Durantine Painter, Study of a Woman
and an Old Man, Museo Civico, Urbania



A Work-in-Progress

Deborah Stott

On 1 January 1557, a young widow named Cornelia Collonelli, living in a small provincial city in the duchy of Urbino called Casteldurante, dictated a letter to her nephew. The recipient, whom she addressed as "like a most beloved father," was "the magnificent Michelangelo Buonarroti" in Rome. This was not Cornelia's first letter to Michelangelo: she mentions that she has written twice before to thank him for a document he sent her and she sends him thanks, "as I have done the other times." She hopes that he will soon visit her and her family in Casteldurante, where he will see her two sons, Michelangelo and Giovan Simone, who are "as dear to you as if they were your own sons." Further, she continues, since it is the first of the year and it is the custom in her region to recognize patrons, she is sending him some of their local cheese. Some handkerchiefs she is having made for him are not yet finished, she writes, and she will send them another time. The letter is signed, "like a most loving daughter, Cornelia."

Among Michelangelo's correspondence are 28 letters from Cornelia, written during the period from 1 January 1557 to 15 December 1561. Only one of his letters to her survive, though more than 20 others to and from the artist relate to Cornelia and her children. These exchanges, preserved in the Archivio Buonarroti in Florence, occupy a prominent place in the artist's correspondence during the last years of his life. Michelangelo was at the pinnacle of a long and uniquely distinguished career that had made him a wealthy man; five popes had commanded his services and, though much in demand in the intellectual and artistic circles of Rome, he was rumored to be solitary and irascible. Who, then, was this small-town woman, unremarked by history, who addressed him as "like a father," signed the letter "like a daughter," and referred to her sons, one carrying the same name as the aged artist, as "as dear to you as if they were your own sons?" Using the published letters and other documents, as well as unpublished records from archives in Urbania (the modern name for Casteldurante) and Florence, I propose to reconstruct Cornelia Collonelli's life as a non-elite woman in early modern Italy and to situate it within the social context of her time. The leading issues of her life - marriage, family, responsibility for herself and her children - were those of other women of her class but, for most, there are few primary sources. This remarkable group of letters, together with archival documents, forms a unique resource with which to understand the reality of a woman's life in the 16th century. Furthermore, in the course of rebuilding Cornelia's story, I will also reveal a little-known side of Michelangelo: his activity as paternalistic patron at the center of a web of intricate and demanding social responsibilities, dedicated guardian and financial manager for his dependant's children.

Who was Cornelia? The quick answer is, at the time she wrote the letter quoted above, Cornelia Collonelli was the widow of Francesco Amatori, nicknamed Urbino, who had been Michelangelo's devoted assistant for some 25 years and who had died about a year earlier. As the wife of Urbino, Cornelia had lived in the artist's house in Rome for just over five years, during which time she had given birth to a son, whom they named Michelangelo. Quite soon after her husband's death, she returned with her son to her parents' house in Casteldurante, where she gave birth to a second son. While both the tone and content of her letters suggest personal affection, Cornelia was corresponding with the artist Michelangelo chiefly because, by the terms of her late husband's will, he was one of three executors responsible for administering the estate to which her sons were heirs. The fact of their preservation among Michelangelo's papers is well-known to scholars, but until now they have been cited by art historians only for what information they can yield on the artist. If, however, we shift our focus to their author, the letters enable us to hear the story of a particular Renaissance woman in her own voice.

Cornelia's correspondence with Michelangelo is a rich and as yet unmined primary source both for Cornelia's biography and for the broader study of early dern women's history. Over the nearly four years between January 1556 and December 1561, her letters to the man she invariably addressed as "like a most beloved father" are filled with her concerns about the most critical issues in her life, such as her struggles to retain legal responsibility for her sons and her dislike of a proposed candidate for second husband. They convey her acute awareness of Michelangelo's role in decisions affecting herself and her children and document her determined attempts to enlist his support in her own self-fashioning. Above all, they reveal her attempts to maneuver among the competing demands of a world structured by men: parents, relatives, her children's guardians, and her second husband.

An example of such an issue is guardianship. In his will, Urbino assigned all legal responsibility for his sons and their inheritance to Michelangelo and two men from Casteldurante. Nevertheless, the children remained with their mother, and Cornelia's letters to Michelangelo always include notices on their well-being. In the earliest letters, she urges him to come to Casteldurante to visit them and, in the one remaining response from Michelangelo, he suggests that he might pass by there on his way to Florence and even take young Michelangelo along with him. Despite Urbino's testamentary stipulations, therefore, Cornelia retained substantial responsibility for her children. In fact, I have found notarial records in the archives in Urbania that confirm this. One, dated 3 June 1556, documents Cornelia's petition to assume the legal responsibility for her two sons, since the two executors named in Urbino's will have refused to assume it. Another of just a week later records the collection of rents by Cornelia on behalf of the children and as their guardian. But this relationship of trust apparently broke down when she contracted a second marriage three years later and letters from one of the executors, Pier Filippo Vandini, and a relative, perhaps a cousin, of Urbino, Gianfrancesco Amatori, express doubts about the boys' welfare in light of Cornelia's changed circumstances. Over the next several months, tensions between Cornelia and her new husband, Giulio Brunelli, and Vandini and Gianfrancesco worsened and the two camps sent competing versions of events to Michelangelo. Vandini and Gianfrancesco report that they have heard that Cornelia is planning to move to another city with her husband and abandon the boys, and they eventually sue for an accounting of her administration of the estate. Cornelia, on the other hand, assures Michelangelo that she would never give up her children and that her new husband loves them as if they were his own, and charges Vandini with skimming money from the boys' inheritance. She laments the examination of her accounts but declares that it will bring her "honor and glory" when they see how well she has done for her children. Indeed, I have also found notarial records of this dispute, including a record of a compromise in November 1559 to settle these accounts. The children remained with Cornelia and her new husband.

