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THE CASE OF VITTORIA COLONNA
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Donna ammirabile! Possa il luminoso tuo esempio servir di sprone a quei felici, ma timidi ingegni, che slanciarsi non osano nel bel cammin della gloria!
[Most admirable lady! May your shining example serve as a spur to those gifted but timorous minds that have not yet dared to launch themselves upon the sweet road to glory!]
A distinctive feature of the Italian literary tradition-shared only, perhaps, to some extent, by the French-is its precocious and definitive acceptance into the canon of a number of early modern women writers. Within a tradition like the English, the women writers of this period most widely studied today are for the most part recent critical rediscoveries, having either been little known in their lifetime or subsequently suffered periods of critical neglect. In Italy, by contrast, there are instances from this period of women recognized in their lifetimes as leading literary figures and whose critical reputation has tranquilly endured to this day. The most clear-cut case of this is the subject of this essay, Vittoria Colonna (1490-1547). Colonna was the object, in her day, of unchallenged popular and critical acclaim: as well as being one of the most-published poets of the sixteenth century, she was a staple figure in anthologies and listings of notable literary figures of the period and, remarkably, was the first vernacular poet other than Petrarch to receive the tribute of a published commentary on her work. Her reputation, firmly established in her lifetime, has never been seriously contested in successive centuries: to cite the terms of the title of the present volume, Colonna represents an interesting case of a strong female voice coupled with a uniformly (or almost uniformly) strong history.
The principal object of the present essay is to examine the implications for later-sixteenth-century Italian women writers of Colonna's rapid and definitive acceptance into the canon. Before this problem may be addressed directly, however, it will be as well to consider the motives of Colonna's "canonization" and to remark on the significance that her name came to assume within the literary culture of the day. Prime among the reasons for the success of Colonna's poetry in her own time was, of course, the high quality of her writing and, perhaps particularly, her impeccable mastery of the technical skills so prized in lyric poetry at this time. A faultless stylist and a faithful adherent to the canons of Petrarchist imitation elaborated by Pietro Bembo (1470-1547), Colonna is the antithesis of the untutored and spontaneous model of expression that so many schools of criticism, whether hostile or admiring, have regarded as characterizing the feminine poetic voice. That this has been a factor in making her writing so historically assimilable within the male canon is borne out by a stream of prestigious testimonials, from Bembo's early discovery in her verse of a "gravity" he would not have expected in a woman to Burckhardt's appreciation of her verses as "so far removed from the dilettantism which we commonly find in the poetry of women that we should not hesitate to attribute them to male authors if we had not clear external evidence to the contrary." Beyond its stylistic rigor and control, a further factor contributing to this traditional perception of Colonna's verse as "virile" is likely to have been the ethical tone of the authorial persona she crafted for herself, characterized by a stoicism and austerity more easily readable as "masculine" than as "feminine" within her culture. This, along with her high social status and the intellectual and spiritual authority she had accrued by the end of her life, must have contributed to Michelangelo's occasional casting of her in his writings as male: "un grande amico" [a very great friend (of the masculine gender)] as he addresses her in one letter, or "un uomo in una donna" [a man within a woman].
In part, then, Colonna owed her easy assimilation within a male-dominated literary culture to her perceived masculine qualities as poet and cultural protagonist. At the same time, however, any threat that might be evoked by this transexually "virile" element in her persona was conveniently offset by her adherence in other respects to a reassuringly conventional ideal of femininity. Although she had written poetry from a relatively early age-a single verse epistle survives from the time of her marriage-Colonna's national fame as a poet dated from the period following the death of her husband in 1525, and the poems that won her fame were those devoted to celebrating his virtues and expressing her inconsolability at his loss. Later in her life, from the late 1530s to the 1540s, the thematic emphasis of her poetry shifted, increasingly expressing the religious concerns that dominated the latter part of her life. The grieving widow, devoting her poetic talents to the cult of her dead husband, and the saintly older woman, properly turning in her declining years toward an exclusive focus on spiritual salvation: these were not unpalatable or difficult images for sixteenth-century literary culture to swallow. If one contrasts Colonna's eminently "digestible" moral and poetic persona with that of, say, Gaspara Stampa (1523-54), whose poetry recounts in turn the poet's turbulent and undisguisedly sexual affair with Collaltino da Collalto, its unhappy ending, and the beginnings of a further love story with Bartolomeo Zen, it is not difficult to explain why the former became one of the most acclaimed and published poets of the century, while the latter's renown proved barely capable of transcending the faintly libertine Venetian circles in which Stampa had moved in her lifetime.
