Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Renaissance Woman

The Life of Vittoria Colonna

Ramie Targoff

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




IN NOVEMBER 1525, a messenger from Milan bearing important news crossed the Bay of Naples. He was heading for a castle on the island of Ischia occupied by members of the d’Avalos family, one of the leading households in the kingdom of Naples, which was ruled at the time by the Spanish kings of Aragon. Ferdinand II, whose reign lasted only a year, before his death in 1496, had given the castle to Iñigo II d’Avalos, Marquis of Vasto, in gratitude for his distinguished military service in the wars that Naples waged against the French. Following Iñigo’s death in 1503, his sister Costanza d’Avalos had become governor of the island. It was unusual for a woman to be in such an official position of power—she was even responsible for several important naval victories fought off of the island’s coast—but Costanza was an unusual woman.

As the boat approached Ischia, the messenger would have glimpsed his destination, which still produces awe in visitors today. Perched roughly three hundred feet above the sea on a volcanic rock, the castle seemed completely inaccessible to the world below. The extremity of the location was what had made it so desirable: having a castle high on a rock in the middle of the sea so close to Naples was a significant military advantage, and since the fifth century B.C.E., when the first fortress was built on the site, it had been occupied in turn by Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Normans, and Swabians before becoming the property of the Spanish kings in the fifteenth century. The rock itself was rough and scorched, which, according to ancient legend, was a result of Zeus’s punishment of the giant monster Typhon, who had threatened the gods by hurling rocks at the sky and breathing out fire. Zeus was said to have crushed Typhon by covering him with nothing less than Ischia itself, but the fires raging from the giant continued to burn and left the island sterile.

One does not need to know this myth to see that there was nothing cozy or welcoming about the castle as glimpsed from the sea below. Not only was it treacherously high above the water, but it also sat on its own islet with no obvious connection to the main island, so that the only visible access to the fortress was a terrifying set of broken stairs carved into the side of the cliffs. Scaling a volcanic rock was not normally part of a messenger’s mission, but judging from the haste with which he had been dispatched in Milan, the news he was bringing was clearly urgent. What our messenger would not initially have seen was the stone bridge on the western side of the castle that the first Spanish rulers had built in the mid-fifteenth century to connect the islet to the island; he also would not have seen the massive tunnel they had dug out from the rock that leads to the castle gates. The tunnel was both a comfortable means of entry for welcome guests and a form of defense against those who were not: carved into the ceiling along the way were large openings resembling skylights that were designed to allow boiling tar to be poured over intruders’ heads.

Luckily, the messenger from Milan was a welcome guest: he was carrying news, most likely in the form of a letter, to Vittoria Colonna, Marchesa of Pescara. Vittoria was living at the castle with Costanza while her husband, Costanza’s nephew Ferrante I d’Avalos, was fighting against the French on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was also, as Charles I, the king of Spain (see color plate 1). Vittoria had married into the aristocratic Spanish clan, but was herself a Roman noblewoman. Her family’s lands in the Castelli Romani were officially part of the Papal States, which spanned out from Rome through Lazio, the Marches, Umbria, and into Emilia-Romagna, although there was nothing that resembled a centralized government in the region. The heads of noble Roman families, known in Italian as baroni, governed their own subjects, raised their own troops, tried their own criminals, and controlled their borders and roads. In the early sixteenth century, these feudal lords had very few obligations to the pope: they did not regularly serve in the papal armies—indeed, they were often on the opposing side in battle—and only irregularly paid their taxes. In the words of Ferdinand I, king of Naples from 1458 to 1494, the “Orsini, Colonna, Conti, Caetani, and other barons of the Campagna do not recognize the [rights of the] pope in life or in death.” “They are,” he concluded, “the true lords of the land.”

