Intellectuals who associated with Michelangelo (1475-1564) were central to a burgeoning interest in art theory. One of the most well-known aesthetic questions of the day was the polemic over the relative importance of disegno (drawing or design) and colore (color or finish). (1) The same writers who discussed such issues were also caught up in debates about Church reform. These discourses intersect in the poetry of Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547), who is perhaps best known as the pious friend and patron of Michelangelo. Vittoria Colonna was connected to many of the intellectuals promulgating reform ideas in Italy. Although she also had close ties to artists, she could hardly be called an art critic. Indeed, her written responses to Michelangelo's art are often brief and have more to do with literary conventions than aesthetics. (2) Nevertheless, she uses the distinction between disegno and colore repeatedly in her spiritual poetry as a metaphor. These references have not been discussed by previous scholars.
In Michelangelo's drawings for Vittoria Colonna, aesthetics and reform spirituality are similarly intertwined. Two of these drawings survive, a Christ on the Cross (fig. 1) and a Pieta (fig. 2). (3) The Christ on the Cross and Pieta are obviously black chalk drawings, without color. They are made, however, with a carefully crafted colorito, which does not mean "coloring" so much as "finish." (4) In this case the strokes are so refined that they are invisible and suggest the softness of skin and the wandering curls of Christ's hair. Colonna praised this high degree of finish in Michelangelo's drawings. (5) As argued below, writings about disegno and colore in the Cinquecento carried with them a host of wider associations, many of which had moral and spiritual implications. Colorists (such as Flemish and Venetian painters) were known for their ability to paint tears and blood, while Michelangelo is reported to have disdained such a sentimental form of religiosity. Colore was thought to appeal to the emotions of a more vulgar audience than the intellectual rigors of disegno. The question, therefore, of the appropriate relationship between emotion and intellect in viewing art, and in meditating on the Passion through art, is connected to the disegno/colore controversy. Michelangelo's drawings for Vittoria Colonna have a particularly complex relationship to these theoretical debates, as they are finished but not colored drawings that show the most pathetic of subjects--Christ's abandonment on the Cross and the Virgin's mourning over her dead son--but with no tears and almost no blood.
Scholars have debated the attribution of these drawings and how they relate to the notoriously-difficult-to-interpret passages that seem to refer to them in the letters between Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna. (6) Reinhold Haussherr and Emidio Campi studied the drawings as reflections of the theology of Vittoria Colonna and her reform-minded circles. (7) Alexander Nagel convincingly argued that the visual form of the Pieta was connected to reform, focusing on the notion of art (and the Grace of God) as a gift. (8) The very medium of the work, a presentation drawing, is thus an enactment of spiritual ideals. In Nagel's analysis, these ideals are also conveyed by an innovative fusion between narrative and the iconic imago pietatis (Man of Sorrows). His contention is not that formal innovation is a product of religious ideas, but rather that the two "converged" in these drawings, that the relationship between the claims of art and those of religious reform was "mutual." (9)
This essay follows from Nagel's work in that it explores the interactions between the innovative aesthetics of the drawings and notions of religious reform. It offers, however, a different conclusion. One of Nagel's larger arguments is that in depictions of the dead Christ Michelangelo reacted against the tendency to emphasize Christ's suffering: "Removing the blotches of blood and the wounds from Christ's body like so many overpaintings and disfigurations, Michelangelo offered instead a pristine and radiant dead Christ based on the models of ancient sculpture." (10) Nagel posits that Michelangelo chose innovative aesthetic strategies to emphasize the transcendental, suprahistorical, and figural aspects of Christ's sacrifice. Nagel reads similar reform tendencies in Michelangelo's poems, Vittoria Colonna's writings, and the works of thinkers in their immediate circle. This essay argues, however, that Michelangelo's drawings, his poems, the writings of Vittoria Colonna, and reform thought in general exhibit a deep ambivalence toward the contemplation of Christ and Mary's suffering during the Passion. The suffering is both insisted upon to an unusual degree and denied, often in the same work. In some cases, this ambivalence could be subconscious, but in Michelangelo's drawings and Vittoria Colonna's poems, the notions of disegno and colore, faith in Salvation, and despair at the suffering of Christ are articulated and artfully juxtaposed, so that the tension between them animates the works. This study explores how paradox and ambiguity function as aesthetic and religious strategies in these closely related drawings and poems.
It is not possible to establish precise relationships between these two drawings and the texts written by Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna, and their circle, because the drawings and the texts are almost all undated. They all seem, however, to date from ca. 1538-42, which were crucial years for Colonna's involvement in reform circles. (11) While we cannot determine influence, the rich variety of surviving documentation allows for a reconstruction of the discourse of this elite group of writers, theologians, and artists. Like the letters, poems, and meditations written in this circle, Michelangelo's drawings for Vittoria Colonna were initially meant for the most private of audiences, but soon circulated among the reform-minded elite. (12) In the late 1530s and early 1540s, questions about religious reform became increasingly polemical. (13) Vittoria Colonna's poems were criticized as heretical as early as 1540, and Michelangelo's Last Judgment was attacked for indecorum as soon as it was finished in 1541. (14) Before the convocation of the Council of Trent, however, the outcome of these polemics and, indeed, the boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy were still fluid. Michelangelo's fresco could still be interpreted as a fitting symbol of the Church Triumphant and would not suffer censorship for over twenty years. Vittoria Colonna--despite her close connections with many people later charged with heresy--was never tried by the Inquisition, either before her death in 1547 or posthumously. (15) Colonna seems, nevertheless, to have been concerned about the appearance of heterodoxy, as she gave to the inquisitor Marcello Cervini the letter that Bernardino Ochino (1487-1564), her erstwhile mentor, wrote to her after his apostasy. (16) In this rapidly changing climate of religious reform, Colonna and others in her circle did not articulate explicit and consistent theological positions, but wrote allusive, paradoxical, and occasionally cryptic letters, poems, and meditations. (17)
1. VITTORIA COLONNA ON DISEGNO, COLORE, AND SALVATION
Vittoria Colonna compared Christ's blood to colore in one of her many poems on the Crucifixion and Salvation:
The high Lord hangs on the hard wood
for our wicked faults, and a sad heart
does not gain such virtue from that valor,
that it becomes worthy to hang from him alone.
With divine words he makes the beautiful drawing [dissegno]
of the true life, and then he gives color [colore]
with his blood, and so that love might be the cause
of this work, he gives himself to it in forfeit.
The soul is alive with flames, and the intellect
content with light, and with both
the purged desire rises and grows stronger.
