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Love story in paintings: Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna

Today we know Vittoria Colonna as Michelangelo's muse and the only lady to be the inspirer of his love poems. However, her other eminent compatriots devoted verses and prose to her, artists painted her portraits, and the city rulers tried to get the "precious jewel" in their possession. Why? Let’s find out!

The 16th century trends

Vittoria Colonna was born in 1490/1492 (the exact date is unknown) near Rome and was the heiress of an ancient, noble and very warlike family. When she was four or five, she was betrothed to Fernando (Ferrante) Francesco d'Ávalos, Marquis di Pescara, grandson of a Spanish military leader who moved to Naples after King Alfonso V.
  • Portrait of Vittoria Colonna. Francesco Ubertini, also known as Bacchiacca, 1500-1557 Fuji Art Museum, Tokyo
  • Fernando (Ferrante) d’Ávalos, Marquis of Pescara. Unknown author, XVI-XVII centuries
The first representative of the Colonna family, whose name appears in the documents, was Pietro, who lived in 1078—1108 in the vicinity of the town of Colonna, which had given its name to the family.

Constanza d'Ávalos and Vittoria Colonna. Fresco from the monastery of San Antonio on the island of Ischia.

She lived and grew up in the family of her future husband thenceforth, on the island of Ischia near Naples. They played and learned to read and write together, under the strict guidance of the elder (almost 30 years older!) sister of the young bridegroom, Constanza d'Ávalos, Duchess of Francavilla. She loved art, and poetry at that time was the trend among the court nobility of Naples. Constanza organized a kind of "hobby club", having gathered writers, and did everything to catch the interest of her educatees with poetry. Young Vittoria was among its most active participants.

Aragonese castle on the island of Ischia. Engraving, detail.

At the end of 1509, when the girl was seventeen (or nineteen) years old, the wedding with Fernando took place. The marriage of convenience turned out to be a union of love. In any case, Vittoria recalled later the short time spent together as the best period in her life. Perhaps it’s all about the right "dosage".

Girolamo Muzziani.
Portrait of Vittoria Colonna
According to art historian Boris Wipper, Vittoria "was not beautiful or created to be loved by the brilliant and sensual marquis. Nevertheless, she loved the marquis and suffered brutally from the infidelity of her husband, who deceived her in her own house".

Exquisite sadist

According to his contemporaries, Fernando was an intellectual, possessed of exceptional dexterity, which he showed during knightly tournaments, and a beautiful appearance. "His beard was chestnut-coloured, his nose was aquiline, his eyes widened and burned in moments of excitement, but at ordinary times they were meek and gentle," wrote his biographer Bishop Giovio.
For a long time it was believed that the portrait depicted Cesare Borgia, but then it was concluded that it was Fernando d'Ávalos, the Marquis of Pescara.
Opponents seldom managed to resist the strength and pressure of the Marquis di Pescara, and the ladies surrendered him without a fight. Legends circulated about the love affairs of Fernando d'Ávalos, his feats of arms and his ruthlessness as well. "He was angry and cruel, he despised human suffering, even among his comrades stood he out not only as ferocious, but sometimes as enjoying the disasters and ruin he caused," this is how documents describe him. Vittoria was probably blissfully unaware, because all the years of separation (which outnumbered the years spent together), the couple exchanged passionate messages, including poetic ones.

Since the war itself was the point of life of Fernando d'Ávalos, during his service as a condottiere (the leader of mercenary military detachments), he fought both on the side of the Italians and on the side of the Spaniards against the French-Venetian army. Indeed, despite the fact that he was born in Naples, he always felt like a Spaniard and even spoke his native language with Vittoria.

