- Sonnets for Michelangelo: A Bilingual Edition
The literary fame of Vittoria Colonna (1490–1547) in the sixteenth century rests both on her poetry in memory of her dead husband and on her spiritual verse, which, though less well known today, is the far greater achievement. While even her first collection of a widow's love poetry (1538) is heavily religious (like Petrarca she writes of her beloved in heaven), beginning with the fifth edition, the fourth published in 1539, the title of her canzoniere changed to make specific reference to the additional spiritual sonnets included in the collection, and in subsequent editions her spiritual verse prevails and Christ becomes the sole object of her love and devotion. Her lyrics are Petrarchist, but she takes the genre in an entirely new spiritual direction. Colonna's work was enormously popular in the sixteenth century; Alan Bullock, her modern editor, cites twenty-two published editions and eleven manuscript collections of her verse, as well as more than twenty manuscript anthologies that contained some of her poems. In 1543 her poetry was published with a commentary by Rinaldo Corso, the first published critical reading of a living writer in the period. Her example sparked the interest in women writers and legitimized this public voice for women in sixteenth-century Italy.
Some time around 1540, Colonna prepared a manuscript of 103 spiritual sonnets as a gift for Michelangelo Buonarroti, her close friend whom she saw often in Rome beginning in the late 1530s and with whom she corresponded and exchanged poetry until her death in 1547. Some of the poems she collected for him had been previously published but were revised; others may have been written expressly for the occasion. The manuscript (Vatican Library, Vaticano Latino 11539) is published for the first time now in an excellent bilingual edition edited by Abigail Brundin, who translated and annotated the poems masterfully. Brundin's introduction thoroughly explores the life and works of Colonna, her association with the proponents of spiritual reform in the early sixteenth century, and her friendship with Michelangelo. [End Page 484] The poems in the gift manuscript are an eloquent manifesto of Colonna's sympathies for the early reform movement in Italy, and the collection offers insights into her relationship with Michelangelo. This manuscript makes quite clear that in their conversations Colonna's was the role of teacher who conveyed the joy of her faith to her friend Michelangelo, whose own religious poetry of those years reflects a search for spiritual improvement.
The poems Colonna collected for Michelangelo offer an extensive account of her faith, which, though she remained a Catholic, is characterized by religious sentiments that would later be condemned, principally the notion of justification by faith rather than salvation through good works (sola fide, declared heretical in 1547) and the Christian's unmediated relationship with God. These were ideas shared by many Catholic thinkers, to which they arrived, as did Luther, through a reading of St. Paul. See for example sonnet 78 (118–19), in which Colonna writes (in Brundin's translation) that the mystery of God's dying on the cross exceeds human understanding, yet a "great or tiny ray" of it enters us and gives us "superhuman faith, \ a pure and perfect gift from God alone. . . . This law is not written upon paper, \ but rather it was imprinted by Jesus . . . with the fire of his love upon the purified heart."
Other related themes treated in this spiritual canzoniere are the impossibility of human reciprocation of Christ's immense gift of himself and the emotion of joy rather than sorrow experienced in contemplating the Crucifixion; there are echoes of the language of the Beneficio di Cristo. Some of the poems commemorate saints and were probably written on the occasion of their feast day, though the canzoniere does not follow the order of the liturgical calendar. The poet also expresses...