Until the late 19th century, rumor had it that an Italian woman named Vittoria Colonna had served as ’s
muse. They’d been involved in a passionate affair, the story went, and he’d written the love poetry to prove it. Scholars gradually began to untangle the myth and, in 1893, British Michelangelo biographer John Addington Symonds set the record straight. “The world seems unable to take interest in a man unless it can contrive to discover a love-affair in his career,” he chided. “Romancers and legend-makers have, therefore, forced Vittoria Colonna to play the role of Juliet in Michelangelo’s life drama.”
Yet, the misinterpretation was far more insidious than mere trashy tabloid fare: It suggested the era’s rampant homophobia and relegated one of the most influential women of the Renaissance to a mere object of desire. Michelangelo had actually written affectionate poems to his beloved Tommaso dei Cavalieri, a nobleman; his nephew changed their subjects’ gender to avoid allegations that the artist was homosexual. For her part, Colonna impacted Michelangelo’s life in far more significant ways than sitting for a portrait or sharing his bed. A celebrated poet, she influenced his ideas about religion, patronized his work, and served as one of his closest confidantes.
Born in either 1490 or 1492 to Roman nobility, Colonna was widowed in her thirties. Childless and extremely wealthy (her substantial dowry was returned to her after her husband’s death), she was, as Ramie Targoff writes in a new biography, Renaissance Woman, “about as free as any Renaissance woman could be.” A deeply pious woman, she first sought to become a nun. For political reasons, however, the pope forbid a convent from accepting Colonna into their ranks—if she entered, he’d have to deal directly with her difficult brother. She was on the verge of setting up her own convent when the pope went to war with her family and their allies. Plans of a cloistered life thwarted, she turned instead to poetry.
Colonna, as one of the only female poets outside of the clergy at that time, penned sonnets that influenced generations of successive writers. She pushed the highly-structured sonnet scheme, popularized by Italian Renaissance poet and scholar Petrarch, in a new direction. “The way in which she’s using lyric poetry to write about her relationship with Christ is entirely new,” Dr. Abigail Brundin, chair of the faculty of modern and medieval languages at the University of Cambridge, told Artsy.
Brundin cites a famous poem in which Colonna imagines herself writing. Her character uses the nails from the cross, dips them in the ink of Christ’s blood, and inscribes her poetry on his pale flesh. Morbid, maybe. But it’s also a radical instance of what Brundin calls an “embodied” and “physical” poetic language. She notes a connection to Michelangelo’s own verse (around 300 of his poems survive today), which similarly alluded to the corporeal, describing the process of using tools and sculpting human forms.