Hot marks from the harsh wounds came
to me by the thousands, so that I with true effect
gain immortal life from his death. (18)
Christ's words are the disegno and his blood is the colore of Salvation. Colonna uses the metaphor to comment not upon art, but religion. The way in which she applies these terms is revealing, though, of her assumptions about them. Colore is the fulfillment of the initial disegno of words. It is corporeal, not intellectual. While both words and blood are praised here as complimentary qualities, the rest of the poem implies that blood is the more direct way to Salvation. The poem focuses not on Christ as a teacher, but on Christ Crucified, in a way that is typical of the theology of this circle (as will be discussed further below). Both the soul and the intellect are inspired, but ultimately it is not contemplation of Christ's teachings, but the physical impression of his wounds, that gives immortal life. The poem also emphasizes the sensual aspects of meditating on the Passion, so that we are to feel not only sadness, but also the hard wood and the hot marks of the wounds. To Vittoria Colonna, the blood--the colore--seems more essential to the divine painting of Salvation than the words--the disegno.
Vittoria Colonna used the same metaphor in two other spiritual sonnets:
When will the day be, Lord, in which my thought,
always intent and fixed on you, might see you?
For while it wanders and roves through the fog,
it cannot rest in the true light.
I often discern a beautiful elevated drawing [dissegno],
which your spirit shades in my heart,
but that living color [colore], if it shines well,
still never shows itself clearly and wholly.
Alas! Now let the wounded hand rend the veil
that still keeps me bound in this blind error
already twenty years through various tempers,
so that the soul might no longer be held back or pushed away
by dark or shining rays, but, let loose,
might admire the great Sun in the most blessed Sky. (19)
Here even more explicitly, colore is the fulfillment of what had only been sketched out by the disegno, just as color finishes a painting. Colonna may have been thinking of the mediations of Ugo Pantiera da Prato (fl. 1295-ca. 1330), whose works went through many editions in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Ugo wrote that Christ appears to the faithful first in writing, then outlined, then "colored and lifelike," and finally "sculpted in the flesh." (20) Colonna is frustrated because she can only see Ugo's second stage, the disegno, which is an abstraction: elevated but lifeless. It is a beautiful ideal, whereas colore is experience, a direct--"face-to-face," as Paul wrote--vision of Christ, perhaps at the Second Coming. (21) Color is associated with the light of day and divine illumination, and again vaguely with blood, through the wounded hand of Christ. In the poem, Salvation, revealed by a wounded hand, is only complete when it is in "living color."
In another sonnet, however, color does not signify the light of complete revelation, but a mortal shading of eternal perfection:
Soul, admire the high beginning from which
our being derives, and you will see well
that he sent you here below with that hope,
the great fruit of which your own error deprives you.
You are close to where one pays on the one bank
with eternal glory or the other with eternal punishment.
As here you will have either been turned towards
the sirens of the world, or disdainful of their song.
Alas! Do not confuse the second
with the first cause, so that the divine design [dissegno]
is offended by mortal colors [colori].
The immortal help does not conceal the grace,
nor hide the beautiful light,
when our penitence corrects our errors. (22)
Here colors signify mortal sinning flesh, the worldly substance that could mar the perfection of the divine disegno--understood here in the sense of "design," an intellectual rather than a physical property. The contrast between this poem and the ones quoted above seems to show that Vittoria Colonna did not have any consistent assumptions about disegno and colore but instead used them as empty oppositional categories. In the other poems, she suggests that colore is the ultimate end and perfect culmination of the incomplete disegno, whereas in this poem the high disegno would be debased by mortal colore. Here she follows a common trope, in which colore was seen to be more material and, therefore, potentially less-elevated than intellectually-informed disegno. (23) Looking back at the other poems, however, there too disegno signified words or an idea, whereas colore signified the embodiment of that idea in flesh, the flesh of Christ. The shift in the poet's use of the terms, therefore, does not suggest inconsistent concepts of disegno and colore, but rather ambivalence towards the relationship between the intellectual and the material in matters of faith. In all three cases color is associated with mortality and blood. In the first two it signifies fulfillment, through Christ's sacrifice, of that which had been merely a plan or words, a faith that could be intellectualized (in the negative sense of the term). The latter poem, however, suggests that such ideas, here perfect divine ideals, are necessarily tainted by bodily human error. The third poem is also more abstract than either of the other two, which offer emotional meditation and a direct, more passionate address. Here, instead, Colonna gives us the design of her ideas, rather than a more colorful rhetoric. (24)
Disegno was associated--not only in Vittoria Colonna's poetry, but also in Cinquecento writings on art in general--with an elite ability to appreciate intellectual complexity, whereas colore was thought to appeal to a more popular taste. (25) Most writers denigrated colore as something merely popular and therefore crass. However, in the Counter-Reformation, when theorists began to advocate that religious art should be made to communicate more directly (and thus be accessible to simple people), the populism of colore was no longer considered to be a detriment. (26) Michelangelo, acknowledged master of disegno, was accused of making works that could only be understood by connoisseurs, but were potentially offensive, even blasphemous, to the uninitiated. (27)
Colore was needed to express emotion. The blush (or pallor) of the face was an indicator of inner passions. Most dramatically, blood and tears signified torment and anguish. Vittoria Colonna's poems are not the only source to connect colore with blood and the flesh. (28) In a well-known passage in Francisco de Hollanda's (ca. 1517-84) dialogue in praise of Vittoria Colonna and Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna purportedly praises Flemish paintings for their piety. (29) De Hollanda has Michelangelo answer by scoffing at paintings that evoke pious tears because of their exact depiction of surface materiality. He sees such works as catering to a popular taste by appealing to women, children, and other weak-minded audiences. Instead of dramatic manifestations of colorito, in the dialogue Michelangelo recommends a more intellectual form of piety, in which the perfection of disegno reflects God's perfection. According to de Hollanda, Michelangelo's aesthetics were antithetical to Vittoria Colonna's. The drawings he made for her, however, are generally assumed to be a perfect reflection of her ideals. If so, they must embody a more complex attitude towards color and the role of sentiment in religious contemplation than de Hollanda implies.
