When in Rome
Prof. Ramie Targoff (ENG) used her Guggenheim Fellowship to give life to the sonnets of Vittora Colonna
Prof. Ramie Targoff (ENG) knows just what it takes to write a book. With three academic works under her belt, Targoff’s most recent book is a biography of Vittora Colonna, the first woman poet to publish a sonnet series in Italy. In addition to her biography, Targoff has also translated one of two sets of Colonna’s poems in a series called “Other Voices of the Renaissance.”
The idea came to her when she was writing “Posthumous Love,” a book about how poets are affected by the death of their loved ones. Until someone had mentioned Colonna, Targoff had never heard about her. In fact, not many people had. Information about Colonna was not readily available and some of the only sources of information that Targoff could find were a Wikipedia page written in Italian and an Italian translation of a German biography.
Targoff went searching for the 1538 edition of Colonna’s sonnets at the Houghton Library, where she became immediately fascinated by the poet. It was already unusual for a woman to be writing sonnets at that time, let alone ones that were emotionally alive and real. Targoff’s fascination with Colonna drove her to be the first to publish a biography on her in English, as well as the first to translate her poems into English.
Colonna was connected to some of the most powerful individuals in Italy. She was born to one of the three wealthiest families in Rome, was married to a Spanish aristocrat from one of the ruling households of the Kingdom of Naples and was best friends with Michelangelo. When she was widowed at the age of 35, she decided not to remarry, and instead continued her life in nunneries without taking the vow. She was such an important figure that the Pope forbade any nun from allowing Colonna to take the vow under the threat of excommunication.When her parents died, Colonna and her brother were the only remaining children. Although her brother ruled a total of fourteen villages, Vittora Colonna was the smart, sane, reliable sibling, one whom the Pope needed to serve as the negotiator between her brother and everyone else in the area.
A favorite quote of Targoff’s is from one of the rare moments where Colonna directly communicated with her husband, who felt underappreciated during the time that he was serving Charles V. Pope Clement VII was Charles V’s enemy and offered Colonna’s husband a position in the army. Had he decided to join, the Pope and his allies would have made him the King of Naples, and he could get the rewards he thought he deserved. But Colonna thought otherwise. She said, “I would rather be the wife of an honest captain than the queen to a tainted crown.”
Colonna’s sonnets are what make her intriguing to Targoff. Within a year of her husband’s death, Colonna decided that she would express her grief through writing. This set of sonnets, the one that Targoff has translated, is recognized as the posthumous sonnets because it pertains to her dead husband. The other set is known as the spiritual sonnets and is written to Michelangelo. Because these sonnets have already been translated into English, Targoff’s translation will serve as the latter set’s companion.
To completely understand Colonna’s perspective, Targoff used her Guggenheim Fellowship to stay at the American Academy in Rome. Every week she would spend time at different places where Colonna lived. She immersed herself in Colonna’s life, staying in a sister nunnery to the one where Colonna lived, where she prayed nine times a day with the nuns. She also spent much of her time reading files from Colonna’s family archive.
After doing extensive research, Targoff was ready to map out Colonna’s biography and begin translating her poems from 1538. She had to use a 16th-century English-Italian dictionary because Colonna’s work was written in Renaissance Italian, so the translation process involved translating archaic Italian to Shakespearean English to modern English. One example Targoff uses is the word “gentle.” The current meaning is something “mild and soft,” but during the Renaissance, it meant “highborn.” If the word gentle appeared in Colonna’s poem, Targoff needed to understand the archaic English meaning before translating it to modern English so that the word’s meaning could be retained.
With Colonna’s sonnets, Targoff’s main goal is to translate the poems into English in a fashion that will speak to readers today. She recognizes that the translation of a poem can turn into a completely different version of the poem itself, but she wishes to bring the opposite effect, rendering the sonnets as clearly as possible so that Colonna can be heard.
After spending about a year and a half conducting research and two years writing the biography, Targoff has some advice for aspiring writers: by using rich details and vivid imagery, students can give life to their work. She concluded by saying, “Start with what you know and if you don’t know it, research it. You’re always trying to think about how you can catch the reader’s attention to give your work vivacity.”
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