“The Renaissance comes to life anew” in this insightful biography of a remarkable Italian woman.
“It is impossible to imagine the Renaissance without her.” Targoff’s (English, Italian Studies, Humanities/Brandeis Univ.; Posthumous Love: Eros and the Afterlife in Renaissance England, 2014, etc.) claim regarding the importance of Vittoria Colonna, Marchesa of Pescara (1490-1547), is a lofty one, but she makes a strong case for it in this thorough and painstakingly researched academic biography. Due to the paucity of extant primary sources about and by Vittoria, Targoff draws upon the complex history of the times and some considered speculation to tell her subject’s compelling story. The author has done yeoman’s work scouring Italian libraries, archives, and monasteries to locate, identify, and personally translate obscure Latin and Italian manuscripts. The Roman Colonna family was one of the most powerful in Italy, and Vittoria was well-educated and devout. She and her future husband, Ferrante, from Naples, were just children when their marriage was arranged around 1495; they took their vows in 1509. When her husband, a soldier fighting for Charles V, was killed in battle, she was “thirty-five years old, a widow, and childless.” Targoff describes her as a solitary woman. She wanted to enter a convent, but Pope Clement said no. Disappointed, she returned to the family castle on an island where she “transformed her sorrows into verse.” Her more than 130 sonnets about her grief and faith, Targoff argues, “broke entirely new ground for women’s poetry.” When a pirated edition of her poems was published in 1538, she became the first Italian woman to publish a book of poetry and the “most celebrated religious poet of the era.” She later became friends with the influential religious reformer Reginald Pole and Michelangelo, “my most singular friend.”
Targoff captures the Renaissance’s “simultaneous magic and strangeness” in a single woman.