In this series, the First Things junior fellows share mini-essays on their current reading endeavors.
Vittoria Colonna (1490–1547), whom Jakob Burckhardt dubbed “most famous woman in all of Italy,” is perhaps best remembered today for her Platonic friendship with Michelangelo (the master once averred he loved her face “more than any other face in the world”). But Colonna was also on intimate terms with Castiglione and Bembo and influential with Pope Clement VII and Charles V—and was the first Italian female to have a book of poetry published. In short, Colonna’s life was entwined with those of major sixteenth-century luminaries, and—as Ramie Targoff argues in her recent Colonna biography, Renaissance Woman—deserves to be ranked among them.
The Rime de la divina Vittoria Colonna, Marchesa di Pescara, published in 1538, was circulated and acclaimed throughout the Italian states. Indeed, so revered was the little book that Colonna also became the first Italian poet—male or female—to have a commentary written on her work during her lifetime. Her verses (both love poetry for her husband Ferrante and her devotional sonnets) display a deeply sensitive conscience, a vibrant inner life, and an earnest piety. Widowed at thirty-five, Colonna long sought the religious life but was continually thwarted by her family, friends, and even the pope himself. A brilliant intellect, she resolved to pursue theology and a pious life outside the convent walls, seeking out such varied tutors as the Capuchins, spirituali like Contarini and Reginald Pole, and even Calvin (though she remained a staunch Catholic). Colonna's work thus provides a captivating study of her various spiritual influences.
But too often, Targoff’s admirable mission to restore Colonna to her merited pedestal in the halls of Italian history becomes an excuse to gripe about the Church’s “misogynistic” patriarchy—and her attempts at explaining Lutheran-Catholic debates, Tridentine controversies, and Ficino’s Neoplatonism fizzle into maladroit summaries. I found Targoff’s earlier volume, John Donne: Body and Soul, to be much better researched and far more engaging. Still, this is a book about poetry—not history or philosophy—and the best bits are those in which Targoff quotes Colonna’s exquisite lines at length. I’ll leave you with this sonnet, written shortly after Ferrante's death, when Colonna vowed to leave vane cose aside and compose only hymns to her Lord. Hopefully it’ll whet your appetite for more of Colonna’s delights.
Since my chaste love long kept my soul inflamed
With hope of fame, and nourished a serpent
In my breast, so that now I turn in pain
To our Lord, who is my only remedy,
May the holy nails now be my quills,
And may his precious blood now be my ink,
May my paper be his lifeless sacred flesh
So that I may record what he suffered.
I will not call upon Parnassus or Delos
Since I aspire to cross other waters,
And climb mountains, where human feet do not tread.
That sun, which illuminates the earth and sky,
I pray will open to me his source of light
And give me a draught equal to my thirst.
As in the middle ages,” wrote Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin in the August/September 2016 issue of First Things, “the world itself is becoming a text.” He continues: “The medieval world was a text written by God that excluded the ill-considered and the accidental. Holy Scripture, which gave meaning to the signs that were generously scattered in daily life, was this world’s key.” Vodolazkin diagnoses the problem with current civilization well: “excessive individualization and the secularization of life.” The “cult of the individual” keeps us withdrawn from both divine and human community. We lack a common key.
For better or for worse, I’ve set myself on a journey through contemporary fiction over the past few months. The genre is overrun with excessive individualization and points more often than not toward rapid secularization. Happily, though, my most recent endeavor is Laurus, a 2012 novel by Vodolazkin himself, translated into English by Lisa C. Hayden. Though the book is written by a contemporary, the text's atmosphere is thoroughly medieval. Beyond merely appropriating fifteenth-century Russia as a setting, Vodolazkin infuses his story with the poetics and philosophy of the medieval world. It is not a book crafted by and based solely on one character’s experience in the world, but one shaped by the body of knowledge, perspective, and culture that came before it, something hinted at by the novel’s approach to counting time as an ever-unfolding, ever-increasing mystery: “He came into the world in the Rukina Quarter, by the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery. This occurred on May 8 of the 6,948th year since the Creation…”
Even the main character, Arseny (a saintly type who goes through many a name change, dying as Laurus), is pointedly an extension of what has come before him. Moving in with his grandfather Christofer after the death of his parents, he begins specializing in medieval herbalist medicine—Christofer’s trade—and when Christofer himself finally passes, Arseny “quietly [becomes] Christofer” in the eyes of those around him. This isn’t to say that Arseny’s dignity as an individual is lost, only that his dignity as an individual was only ever determined by his communion with others. It is this point which distinguishes Laurus from other works of our time. Far exceeding my expectations, Vodolazkin’s hagiography, set in the medieval age and complying with the “admittedly rather quirky” ways of that world, is healing the wounds inflicted on me by contemporary works that so often fail to understand that the ultimate measure of all things cannot be individual human experience. As Vodolazkin reminds us, “the person is the measure of all things if it is understood that the measure was given by God.”