This episode is interesting as a chapter of Cornelia's biography, but it acquires resonance as an example of what contemporary scholarship is learning about women's legal and moral standing in the early modern period. For example, Cornelia's struggle to retain some degree of guardianship of her children and her articulation of both her rights and responsibilities as a mother expand the Tuscan material studied by historian Giulia Calvi. Calvi's intensive study of the much richer Florentine material has led her to conclude that, legal and prescriptive writings to the contrary, judges in the 16th century were often inclined to heed mothers who pled for custody of their children, even when it had not been stipulated in their husbands' wills, as well as widows whose husbands' families challenged their guardianship. Calvi has documented numerous instances of women who actively sought to recover their children through the Florentine Magistracy of Minors (Magistrato dei Pupilli), and, although the governmental structures in Urbania and Florence were different, Cornelia's active defense of her own position and her success in maintaining responsibility for her children suggest similar considerations. My study of this and other aspects of Cornelia's situation - dowry, inheritance, land transfers - will also contribute to current scholarship on the relation between legal theory and practice in early modern Italy, such as the work by Thomas Kuehn.

Given the nature of my sources, I expect to add new material to the field of female literacy and writing. It is possible that Cornelia knew how to read and write, but I doubt it was at a very high level. In a letter of 24 June 1558, she apologized to Michelangelo for not having replied sooner to one of his, but she had been sick, she said, and besides, she "couldn't find anyone to write two lines." The phrase is ambiguous but suggests that she had not been able to find anyone to write for her. Indeed, after studying the original letters in Florence last summer, I concluded that among the 28 letters are 6 different hands. All of the letters written after her marriage to Giulio Brunelli are written in her husband's handwriting, while most of those written before are in another. This earlier hand closely resembles that of Ugolino Gatti, son of Cornelia's sister and a notary; indeed, in several of her letters, Cornelia closes by sending Michelangelo particular greetings from Ugolino. It would have been natural for her to turn to a close relative for this task, especially one specifically trained in writing, but this issue should also be considered in the context of Cornelia's family relations.

Cornelia's letters are important not just for what they say but also for how they say it, and they must be examined as well for her rhetorical strategies. References to Michelangelo as "almost a father" and to herself as "almost his daughter" may reveal simple affection but, more likely, should be seen as Cornelia's self-presentation as a young woman in a strongly patriarchal society. Similarly, her repeated insistence that her interests lay only with the good of her children may well be pure maternal devotion, but may also have been intended to appeal to Michelangelo's legal and moral concerns as their guardian.

The letters, a remarkable body of primary material, were my starting point for this project, but there is more. The Communal Archive in Urbania preserves notarial and other records from the sixteenth century, and, even in my short time there, I found numerous documents relating to Cornelia and her relatives. Therefore, as in the discussion of guardianship mentioned above, I will be able expand my research beyond the letters and relate their content to documented events. For example, over time Guido Collonelli, Cornelia's father, made at least four different wills, whose provisions illuminate the changing state of his family and, in particular, Cornelia's increasing importance in her father's eyes. The notary's record of the marriage contract between Guido and Urbino exists: Cornelia's unusually large dowry of 1,000 florins, five times the amount allotted to her three sisters, was the cause, later, of family discord that Cornelia recounted to Michelangelo in a letter.

Michelangelo looms large in this reconstruction of Cornelia's life, and my project will, I believe, make a substantial contribution to recent scholarship on the artist. My approach is most closely related to that of the art historian William Wallace, who has substituted for the mythic and unapproachable genius an equally talented but recognizable human being. Wallace has demonstrated Michelangelo's engagement with all aspects of the art-making process, down to designing a crane to lift blocks of marble onto barges, as well as his continuing personal affiliations with communities of artists and artisans. Michelangelo's conscientious attention to the affairs of his assistant Urbino's family, at a time when his reputation was at its height and his own energies must have been waning, sheds further light on the man. Indeed, we must now imagine the great Michelangelo sharing his house not just with an assistant, but with that man's wife and young child. And more. Far from living like a Romantic hermit, Michelangelo consistently lived with several others. In fact, Urbino himself seems to have been the initial source of a series of servants from Casteldurante and, after his death, Cornelia and perhaps Vandini participated in finding appropriate help for him. Analysis of the letters from Cornelia, Vandini, and others, and of the three extant letters on this subject by Michelangelo himself, suggests that Michelangelo profoundly appreciated his legal and moral responsibilities for the children's welfare. He requested all relevant information and required copies of all legal transactions. Copious evidence of his affection for Urbino exists, not the least of which was his willingness to assume responsibility for his servant's sons, a responsibility that he carried out with diligence and genuine concern. All this contributes to a picture of the artist at odds with the old view of a self-absorbed genius living and creating in splendid isolation. This Michelangelo kept up with the joys and tribulations of a family in a small town some 200 miles away from Rome; he gave advice, arbitrated disputes, and made decisions that affected their lives. He acted, therefore, as a patron at the center of a matrix of complex social relationships and responsibilities. This study will illuminate, therefore, not only the role that Michelangelo played in Cornelia's life but also how she affected his.

5 April 1999