The ruins of Cattedrale dell’Assunta, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, atop a massive trachytic rock, where on December 27, 1509, Vittoria Colonna and Ferrante d’Avalos, marquis of Pescara, were married. I stood before the altar, trying to imagine the ceremony.
As for the marriage, Ferrante didn’t stay long. He went off on various military campaigns because apparently he loved battle and fame more than he loved his wife. Vittoria, meanwhile, wrote a series of achingly beautiful poems to and about him, which intensified after the eager warrior died of wounds suffered in the battle of Pavia.
When I first came to this island nearly five years ago I imagined Vittoria sitting over there by one of the castle’s windows, looking out at the bay of Naples, overwhelmed with loneliness and longing for her always absent love.
But later I learned from Dr. Abigail Brundin, a scholar friend at St. Catherine’s College in Cambridge, that despite the seemingly autobiographical nature of Vittoria’s poetry, her work was informed by a topos, or literary convention, derived from the works of Francesco Petrarca. Ferrante was, by most accounts, a cad, a cheat, and a liar, and was hardly ever at home. And yet Vittoria deliberately idealized him.
Because she—an extraordinarily bright and talented woman—set out to subvert the Petrarchan genre so that the lover is a woman, and the absent beloved a man, rather than the other way around. She proceeded to carry out a neo-Platonic ascension from an earthly to a divine love, such that her beloved is gradually transmuted into the figure of Christ.
“Such a conceit,” says professor Brundin, “allowed her to fix her work within clear Christian boundaries, and thus most probably avoid the criticism due to a woman who wrote literature. What their marriage was really like is immaterial, I think.”
Yesterday I sat in a lovely restaurant on the castle’s grounds, sipping an espresso, and thinking. It finally occurred to me that my Vittoria and the Vittoria of the sixteenth century share more than a name. In the end, what matters most to us is not the often disappointing reality of a relationship, but rather writing beautiful words about how it ought to be, and how it might have been.