With the words “I write to vent the inward pain in my heartthe Italian noblewoman Vittoria Colonna begins her collection of Rhymes. She represents one of the few examples of Renaissance poetry written by a woman. Her status in the upper classes and her links to both the intellectual and religious environment of the time gave her the opportunity to write.

I write to vent the inward pain in my heart
feeds upon – I seek nothing else – surely
no one can think I mean to add to the
splendour this buried gladiator cast.

The collection of poems revolves around the memory of her late husband, Ferrante Francesco of Avalois, who died during the Battle of Pavia in 1525. The poet started sending poems to her close friends. She established, among others, an intense and intimate correspondence with the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti. The two shared a sincere admiration for each other and a profound religious faith. The painter wrote about her: “she’s a man inside a woman”, which at the time was an elegant way of referring to a woman.

The mourning of love

I am right to obey my urge to mourn;
though the thought I damage his name hurts me,
I am leaving to others pens, wiser
heads the task of saving his name from death.

This initial sonnet sets the theme of the entire collection. Vittoria Colonna explores her pain in a touching way. She creates a continuous tension between the austerity of the form and the confessional and intimate delicacy of the content. The sonnet stands as an ambivalent tool. For the poet it assumes a therapeutic and pain-processing function and for the public it is a way to preserve the memory of her beloved one.

An unwanted editorial fortune

The first edition – including 133 sonnets – of the Rhymes of Vittoria Colonna was published in Parma in 1538. The publication sets two important records. It is the first example of female Renaissance poetry being published in Italy, and she is the first woman poet to be published while still alive. However, these were sad records for her. She always meant her writing as an intimate communication tool between her and her friends and despised publication.