The Virgin Mary in the Early Modern Italian Writings of Vittoria Colonna, Lucrezia Marinella, and Eleonora Montalvo
1. The Male Ideal: The Well-Behaved Mary
By analyzing artistic depictions of Mary, my students come to see a development in the transition from the regal Mary of the Middle Ages to the more relatable image of Mary from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. As Annabel Thomas has posited in her study of the life of the Virgin in conventual art, artistic depictions of Mary comprise two categories: (1) the Virgin portrayed in all her majestic and celestial glory; and (2) the Virgin presented as obedient and humble through the inclusion of more personal, intimate details (Thomas 2003, p. 120). Through a brief analysis of the works of art that we have placed on Pinterest, my students see how early modern images of the Virgin focused less on the paradoxical and unattainable ideal of Mary as both virgin and mother and more on an accessible and familiar mother Mary whose obedience, modesty, and submissiveness could be imitated for the good of society.…let the bishops diligently teach that by means of the stories of the mysteries of our redemption portrayed in paintings and other representations the people are instructed and confirmed in the articles of faith, which ought to be borne in mind and constantly reflected upon…so that they…fashion their own life and conduct in imitation of the saints and be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety.
San Bernardino also draws on the fourteenth-century artist Simone Martini’s depiction of the Annunciation in the cathedral (now in the Uffizi) to encourage his female congregants to keep Mary’s “fearful pose” (in front of the Angel Gabriel) in mind when speaking with men:O you girls, learn how you should stay at home, and beware of whoever enters the house, as you see that the Virgin Mary stayed shut away, and always wished to see who wanted to come in and why…But we must say where the Angel found her. Where do you think she was? At the window, or involved in some other vanity? Oh no! She stayed shut away in her chamber, and was reading, to set an example to you, my girl, not to enjoy standing or leaning out of the window, but to stay at home, saying the Ave Maria or Paternoster or, if you can read, reading good, pious material.
As a class we evaluate this painting, discussing how San Bernardino’s comment echoes the advice of contemporary conduct manuals instructing women to be timid and humble in the presence of men.Have you seen that Annunciation scene in the cathedral, at the altar of St Sano, beside the Sacristy? That certainly seems to me to have the finest, the most reverent and modest pose I’ve ever seen in an Annunciation. Look: she’s not looking at the Angel, but is in an almost fearful pose. She knew quite well it was an angel, so why should she be alarmed? What would she have done if it had been a man? Follow this example, girls, of what you should do. Never speak to a man unless your father or mother is present (ibid.).
Here, Marinella presents Mary as she is often depicted in early modern paintings, engaging in sophisticated needlework that was typical of the upper classes, in contrast to the fourteenth-century pseudo-Bonaventuran representation of the Virgin Mary who performs basic and essential sewing and spinning to help provide for her family’s needs in Egypt (Meditations on the Life of Christ 1961, pp. 69, 75).With the integrity of his craft, Joseph obtained a little of the food our nature needs for its preservation. As he was a foreigner he earned little. However, in great poverty they survived. The Virgin, too, whom Heaven elected as its queen, was in the straits of necessity, but by practicing the virtues of embroidery and lace-making, which she knew how to do very well, she made their great poverty a little less burdensome.(p. 194)
2. The Female Ideal: The Meditative Mary
Ochino’s sermons and emphasis on the imitation of Mary—as opposed to imitatio Christi—appealed to Colonna and other women who were seeking a role model who was more definitive and pertinent to them as women. Ochino’s statement focuses on the importance of emulating Mary, especially in the way she contemplated Christ. Similarly, the Marian writings of Colonna, Marinella, and Montalvo underscore how well Mary performs meditation and contemplation and propose these practices as specific ways in which women may imitate Mary. Drawing inspiration from the visual arts and contemporary texts on meditation, these three writers illustrate how Mary provides a powerful role model for women who seek to improve their individual and personal devotion to God.The Virgin Mary, the holy virgin, was the one who most perfectly and better than any other creature contemplated Christ hung upon the cross with a living faith in the manner in which we too should contemplate him.13
In depicting Christ’s Passion, Marinella reinforces Ignatius’s charge to activate the senses during meditation when she presents a graphic description of Christ’s crucifixion that may produce feelings of sorrow and compassion in readers as they imagine what Mary visualizes:It was the place, as it is written, beneath the lowliness of which they retired, the ruin of a building, the ancientness of which had been thrown to the ground by Joseph’s weak arm, as some pieces of broken columns and some walls bore witness. Ivy and thorns, in their arrogance, had taken over others’ rights. Part of the building was still upright, thanks to the shepherds’ care, and was covered by reeds set up rustically with leaves and roots. These were held up above some beams, weakened through rain and age. The door, which had fallen by the entrance, was of entwined willow-tree twigs (ibid.).