The Campagna that Ferdinand referred to was the vast and rugged territory surrounding the city of Rome. There is perhaps no other region in Italy that so deeply captures what feudalism looked like: castles and towns sit high on volcanic rocks or steep hills, surrounded by thick walls of stone that seem entirely impregnable from the plain below. The towns were nominally connected by old Roman roads that wove through the valleys, passing along rivers and forests, but travel was perilous. Not only were the roads themselves in poor condition, but they were also famously plagued by robbers and brigands. A papal brief sent in 1516 from Leo X—the Medici pope who ruled from 1513 to 1521—to Vittoria’s mother, Agnese da Montefeltro, reproached her for failing to keep order in the woods outside the Colonna castle in Marino. (The fact that the letter was sent to Agnese means that Vittoria’s father, Fabrizio, was almost certainly away waging war.) “We are receiving word every day,” Leo wrote, “of many criminal acts taking place there, to such a degree that travelers no longer want to pass through; please command your men to capture the brigands and punish the criminals, and leave the roads open and free.” Even without the threat of criminal attacks, the overall feeling of the area is of great isolation, with the man-made fortresses perfectly matching the inhospitality of the natural landscape.

Given the strategic position of the Colonna’s lands, it is not surprising that over the centuries they were frequently won and lost, bought and sold, by a range of powerful families. Marino had belonged to nearly all of the powerful baroni in the Campagna—the Conti di Tuscolo, the Frangipane, and the Orsini—before the Colonna purchased it from the Caetani family in 1419. When Oddone Colonna was elected to the papacy in 1417, becoming Martin V, he granted to his family a number of fiefs that were under papal control, vastly expanding the Colonna’s base. In 1426 alone, through a combination of gifts and purchases, the Colonna acquired the territory of Nettuno and the castles of Astuna and Rocca di Papa.

Martin V hailed from the Colonna family based in Genazzano, a feudal town twenty-five miles east of Rome, which was built upon a narrow strip of volcanic tufa with deep ravines on either side. Vittoria’s branch of the Colonna came from Paliano, five miles to the east of Genazzano and situated in a similarly dramatic setting: the town sits on top of a high peak dominated by the Colonna fortress, with the beautiful Lepini Mountains looming in the distance. The Genazzano and Paliano branches of the family had very close ties, and fought together in the frequent battles that arose against other baronial families, most notably the Colonna’s long-term enemies the Orsini, as well as against the popes. A third branch of the family, based four miles to the west of Genazzano in Palestrina, was estranged from the others, and often sided with their enemies.

Around the time of Vittoria’s birth in 1490, the Colonna of Paliano and Genazzano became important allies of the kingdom of Naples. Fabrizio, who was one of the leading condottieri, or mercenaries, of his era, formally entered into the service of Ferdinand II in 1495, for which he was compensated with an annual salary of 6,000 ducats, or 6,900 scudi. (As a point of comparison, at the height of his career, Leonardo da Vinci was paid 560 scudi a year by the king of France; Michelangelo was paid somewhere between 300 and 500 scudi per sculpture, and 3,000 ducats for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.) Ferdinand also officially invested Fabrizio and his heirs with no fewer than thirty feudal properties in Abruzzo—the mountainous region to the east of the Campagna that stretches to the Adriatic coast—several of which had formerly belonged to the Orsini.

Although the Colonna developed strong ties to the rulers of Naples, they were first and foremost a Roman family. The Palazzo Colonna, located at the foot of the Quirinal Hill just next to the Basilica dei Santi XII Apostoli, was built on a site sacred to the ancient Romans. In the early third century C.E., it was there that the emperor Caracalla chose to erect a magnificent temple to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis; among the ruins later found on the property was a red granite crocodile from Aswan. Originally built in the 1200s as a fortress, the palace had served over the centuries as both a family home and a refuge. Martin V, who ruled the church from 1417 to 1431, lived in the palace during his papacy—it was his official pontifical seat—and renovated it from its state of decay after years of war and destruction in Rome. The massive structure that we see today reflects a significant expansion of the original building: starting in the seventeenth century, the Colonna began to acquire a number of the neighboring palaces, ultimately incorporating them by the early 1800s into a single, unified complex. Already in Vittoria’s time, however, the palace was considered one of the most important residences in Rome.

