Vittoria and Michelangelo had long conversations about art, poetry, and faith. They encouraged each other to keep writing and publish their works which, by that time, had turned almost exclusively to religion. Michelangelo, who had often expressed in his poem his sorrow over sins and his fear of death, found in this “high and godly lady” so much sympathy and reassurance that he called her “the soul and the heart of my fragile life.”
The first meeting between Vittoria Colonna and Michelangelo Buonarroti was the start of a long and deep friendship. It was also, in some ways, uncommon.
As a famed noblewoman, Vittoria was used to the company of artists, poets, and writers, but Michelangelo was one of a kind. His words were few and often blunt, far from the affectation and adulation that was prevalent in artists. At 62 years of age, he was already the equivalent of a millionaire in today’s terms and didn’t need to fake admiration in order to win a sponsor—not that he ever did anyhow.
He was open and sincere about his strong opinions as he was about his uncertainties and fears, something few people had understood. Piero Soderini, head of the Florentine Republic, had been one of those to notice it:
“Kind words and gentle treatment can gain anything from him,” he said. “It is only necessary to let him see that he is loved, and is favorably thought of, and he will produce astonishing works.”
At this point in his life, however, Michelangelo felt increasingly closer to death (he had already mourned many of his friends and family). The artist needed more than love; he needed the truth. Vittoria provided both.
At age 35, Vittoria had the kind of sensitivity that often emerges out of trials. She had lost her husband Ferrante Francesco D’Avalos twelve years earlier, due to wounds he had contracted in battle. She had tried in vain to reach him, but he died before she could arrive by his side, leaving her in a state of confusion and depression. They had been engaged at seven, married at 19, and had enjoyed a bond of love and friendship which was rare in those days.
Since then, Vittoria had been dividing her time between her husband’s home in Ischia (off the coast of Naples), her family home in Marino, near Rome, and various cities where she visited friends, finding comfort in their support and in the study and discussion of God’s Word.
By the time she met Michelangelo in 1537, she had already become acquainted with several religious reformers in Italy, especially the Spanish Juan de Valdés, the French princess Renée (then married to the Italian Duke of Este), Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (who was desperately hoping for a reconciliation between Roman Catholics and Protestants), the Augustinian prior Peter Martyr Vermigli, the English Cardinal Reginald Pole, and Marcantonio Flaminio, editor of the best-selling Benefit of Christ.
She was mostly impressed by Bernardino Ochino, a Capuchin monk who had been boldly preaching the gospel of salvation by grace alone and through faith alone. She had even followed him for a while, as he moved from town to town.