Thus the disconsolate Mother, who with John, the Magdalen, Martha, and the other Marys, was bathed in the blood that dripped from her beloved Son’s body, looked one by one at the blows, wounds, and stabs that cruelty’s hands had made in the head, hands, and feet of her dead hope, and felt every injury, every wound, and every stab wound pierce her breast with the bitterness of sorrow, as if she had been wounded by the piercing and cruelty of a hundred swords.(p. 218)
In another instance, Marinella employs the expression “blood-filled theater” (p. 230), which gives startling distinction to Saint Francis’s place of martyrdom and complements the phrases “great theater” and “fearful theater” in the citation above; these expressions, which evoke scenes of sensational representations, serve to further designate and classify places of extreme persecution and torture. Concluding our discussion of Marinella’s biography of Mary, I aim to convey to my students that Marinella’s religious text appropriates the highly dramatic and extravagant style of the secular writers of her day in order to depict memorable scenes that produce emotional responses for the reader and remain in the mind long after the reading is over.17It seemed to the glorious Virgin, I think, that she saw (still bound in a light sleep), among many other things, a spacious place, like a great theater, in which there were figures in various shapes all cut by swords, with what appeared to her to be the cruelty of tyrants venting their bestial natures on the flesh and bones of those who followed in Christ’s divine footsteps. It seemed to her that these filled the fearful theater…[and] she saw countless virgins who, at the most beautiful and lovely age and in their beauty, offered their chaste limbs and delicate but strong breasts to swords, arrows, razors, flames, scourges, and poisonous serpents, to the savage talons of wild lions, to the darkness of prisons, to hooks and cords, to the tenacity of hard chains, and who had such open faces in the presence of torments that it appeared to her that they desired more than feared such martyrdoms.
Marinella offers a rhetorical question and speculates that Mary simply repeats in her mind the words Jesus spoke during his ministry (as recorded in Matthew 8:20 and Luke 9:58) to illustrate the cost of discipleship. Colonna, on the other hand, in her Pianto depicts Mary’s individual consideration of psychological and emotional issues in a way that may have inspired readers to express themselves freely in their own meditative practices. Colonna writes that Mary was “thinking over what [Christ] had felt in that hour” (Colonna 2008, p. 56), and that “in her mind she enclosed herself within the sacred side, whence she knew that the sacraments of our so many graces had flowed” and “wanted everyone in the entire world to be able to see what she saw, so that they might enjoy such immense grace” (p. 57); Colonna attests to the appropriateness of gratitude in meditation as Mary “thanked the heavenly Father…she thanked the Holy Spirit…she thanked the angels…she thanked the sun” (p. 63).19 Colonna is more insistent than Marinella on revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of Mary as she practices meditation.What torment was yours, O Queen of the most beautiful souls that are worthy of God’s presence? While you were by the lofty wood of the tragic Cross, perhaps you were thinking that the birds took sweet rest in their nests, the wolves and the bears in their caves and dens, and that your blessed Jesus had nowhere to rest His wounded and drooping body…
Mary’s meditation in Colonna’s Pianto derives its metaphysical aspects from Christ’s physical features and from what she remembers he has said. Furthermore, Colonna’s Pianto links Mary’s empathy with her excellence in meditation: “All this shone forth in Christ’s face more to the Madonna than to others, as she suffered more passionately” (p. 56). According to Colonna, Mary “saw” more than the others, in a metaphysical sense, because she was concentrating in a very pointed way in her meditation in order to participate vicariously in Christ’s suffering. I suggest that Colonna’s Mary may have inspired her female audience to innovate in a personalized way because she exemplifies what David Freedberg defines as not “some generalized channeling of the mind to the image, but rather an attentiveness particularized in terms of the intimate experience of the beholder” (Freedberg 1989, pp. 166–67). At this point I project an image on the screen of Michelangelo’s drawing for Colonna—Pietà for Vittoria Colonna at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston—and we consider how Colonna’s Pianto may be a more complex psychological representation of meditation than Marinella’s La Vita di Maria Vergine because Colonna may have been looking at Michelangelo’s drawing while composing it (Nagel 1997; Forcellino 2016, p. 302). We then discuss the notion in early modern culture of the power of images to facilitate meditation (in this case, Colonna’s meditation on Mary’s meditation as imagined from Michelangelo’s drawing). As the Jesuit preacher Francis Borgia (1510–1572), a close friend of Ignatius, wrote in the introduction to his planned book of meditations on the Life of Christ, images play an important role in enabling a deeper and more concentrated meditation:Then she meditated upon, even saw depicted in the divine face, the vestiges of charity, obedience, humility, patience, and peace in the divine face, saw first charity in its true seat, when He said: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do”; patience in saying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”(pp. 55–56)
