Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547) was one of the most famous and critically acclaimed poets during the Italian Renaissance. Today she is unknown outside academia, and even there her poetry is not as highly thought of as that of her contemporaries, eclipsed by poets like Gaspara Stampa or Veronica Franco who were ignored or ridiculed during their lifetimes.

Colonna was born into a noble family and in 1509 married the Marquis of Pescara, Ferrante Francesco d'Avalos. Their marriage was childless and most likely not a close one, as d’Avalos spent much of his time away from home conducting military campaigns and probably adulterous affairs. In 1525, he was wounded in the Battle of Pavia and died shortly thereafter.

After her husband’s death, Colonna did not remarry, instead dedicating her life to intellectual, literary, and religious pursuits. She began friendships with some of the most important cultural figures of her day, including poet Jacopo Sannazzaro, Pietro Bembo, Baldassare Castiglione, and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Her friendship with Michelangelo was intense: they exchanged letters, poems, and drawings for years, and when she died, the maestro was at her deathbed.

During her literary career, she was catapulted to enormous fame, and was for centuries celebrated as Italy’s most prominent female literary figure. Michelangelo wrote sonnets about her. In canto 37 of Orlando Furioso, Ludovico Ariosto celebrates numerous "accomplished ladies", but mentions only one by name – Colonna.

Yet Colonna was not celebrated for her literary skill, but for her virtues, like chastity, piety, and honor, and as the embodiment of the (male imposed) Renaissance female ideal. The poetry itself was almost incidental. She wrote almost four hundred poems, most of which can be categorized as either rime amorose, love lyrics celebrating her late husband, or rime spirituali, religious, mystical poetry reflecting the increasing importance of spirituality in her life. This poetry was unoriginal and highly derivatve of the work of Francesco Petrarch, and she was one of many Petrarchan imitators, or petrarchistas, that littered Renaissance Italy.

She cultivated the image of the virtuous widow with the rime amorose idealizing the dead Marquis. Why she wrote so many poems gushing with love for a man who did not return her affections is a matter of debate. Perhaps their marriage truly was a loving one, but most critics agree that it was probably not. Perhaps she loved her husband, but that love was not returned. It seems implausible to me that she was cynically manipulating the memory of her dead husband to achieve literary fame, as she largely refused to publish her work. The most reasonable explanation to me was that her poetry was an idealization of a love that she longed for but never possessed.