  • Vittoria Colonna. 19th century engraving from a painting by Girolamo Muzziani, ca. 1550.
  • Fernando d’Ávalos, Marquis di Pescara. Unknown artist.
We don’t know, whether it was Spanish or Italian language that she used to persuade him to refuse to participate in a conspiracy against the emperor. The main thing is that she succeeded. The conspirators wanted the Marquis di Pescara to betray, offering to make him king of Naples.
"However, I know very well that his wife, Signora Vittoria, a woman of impeccable morality, richly gifted with all the virtues that adorn her gender …, full of the feeling of endless sadness and anxiety, wrote the most ardent letter to her husband …, assuring him that … she had only one wish — to remain the wife of an honest and straightforward person," their contemporary writer Benedetto Varchi reported in his History of Florence. As a result, the Marquis abandoned the idea of treason and reported everything to the emperor.
Pescara was especially distinguished in the Battle of Pavia in February 1525, when the French king Francis I was captured. With the wounds received (according to other sources — with tuberculosis) at the end of the same year, Fernando died in Milan, where he asked Vittoria to arrive as soon as possible. But she did not come in time, and when she learned that her husband was dead, she became depressed and decided to go into convent. Then her friends intervened, who did not want to lose her company. They obtained a letter from Pope Clement VII in which he threatened the nuns with complete excommunication if they allowed the Marquise take the veil.

Titian. Alfonso d'Ávalos, Marquis del Vasto, in armour with his page, 1533

Nevertheless, Vittoria bound herself with a sort of a vow: since she did not have her children, she adopted her young relative, Alfonso del Vasto, who was her friend for all her life.

The first lady of the Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more

Vittoria did not lack admirers either being married or after the death of her husband (by the way, this event aroused her poetic talent). "I write only to pour out the innermost suffering that feeds my heart, which does not want any other food," this is how the first of its elegiac sonnets begins.
Sebastiano del Piombo.
Vittoria Colonna, Marquise di Pescara
1520−1525, National Museum of Art of Catalonia.

She is called "the first widow who rebelled by crying out about her pain in sonnets". And most importantly, she was the first of the ladies of the Italian Renaissance
The Renaissance is the period that began around the 14th century and ended at the late 16th century, traditionally associated primarily with the Italian region. The ideas and images of the Renaissance largely determined the aesthetic ideals of modern man, his sense of harmony, measure and beauty. Read more
to encroach the male privilege of writing love poems. Thus, she turned from the subject of marriage bargaining into a woman who declared her right to love.

Portrait of Vittoria Colonna, Florence, Uffizi Gallery, the Giovio Series.
The Giovio Series is a series of 484 portraits collected by the historian and biographer Paolo Giovio in the 16th century.

The style of the Colonna’s poems was unanimously recognized as elegant, their content was deeply thought out, although the sonnets themselves were not too emotional. However, after the first publications, their fans sought to get their copies. Among her loyal readers were cardinals, bishops, poets, scholars, diplomats who spread the works from hand to hand and even made the subject of their correspondence with the "divine poetess".

"During her lifetime, she had the pleasure to see three editions of the screams, breaking from her chest beyond her will," snapped Thomas Adolphus Trollope, an English writer of the 19th century.

Poets of the 16th century glorified her beauty, writer Baldassare Castiglione talked about "her divine intellect", and artists hastened to capture the "most beautiful woman" on their canvases.
Raphael Sanzio. The Stanzas Of The Vatican. Parnassus

Raphael Sanzio.
The Parnassus fresco.

Art historians found Vittoria among other Italian poets on Raphael’s famous fresco Parnassus painted in the Stanza della Segnatura of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

It is believed that she is also depicted as the Virgin Mary on the notorious fresco "The Last Judgment" by Michelangelo. According to another version, we can see Vittoria as one of the women in a scarf to the left of Christ, while the model for Jesus was his favourite disciple (and, as suggested, but never proved, his lover) Tommaso dei Cavalieri.

Titan and Colonna

One of her contemporaries called Vittoria "an approaching column that stands in the midst of a raging storm". Thus, he emphasized not only her talent to unite people around herself, but also the fact that she resisted during the Inquisition, despite the dangerous reputation of the reformist movement leader. Vittoria sided with those theologians who opposed the tough scholasticism in the official church: many of them died at the stake, others fled. Colonna remained alive, although under the supervision of the Inquisition. Michelangelo was also considered a violator of traditions, because many of his works aroused the clergy anger and were censored. In a word, they had much to talk about.
  • Jacopo del Conte. Portrait of Michelangelo. Ca. 1540
  • Portrait of Vittoria Colonna. Florentine school.
They met in Rome in 1536 or 1537: Vittoria was about forty-six, Michelangelo was over sixty.