While Borgia’s text was never brought to fruition, his friend and fellow collaborator with Ignatius, Jerome Nadal (1507–1580), published a text on meditation, featuring illustrations to direct the focus of the person meditating and to limit any distractions, which served as the standard for many devotional works from the seventeenth-century on (Freedberg 1989, pp. 181–82).21 While Colonna’s text does not reproduce the image that Michelangelo drew for her, it is possible to surmise that Colonna’s reflection on the depth of Mary’s meditation is more focused and precise because she had an image in front of her to analyze and interpret.22In order to achieve greater facility in meditation, one places before oneself an image showing the gospel story [“the evangelical mystery”]; and thus, before commencing the meditation, one will gaze upon the image and take especial care in observing that which it has to show, in order the better to contemplate it as one meditates, and to derive greater benefit from it; because the function of the image is, as it were, to give taste and flavour to the food one has to eat, in such a way that one is not satisfied until one has eaten it; and also in such a way that understanding will reflect upon and work on that which it has to meditate, at considerable cost and effort to itself. And this takes place with greater certainty, since the image conforms closely to the gospel, and because meditating can easily deceive one, as one takes one thing for another and leaves out the traces of the Holy Gospel, which one should respect both in small and large details, and so should not incline either to left or right.
- Son tornata di nuovo a raccontarvi
- Del Figliol mio l’asperissima passione
- Acciò che voi possiate prepararvi
- A meglio farne la meditazione (Montalvo n.d., fol. 38).
- [I have come back again to tell you
- About the most stinging Passion of my son
- So that you can prepare yourselves
- To improve your meditation of it.]
Paleotti’s comment on the power of images to arouse emotions may help us understand why Montalvo chose theater with its multisensory persuasive potential. By implementing costumes, props, scenery, singing, and musical accompaniment, Montalvo may have considered her plays to be superior to the mere reading of devotional literature and the passive viewing of a work of art.[I]f words that are heard or read are so effective at moving our senses, then pictures that radiate piety, modesty, holiness and devotion must pierce inside us with much more force… To hear the story of the martyrdom of a saint, the zeal and constancy of a virgin, or the Passion of Christ himself are things that really touch a chord; but for the martyred saint to be placed here in living color before our eyes, with the distressed virgin on one side, and Christ nailed to the cross on the other, it truly increases our devotion and, unless one is made of wood or marble, pierces our insides.25
As my students reenact scenes from Montalvo’s Vita della Santissima Vergine Maria, we agree that both the performer and her female audience assume a virtual presence, but it is perhaps the performer who derives the most benefit from the experience. When the performer takes on the role of Mary, and in essence, “embodies” the Virgin, she might better imagine the nature of true meditation and contemplation. A young woman may learn best how to imitate Mary when she actually envisions herself as the Virgin making an appearance to her devotees. When a performer puts on Mary’s clothing, carries props that identify her as Mary, and recites the opening lines of the performance, “I am the sacred and holy Virgin Mary” (“Io son Maria Vergine sacra e santa”) (Montalvo n.d., fol. 43), she figuratively becomes the Virgin who appears to tell the story of her sufferings for Christ and to inspire others to become more like her.If you wish to gather fruit from these matters, make yourself as present to what is recounted about the sayings and actions of the Lord Jesus Christ as if you were seeing them with your own eyes and hearing them with your own ears; do this with all the affection of your spirit, carefully, lovingly, and slowly, leaving aside all your other concerns and cares.26
Conflicts of Interest
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I have my students read Vittoria Colonna’s and Lucrezia Marinella’s compositions in translation (Colonna 2008; Marinella 2008). For Eleonora Montalvo’s dramatic verse hagiography we read my Italian transcription (I am preparing a critical edition and translation of Montalvo’s unpublished works for the series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe).
