How the University of Chicago Press came to request permission to reproduce one of my images is—what else?—a long story. Back in January 2000 I got an email from a Cambridge University post-graduate student, Abigail Brundin, who at the time was in the final stages of her Ph.D. thesis on Vittoria Colonna, the famous poet of Renaissance Italy. She said a letter I’d sent to a colleague asking questions about Vittoria had been forwarded to her, and that she’d be delighted to take on the task.
We had an interesting discussion about Vittoria’s living for a time in a gloomy castle here on Ischia, those achingly longing poems she wrote to her always absent husband, and about her subsequent relationship with Michelangeo in Rome. Then Abigail had a request:
In the Chapel of San Francesco (or Sant'Antonio di Padova possibly?) on Ischia there is an altarpiece fresco which depicts Vittoria Colonna, in youth, blond, sumptuously dressed, and her aunt Costanza d'Avalos in a Franciscan monk's habit, kneeling below the Madonna of mercy, with various saints and martyrs in flanking side panels. I have a reproduction of this fresco, but very small and blurry, in a viennese catalogue from a few years back. I am in dire need of a better slide of it. Do you know the chapel/fresco? If you do, can you photograph it for me? I would be eternally grateful, and cover your expenses, plus answering any questions you may come up with! As well as the central group I'm anxious if possible to have images of the female saints in the panels - Mary Magdalen and Catherine of Alexandria.
Obviously only if you have the inclination or time! Best wishes, Abigail.
Of course I was happy to comply, since I’d already chosen Vittoria Colonna as the namesake of the main character in my novel-in-progress. I hopped on the bus. A shopkeeper gave me directions to the convent. I rang the bell.
Father Tomaso, a short man in a brown Franciscian monk’s robe, appeared at the door. He listened to my request, and nodded. “Yes, of course,” he said softly. “Come this way, please”
The chapel of the convent of Sant’ Antonio di Padova was empty and silent. In the corner a dimly illuminated life-sized statue of Mary stood on a pedestal. On the west wall hung an enormous fresco, which appeared dark and monochromatic, stained over the centuries by the smoke of burning candles. A half dozen other smaller panels were high on the adjoining walls. Despite the patina great detail and rich color appeared when I looked closer.
“Perhaps these paintings originally were over in Ponte, in the castello Aragonese, or in the Cathederal of the Assunata, and then were later brought here,” Father Tomaso said. “I don’t really know. But, yes, Costanza d’ Avalos commissioned them in the 16th Century when Francesco and other family members were away in battle. Of that there is no doubt. The Madonna of Mercy, she hoped, would protect them.”
“Who is the artist?” I asked.
The figure of Madonna was seated. Two winged cherubs floated at the sides of her head, then to the right and left two red-robed angeli played a lute and violoincello. Near her legs hovered six putti, naked boys with wings. At her feet naked condemned sinners, standing waist-deep in separate box-like compartments of Hell, wailed. Each compartment was a punishment for a particular sin: Pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Visible in the fresco were only five, the others were hidden.
And there, at bottom right, appeared Vittoria.
The beautiful young woman, I thought, looked very much like my own Vittoria. She had the same blonde hair and pale skin. A bearing of regal entitlement. And most especially a look of otherworldly preoccupation.
Of Christian iconography I knew little. I turned to ask Father Tomaso about the significance of Mary’s exposed breast, and the infant’s clenched fists, and a number of other questions, but the monk was looking at his watch.
I raised my Nikon and centered the large painting in the viewfinder. The flash made a faint pop.