2. EMOTION AND INTELLECT IN ITALIAN REFORM CIRCLES
While Vittoria Colonna and the other thinkers in her circle were all members of a highly educated elite, they praised a simple faith and expressed a deep ambivalence toward an intellectual understanding of religion. (30) In her poems, Vittoria Colonna demonstrates a knowledge of various complex theological systems of thought. For example, in the poem above she refers to Aristotle's distinction (Physics II.3) between the first (material) and second (formal) cause, hardly an idea accessible to everyone. She writes, however, that sacred writings are a less sure way to Salvation, which can best be achieved through contemplation of the Cross and Christ's wounds. Salvation exceeds the intellect and can not be written or spoken, but is a silent faith in the Cross, which the heart can speak through tears. (31) The intellect can err in its interpretations of words, but the eye cannot err in contemplating the Cross. (32) Colonna repeatedly emphasizes the immediacy of this vision by writing "I see" in her poems meditating on the Cross, and in some poems argues for the need to see the Cross and imagine every instant of the Passion in great emotional detail. (33) She abjures the very intellectual sophistication that she demonstrates, often in the same poem. As discussed further below, Michelangelo's drawings exhibit a similar tension--the compositions are seemingly simple, even archaic, but these are presentation drawings, made for an elite circle of connoisseurs and exquisitely finished. (34)
Bernardino Ochino, the famous Capuchin preacher who would later convert to Protestantism and flee north, also had a complex view of the relationship between intellectual sophistication and a simple faith in Christ Crucified. Ochino was much admired in Italian reform circles before his apostasy. Vittoria Colonna followed him to hear him preach and saw him as a spiritual mentor. (35) Ochino used paradoxes to describe the role of the intellect in faith: "Neither with the sensual nor with material sight, but with a living faith informed by charity, and with your bodily eyes closed in order to contemplate better, enter into that holy haziness, that learned ignorance, and you will find that for Christ on the Cross nothing but the ardor of his charity moved him to suffer the bitter death in order to save your soul." (36) For Ochino, faith is not literally seeing Christ on the Cross (as it was for Vittoria Colonna), which would be merely material, but an internal understanding, learned in the sense that it seeks for causes, not mere emotions, but ignorant in its simplicity and lack of doctrinal complexity. Ochino writes in another sermon that it was not enough to consider the biblical stories as history, to think about Christ's birth and horrible torments on the Cross: "Instead you also need to break, tear, and crack those figures, those accidents, and those similes." (37) Ochino demands that the faithful perform exegetical violence on Scripture in order to reach a higher meaning than the merely dramatic. It is only by lacerating the flesh of a literal sensual understanding that the devout can move beyond the carnal. Ochino, like Colonna, emphasizes that faith in Christ Crucified is the only thing needed for Salvation. For Ochino, however, even Christ Crucified is like a symbol--from which the saved elite can decipher virtues and moral lessons--rather than Colonna's silencing dramatic vision. Images of the Passion, therefore, should not offer simple histories of suffering, the accidents of Christian history, but intellectualized visions of virtue. (38)
One of the most highly praised texts in reform circles was the Beneficio di Cristo, published anonymously in 1543. (39) A monk named Benedetto da Mantova (fl. 1534-41) wrote the Beneficio; Marcantonio Flaminio (1498-1550), a poet and friend of Vittoria Colonna, "polished" it. (40) The Beneficio di Cristo was later placed on the index of prohibited books, and the Inquisition interrogated intellectuals in Vittoria Colonna's circle about their attitudes toward it. (41) The Beneficio is typical of Italian reform ideas in its emphasis on faith in Christ Crucified (rather than works) as the key to Salvation. It is written in Italian and was published so that it could be distributed to a wide audience. The book consists of a series of meditations on various theological points. The narrator, though, stops himself to e: "But why so many words? It should be enough for us to know that true Christians in their tribulations clothe themselves in the image of Christ Crucified." (42) Here, as for Vittoria Colonna, the image is simpler and more direct than the word.
Nevertheless, the authors of this treatise do not offer vivid ekphrases of Christ's torments, but rather interpretations, in line with Ochino's demands for intellectual understanding. Even more than Michelangelo's drawings, the Beneficio di Cristo is strangely bloodless. Christ's blood is invoked repeatedly as the only guarantee of Salvation. The hearts of the faithful are supposed to be "drunk" with his blood, but the tract does nothing to induce such fervor. (43) The torments of the Passion are only mentioned, never described with any emotion. (44) This is far from the vivid expositions in popular devotional handbooks. Ambrogio Catarino (1484-1553), however, in his tract accusing the Beneficio of heresy, argued that the book was particularly insidious because it was popular. (45) He said that it was meant to appeal to weak women and children with its sweet and deceptively simple ideas about faith. These remarks are reminiscent of the criticisms of the popular surface charm of colore. Here the contradiction seems to be the fruit of a somewhat awkward struggle to express a new type of religious sentiment which is neither abstract and philosophical, nor popular and sentimental.
3. A VIRTUALLY BLOODLESS CHRIST ON THE CROSS
As Ascanio Condivi (1525-74) noted, Michelangelo chose to depict an unusual moment in the Christ on the Cross: "He made also for her [Vittoria Colonna's] love a drawing of a Christ on the Cross, not seeming to be dead, as is commonly done, but with the action of a living man, with his face raised up to the Father, because he was saying, 'Eli, eli,' in which you see his body not falling like an abandoned dead body, but like a living man feeling the harsh torment and writhing." (46) The "Eli, Eli," is Christ's lament on the Cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (47) Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) wrote that Michelangelo showed Christ commending his soul to God, a much less disturbing moment and one that seems to accord less well with the violence of the drawing. (48) In his engraving of this composition Giulio Bonasone (ca. 1510-ca. 1576) added an inscription that reads "in your hands, Lord," as well as a halo, crown of thorns, and other traditional attributes not included in the drawing, perhaps to make it more palatable for publication (fig. 3). (49) Michelangelo's drawing, in contrast, includes no such comforting symbolism, but instead offers an unmitigated image of Christ's suffering.
As Condivi suggested, almost all fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italian artists showed Christ dead on the Cross (fig. 4). Artists of the High Renaissance tended to emphasize Christ's divinity by endowing his body with a classical beauty and calm, and so minimized the appearance of suffering. Michelangelo's Christ has the muscles of a classical hero, but his body bends into a complex three-dimensional spiral, which is released--possibly in imitation of the Laocoon--in the upturned ecstatic head, contracted brow, parted lips, and rolling eyes. (50) The Cross is barely drawn, a flat symbol, and the angels are so lightly sketched that some scholars have doubted their authenticity. (51) Christ, however, is shaded with dark pockets of shadow that convey bulging muscles, executed with the finest technique so that the shadows seem more like a finely stippled mist than strokes of chalk. (Vittoria Colonna reported that she examined one of these drawings with a magnifying glass and found it wonderfully finished. (52)) This soft, fleshy colorito, added to the muscular disegno, gives the figure an almost sensual aspect, emphasized by the diaphanous veil slipping off his hips. (53)
Michelangelo endowed the body with palpable flesh and vivid action, but he did not attempt to create a realistic sense of the torments of the Cross. Christ's muscular arms hold him up almost in a gesture of defiance, which, paradoxically, identifies his body with the Cross. As a consequence, the body does not hang heavily, but seems to rise upwards. (54) Devotional handbooks emphasized the nails as a way to incite compassion in the faithful. (55) In Michelangelo's drawing, however, Christ's hands and feet are nailed in a particularly unconvincing way. His right hand seems to point outwards, while his left hand curls around the nail. Likewise, one nail pierces his right foot, but seems as if it misses his left foot altogether. There is no blood on the body whatsoever, so that the trickle of faintly drawn blood on the Cross below the feet seems to have no connection to the nail wounds. (56) Scholars have suggested that the hand gestures were meant to be reminiscent of the Last Judgment, but why did Michelangelo choose to emphasize such symbolic associations rather than a dramatic narrative? (57) The allusion to Christ in majesty as judge is particularly jarring in an image of a moment usually understood to be that in which Christ, at his most human, complains of his terrible suffering.
