Anonymous Neapolitan artist’s altarpiece fresco Madonna of Mercy (second decade of the sixteenth century), Church of San Francesco or Sant’ Antonio di Padova, from the Island of Ischia, showing Colonna on the bottom right holding a book and her aunt by marriage, Costanza d’Avalos, on the left. Photograph courtesy John Palcewski.
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The postman this morning delivers a book from the University of Chicago Press, and its author, a professor in the Department of Italian at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of St. Catharine’s College, is a friend of mine.
Back in January, 2000, I struck up a correspondence with Abigail Brundin, who at the time was in the final stages of her Ph.D. thesis on Vittoria Colonna, the famous poet of the Renaissance who once lived on this island.
Over several weeks Abigail and I had an extended email discussion about Vittoria. I spoke about standing atop Ischia Ponte in the ruins of the castle’s chapel, where Vittoria married Ferrante Francesco D’Avalos, and I looked across the sea at the tower-like villa where Vittoria's dear friend, Michaelango, lived for a time. I said I was struck by the achingly lovely poems Vittoria wrote to her frequently absent husband.
My God, you can feel her love for that man radiating from the page! Also a powerful undercurrent of eroticism! It’s saturated with sublimated sex! Powerful, evocative stuff. It makes my head swim.
I went on and on in that idealized, romantic vein. And then gently Abigail set me straight.
“Such biographism is dangerously misleading,” Abigail said. “The fact of the matter is that Vittoria’s marriage to D'Avalos was broken, dead. Her poems were a topos, or literary device, inspired both by Greek rhetoric and the works of Petrarch. Petrarchan love lyrics were a hugely popular genre at the time, as writing in Italian began to be respected as equal to literature in Latin, and the idea was to imitate the 'greats', i.e. Petrarch, Dante and Boccaccio, which is what Vittoria did to perfection.
“Idealising D'Avalos allowed her to carry out a neo-Platonic ascension, from an earthly to a divine love; she transmuted her supposed beloved into the figure of Christ. Such a conceit allowed her to avoid the criticism due to a woman who wrote literature. What her marriage was really like is immaterial, I think. Having said that, one sixteenth-century satirist, Pietro Aretino ('the scourge of princes'), did call her up on it, remarking in one of his plays that her husband was a cad, and she therefore a liar....”
“Vittoria’s contemporaries admired her greatly. You have to remember that everyone was essentially 'role playing' in the Renaissance.”
“Even 'private' letters would probably eventually have a public circulation, and everyone knew that what they put on paper would have the power to define them. People were becoming very aware of this power to modulate the manner of their self-presentation according to whim, and Vittoria did so as much as anyone. Her 'role playing' was fully understood and accepted by her contemporaries.”
As I accept Maria’s!
And, Abigail said, Vittoria’s writing wasn’t entirely about role playing, either. She was among the vanguard of The Reformation.
“Vittoria was closely involved with a group of intellectuals who were seeking to reform the Catholic church from within (although some eventually defected and joined the Protestants). Through meetings and readings of the Scriptures they developed a new philosophy, which included the desire to return to the Bible as the pure source for illumination and cast off superfluous worship, and an intense interest in Christ as the locus for salvation. Many of Vittoria's later verses openly declare such subversive ideas, which is why she came under suspicion by the Inquisition.”
Subversive ideas! Like Maria trying to break free of her family!
And finally: “The language used by Vittoria and these early 'evangelists' was mystical and sensual--the body of Christ is often sexualised, and this is the resonance you are picking up in Vittoria's poetry.”
Oh, by the way, Abigail said. "Michaelangelo never set foot on Ischia. I suspect that villa's name is something the locals dreamed up for the tourists!"
Anyway, Abigail finally got around to a request. I read her post eagerly:
“In the Chapel of San Francesco on Ischia is an altarpiece fresco that 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 in a Viennese catalog, but it’s very small and blurry. For my book-in-progress I am in dire need of a better, clearer representation. Do you know the chapel and its fresco? If you do, can you photograph it for me?
“I would be eternally grateful, and will cover your expenses, plus answering any questions for your own book you may come up with!
“In addition to the central group I'm anxious to get 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. 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 was bare and silent. In the corner a dimly illuminated life-sized statue of Mary. On the west wall an enormous fresco. It appeared dark and monochromatic, stained over the centuries by the smoke of burning candles. A half dozen other smaller panels were hung high on the adjoining walls.
“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, was Vittoria.
The beautiful young woman looked very much like Maria. She had the same blonde hair and pale skin. A bearing of regal entitlement. And most especially a look of otherworldly preoccupation.