Vittoria Colonna – Renaissance Poet – Death is What Makes Room for Love

A dawing by Michelangelo around 1540 of his dear friend Vittoria Colonna. Photo credit: Wikipedia

# 56

We are blind. The ancient fear of death
assails us often, for we do not carry on our backs
the great and solid wings of hope.
Nor do we build our houses on that rock,
but dig in sand
and call our losses cruel. Yet death
is what makes room for love.
May I not hoard the mortal beauty
that surrounds me. May I learn to see instead
how, in the fire of being, suffering
is turned to light.

Vittorio Colonna, trans. Jan Zwicky, from Vittoria Colonna – Selections from the Rime Spirituali, The Porcupine’s Quill, 2014

Here I sit on a Tuscan hilltop in a snow storm! The Tuscany I see outside my window, not the Tuscany on most tourist postcards! Yet, the beauty in front of me is undeniable. And also undeniable on a cold day is the warmth I receive, appropriately, from the poetry of  the most-widely recognized Italian woman poet of her time, Vittoria Colonna.

On its own without any context for the poem nor its author this poem is a wonderful example of a poetic spiritual meditation on death, loss and suffering. All part of our human experience! But is made especially poignant for me by this line: Yet death/ is what makes room for love. How this poem through this line and others turns my easy and discouraged thinking upside down. Dark here is turned to light. Hardships into grace. Despair into hope:

………………May I learn to see instead
how, in the fire of being, suffering
is turned to light.

This poem and her others are the main reason to make note of Vittorio Colonna (1492-1547) but here are two more reasons to take note of this poet who so celebrates love and spirit so ardently as her translator, celebrated Canadian poet Jan Zwicky describes Colonna’s poetry:

First, Colonna, was a way-making woman poet in her own lifetime, especially through her signature collection of 103 meditative religious poems, the Rime Spirituali. This ground-breaking work along with her earlier book of love poems made her the most widely-recognized woman poet in Renaissance Italy but also opened the door at that time for other contemporary women poets to publish their own poetry.

Second, she was a close intimate of Michelangelo. And a number of his celebrated sonnets and madrigals are addressed to her! (Yes, among all his other artistic accomplishments he was a well-regarded poet.) And since it is known that Colonna presented a gift manuscript of Rime Spirituali to Michelangelo around 1540 it is possible, as suggested by Jan Zwicky in her forward to her versions of the Rime Spirituali, to imagine them written for and presented to Michelangelo. And Zwicky is clear how important Colonna was in Michelangelo’s life: it appears that she was the last, and perhaps, the greatest love of his life.


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