Michelangelo eliminated the traditional mourners around the Cross, including the Virgin, who was often shown fainting in her overwhelming grief and compassion. (58) Instead, Christ's only companions are two lightly sketched angels, wingless youths who offer almost caricatured gestures of grief. They do not catch Christ's blood in chalices, as was common, as indeed here there is no blood to catch. The composition is archaic, with the Cross drawn neatly down the center and the angels tucked under each arm. The angel on Christ's right gestures towards Christ. His finger does not overlap the body or sit behind, but meets the contour exactly, which adds to the sense that this is a flat design inscribed on the surface. In a sense, then, the work is abstracted, and we are reminded that this is an image, a figure or symbol rather than an event. The individual forms, however, are hardly flat. The body twists complexly with all of the lifting sinuous grace of the figura serpentinata, but articulated through particularly massive forms made strangely elegant.
The physicality of Christ's suffering flesh and blood is insisted upon to an unusual degree but also denied, in a work that is both an extremely simple drawing and a highly "colored" artistic tour de force. Michelangelo uses in this drawing a number of aesthetic strategies that are not typical of his work in general. Most of Michelangelo's figures have contorted bodies but impassive faces. Here, unusually, the grimace of Christ's face registers his pain. The abstraction, symmetry, and simplicity of the composition are also remarkable in Michelangelo's oeuvre, in which many figures are commonly packed together in complexly twisting poses. The delicacy of the colorito, the attention to the textures of hair and flesh, is also particularly marked in this work. This suggests that Michelangelo consciously employed these devices for a specific purpose, to articulate the paradox of Christ's overwhelming bodily suffering and his transcendence.
Scholars have seen Michelangelo's unorthodox depiction of Christ's torment as an expression of reform or Protestant sentiments. (59) Christ's impassioned cry on the Cross confounded both Catholic and Protestant theologians and poets. (60) Lutherans understood this moment as confirming the absolute nature of Christ's sacrifice, and therefore its efficacy in erasing sins. (61) In a collection of Italian philo-Protestant Cinquecento sermons, which is anonymous but attributed to Antonio Brucioli (1498?-1566), the author wrote that Christ had to feel "the torment of the damned." (62) Nevertheless, in another work Brucioli clarified that though Christ felt that he had been abandoned, he always had faith. (63) The reform thinker Juan de Valdes (ca. 1491-1541) similarly found it necessary to explain that Christ did not utter his cry of despair "with the heart, because heart felt, but with the lips, on account of what the flesh felt." (64)
Ochino himself was at pains to emphasize the greatness of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross in a theological sense, but he criticized those who focused excessively on Christ's physical torment: "There are others who contemplate Christ on the Cross only in those sufferings, anguishes, torments, and so many beatings, with his hands and feet pierced by nails and his side cut open. Because these people are sensual, they mourn out of natural love, though they have compassion for him and cry over Christ's pain.... But this is not a good lament of love and charity, but sensual and natural." (65) Such a concentration on human emotion was insufficiently elevated for Ochino, who demanded a more abstracted contemplation of virtues. Ochino went so far as to preach that the angels, Apostles, God the Father, Mary, and Christ himself were happy about the Crucifixion. (66) He offered a particularly unlikely interpretation of Christ's lament on the Cross:
If I asked Christ, "Are you content to die on the Cross?" he would
say, "I desire it and do not desire anything else, nor do I crave for
anything except saving souls. But I did say, 'My God, my God, why have
you forsaken me?' And this is because I am not content, because of the
ardent love that I carry towards creation, to stay on the Cross to
suffer so many torments and pains for the space of three hours, but I
would like, because of my charity, that my suffering and the Passion
of my body might last for more than three thousand years until
Judgment Day, so that sinners might have more time to sweeten and
soften their hardened hearts. They, seeing that I continually spill my
blood for them and that my side has always been open for them, might
still open their obstinate hearts. And you, my eternal Father,
abandoned me in not letting me suffer except for the short space of
three hours." (67)
The reference to Christ's eternal suffering is surely to the Eucharist. Ochino is at such pains to emphasize Christ's willingness and his divinity that he changes the moment of Christ's greatest weakness into a heroic act. In Ochino's bizarre interpretation, Christ is not lamenting his pain but asking for eternal suffering.
Vittoria Colonna placed much greater emphasis on contemplating the physical suffering of Christ than Ochino did. However, in her prose meditation on the Passion, which is dedicated to Ochino, she cited Ochino's interpretation of Christ's lament on the Cross. (68) She imagines first the Virgin mourning over Christ's human suffering, then, as Ochino recommended, writes that the Virgin "was lifted up to a more worthy consideration" of the virtues that Christ exemplified: "She [the Virgin] had seen charity in its true seat and the moment when he said, 'They do not know what they are doing,' and patience in saying, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' That is, why are you making me relinquish martyrdom, when I would like to bear it much longer because of my love and patience (as your Reverence said)." (69) Vittoria Colonna makes Christ's one impatient cry into an example of patience. She cites Ochino as an authority, presumably because his interpretation of Christ's lament was so unusual.
Although Vittoria Colonna followed Ochino's dehumanizing interpretation of Christ's lament on the Cross, it seems antithetical to the highly emotional tone of much of her writing. In one sonnet she writes that contemplating Christ struggling alive on the Cross is necessary for Salvation:
When our thought returns to itself,
and then the mind rises above itself,
so that, made strong by another power
it sees the Lord alive on the harsh Cross,
it rises to such ardor that it not only believes
itself to be his dear limb, but even feels
the thorns, the nails, the flail and in part
his burning flame, only by means of living faith.
These are his graces, not ours, which have
as a rule and a guide that spirit above,
which inspires where he wills it.
And if someone trusts in fragile mortal
works, he will aspire in vain, with the first father,
for anything other than new deception. (70)
When the mind is raised up to a higher contemplation, it is able to see Christ, suffering alive on the Cross. It is further exalted, not to an abstract contemplation of virtues, as Ochino recommended, but instead to a physical sensation of Christ's torments. This leads to meditation on the suprahistorical meaning of Christ's sacrifice as the redemption for sin and the Fall, but the mind only rises to this height through feeling Christ's suffering. Here, Grace leads the faithful not away from the material but towards an ever more intimate, visceral faith in Christ's Passion.