While Colonna’s text was published with the title of “plaint” (a literary composition of complaint or lamentation), it was originally conceived as a letter to Bernardino Ochino and considered a meditation on Christ’s Passion in the manuscript tradition (Haskins 2008, p. 49). Eleonora Carinci (2016, pp. 404–5) indicates that the title Pianto may have been added later to published editions of the text.
In this course on early modern Italian women writers, we study selected works of varying genres (letter, treatise, dialogue, biography, plaint, drama): Alessandra Macinghi Strozzi’s Lettere (Macinghi Strozzi 1997, 2016); Arcangela Tarabotti’s Inferno monacale (Tarabotti 1990) or her Tirannia paterna (Tarabotti 2004); Moderata Fonte’s Il merito delle donne (Fonte 1997); Vittoria Colonna’s Pianto della Marchesa di Pescara sopra la passione di Christo (Colonna 2008); Lucrezia Marinella’s La vita di Maria Vergine Imperatrice dell’Universo (Marinella 2008); Eleonora Montalvo’s Vita della Santissima Vergine Maria, and Antonia Pulci’s La rappresentazione di Santa Domitilla and La rappresentazione di Santa Guglielma (Pulci 2010). Throughout the semester I also have my students read selections from the sourcebook, Women in Italy, 1350–1650: Ideals and Realities (Rogers and Tinagli 2005), regarding issues pertaining to women (i.e., life cycles, roles, discourse of beauty and love, etc.).
(Haskins 2008, p. 120). The first edition includes an epic poem in ottava rima that Marinella wrote on the same subject. In this course we read only the prose version.
See (Jacobus 1998) for a convincing discussion on the relationship between devotional texts, conduct literature, and art in this chapel.
Susan Haskins (2008, p. 125) states that “Anna goes to meet Joachim ‘together with some respected women,’ as no ‘respectable’ woman would be allowed out without a female companion (p. 140);” and “similarly, Mary, going to visit Elizabeth, takes ‘two elderly women,’ Anna’s old servants, with her, presumably inherited on her mother’s death, and possibly a mark of family continuity (p. 168).”
Contemporary scholarship, following in the footsteps of Virginia Cox’s groundbreaking studies on women’s writing in Counter-Reformation Italy, which cite over sixty published works by women between 1580 and 1630, is more inclined to examine cultural elements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that fostered, rather than suppressed, female creativity (Cox 2008, 2011).
For more information on Bernardino Ochino, see (Bainton 1941).
According to Paolo Marini (Marini and Aretino 2011, p. 65), the tendency of Pietro Aretino (1540, 2011) to vivid description in his religious works is heavily influenced by the tradition of Meditationes vitae Christi. It would be an interesting research project for one of my students to analyze specific instances in which Marinella uses and modifies Aretino’s works to inspire meditation.
In the introduction to La vita di Maria Vergine Imperatrice dell’Universo, Marinella provides an explanation of her poetic methodology, stating that she follows the Greek epic tradition in employing a grand and eloquent style of writing to match the magnificence of the subject. The introduction is not included in Susan Haskins’s edition, but Haskins provides a summary of it for her readers (Marinella 2008, pp. 122–23). Here, as Eleonora Carinci asserts, Marinella imitates Pietro Aretino’s declaration that he wrote his Vita di Maria Vergine in an elaborate manner in order to reflect the nobility of the subject. Carinci argues that Marinella’s biography of the Virgin draws decisively on Aretino’s Vita di Maria Vergine, which was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1557 (Carinci 2013).