In early 1525, Vittoria was living far from Rome, on Ischia, when the messenger from Milan arrived on the island and was likely escorted on horseback through the long stone tunnel that led to the castle gates. We have no way of knowing where Vittoria was when his arrival was announced, but it is tempting to imagine her sitting quietly in one of her private rooms. Like most aristocratic women, she would have had the equivalent of a personal apartment inside the castle; the walls were typically hung with beautiful silks and tapestries, the windows draped with heavy satin or velvet, and the spaces filled with an array of wooden chests painted with allegorical scenes, a comfortable daybed for afternoon rest, and several tables, including a scrivania, or writing desk. Vittoria might have been reading one of the many books of Italian poetry in Costanza’s library—in addition to being a woman warrior, Costanza was also a great lover of literature and ran a salon on the island for several decades, to which she invited the finest writers in Naples. Or she might have been sitting at her desk, keeping up with her very lively correspondence. Unless she was writing to close relatives, she normally drafted her letters and then passed them on to be copied by a secretary, whose handwriting was far better than hers. This was common practice for men and women of her class, and a personally written letter was a sign of great intimacy.

Given how religious she was, when the messenger arrived with news for Vittoria she may well have been praying in one of the castle’s chapels. The tiny church of Santa Maria delle Grazie nearly hangs off a dramatic precipice overlooking the sea, and to reach it, she would have walked through a beautiful orchard of lemon trees, and then down a steep stone staircase. Just below the castle was the much grander Romanesque cathedral where she and Ferrante had been married sixteen years earlier. In one of the churches in the castle complex, there was even an altarpiece that included Vittoria’s own portrait along with Costanza’s at the feet of the Virgin Mary (see color plate 3). In this beautiful painting, which was commissioned from a Neapolitan artist, possibly Girolamo Ramarino da Salerno, by a member of the d’Avalos family sometime around 1515, Vittoria is dressed in a rich blue and red gown, with locks of her long reddish-brown hair flowing onto her shoulders from an ornate headdress known as a balzo (a wired coif lined with jewels that had a gathered hairnet made from strips of beautiful fabric and lace). She wears a necklace made of enameled gold and pearls with a cross, and holds a small prayer book, possibly an illuminated Book of Hours. The painting, which still hangs today in Ischia at the church of Sant’Antonio di Padova, is the earliest portrait of Vittoria that has survived.

Wherever Vittoria was when the messenger arrived, she would likely have been summoned to meet him in one of the public reception rooms in the castle. The fact that he had come from Milan meant almost certainly that the news was about Ferrante. If Ferrante sent a letter himself, Vittoria would also have recognized his personal seal. In the Renaissance, members of the nobility had their own seals, which they used both as a form of authentication (no one else had their exact design), and to ensure that their letters could not be opened in advance without the recipient knowing. The envelope had not yet been invented—it came into use only in the nineteenth century—so the seal was used to close a letter after an elaborate folding of the sheet of paper into a thick square or rectangle.

Vittoria had been concerned about Ferrante for months, and was anxiously awaiting news that he might be coming home. She had even expressed such a wish in a personal letter to Charles V, in which she suggested that her husband had served in the imperial army long enough. She did this in her characteristically delicate manner, writing that she personally was so dedicated to the emperor’s cause as to overcome her desire for Ferrante to return to her: “I hold my name [vittoria, or “victory”] in such estimation that I have used it to conquer my own desire that my husband come home and retire with me.”

But Ferrante was in no condition to travel, let alone to wage war. The previous February, he had led Charles to one of the most important victories of his reign at the Battle of Pavia in northern Italy, where the imperial troops had definitively defeated the French, and even taken the French king, Francis I, captive. Ferrante had done this in a daring nocturnal march into the enemy camp, which found the French completely unprepared. But the victory had come at a high cost for Ferrante, leaving him with grave injuries. His condition had only worsened in the months following the battle, and he also developed a severe weakness in his lungs, which ultimately became tuberculosis. Whether the news was delivered by the messenger or in a letter, it was what Vittoria had most dreaded: Ferrante was dying, and wanted her to come to Milan as soon as possible.

It is difficult to convey how complicated a political world Ferrante was living in, and how dangerous a figure he himself was. In the aftermath of the Battle of Pavia, he had earned some formidable enemies, and not simply among the French. Ferrante’s problems were, in fact, more strictly Italian. In the sixteenth century, Italy was not a unified country—it became a nation-state only in the 1860s—but was made up of small kingdoms and city-states that were either self-governed or under the control of foreign powers. In the north were the duchies of Milan and Savoy, and the republics of Genoa and Venice; in the middle of the Italian peninsula, the republics of Florence and Siena, and the Papal States. South of Rome, and occupying the whole of the boot, was the kingdom of Naples. In 1519, Naples was absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire when Charles I inherited the imperial title from his Habsburg grandfather, Maximilian I. Among all these political powers on the peninsula, there were no obvious or enduring alliances. Treaties were drawn up between despotic princes and republicans, dukes and popes, based on the exigencies of the situation. The only abiding principle was opportunism.