Up to this point, I have been looking at the qualities in Colonna's poetry that made it sufficiently palatable to the male literary establishment of her day to ensure her canonization. But a final, and more fundamental, factor must be taken into account in gauging the reasons for Colonna's success as a poet: the fact that, at the time of her "discovery" around 1530, elite literary culture in Italy was in a phase of its history peculiarly propitious to a discovery of precisely this kind. Without disparaging Colonna's very genuine poetic talent, one might say that a cultural space had created itself at this moment for a great woman poet and that part of Colonna's genius lay in her ability to craft herself persuasively and unthreateningly as the right candidate to step into that space. The principal developments in Italian literary history in the first three decades of the sixteenth century had been the diffusion of printing and the subsequent, gradual displacement of Latin by the vernacular: a process symbolically sealed by the publication of Bembo's Prose della volgar lingua [Writings on the vernacular] in 1525. More specifically, Bembo's influential treatise signaled the triumph of one particular brand of vernacular literary culture: polite, urbane, self-consciously courtly in its values and diction and purged of the air of provincialism that had dogged vernacular poetry in the previous century. Gallantry and chivalry toward women-typically courtly attitudes as they were-were among the distinguishing features of the new poetic culture, which may be further characterized as "feminized" in its thematic emphasis on love and its stylistic privileging of refinement and formal polish. An affirmative attitude to women thus became a badge of appurtenance to the new culture, a point well illustrated by the two most notable literary works published in these years, Castiglione's Libro del cortegiano [Book of the courtier] (1528) and Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1532).
Within this context, it should be clear why a woman poet of indubitable quality such as Colonna should have been greeted with such enthusiasm by her male peers when she emerged in the late 1520s. A key factor to note in this connection is Colonna's exalted social background as a member of the highest Italian aristocracy, a status she shared with Veronica Gambara (1485-1550), the only other woman poet of her generation to rival her in fame. Women like Colonna and Gambara were thus socially well suited to act as figureheads for the new literary culture, the novelty of their profile, moreover, equipping them to express metonymically the novelty of the values represented by that culture. It cannot surprise us that these women's male contemporaries competed to shower praises on the "divine" marchioness of Pescara and the equally "divine" countess of Correggio, when this allowed them to position themselves simultaneously as part of a cultural avant-garde and a social elite.
These points may be developed by looking at an important document of this early phase of Colonna's "canonization": the proem to Canto 37 of Ariosto's Orlando furioso, which the poet added during his painstaking revision of the poem for its third and final edition in 1532. The passage signals the emergence of women writers as an important contemporary cultural phenomenon and isolates Colonna for particular notice as the most distinguished representative of this development. This prominent mention in a work of such popular diffusion and critical prestige was a key factor in the establishment of Colonna's reputation, sealing her status, never subsequently challenged, as the supreme female cultural luminary of her age. At the same time, the terms of Ariosto's praise would help to crystallize a particular, and strongly gendered, biographical image of Colonna, which would powerfully shape the reception of her poetry both in her lifetime and in ages to come.
The passage in question, which extends for a full twenty-one stanzas, may be divided into three sections. In the first (stanzas 1-6), the poet laments the gender bias that has led male writers throughout history to disparage women's virtues and suggests that the only antidote to this malign cultural dynamic will come about when women begin to write for themselves. The second section (stanzas 7-13), mitigating this pessimism, calls attention to the change in attitude to women apparent in numerous contemporary male writers who have eschewed the misogyny of the "ancients" in favor of a more affirmative stance. Following this, at stanza 14, the poet turns back to the question of women's writing, introduced at the outset as a pure desideratum, and reveals it rather as a phenomenon already beginning to manifest itself in practice. Many women, he states, leaving their conventional domestic arts, are devoting themselves to the cultivation of the muses. It is at this point that he introduces Colonna as the supreme living exponent of this trend.
A feature of this proemio worth noting in particular is that the phenomenon of women's gaining access to the means of self-expression is initially introduced by Ariosto in the context of a hostile and agonistic representation of the relation between the sexes (stanzas 1-6). Men are seen to have abused their historical monopoly on literary expression to perpetuate false perceptions of women as inferior, and it is assumed that women's first act on achieving literary empowerment will be to vindicate the honor of their sex. The faint anxiety that one might detect here attending on the prospect of women's becoming culturally "vocal" is distinctly amplified by the passage's narrative context. Canto 37 of the Furioso recounts the overturning by the female warriors Marfisa and Bradamante of the misogynistic regime of the tyrant Marganorre and their setting up in its place a gynocracy promising a compensatory oppression of men. The tone of the episode is uncharacteristically dark, with great emphasis placed on the answering cruelty a tyrant's excesses elicit in his victims. In this context, the female virtù whose suppression from history the poet laments in his proemio is accompanied by threatening associations with sexual vendetta. Behind the proem's earnest auguries for a future in which women will be empowered to speak for themselves, it is not difficult to detect a distinct unease in the surrounding text about what use they will make of this power.