Here is what the Michelangelo’s biographer Ascanio Condivi writes about their relationship: "The love that he had for the Marquise di Pescara was especially great. He still keeps many of her letters, filled with the purest, sweetest feeling. He wrote many sonnets for her, talented and full of sweet longing." But this is not the whole picture: in one of the messages, Michelangelo criticized her for … her love of jewelry. In his opinion, she did not need this: "Jewelry, necklaces, flattery, gold, feasts and pearls! Who perceives this dummy when she creates divine things?"

According to Giovio, Michelangelo was fascinated by the marquise’s hermaphroditic features — a "slightly masculine decor" - and he "would like to transform his body in one eye in order to fully admire her appearance".
Enrico Fanfani. Michelangelo reciting his poems to Vittoria Colonna. 19th century.
"The unique maestro and my most unusual friend," Vittoria addressed Michelangelo in her letter. Another correspondent, Giorgio Vasari, spoke of their prosaic and poetic correspondence: "He sent countless letters to the blessed Marquise Pescara and received answers from her in verse and prose, being in love with her virtues, just as she was in love with his virtues and she traveled many times from Viterbo to Rome in order to visit him." "He was very fond of the Marquise Pescara," confirmed Condivi, the biographer of Michelangelo.

"Vittoria had one hundred and three sonnets in parchment tied together, which she sent from Viterbo," Michelangelo said on 7 March 1551, in a letter to his nephew Leonardo. He meant the poetic messages dedicated to him, which the maestro kept as a treasure.
For Vittoria, Michelangelo made "Crucifixion" drawings in a manner rather unusual for him (soft Italian pencil, the nature of a foggy cloud, the general spirit of sublimity and humility), and also made a number of her portrait sketches. In the literature, these drawings are called The Ideal Head of a Woman, The Woman, The Head of a Young Man. Although there were some speculations about the personality of the model, Vittoria has not yet been identified on them: there is no evidence that she is the one depicted, there are only assumptions.
Michelangelo Buonarroti. Portrait Of Vittoria Colonna
Vittoria Colonna, drawing by Michelangelo, 1550. British Museum, London.

According to the researchers, Michelangelo did not leave portraits of Vittoria, but created “intimate drawings to visualize her emotional liveliness, which mesmerized him.”
Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Ideal Head of a Woman, supposedly the Marquise di Pescara, 1525
British Museum, London
Vittoria liked unusual hairstyles that emphasized the beauty of her hair. “They looked like Leda’s hats,” Giovio wrote.
Michelangelo. Portrait of a Woman. 1530.
Michelangelo. Christ On The Cross. Created for Vittoria Colonna.
British Museum, London

It is generally accepted that Michelangelo had just platonic feelings for the Marquise. Some researchers believe that in this way it was easier for him "to satisfy his raging desires by passing them on to Saint Vittoria Colonna, a woman whose chastity did not threaten his unnatural homosexual instincts" (a hint of his relationship with his young student Tommaso Cavalieri, and not only him). Others argue that "thanks to Tommaso, he finally comprehended the neoplatonic theory of love by Marsilio Ficino, who declated that "selfless love for another soul (in this case, another man) helps a person to approach the Almighty".

Portrait of Tommaso Cavalieri.

Vittoria and Michelangelo "met every day, read together, dedicated sonnets to each other and had endless conversations about religion, poetry, and art. The Portuguese artist Francisco de Olhanda preserved the memory of these conversations for posterity in his four Dialogues on Painting", the researcher Boris Wipper wrote.
"The spirit is devoid of flesh, and friendship has no sex," Michelangelo thought, calling the Colonna un uomo in una donna, a man in a woman. However, he devoted a lot of love sonnets to her, including the following:

Seeking at least to be not all unfit
For thy sublime and boundless courtesy,
My lowly thoughts at first were fain to try
What they could yield for grace so infinite.
But now I know my unassisted wit
Is all too weak to make me soar so high;
For pardon, lady, for this fault I cry,
And wiser still I grow remembering it.
Yea, well I see what folly 'twere to think
That largess dropped from thee like dews from heaven
Could e’er be paid by work so frail as mine!
To nothingness my art and talent sink;
He fails who from his mortal stores hath given
A thousandfold to match one gift divine.

