On the one hand, these virgin colonies were construed as bastions of chastity and prayer, a precious spiritual resource which served to counterbalance the worldliness of the laity. On the other, they were perceived as places of vice and indiscipline, a spiritual liability which put the salvation of the whole republic in jeopardy. [...T]he diarist Girolamo Priuli wrote that the city's nunneries were public bordellos, and the nuns public whores.
One of the many things I've learned from studying history is that there have been few places or periods in which it hasn't sucked to be born a woman. To judge from Mary Laven's Virgins of Venice (2002), the early-modern Venetian republic was no exception. The daughter of a well-to-do family of La Serenissima had, it seems, only two possible option in life: maritar o monarcar, marriage or the nunnery. She certainly did not get to choose which one - and the latter was astonishingly common.
The issue was complicated to a considerable degree by the massive dowry inflation that took place among the Venetian nobility during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In a quest to keep down the number of heirs they produced, since multiple heirs meant a division of the family wealth, Venice's noble families sought, collectively, to curb their offspring's ability to marry. Sons were funnelled off into military or ecclesiastical careers, and the cost of a dowry soared - from a legal maximum of 1,600 ducats in 1420, to over 20,000 by the end of the following century.
In this way, marrying off more than one daughter within her own social circle was put beyond the means of most families - and women being the repositories of family honour, of course, they could not hardly be allowed to marry below their station. Yet there could no question of them being allowed to run around free, unchecked by male authority. As Patriarch Giovanni Tiepolo put it, somewhat apoplectically:
If two thousand or more noblewomen, who in this City live locked up in convents as if in a public storehouse, had been able or had wanted to dispose of themselves differently, what confusion! What damage! What disorder! What dangers! What scandals, and what terrible consequences would have been witnessed for their families and for the City!
As Tiepolo suggests, there was only one remaining way to preserve the vulnerable fabric of society: these excess women had to be shut away in convents, decently out of sight. Thus writer Giovanni Loredan admonished his niece in the mid-17th century:
You are born noble, and of a most worthy family; but seeing as you do not have a dowry equal to your birth you will have either to degrade your condition or to venture into the discomforts of poverty. To stain your nobility with inferior sorts is to encounter universal contempt. To conjoin with poor fortunes is to share and multiply miseries. [...] I know that upon wise deliberation you will wish to console your parents, to bring stability to your lineage, to find security for yourself, to give an example to the young, and to make known to your descendants that practical minds do not allow themselves to be tyrannized by human considerations but by reason.
They may have been shut up out of sight - once they had taken their vows, nuns were supposed to interact with the world only from behind curtains or heavy metal grilles, if at all - but they were never out of mind. For both secular and ecclesiastical authorities, convents were a vexed question; they became battlegrounds for issues of sexual morality, social hierarchy, and doctrinal disputation. They removed women from the conventional medieval framework of gender relations, placing them - as virginal brides of Christ - above married women for their purity, and outside the male control of marriage.
Moreover, their role gave them access to power, both over their sisters in the convent - through the elective hierarchy by which convents organised themselves (thus involving themselves in the "thoroughly masculine culture of politics", as Laven puts it) - and over laypeople outside it, for whom they functioned as a sort of talisman (most publicly in civic ritual), purifying the city by their presence in it. Many nuns meant plenty of spiritual credit for the city - yes, it's that old chestnut of women as vessels for men's needs, again. The fact that so many nuns were also noblewomen, often still with strong ties to their families (for all that they were supposed to leave worldly concerns behind), only added to their political and social clout.
All of this was deeply problematic at the best of times, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not the best of times for Venice. Threatened both militarily - by the republic's many enemies - and spiritually - by the Reformation with its more rigidly patriarchal social mores - the Venetian authorities meddled, constantly. Whenever they felt vulnerable, they put the pinch on the convents, imposing tighter enclosure (lessening contact with the outside world still further), stricter penances, greater poverty, and even banning singing:
Fearful of excess, prelates did their best to root out additional stimulants to the nuns' spiritual imagination. Suspicious of the emotive power of Baroque music, they forbade the nuns from singing elaborate anthems and from playing musical instruments. It was preferable for women to speak rather than sing the liturgy.