This context needs to be borne in mind when considering Ariosto's subsequent invocation of the example of Colonna, whose function appears in part that of defusing the sexual anxieties just noted. Certainly, as an image of the articulate woman, nothing could be further than Ariosto's gracefully self-effacing Colonna from the specter he originally conjures of the emasculatory virago bent on revenge for the oppression of her sex. One notable feature of Ariosto's encomium of Colonna is its moral, rather than literary, emphasis. While he warmly commends the unrivaled "sweetness" of her poetic style, the burden of Ariosto's praise for Colonna falls on her devotion to the memory of her husband, the late marquis of Pescara: tellingly, seeking classical antecedents for her virtue, it is to exemplary widows such as Artemisia and Brutus's Portia, rather than to Sappho or Corinna, that he turns (stanzas 18-19). The reassurance offered by this strategy of representation is reinforced by the imagery of the passage, as when Colonna's superiority to other women poets is expressed through an analogy with the moon, which shines more brightly than other planets because it receives more of the rays of the sun (stanza 17). The logic of the image relies, of course, on the dual identity of Apollo as sun-god and the god of poetry; the image of the sun's reflected rays could thus come to signify poetic inspiration, in a reference to the ultimately platonic notion of artistic creativity as divinely inspired. Though there is nothing innately gendered in this very conventional imagery, its effect in context is certainly to confirm the impression of Colonna as passive and reactive: a jealous custodian and reflector of her husband's glory rather than an agent of her own. This is reinforced when, echoing an image frequently used by Colonna herself, Ariosto presents Pescara himself as a sole, leaving Colonna playing moon not only to Apollo but also, implicitly, to her husband (stanza 17, l.8).
To summarize my argument to this point, it seems clear that Colonna's acceptance into the canon was considerably facilitated by her adherence to social ideals of femininity, which offset the potential challenge represented by her incursion into masculine territory in her writing. In her person, a powerful literary voice coincided with a decorously feminine authorial ethos, the latter serving to domesticate the former and to banish the anxieties it might potentially generate. While I have been presenting Colonna's image up to this point as an expression of the agendas of her numerous male promoters, it would be misleading to present her as in any way passive in this process; rather, her letters and other writings reveal an astute and self-conscious orchestration of her public persona. The "myth" thus collaboratively created performed a function of great significance for the history of women's writing in Italy, serving, along with the parallel and reinforcing myth of Gambara, to legitimize the figure of the woman writer. In particular, as women who combined literary protagonism with an unimpeachable reputation for chastity, Colonna and Gambara helped counteract the endemic tendency in this period to associate public articulacy in women with looseness of morals. Emblematic in this respect is the role the two play in a text like Lodovico Dolce's Dialogo della institution delle donne [Dialogue on the education of women] (1545), where they are cited, precisely, as examples of how learning and eloquence can coexist in women with chastity and religion.
These considerations need to be borne in mind when we turn to consider the theme that will occupy the remainder of this essay: Colonna's role as an exemplar and aspirational model for subsequent Italian women writers. The generations that followed hers saw the practice of women's writing filtering down from the aristocratic circles in which it had originated down to the less exalted strata of the minor provincial nobility and the elites of the remaining city republics. The extent of this diffusion is well illustrated by Lodovico Domenichi's 1559 anthology of "poetry by noble and virtuous ladies," which, without pretending to comprehensiveness, gathers verse by no fewer than fifty women poets. For these later women writers, Gambara and, especially, Colonna became crucially important literary role models, providing as they did a model of Petrarchist poetic discourse inflected to a feminine ethos and invested, moreover, with the incomparable social prestige and moral capital associated with their names. The extent of Colonna's stylistic influence on later women writers has recently been revealed through the painstaking researches of Giovanna Rabitti, who has traced echoes of her voice not only, as one might expect, in women poets of the decades immediately following her death but even, though more faintly, in chronologically and culturally remote figures such as Veronica Franco (1546-91) and Isabella Andreini (1562-1604).
Excerpted from STRONG VOICES, Weak History by PAMELA JOSEPH BENSON VICTORIA KIRKHAM
Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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|Women writers and the canon in sixteenth century Italy : the case of Vittoria Colonna||14|
|A female tradition? : women's dialogue writing in sixteenth-century France||32|
|Strong voices, weak minds? : the defenses of Eve by Isotta Nogarola and Christine de Pizan, who found themselves in Simone de Beauvoir's situation||58|
|The canon of religious life : Maria Domitilla Galluzzi and the rule of St. Clare of Assisi||78|
|Christine De Pizan : gender and the new vernacular canon||99|
|Women writers in renaissance Italy : courtly origins of new literary canons||121|
|The stigma of Italy undone : Aemilia Lanyer's canonization of Lady Mary Sidney||146|
|Sappho on the Arno : the brief fame of Laura Battiferra||176|
|The place of female mysticism in the Italian literary canon||199|
|Thomas Bentley's monument of matrons : the earliest anthology of English women's texts||216|
|The collector's cabinet : Lodovico Domenichi's gallery of women||239|
|Recollecting the renaissance : Luisa Bergalli's componimenti poetici (1726)||263|
|Bad press : modern editors versus early modern women poets (Tullia d'Aragona, Gaspara Stampa, Veronica Franco)||287|
|Fascist appropriations : the case of Jolanda De Blasi's Le scrittrici italiane||314|
|A woman for all seasons : the reinvention of Anne Askew||341|