While Marinella faithfully reproduces an established model of meditation, acceptable to her Counter-Reformation audience, Eleonora Carinci demonstrates Marinella’s deviation from the traditional perspective of women by identifying details that depict an active and didactic Mary, which perhaps would have empowered women in their personal study and devotion. According to Carinci, Marinella’s Mary mimics Aretino’s Mary who displays excellence in meditation and who also studies, speaks wisely, and even travels, teaches, and preaches after Christ’s Resurrection (Carinci 2013, pp. 373, 378).
This edition was the first of five sixteenth-century editions; it was published together with the Orazione sopra l’Ave Maria, another prose meditation written by Colonna, as well as an anonymous oration made on Good Friday, on the Passion of Christ (Haskins 2008, p. 49). Carinci (2016, pp. 400–1) argues that Colonna wrote the Pianto in 1540–1541. The manuscript held in the Vatican Secret Archives the Pianto is entitled Meditazione del Venerdì Santo and has an alternate title—Sermone sopra la Vergine addolorata—in the index of these archives.
Some astute students have pointed to the “Lament of Christ’s Mother” (Marinella 2008, p. 216) in Marinella’s La vita di Maria Vergine, as an example of Marinella’s presentation of a more introspective Mary. However, in discussing the medieval tradition of the planctus Mariae, we come to the conclusion that this “lament” merely follows the tradition and does not offer the unique meditative stance that Colonna adopts throughout her Pianto.
“with meditations and contemplation, she fed her soul with heavenly food” (Marinella 2008, p. 204); “she gazed with a sharp mental eye, and contemplated on the spilt blood, the bitter wounds, and His painful death” (p. 227); “She remained night and day in continuous prayer, meditation, and fasting” (p. 234).
This may also have been Marinella’s intent as the 1602 edition of her La vita di Maria Vergine contains engravings.
Studying Torquato Tasso’s Le lacrime della Beata Vergine in conjunction with Colonna’s plaint would provide an interesting parallel since it is believed that Tasso was also inspired by an image of the Virgin (now lost) to compose his 25-octave poem (Mazzotta 2012, pp. xiv–xv).
Montalvo’s dramatic hagiographies were performed at La Quiete and Il Conventino, two lay conservatories for women that Montalvo founded in seventeenth-century Florence. For more on Montalvo’s lay conservatories and plays, see my article, “Teaching Ignatian Spirituality to Rich and Poor Girls through Dramatic Performance in Seventeenth-Century Florence” (Haraguchi 2016).
Translations of Montalvo’s Vita della Santissima Vergine Maria are mine.
My translation. See (Barocchi 1961, p. 228): “[S]e tanta efficacia hanno le parole, che si odono o leggono, di tramutare i sensi nostri, con molta maggiore violenza penetreranno dentro di noi quelle figure, dalle quali si vedrà spirare pietà, modestia, santità e divozione… Il sentire narrare il martirio d’un santo, il zelo e costanza d’una vergine, la passione dello stesso Cristo, sono cose che toccano dentro di vero; ma l’esserci con vivi colori qua posto sotto gli occhi il santo martirizzato, colà la vergine combattuta e nell’altro lato Cristo inchiodato, egli è pur vero che tanto accresce la divozione e compunge le viscere, che chi non lo conosce è di legno o di marmo.”
Ignatius would have been familiar with this passage because it is cited in the prologue of Ludolf of Saxony’s Vita Christi, a book that Ignatius read many times (see Smith 2002, p. 36).
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Haraguchi, J. The Virgin Mary in the Early Modern Italian Writings of Vittoria Colonna, Lucrezia Marinella, and Eleonora Montalvo. Religions 2018, 9, 59. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9020059
Haraguchi J. The Virgin Mary in the Early Modern Italian Writings of Vittoria Colonna, Lucrezia Marinella, and Eleonora Montalvo. Religions. 2018; 9(2):59. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9020059Chicago/Turabian Style
Haraguchi, Jennifer. 2018. "The Virgin Mary in the Early Modern Italian Writings of Vittoria Colonna, Lucrezia Marinella, and Eleonora Montalvo" Religions 9, no. 2: 59. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9020059