Their love friendship lasted for a decade until the death of Vittoria in February 1547. "For his part, he loved her as he spoke, and only one thing saddened him: when he came to look at her no longer alive, he kissed only her hand, and not her forehead or face. Because of her death he remained distracted and distraught for a long time," Ascanio Condivi wrote about Michelangelo, who survived Colonna for 17 years.
Theobald Reinhold von Oer.
Michelangelo at the tomb of Vittoria Colonna, 1872
Museum Abtei Liesborn

Michelangelo wrote:

"When she who gave the source of all my sighs
Fled from the world, herself, my straining sight,
Nature who gave us that unique delight,
Was sunk in shame, and we had weeping eyes."

"Death took my great friend from me," he said.

Vittoria herself, foresaw her imminent end and was not afraid of death: in the other world, she believed, her husband and the infinite happiness of divine love were waiting for her.

"For a long time I loved the world blindly,
Allured by fame, that viper at the breast,
And what emerged? on my tongue a cry of
Ceaseless wretchedness. So I turned to God —

And help came. So now I’ll write, but with nails
From the cross. His dear blood will be my ink;
His exhausted body, my streaked paper:
May I channel the grief all have known, all
He suffered, into these poems."

Hermann Schneider.
Vittoria and Michelangelo at the "Moses", until 1894

However, there is also such an opinion: the legend creators "made Vittoria Colonna play the role of Juliet in Michelangelo’s life drama, and this relates one of the most influential women of the Renaissance to a simple object of desire". So the British Michelangelo’s biographer John Addington Symonds believed, assuring that the influence of Colonna on the painter’s life is greater than if she were only his model or mistress. "She changed his attitude to religion, she patronized his work and served as one of the closest proxies," the researchers say today. After all, she was not just a donna who wrote poetry, but a free (in her views as well) woman. Of course, as much as a woman of the Renaissance could be free.

After the death of Vittoria Colonna, Michelangelo experienced a feeling of complete loneliness. "I am always alone, and I don’t speak with anyone," he wrote to his nephew.
Vittoria Colonna, 1837 by Antonio Locatelli.
There is evidence that Vittoria actively participated in supporting the House of Converters in Rome, an institution that hosted women of easy virtue who wanted to atone for guilt without becoming nuns. In her writings, she often mentioned Mary Magdalene.
Vittoria Colonna, 1540. Engraving by an unknown author for the publication of poems. Venice.
Half-length portrait of Vittoria Colonna based on the work by Sebastiano del Piombo. Illustration for the book, print by Francesco de Grado.
Vittoria Colonna, 16th century.
Unknown artist.
Portrait of Vittoria Colonna, 1540-1560
British Museum, London.
Unknown author. Vittoria Colonna. La Galleria di Casa Buonarroti, Florence.

The title page of the 1559 edition of Colonna’s poetry.
Almost all of Vitoria Colonna’s works are in the library of La Galleria di Casa Buonarroti in Florence.
The Sonnets by Vittoria Colonna, 1540.
Francesco Jacovacci. Michelangelo at the tomb of Vittoria Colonna, kissing the hand of the deceased, 1880
National Museum and Galleries of Capodimonte,
Francesco Vinea. Michelangelo Reciting His Poems to Vittoria Colonna
Bust of Vittoria Colonna, 2011, Rome.
On 14 November 2019, in Russia, the premiere of “The Sin” biographical drama by Andrei Konchalovsky was held. The plot tells about the troubles on the creative path of Michelangelo, for whose loyalty two powerful families are fighting. Michelangelo was played by Alberto Testone.
Jules Joseph Lefebvre. Portrait Of Victoria Of The Column

Jules Joseph Lefebvre.
Top center description: Diva Vittoria Colonna, ca. 1861

Vittoria did not live long, she did not live to be sixty, but she was a witness and participant in many historical events of that time. This gave rise to Rami Targoff, the author of the book about Colonna, to call her "Forest Gump of the Renaissance": she was not only the first woman whose works were published in Italy, but also the first lady to be posthumously judged by the Inquisition for reformist ideas, while Vittoria was a righteous Catholic for all her life.