Following the imperial victory at Pavia and the subsequent flight of the French, Charles seemed poised to extend his power over much of northern Italy. Given how much land Charles already controlled in the southern half of the peninsula, Italy seemed on the verge of becoming a Spanish-Habsburg possession. The urgency of the situation provoked a group of Italian rulers led by Francesco II Sforza, Duke of Milan, to form a league. Sforza was in a particularly difficult position, having been installed in 1521 as ruler of Milan after a six-year period in which his family had lost control of the duchy to the French. The Sforza family was relatively new to Milan, and had only a tenuous hold on its power. Francesco II’s father, Ludovico, hailed from a family of prosperous farmers in the Romagna—sforza, or “force,” was a nickname given to his grandfather, a very successful mercenary named Muzio Attendolo—and became duke of Milan in 1494 after usurping the position from his brother’s widow, Bona of Savoy. Known as “Il Moro” (“the Moor”) due to his dark complexion, Ludovico was a ruthless leader who plotted and schemed his way to power by playing the rival states of Venice, Florence, and Naples against one another. Like so many of his fellow Renaissance princes, Ludovico was both a despotic ruler and a great patron of the arts: it was he who commissioned Leonardo to paint Il Cenacolo (known in English as The Last Supper), which he intended as the centerpiece for a magnificent family mausoleum in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.

The Last Supper can still be seen on the wall of the refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie, but the mausoleum was never realized. In 1499, roughly one year after the fresco’s completion, Ludovico fell from power, having been chased from Milan by the French king, Louis XII. Louis XII was himself a descendant of the first Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti—Louis’s father, Charles, Duke of Orleans, was Gian Galeazzo’s grandson—and he reasserted the Visconti claim to the duchy. Over the next few decades, the Sforza regained and lost Milan to the French on several occasions, until Charles V finally defeated Louis XII’s successor (and son-in-law), Francis I, at the Battle of Bicocca in 1522, and installed Francesco II Sforza as Duke of Milan. Readers of Machiavelli’s The Prince will recall his analysis of these struggles, and his subtle account of Ludovico as having quietly welcomed the French king Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy in 1494, which led in the short term to the French conquest of the kingdom of Naples, and in the long term to decades of foreign battles known as the Italian Wars.

In 1525, with the French newly defeated, the emperor’s power unchecked, and imperial troops still occupying Milan and stripping the city of nearly all its resources, Francesco made the decision to rebel. He quickly formed an alliance with the new pope, Clement VII, whose family, the Medici, had ties to the Sforza—Clement’s uncle, Lorenzo the Magnificent, was a friend of Ludovico Sforza (Il Moro)—and made plans to raise a new army capable of combating the imperial troops (see color plate 2). In search of a formidable commander, he sent his chief lieutenant, Girolamo Morone, to approach Vittoria’s husband, Ferrante. In exchange for his service—and assuming, of course, the new league’s success—Francesco and his allies offered Ferrante d’Avalos nothing less than the crown of Naples itself.

Under ordinary circumstances, Francesco would never have imagined winning Ferrante over to his side. Not only was Ferrante known to be personally close to the emperor, but, according to his first biographer, Paolo Giovio, Ferrante’s very nature was “spagnolissimo,” or “very Spanish.” Although he had spent nearly all his life in Italy and had married the Italian Vittoria, one of his contemporaries complained that he never even learned to speak decent Italian. Ferrante’s natural loyalties, therefore, leaned heavily toward Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, who shared the same ruler, and not toward the league of Italian states. But the offer of the kingdom of Naples would have made him not simply the marquis of a minor principality—Pescara was a fortified city on the east coast of Abruzzo—but the monarch of a major realm. This was no small temptation.