Michelangelo also wrote spiritual poems about Christ suffering on the Cross. They are typical of reform thought in Italy in that they are Christological and stress that man can only be saved by faith in Christ on the Cross: by being washed in his blood. (71) In one sonnet he focuses on the magnitude of Christ's suffering: "But yet as it seems that in your blood we sense / That, as your torture for us had no match, / So are your precious gifts without a limit." (72) Christ's incommensurably terrible suffering on the Cross, of which the blood stands as a synecdoche, allows for infinite grace. Notice, though, that Michelangelo does not describe this suffering, or tell us that he sees and feels it, as Vittoria Colonna does. Instead, he offers a more intellectually and stylistically complex poem, which plays, for example, on notions of equality and incommensurability. We see the logic of Salvation elegantly articulated, rather than an image of the suffering.
In another poem, Michelangelo describes the reactions of the faithful to Christ's torments:
It no more grieved and vexed the chosen spirits
than made them glad, that you, not they, had suffered
death, and had thus reopened with your blood
to earthly man the heavens' shuttered gates.
Glad that you had redeemed him from the first
sin of his wretched lot, whom you had made,
grieved when they knew your torment, sore and hard,
becoming on the cross servant of servants.
Of who and whence you were Heaven gave such sign
that it darkened its eyes, split earth apart,
made mountains tremble and the waters churn,
snatched the great fathers from the shadowy zone,
the ugly angels drove to greater hurt,
and only man rejoiced, baptized, reborn. (73)
Here, the theme is dual--the pain of the Crucifixion and the sadness that it inspires, and the Salvation of the Crucifixion and the joy that it brings. Michelangelo focuses on Christ's blood and suffering, but from the beginning makes it clear that the faithful should not simply mourn for Christ, but should feel a balance of opposite emotions. Again, the difficulty in disentangling Michelangelo's syntax suggests the complexity of faith, with its infinite paradoxes. He sets up the contrast in the first line and emphasizes it by repeating the terms "Lieti" and "tristi" and the beginning of the fifth and seventh lines. He then focuses on the horror of the Crucifixion until the last line, which concludes with rejoicing. Here Michelangelo dramatizes the conflict that is latent in the Beneficio di Cristo between different ways of meditating on the Passion.
The mourning angels in Michelangelo's drawing can also be related to problematic passages in the writings of his circle. Ochino preached that the angels rejoiced at Christ's death. (74) Vittoria Colonna wrote a sonnet about the angels' mourning. (75) Even the angels, who can see God and therefore the plan of Salvation, are so horrified that they would rather die than have Christ suffer. In his 1558 commentary on this poem, Rinaldo Corso (1525-82?) felt that Vittoria Colonna's theology was in need of defense: "This [angels' mourning] seems impossible, because angels are blessed, and beyond any passion, but nevertheless Bernard, in the place in which he speaks of the lament of the Virgin, affirmed it for the following reason. Just as it was possible that God made himself man and died, so it was possible that the angels in the hour of that death felt pain." (76) The angels' mourning is an expression of the fundamental paradox of Christ's humanity, suffering, and death. These angels seem to have been important to Vittoria Colonna, as in a letter to Michelangelo she singled them out for praise. (77) Michelangelo's mourning angels gesticulate, but do not seem to shed tears, just as Christ sheds little blood.
Michelangelo's drawing of Christ on the Cross embodies the tensions in reform circles between a focus on physical suffering and a more intellectualized meditation. In his poetry and in this drawing, he emphasizes this tension as an aesthetic strategy by making an image that is both fleshy and bloodless, both colorless and minutely finished. It is also surely a religious strategy, in that the emphasis on paradox points to a higher truth, a learned ignorance (to paraphrase Ochino) not accessible to earthly understanding. Corso also refers to the lament of the Virgin, another moment of pathos that was much debated in Michelangelo's circle, and is the subject of Michelangelo's other surviving drawing for Vittoria Colonna.
4. A TEARLESS PIETA
The Pieta offers similar paradoxes of style and content. This was again a not very common subject in sixteenth-century Italy--at any rate, until Michelangelo made it so--though it was certainly more common than depictions of Christ's lament on the Cross. It is also a moment usually depicted as one full of pathos, the mother's lament for her dead son, held on her lap as she had held her baby. There are many similarities in style between the two drawings. The Pieta is another highly finished drawing, but one that is selectively finished, in which Christ's flesh is depicted with a sensual delicacy but the Cross is merely inscribed as a flat form. Here the symmetry of composition is even more striking, as the Pieta was traditionally shown with Mary cradling Christ, who stretches across her lap, his head on one side and his feet on the other (fig. 5). In this drawing, in contrast, Christ's body is displayed centrally and frontally with a minimum of overlapping forms or foreshortening to obscure it. As in the Christ on the Cross, the forms are massive and compactly organized, so that there is almost no negative space between Christ's body and Mary's. This makes them appear to form an abstract symbol or cipher. (78) The only additional figures are again angels. They perform a supporting function, holding Christ's arms up in stiff right angles. (79)
Christ's body is muscular--although not as massive as that in the Christ on the Cross--and has an inescapable beauty. No signs of suffering mar its surface, except for the faintest of indications of the stigmata. Condivi describes Mary's face as "tearful," but there are no tears visible on the surviving drawing or the printed copies. (80) Indeed, it is hard to imagine Michelangelo drawing tears, which were considered to be the province of Northern colorists. (81) The drawing has been cut at the top, as is clear from contemporary descriptions and copies, and originally Mary would have been in the center of the composition. Her gesture is an innovative and equivocal one. Christ is not on her lap, as was traditional, but displayed between her legs. She does not turn towards him, in order to cradle his head with tenderness, hold one of his dead hands in her living one, or gaze down at his dead body, as she does in the other depictions of the scene. Devotional writers describe the Virgin as reluctant to relinquish physical hold of Christ's body. (82) Jacopo Pontormo's (1494-1556) Virgin in the Sta. Felicita Entombment exemplifies this attitude, as she both faints backwards and reaches longingly forward toward the body being taken away from her (fig. 6). (83) Michelangelo's Virgin is much stronger, more heroic. She has a similar columnar neck and perfectly oval face, but turned heavenward, and her muscular arms are raised actively up, away from her son's body below. Her gesture is unusually broad, as the Virgin is generally not shown gesticulating. Other figures, usually Mary Magdalene, express their grief with great sweeps of their arms, held up, as in Michelangelo's drawing, or back behind them (fig. 7). In this sense the gesture could be an unusually melodramatic expression of the Virgin Mary's emotion at the Pieta. Her gesture, however, was also an ancient one that could signify prayer or reverence, so that she could be seen to be calmly turning away from the body of her son and praying on the significance of the Salvation, perhaps even thanking God for his mercy, rather than lamenting the human pain of the Passion. (84) The gesture was not, however, at all common in Michelangelo's time and is therefore a deliberate and enigmatic choice, one that could express the height of noisy despair or the most quiet, resigned faith.
