During the waning years of the High Italian Renaissance, few figures were as celebrated as those of the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti and the poet Vittoria Colonna. What is more remarkable is that the spiritual lives of both figures, focusing on the passion of Christ, deeply influenced one another.
In the fall of 1484, at the age of 19, Michelangelo came from Florence to Rome. Two years later, he produced his best-known piece of sculptural art, the pietá — a larger than life statue of the Madonna and Son. The Virgin mother was presented as a beautiful young girl, and her son a handsome young man in repose, showing no signs of suffering. The pietá epitomized the ideal, shared by other Italian artists and art lovers, of earthly beauty leading to the love of God.
The success of the pietá led to offers by princes and cardinals. In 1504 Michelangelo completed the large statue of David in Florence, and one year later was invited by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel with biblical scenes of the creation and the ancient prophets. The fame achieved by the moody, tempestuous young man, in many ways rivaled the esteem enjoyed by a younger poet of the same period, later described as the most “famous woman of sixteenth-century Italy.”
Vittoria Colonna, fifteen years junior to Michelangelo, was born of a noble family near Rome in 1494, and was educated in court surrounded by books and brilliant conversation. At the age of 17 she was married to a military officer who was often away on campaigns. Following the death of her husband in 1525, she retired to various convents but never took the veil and continued to write poetry and enjoy the company of many of the leading cultural, political, and religious personalities of her day. A first edition of her poetry, Rhymes of the Divine Vittoria Calonna, Marchesa of Pescara, was published in 1538, a book that within a decade went through 12 printings.
Three years before the publication of her work, she met Michelangelo for the first time. Though far more refined and educated than the impulsive artist, she recognized a spiritual kinship in him, and the two frequently corresponded. Hitherto, Michelangelo’s intensely felt faith was rather traditional in nature. He attended Mass daily. When a near relative died, he inquired solicitously whether there had been the opportunity for confession and the last rites. Colonna’s faith, by contrast, was of far more contemporary sort, emphasizing the soul’s relation with God, rather than a multiplicity of practices. Since her twenties, Colonna had been a member of a spiritual revival circle, composed of leading religious thinkers including English Cardinal Reginald Pole espousing a mystical and personal approach to Christ, views that Vittoria proceeded to share with Michelangelo in her periodic Sunday afternoon salons. Meeting for the first time about 1536, the two developed what has been described as by historian Christopher Dunn as “a deep intellectual and spiritual intimacy, each exerting an energizing influence on the other’s life and art.” Elements of their relationship survive in poems written by Colonna to Michelangelo. In an elegantly crafted sonnet she explained:
In the cross I see Jesus Christ stretched out naked,
feet and hands nailed through…His way of dying
made goodness once and for all magnificent.
Michelangelo reciprocated with original drawings, one of which showed the crucified Christ in the lap of the Virgin who bore a resemblance to Vittoria Colonna. On the upright part of the cross Michelangelo had inscribed the words of the poet Dante, “They do not think about the blood this has cost.” Another drawing of Christ became the occasion of a poem in which Vittoria described how she was moved by Michelangelo’s “image of Christ, offering his heart up to the spear as he hangs on the cross to stream holy life…a more learned book was never opened.” The two seldom spoke face to face. When Michelangelo requested permission for a visit to her convent –located only a few blocks from his studio — Vittoria replied that it was better that both she and he use that part of the day to join their companions in prayer. Despite their separation, Vittoria profoundly influenced Michelangelo who acknowledged in a letter that, “by listening to her, I have been made such that I will never be my own again.”
Vittoria Colonna’s religious mentorship is also evident in his complex fresco “il giudizio universale” [the universal judgment] that Michelangelo executed in the Sistine Chapel between 1535 and 1541. Unlike the upbeat, almost story-like imagery of the Sistine Chapel ceiling Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is somber and unsettling. Creation and all humankind seems in motion, pivoting around the central figure of a powerful, beardless Christ who stands poised to bless or condemn.
When Vittoria Colonna died in a Roman Convent on February 25, 1547, Michelangelo was with her. She was ‘the soul and heart of my fragile life,” he confessed. In a small box, he preserved her letters and over one hundred of her poems.
In the years following Vittoria’s death, Michelangelo occupied himself with engineering the dome of St. Peter’s and other architectural projects, but produced little figurative work. Increasingly beset with the fear of damnation, Michelangelo found art tedious and renaissance ideal of earthly beauty as no longer an aid but an obstacle to eternal peace. “Neither painting nor sculpting,” he wrote “can any longer quiet my soul turned now to that divine love which on the cross, to embrace us, opened wide its arms.”
Now in his 80s and beset by illness, Michelangelo commenced his last piece of sculpture, a pietá of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on which he often worked far into the night by the light of a single candle. When the work was nearly completed, he impetuously hacked away into the marble, cutting away the whole body of Christ leaving only the figure’s right arm. Then from the side of the virgin he carved a virtually new and much more primitive, forceful image in which Christ in death appears to be sustaining his mother.
As his end neared, Michelangelo frequently reverted to the theme of Christ’s redeeming death so emphasized by Vittoria Colonna. In his final poem, he wrote:
Dear Lord, who alone dresses and strips
Each soul, your blood provides healing and cleansing.
From infinite sin and from human activity…
The poem breaks off here and was never finished. Michelangelo, hailed as an “immortal” during his lifetime, died on February 14, 1565 at the age of 88. He is buried in Florence.
From the perspective of faith, every life is its own grace-filled walk in God in the company of others. In the complex political environment of the high Italian renaissance, few spiritual journeys have been so impactful as that shared by Vittoria Colonna and Michelangelo Buonarroti.