were evangelical and imbued with the mystical.
To illustrate how they could be read as romantic to someone who hasn’t studied their era or those who don’t understand their mindset when they made their mark on the cultural milieu they inhabited (making my farce dangerously believable to the uninitiated), here are a few snippets of sonnets they exchanged, Vittoria’s from the manuscript she presented to Michelangelo as a gift and his from a series he dedicated to her:
Sonnets of Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna
Michelangelo pays homage to Vittoria:
Lady, through long experience we see
That, although carved in stone, beauty can last
Much longer than the sculptor, whose years fast
Fall into ash—how can this ever be?
The cause is won by the effect: so we
Know well how nature is by art outcast,
Believe me, what I sculpted in the past
Is not afraid of time and death, like me.
Then a long list to both of us I’ll give
In color or in stone, as you prefer,
Keeping both faces in their present light.
A thousand years, and more, after we leave,
They will see how most beautiful you were
And how in loving you I was most right.**
And Vittoria pays homage to Michelangelo:
The wondrous and holy miracle by which,
through his mercy, I perceive two opposed beings,
one divine and one human, so fused into one
that God becomes a true man and man a true God,
causes my lowly desire to soar so high
and in the same way so inflames my chilly hope
that my free and candid heart no longer trembles
beneath the evil, worthless burdens of the world…***
The above painting “Michelangelo honoring the dead body of Vittoria Colonna” by Francesco Jacovacci, illustrates a poignant moment as Michelangelo says goodbye to his friend. There is an obvious feeling of reverence in it, don’t you think? So you see how my fictive evening for the pair in my Date Night in Florence Italy post last week was truly a farce, though a believable one if the imaginative storyteller rather than the historian takes the lead. I enjoyed the conceit very much and you can bet I will visit La Ménagère, the restaurant that inspired my riff, during my next trip to Florence.
It is located at via dei Ginori, 8R—Ginori a nod to a powerful noble family during the sixteenth century owning a number of buildings on the street. As serendipity would have it, Michelangelo mentions one of Lionardo Ginori’s daughters as a potential match in a letter he wrote to his nephew Lionardo, which he penned in Rome on April 5, 1549.* I had serious cold chills when I read it and realized the connection. The family had already completed the Palazzo Ginori a few doors down from La Ménagère—built between 1516 and 1520—when Michelangelo encourages his nephew to consider the match.
When I finally make my pilgrimage to La Ménagère, I will also take the quick jaunt along Via del Pucci to Via Giuseppe Verdi so I can pay homage to what remains of the great artist Michelangelo, the inert form resting within his tomb at the Basilica of Santa Croce. (If he really is there, of course—maybe he and Vittoria have skipped town for that time away they alluded to last week!)
Here is a fabulous lecture by Dr. Brundin about the Italian Renaissance and the Home (what better subject exists for me and my readers?):
The Modern Salonière and this entry, The Italian Reformation and Gifting, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and SEO strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.
*The letters quoted in this post were found in The Letters of Michelangelo edited by E.F. Ramsden.
**This sonnet is number 92 on page 127 of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo translated by Joseph Tusiani.
***This snippet is at location S1: 93 in the kindle version of Sonnets for Michelangelo by Vittoria Colonna.by