Theologians from late antiquity to Savonarola (1452-98) complained about popular representations of the Virgin as uncontrollably weeping at her son's death. (85) They thought such an idea was indecorous and suggested a lack of faith on the part of the Virgin, who must have suffered with saintly fortitude and a sanguine knowledge of the Resurrection. Brucioli echoed these traditional complaints. (86) Ochino wrote that women should not compare their own tender feelings towards their children to the Virgin's mourning over her Son. (87) He was at pains to reconcile the ideas that she felt the greatest of suffering, but controlled it with the strongest faith: "There was no creature in this world who felt the Passion of Christ more entirely than the Madonna, but not in that way that some say, that she screamed and tore at her hair and other crazy things. No, no, do not believe that the mother of God would do such things, because she was the most prudent, and never left the boundaries of reason, but stayed quiet and felt it within her, and so it is written, that 'She saved all words, and kept them in her heart.' In her heart she ruminated and chewed on this mystery of the Passion of Christ. And believe most certainly, that she felt extreme pain ... and I imagine that each time that she looked at Christ, she felt such bitterness in her heart that she could not look at him, thinking of the great Passion that he must suffer." (88) For Ochino, the Madonna was too decorous to show her inward sorrow, which nevertheless was overwhelming, particularly when she looked at Christ and imagined the pain that his flesh must suffer. She is a model for the faithful, in that she does not merely take the Passion as a series of sensual events, but "ruminates and chews" on the Passion as a mystery, as Ochino recommended that the faithful should do when reading the Bible.
Vittoria Colonna's writings are even more conflicted about Mary's mourning. The Pieta was a favorite subject for her in poetry and prose, as she seems to have identified with Mary in her mourning. (89) Vittoria Colonna did not shy away from expressing emotion and even sensuality in her devotional meditations and wrote passionate spiritual Petrarchan poems. For example, in one poem she compares the mental image one has of God to the images that lovers have of each other. (90) In another sonnet, she focuses on the Pieta:
While the mother embraced her beloved son,
dead, in her faithful thoughts she saw
the glory of the exalted triumph
which he brought to every elect spirit.
His harsh wounds and changed appearance
augmented the bitter and fierce torment,
but the victory of the eternal empire
brought to the soul new high delight.
And the highest father opened to her
the secret that he had not left his son,
but had cared to return him glorious and alive;
but, because a true mother had given birth to him,
it is certain that until he had been buried
her heart was bereft of any solace. (91)
Vittoria Colonna conveys the tension between human emotion and abstracted faith in the very structure of the poem. The first line introduces a mother (not named as Mary) holding her son, who, adding to the pathos, is revealed to be dead in the second line. With this device, she invites the readers to compare their tender thoughts about their children to Mary's, precisely the sort of dramatic engagement that Ochino had discouraged. The next two lines confirm that she thinks faithfully of the triumph of his sacrifice. In the next quatrain, two lines again offer a colorful picture of torment (particularly of Christ's wounds) and two of triumph. Then the theme of triumph seems to dominate, as it continues in the next three lines. Finally, though, Colonna reminds us--in the end as in the beginning of the poem--that this is a human mother. She is ultimately "bereft of any solace," not the stoic woman of firm "faithful thoughts." The poem seems to embody Mary's inner struggle, and perhaps Vittoria Colonna's own wrestling to make her faith more focused on eternal victory and less on human drama. If so, Colonna uses these conflicts to enliven her poem. Here again, as in Michelangelo's drawings and poem, the animating force comes not from one consistent theological premise but from an articulated tension, a purposeful paradox.
Given Ochino's strong words against those who imagined Mary's excessive mourning, it is remarkable that Vittoria Colonna decided to dedicate her prose meditation on the Pieta to the Capuchin preacher. (92) The printed title was "Lament of the Marchesa di Pescara on the Passion of Christ," but, as the subject was specifically the Pieta, the reader was left to identify Vittoria Colonna's lament with the Madonna's. Referring to her own battle between emotion and obedience, she writes: "if obedience had not given me the strength, I would think myself most cruel to be able to write about this, though much more ungrateful if I did not contemplate it." (93) She wrote that Mary's loving torments were as Ochino had taught her, but also greater than that which could be explained or even thought. (94) The emotion exceeds any attempt at rational understanding. Mary has previously in her "greatness" kept her pain inward, but on touching her son's body, it flows out in "bitter tears" and "sighs." (95) Christ's body is alternatively described as beautiful and sweet in death and terribly lacerated and bloody: "I think, Father, that the Queen of Heaven cried for him in many ways, first as a human, seeing the most beautiful body formed from her own flesh completely lacerated and those hairs which she had tended with such care so now bothering him, as they, full of precious blood, fell on his face." (96) Colonna gives us a particularly vivid sense of the physical textures of Mary's grief: hair clotted with blood hitting lacerated flesh. She then moves to a more abstracted meditation on the virtues that Christ evinced on the Cross, the sort of rumination that Ochino had recommended. Mary lists Christ's followers and the people that he had helped, lamenting that each was not there to cry with her over Christ's body and his "sweet wounds." (97) Vittoria Colonna makes it explicit that Mary is a model for the faithful, as "she who alive represents to you how much you should weep and mourn for him dead." (98)
Each thought of Christ's virtues pains Mary further, but she also finds a paradoxical delight in his martyrdom, as "she was tormented with various loves." (99) In the end, her virtues--love, humility, patience, and obedience--only add to her pain. As in the sonnet on the Pieta, "her shield was wounded." (100) But in this meditation there is relief, as "only faith sustained her in life and she sustained living faith in order to reclothe the whole world, which had been stripped of it." (101) The reform leanings here are unmistakable. (102) Here, the magnitude of the human suffering and the inadequacy of Mary's attempts to control it make the gift of "solo la fede" all the more great.