The temptation was stronger due to Charles’s failure to reward Ferrante for his truly heroic service at Pavia. If in the 1490s Ferrante’s uncle Iñigo II had received the castle on Ischia for helping the Spanish king defend the kingdom of Naples, Ferrante had reason to expect nothing less than a duchy for leading the Holy Roman Empire to its great victory over the French. Indeed, he seems to have had in mind the principality of Carpi in Emilia-Romagna, which was supposed to have been given to Vittoria’s cousin Prospero before his untimely death in 1523. But although Charles praised Ferrante lavishly in his letters, and even had elaborate Flemish tapestries made of the battle that depicted Ferrante as one of its heroes, the expected gifts never arrived. Adding further insult, Charles allowed Charles de Lannoy—the viceroy of Naples and one of Ferrante’s greatest rivals within the imperial army—to escort the defeated Francis I to Spain, where he was promptly imprisoned, and Lannoy (rather than Ferrante) was presented before the emperor’s court as the general responsible for the victorious battle.

There is no obvious explanation for Charles’s behavior. On the one hand, he was in rather desperate financial straits: six hundred thousand ducats were already owed to the imperial troops before the Battle of Pavia began, and his agents were having little success raising the money from the defeated states—among them, Florence, Lucca, and Siena—that had been loyal to the French. On the other hand, the withholding of both land and recognition from Ferrante could not simply be explained by a shortage of funds.

Whatever Charles’s reasons for largely ignoring Ferrante in the aftermath of Pavia, both Ferrante and Vittoria were bitterly disappointed. In her letter to the emperor in which she quietly expressed her desire for Ferrante to retire, Vittoria referred more boldly to the mysterious lack of compensation, and said that she wanted “the promised accommodation more as testimony of my husband’s service, loyalty, and sincerity than out of any strange greediness on my part.” “Of course,” she hastened to add, “your goodness and generosity have always anticipated every worthy request.” As far as we know—and his letters have been much better preserved than hers—Charles did not respond, and no gifts were forthcoming.

Ferrante was in the grip of his frustration with Charles when the Italian league approached him. Torn about what to do, he turned to Vittoria for advice. This is one of the only traces in the historical record of Vittoria and Ferrante actually consulting each other about a major decision: it hints at something like intimacy between them, which is otherwise not much in evidence. According to Giovio, who quoted a letter of Vittoria’s in Ferrante’s biography (the letter itself has not survived), she was very agitated about the league’s offer. However ambitious Vittoria was on Ferrante’s behalf, she did not want him to compromise his service to the emperor. And although she came from a Roman family, her father, as we have seen, spent the last decades of his career working directly for the Spanish kings of Naples. She wrote to her husband that “not with the grandeur of kingdoms and states and fine titles but with illustrious faith and renowned virtue is honor acquired,” and urged him to reject the offer. In conclusion, she declared that she did not want to be a queen, but preferred to be the wife of an honest captain whose virtue was so strong as to defeat the greatest of kings.

There is no way to know how close Ferrante came to accepting the Italians’ offer. Some historians think he was only playing along to curry favor with Charles by ultimately revealing the plot to him, and thereby proving the depth of his loyalty. Sometime during the fall of 1525, however, he turned down the possibility of becoming king of Naples, and reaffirmed his allegiance to the empire. His renewed pledge to Charles was not made quietly: it was the stuff of Renaissance theater. After betraying the Italians’ plans to Charles, Ferrante agreed to stage a conversation with Francesco II’s agent, Morone, during which one of Charles’s advisers was hidden, like Shakespeare’s Polonius, behind an arras. Morone was exposed, and subsequently arrested. He never forgave Ferrante. According to the sixteenth-century historian Francesco Guicciardini, Morone remarked that “there was not a man in Italy of greater Malignity, or of less Faith than the Marquis of Pescara.” Guicciardini’s own estimation of Ferrante was not so very different: he criticized him for “mak[ing] himself great out of the sins of others procured by his own deceits and subtleties.” Only a decade or so after Machiavelli’s composition of The Prince—and it is worth keeping in mind that Guicciardini knew Machiavelli well—Ferrante was recognized as a truly Machiavellian character.

