Academic journal article Magistra

Margherita Colonna: A Portrait

Academic journal article Magistra

Margherita Colonna: A Portrait

Article excerpt

translated by Larry F. Field

Western New England University

Springfield, Massachusetts

Translator's note: This essay by Giulia Barone was first published (in German) as "Margherita Colonna," in Mein Herz schmiltzt wie Eis am Feuer: Die religiöse Frauenbewegung des Mittelalters in Porträts, ed. Johannes Thiele (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1988), 136-145. Dottoréssa Barone is professor of medieval history at the Sapienza University of Rome, member of the doctoral faculty in history at the University of Florence, and a leading scholar of medieval Rome. The subject of the essay, Margherita Colonna, is an important figure in the larger thirteenth-century history of female visionary mysticism, Franciscan spirituality, and lay-religiosity. But although there has been some recent scholarly interest in her (see the bibliography at the end of this essay), Margherita remains little known to the anglophone world. It therefore seems worthwhile to offer this article in translation as a straightforward introduction to her fascinating career.1

Rome in the middle of the thirteenth century! Whether pilgrim, merchant, or prince, this former imperial city filled the visitor with wonder and astonishment. The ancient temples and palaces were naturally already half destroyed; still Rome's beauty and size gave off a magic which the poets of the period could hardly express.

The walls, which the emperors of the third and fourth centuries had constructed to protect Rome from the barbarians, now surrounded a half populated city. The inhabitants kept themselves within the bend of the Tiber river. The popes had built and fortified a small town around St. Peter's, the Civitas Leoniana. Only a few bridges connected St. Peter's and the harbor district (the Trastevere) on the right bank with the political and economic center of the town on the left bank.

In the countryside outside of the town, which we must imagine for ourselves as depicted in a fresco of Ambrozio Lorenzetti or Simon Martini, the most powerful families of the nobility had built their strongholds to control the peasants on the land and the commerce on the roads, but within the town as well their towers loomed up against the sky as symbols and assertions of their political power.

From one of these families, very likely the most powerful of that day, came Margherita Colonna. We have two sources to guide us in sketching this woman's portrait: a vita, most likely written by her older brother Giovanni, and a shorter biography from the pen of one of the women who lived with her in penance and poverty.

Margherita was born about 1255, the daughter of the lords of Palestrina, Oddone Colonna and his wife, who was from the great Roman noble family of the Orsini. Her brothers, Giacomo and Giovanni, are well known to historians. The first rose to the rank of cardinal. Giovanni, the older of the two, was the head of the family. He served as senator, the most important political office in medieval Rome, and he played an important role in the political life of the city. Documents support the existence of three other brothers, Matteo, Landolfo, and Oddone. Margherita also had some sisters (evidently two), about whom we know almost nothing. After marriage women became part of their husband's family and were followed no further in a family's story.

Margherita was still a child when her mother died, and a few years later her father as well.2 To find oneself an orphan between ages ten and twelve was quite a normal occurrence. Women died young because of the many and dangerous deliveries. Men faced the daily dangers of war and the hunt. Young girls came under the guardianship of older brothers whose most important task was to see their sisters married in a suitable social status.

Margherita grew to be a beautiful, modest, lovely young woman - as her name implies, a pearl. Many suitors sought her hand. Giovanni selected, evidently, the young man among those who best served the family interests. …

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