On the Pyramid Peak

Female Genius in Renaissance Italy

In this singular divine woman education and creativity shine so bright that they compare to those huge fires lit by the pharaohs on the peaks of the pyramids. Paolo Giovio

First Lady of the Mind

As a childless widow, who had to withdraw from social life, Vittoria Colonna became the Grande Dame of Renaissance Italy excelling all other women in intellectuality. No other woman built up such an impressive network of relations to the great minds of her day.

With one voice literati, philosophers, theologians praised her male brains. Cardinal Contarini, the reformer of the Catholic Church had his treatise about repentance sent to her, asking for her comment. Bembo, the leading literary pundit, praised her as follows: “She interprets my verses more precisely than those seemingly more erudite and greater literati.” In the Roman society Vittoria Colonna excelled as the sovereign salonière, whose conversations about art were honoured by Michelangelo’s presence.

Yet far from being a virago she delighted everybody with her feminine grace. Paolo Giovio, the famous biographer in the Renaissance period, who, in 1527, was her guest on the castle of Ischia for months, read mirth in her eyes that was neither mocking nor coquettish, but affectionate. Never did her presence in a company evoke boredom but admiration and sustained thoughtfulness.

Yet, she could parry an annoying person off with pungent irony and sarcasm. Her sophistication was not easy to see through let alone surpass, especially in her contact with Pope Paul III, whom she wrapped around her finger.    

She was the only woman in the life of Michelangelo, her unico maestro et singularissimo amico. She charmed him into spiritualising his art and instilled her heresies in him. Vittoria Colonna and Michelangelo became a pair of heretics, who improved the human primitiveness of biblical myths by the new spirit of refined Renaissance-Humanism. Instigated by Vittoria Colonna Michelangelo adapted the representation of the Crucified to the new age of Humanism: Michelangelo’s Crucified in his drawing for Vittoria Colonna does not submit to the inscrutable Divine Will. He demands an explanation from his godly father for the scandal of the shameful death on the cross he imposed on him, his only son.