What is not Protestant in Vittoria Colonna's account is the emphasis on Mary as a coredemptrix in her suffering. While Italian reformers tended to be Christocentric, Vittoria Colonna put a great emphasis on Mary's role. Ochino, in contrast, praised Mary as an example of faith, but did not mention her as a mediator or as redeeming in her suffering. Though a Franciscan, he does not even discuss the Immaculate Conception. (103) In contrast, Colonna praised the Immaculate Conception and Mary's suffering as offering faith and hope to the world. (104) She invokes Christ in one of her poems as a sort of intercessor to Mary, rather than the other way around. (105) In her prose prayer on the Ave Maria she writes, "one can not imagine, nor envision, nor serve Christ without Mary." (106) She calls Mary, "Truly blessed woman, who liberated the world from perpetual damnation." (107) It is Mary as the suffering mother that Vittoria Colonna invokes. She begs Mary to give her Christ, "not in divine beauty, but ugly and livid ... not in his majesty ... but abject ... I do not ask for him bathed with great joy by the water of the Jordan, with the glory of the heavens open, but all full of blood, with a thousand wounds lacerated on the Cross." (108) This is a personal vision of Salvation, neither Marian nor Christocentric, neither orthodox Catholic nor Protestant, a highly emotional spirituality which sought to follow Ochino's teachings about the higher abstract meanings of the Passion, but ultimately found greater solace in what he would have termed sensual and material meditations.
The violence of Colonna's meditations is not unusual. Often, written accounts of violence in general and the Passion in particular are bloodier than visual images. Violence told seems to have been considered more decorous and less shocking (and therefore also less moving) than violence seen, as evidenced by the propensity to recite rather than enact violent scenes in theatrical productions. (109) What is extraordinary, rather, is the lack of violence in many reform texts about Christ's blood and the tension in Colonna's artfully crafted accounts between her own personal violent, emotional, and highly colored images of Christ's blood and flesh and a more intellectualized rejoicing at God's design.
Of course, Vittoria Colonna's gender is not irrelevant. She identified herself with the role of the weeping mother and, in other works, with Mary Magdalene, another saintly type of feminine love and tearful lament. Such a dramatic, bloody, and tearful way of meditating on the Passion was often thought to be feminine. Previous women wrote violent meditations on the Crucifixion that may have served as models for Vittoria Colonna. For example, Lucrezia Tornabuoni de' Medici (1425-82) has Christ himself tell us that "Through five large veins / My blood gushes out." (110) One of Colonna's poems on Mary Magdalene ends with praise of passionate female piety: "So that, if truth not be confused with falsehood, / it is proper to give women the full prize / for having the most ardent and constant hearts." (111) If women could be accused of being too emotional in their meditations and taste for colore in art, the blame could also be taken as praise. If passion, rather than intellect, was central to faith, then women were more faithful than men. These types of emotional, yet also intellectual, reform beliefs seem to have appealed particularly to educated elite women, who were a key part of the Italian reform movement. (112)
I have described the Virgin's gesture as equivocal, but the words inscribed on the drawing, running up the Cross from her head, are surely meant to describe what she is thinking or even saying aloud through her parted lips. The line is from Dante (1265-1321), "They do not think how much blood it cost." (113) The quotation is a strange choice and must be a purposeful one for a Dantista of Michelangelo's caliber. In the Paradiso Beatrice says this not in reference to Christ's suffering but in relation to the acts of the Apostles in spreading the faith. As Nagel has pointed out, in applying the line to Christ's suffering, Michelangelo therefore radicalized it. (114) Beatrice is chastising those who apply overly complex theological reasoning to the words of the Gospel, and so the line could be seen as a call for a new simple faith, focusing on Christ's suffering. A learned quotation, unexpected in the context of a drawing, admonishes the viewer to have a simple faith, rather than indulging in curiosity and intellectual pride. Nagel suggested that the quotation acts here as a critique of the economy of Salvation, which is undercut by a reformed belief in the immeasurable magnitude of God's grace. He relates reform ideas about God's grace to the form of the presentation drawing as a gift, something that can not be earned or bought by good works. (115)
The quotation is also paradoxical in a drawing that is virtually bloodless. As discussed above, Christ's incommensurate suffering was a focus of reform-minded thinkers. In the drawing, this pain is not dramatized as a bloody horror, but meditated upon as a disembodied notion. It is inscribed in words, rather than marked on Christ's flesh. This is like the emphasis on, but not description of, Christ's blood in the Beneficio di Cristo. In the drawing, however, the eloquently ambiguous gesture of the Virgin makes the quotation come alive into an ecstatic cry that is very different in tone from the abstract theology of the Beneficio. The soft vulnerability of Christ's carefully colored (though colorless) flesh and the intimacy of the poses also suggest tender sentiment. By inscribing his bloodless drawing with a quotation about bloodiness, Michelangelo calls attention to the paradoxes inherent in his work.
These finished drawings are similar to the Petrarchan sonnets that Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna wrote in that both have a passionate intimacy. But what kind of Petrarchism and what kind of faith is this, with such a strange mixture of emotion and abstraction, with almost no blood, no tears, and no color to show blushes of Passion or pale pining? Michelangelo chose such uncharacteristically dramatic, emotional scenes, and then idealized them in order to minimize any such expression of suffering or pathos. He made disegni (drawings) with no colori (paints), surely to elevate his subjects and purify them of any fleshly womanish emotion, but he also finished them with such a fine soft colorito that we can almost touch Christ's taut suffering and gently sinking body. Like these drawings, the poetry and prose by Vittoria Colonna, Michelangelo, and others in their circle exhibit tensions around the issues of disegno and colore, artifice and simplicity, the intellect and emotion, elitism and popularism, word and image, doctrine and faith, and the masculine and the feminine. Some of the contradictions in the spiritual writings of this circle seem to be unintentional, which is not surprising in a loosely connected group of thinkers experimenting with differing religious ideas. Colonna and Michelangelo, however, consciously articulate these tensions in their religious poems. Michelangelo's drawings for Vittoria Colonna display a similar strategy of deliberate paradox, as highly colored black-and-white drawings of a tearless tearfulness and bloodless bloodiness. They were made in an age before aesthetic theory was codified into distinct academic camps and before the Counter-Reformation polarized debates about religious reform. This allusive, open, and richly textured way of creating religious words and images--practiced by an elite circle of intellectuals--was ultimately considered dangerous by the Inquisition.
Looking back with this broader context in mind, Michelangelo's drawings for Vittoria Colonna emerge as a strange, fragile experiment in creating a spiritual art that was pure disegno, but also colored with a finely finished surface and tinges of emotional drama. These works refuse to be reconciled into any one simple theological formulation or aesthetic category. Colonna's loaded use in her poems of the distinction between disegno and colore suggests that Michelangelo's creation of finished--and, therefore, colored though colorless--drawings was more than an aesthetic choice. The innovative form allowed him to make visual art that was just as ambiguous about the relationship between divinity and human flesh as any Petrarchan sonnet. These drawings are like Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna's spiritual poetry, in which passion is articulated with enormous intellectual complexity, and paradoxes play against each other, one line contradicting the next.