In the weeks between the betrayal of Morone, who was arrested on October 15, and the dispatching of the letter to Vittoria in November, Ferrante had taken new military action against Milan. With an army of several thousand German soldiers and some five hundred Spaniards, his troops besieged the Sforza fortresses in both Milan and Cremona, and forced the Milanese citizens to swear their allegiance to the emperor. It was in the midst of these events that his health took a decisive turn for the worse. Given the number of people he had either deceived or disappointed, there were also rumors that he may have been poisoned.

Ferrante’s near-betrayal of Charles followed by his actual betrayal of the Italians, his lack of reward or compensation, the miserable state of his health—all of this would have been in Vittoria’s mind when she received the request to come to Milan. The journey before her was in itself a daunting one, and much longer than any other trip she had thus far taken in her life. It would start at the castle gates, from which she and her retinue—she was always accompanied by a number of personal maids as well as valets—would travel by horse, down the long tunnel to the base of the islet’s rock, and then cross the bridge to Ischia’s port. They would then take a small boat to Naples, where the long passage to the north, probably in a carriage, would begin.

The fastest route to Milan was by sea, and most travelers coming from the south sailed to the northern port of Genoa, whence they made only the final leg of the journey by land; the average time for this trip was around nine days. Perhaps due to stormy seas, or to the risk of encountering pirates, Vittoria’s journey was planned entirely on land, which would have taken close to two weeks to complete. Even to get from Naples to Rome, a distance of approximately 140 miles, took an average of two to three days; the distance Vittoria was to travel to Milan was roughly 400 miles. Given that the messenger who brought her the news had just made the same trip that she was taking, and allowing that he would have traveled much more quickly than a noblewoman accompanied by servants and making frequent stops along the way, the time between when Ferrante sent the news and when Vittoria was likely to reach him would have been at least three weeks. The chances of her finding him alive were slight.

There is no record of how Vittoria felt as she embarked on her journey. Our best sources for her private thoughts are her poems and letters, none of which has survived from the fall of 1525. What has survived, however, is a beautiful verse epistle—a letter written in the form of a poem—which she wrote to Ferrante at a similarly difficult moment in 1512, and the feelings she expressed on that occasion give us some sense of how she might have felt thirteen years later. In both cases, Ferrante was away at war and in a position of great danger. In 1512, Ferrante and her father were fighting on behalf of the Spanish in a series of campaigns against the French in the north of Italy; as in 1525, Vittoria had been left behind on Ischia with Costanza. In the verse epistle, she describes both waiting desperately for news—“Never did a pilgrim come from whom / I did not seek to learn news, thing by thing / to make my mind joyous and happy”—and feeling overwhelmed with premonitions from the island: “When, at one point, I saw the rock where I rest / (my body, as my spirit is already with you) / covered with a dark mist / and the air around seemed like a cave / of black fog.” “The sirens and dolphins were weeping,” she adds, “and the fishes, too.”*

Just as Vittoria comes to a point of total darkness both in her spirit and in her surroundings, a messenger arrives with news that her husband and her father have been taken captive at the Battle of Ravenna. She reacts, somewhat surprisingly, with more anger than fear. The poem ends with a series of accusations directed at Ferrante, which are far franker than anything we see in her later writings: “If you wanted Victory [vittoria], I would have been with you / but you, leaving me behind, also left Her”; “One should follow one’s husband both at home and abroad / if he suffers grief, let her suffer too; / if he is happy, so, too, is she, and if he dies, let her die with him”; “You live happily and feel no pain / since you think only of how you might acquire more fame; / you do not care that you leave me starving for your love.”* Her only comfort is the presence of “magnanimous” Costanza, who reassures her in the poem that the men will return from this defeat to glory. This turned out to be true in 1512: Ferrante and Fabrizio were both released, and went on to further triumphs. But it is hard to imagine comparable words of comfort being spoken in 1525.

However unhappy Vittoria may have been as she bid farewell to Costanza and set off on her journey, it is tempting to think that a part of her also felt some sense of liberation. Although she clearly loved the isolation and beauty of Ischia, the feelings she had already expressed in 1512 of being trapped by her position as a wife must have been all the stronger thirteen years later. Whether or not she suspected it, her descent from the castle through the dark tunnel out toward the open sea was also a new beginning.

Copyright © 2018 by Ramie Targoff