Laven draws much of her evidence for this book from the records produced by the Church's frequent investigations into, and attempts to variously reform, practices at the city's fifty-odd convents. These take the form of the investigators' reports, and the testimonies of the nuns they interviewed. The latter are particuarly attractive for the glimpse they offer of convent life as seen from inside. I would like to have seen more consideration of the issues surrounding how they were obtained and transcribed (to what extent are we hearing the authentic voices of the nuns? what would constitute 'authentic'? who was interviewed, and why?). But then, I'm a historiography geek, and there is probably more than enough analysis here for the popular history market at which this is aimed.
This lofty position was not without its limits, or risks. Nuns might govern themselves on day-to-day matters, but they could not be priests; unable to deliver sacraments or provide (much) spiritual authority, nuns were still entirely dependent upon men to hear their confessions or give them communion. Their volition was thus very circumscribed; at any time their arrangements could be overturned by men's external decisions and policies. Sometimes, too, this state of affairs led to their exploitation by unscrupulous clergy. Laven describes the case of Giovanni Pietro Lion, who was executed in 1561 after a reign of terror as the confessor to the nuns of Le Convertite, in which role he used a combination of spiritual tyranny and physical violence to force the convent's complicity in his systematic sexual abuse of its inmates; oppressed and, of course, unable to contact the outside world to complain of their treatment, the nuns were helpless.
The risks, meanwhile, lay in the lethal combination of the convents' talismanic purity and the presence in those convents of large numbers of women with little or no religious vocation. Many women had no desire to leave their lives behind, and the wealth and social power that they brought with them often meant that they did not have to. Obviously, a proportion of the accounts of nuns' excesses and vanities - rich clothing, luxuriously decorated cells, lavish parties with male guests (albeit often with the nuns still behind their grilles...) - stem from hostile gossip. But the reports that Laven explores provide the fire for this smoke. Many nuns continued to receive gifts and visits from their families, which goes at least some way to redressing the picture of parents uncaringly offloading daughters into cold lifelong prisons. Some contrived to conduct love affairs, either with the men who supplied the convents with food, or by sneaking out for trysts by night, or with each other (as ever, we read much less of lesbianism for the simple fact that, unlike sex between a nun and a man, it was not a capital offence to be fully investigated by the courts).
We also read of the social divides in many convents, for example, between choir-nuns - fully enclosed nuns, usually of noble birth - and converse, those who took only partial vows, and usually their social inferiors:
Converse [...] did not bring great wealth to the community, but they did bring their labour. It fell to them to carry out the menial chores, and they were excluded from privileges and power. The rationale behind this system was that the presence of converse liberated the choir-nuns from the more mundane duties of convent life and enabled them to devote themselves to the rigours of piety.
In other cases, women came into conflict over how their social status should translate to precedence within the convent hierarchy, or continued family feuds in the coventual elections.
We also read of nuns who disapproved of such goings-on and longed for greater spiritual discipline - for, Laven makes clear, there were also a great many women for whom convent life was, or became, a genuine and deeply-held religious calling. Laven tells the splendid story of one Gratiosa Raspi, who broke out of the convent of San Sepolcro in 1618, disguised as a friar. Upon her arrest - she gave herself away by using adjectives with feminine endings when talking about herself - she revealed that her intent had not been escape, but to live as a monk:
Inspired, as I believed, by the majesty of God... I left the convent with the intention of becoming a friar at Rua, where I could live in chaste and pure service to God, pursuing the most austere way of life, believing that the mortification of the body would be pleasing to the Lord and of service to him... This thought came to me having read that Saint Marina and Saint Eufrosina had each led a life in a monastery of friars.
It is individual, personal anecdotes like this that bring the book to life: sometimes amusingly, sometimes movingly, and sometimes stirringly. Into the latter category falls Elena Cassandra Tarabotti, known as Arcangela, who wrote a number of ferocious and highly literate works attacking misogyny and (abused) male authority. In Inferno monacale ('The Nun's Hell') she deplores the men who - making a mockery of the sacred, she says, for no better reason than self-interest and convenience - force women to become nuns against their will, presenting the ceremony by which a nun is sworn to the convent as a sacrificial rite.
In La semplicita ingannata, she expands upon this, decrying the practice as a sinful contravention of women's free will:
Divine Providence, after all, has granted free will to his creatures, whether male or female, and bestowed on both sexes intellect, memory and will! By means of these three faculties they are able to shun avoidable evil and pursue the good of their choice by their own voluntary inclination, not servile fear.
It may indeed have sucked to be born a woman in early modern Venice, then - but reading the words of those who were there, whether capitulating or coping or kicking against it, is surprising and inspiring as often as it is saddening. Recommended.