Appendix: The Popular Appeal of Color
Ancient and Renaissance writers contrasted the broad (potentially vulgar) charm of color with the more intellectually demanding (potentially elitist) beauty of drawing. Pollitt, 141-43, notes that ancient writers regarded a taste for pleasing lines rather than complex colors as a snobbish affectation of connoisseurship. Renaissance writers on both sides of the debate about disegno and colore often identify disegno with a connoisseurial taste for the obscure and colore with a broader appeal. Gelli, 2:330-31, contrasts a popular, facile taste for pretty colors with an elevated taste for Michelangelo's disegno. (See also an earlier, similar comment by Angelo Decembrio in Baxandall, 317 [also discussed in Hills, 92].) Vasari, 1962, 1:74, similarly implies that color was superficially appealing and defends Michelangelo for concentrating on disegno. On Vasari's and Gelli's comments, see also Summers, 182, and 550, n. 2. For other citations in which colore is described as more charming and popular and less intellectual than disegno, see Reilly: the examples are mostly negative about colore, but the popular appeal of colore could also be seen positively, particularly during Catholic reform and the Counter Reformation. Dolce, 166--who defended colore and Petrarchism--accuses Michelangelo, the master of disegno, of catering only to the "learned few" ("pochi e dotti"). In contrast, colore in painting, like rhetorical colors, was inherently charming. As Camillo, 86v, writes, "I say, that if you would like to add delight to things, that because of their nature would normally be serious and seem severe, the best thing would be to follow nature and to know that all things about which one can speak are either corporeal or incorporeal [corporeal, as in Varo and Virgil, incorporeal as in Epicurean philosophy or other similar things], and, as will be seen below, that joy that moves one of the five senses will be most pleasing and appropriate to a poem. No poetic composition will ever be listened to with attention that does not bring delight to any of the senses, placing in front of them either colors [of flowers, plants, or other lovely objects], or sweet smells, or pleasant sounds, or soft textures...." ("dico, che se voi vorremo metter dilettatione nelle cose, che per sua natura fossero solamente gravi, & di aspetto severo, ottima cosa sera di seguir la natura, & di sapere, che tutte le cose, delle quali si puo parlare sono o corporee, o incorporee; Corporee erano come Varo, & Virgilio; incorporee come la Filosofia Epicurea, o cose simili: & appresso, quella dilettatione essere sommamente grata, & amica al poema, la qual move alcuno de' cinque sensi, che nessuna compositione poetica sera mai con attentione ascoltata, e non porgera piacere ad alcuno de' sensi, mettendoli davanti o colori, come ne' fiori, nell'herbe, o in altri vaghi corpi, o odori soavi, o gusti dilettevoli, o uditi piacevoli, o tangibili molli....") In other words, the very corporeal and non-intellectual nature of color (like taste, touch, and smell) gave it a broad appeal.
Ave verum Corpus natum
De Maria Virgine:
Vere passum, immolatum
In cruce pro homine.
Cuius latus perforatum
Fluxit aqua et sanguine:
Esto nobis praegustatum
Mortis in examine.
O Iesu dulcis, o Iesu pie,
O Iesu fili Mariae.
"LIKE IVY WHOSE SUPPORTS ARE BURNED AND BROKEN...."
Vittoria Colonna was born into one of the major noble families of Rome. Before she was 4 years old, she was betrothed to Ferrante Francesco d'Avalos, Marquis of Pescara, two years older than she; the marriage took place in Naples in 1509.
The couple had about one year together before Pescara left Naples for northern Italy to join Vittoria's father in fighting for Emperor Charles V against the French; except for brief truces, the fighting continued for 15 years, so Pescara was seldom home. In 1525, the French were finally defeated, but Pescara died of wounds received in the last battle.
During her marriage, Colonna spent most of her time at her husband's court on the island of Ischia (near Naples), where, childless herself, she raised her husband's young cousin. She did, however, often travel to Rome and her family home, where she became friends with the leading poets of the period and began to write (Bernardo Tasso praised her poetry in a 1525 eulogy of d'Avalos). After 1530, Colonna made her permanent home in Rome, living in a series of convents but often returning to Ischia and traveling elsewhere in Italy and Sicily.
Like Marguerite de Navarre, with whom she corresponded, Colonna had developed by the early 1530s an interest in the religious reform of the church, an interest that would last until the end of her life. In the mid-1530's she used her ecclesiastical contacts to defend the Capuchins, a group of Franciscan friars who wished to live a more ascetic life. Then, from 1541 to 1544 she was a leading member of Reginald Pole's circle of humanists in Viterbo who sought both reform of the institutional Church and reconciliation with Protestants.
At least one of Colonna's extant poems was written before Pescara's death, but the great majority are from after 1525. After individual poems had circulated privately, her first collection was published in 1538, Rime de la Divina Vittoria Colonna Marchesa di Pescara; this contained 136 of the poems that would later come to be called rime amorose, praising the dead Pescara and mourning his loss. But in an edition of the following year, 16 "sonetti spirituali" were advertised, and later editions included an ever-increasing number of rime spirituali, reflecting the shift of Colonna's focus. The modern edition of her Rime contains 390 poems: 141 love poems, most written between 1526 and the early 1530's; 217 spiritual poems, from the 1530s and 1540s; and 32 epistolary poems.
As Colonna grew older, a friendship begun in the1530s with Michelangelo Buonarroti grew through visits and letters. In a 1551 letter Michelangelo wrote, "I have a little parchment book she gave me about ten years ago, in which there are a hundred and three sonnets"; this collection has only recently been edited and translated. The artist, in turn, wrote several poems to and about Colonna. At least one drawing of Colonna is by Michelangelo, and several of his images of Mary are believed to be based on her appearance.
All but one of the prose works published under Colonna's name are from her letters. Three letters to a young cousin were printed in 1544 as Litere della Divina Vettoria Colonna Marchesana de Pescara alla Duchessa de Amalfi (you can see the originals of these online). Ten years after Colonna's death, a letter to the Capuchin friar Bernardino Ochino was edited and printed as Pianto sopra la Passione di Cristo (Lamentation on the passion of Christ); the 1557 editors prudently removed all mention of Ochino, who had left Italy in 1542 and joined the followers of Calvin. The only non-epistolary prose by Colonna was published with Pianto; it was Oratione sopra l'Ave Maria, alla Madonna, a meditation on the prayer "Hail Mary."
Why didn't I slip off this stifling flesh
Why didn't I slip off this stifling flesh
as I gave myself up to joy? and why
did I remain alive, no, as one dead,
alone and lost, when my true self parted.
With him as my sacred and noble guide,
my errors would be hidden in dazzling
light, by his side on that steep road, I'd be
welcomed through his merit, his victory.
Content in this, blessed in that--my vision
of him, free from anxiety, anguish
from the world, sheltered by my Sun's bright rays.
With him there could I fear the uncertain
passage, the thick shadows in the earth? But
I'm not worthy death, much less this vision.