Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy.
Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy. By Craig A. Monson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. xvi + 241 pp. $35.00 cloth.
Runaways. Arsonists. Magicians and masters of disguise. These are not the first words that come to mind when thinking about Renaissance religious women. Yet Craig Monson, a well-respected musicologist, tells five true stories drawn from the Vatican Archives that describe some Italian nuns in precisely these terms. Unlike the Venetian literary nun Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-1652), who used her pen to expose the cruelty of a system that warehoused surplus daughters in convents, the nuns we encounter here took more drastic measures to escape the rigid confines of convent life in early modern Italy. Monson does not sensationalize what are already extraordinary stories; nor does he focus exclusively on the sexual peccadilloes that have become virtually synonymous with nuns' transgressive behavior. Instead, he explores imaginative acts of resistance by desperate women without vocation who sought to remedy life situations that seemed beyond repair. Deeply researched and written with flair, this book powerfully conveys both the stultifying effects of forced professions in post-Tridentine Italy and the lengths to which involuntary nuns might go to elude them.
In relating these tales, each of which forms a separate chapter, Monson eschews the label of microhistory along with its theoretical tool kit, preferring instead to place himself in a storytelling tradition dating back to Boccaccio. Both the advantages and limitations of this approach are evident in the first tale, which uses Inquisition records to probe the practice of folk magic by certain Bolognese nuns in the 1580s. Conflicts with the reforming bishop Gabriele Paleotti over singing forbidden polyphony earned the nuns a visit from the local inquisitor. His inquiries quickly uncovered a host of magical practices the nuns used to find lost objects, foretell the future, and promote romantic agendas. The story as told by Monson is revealing in its details; yet both scholars and general readers might benefit from a richer set of historical coordinates that clarify nuns' engagement with the cultural commonplaces of their day.
The second story is set in the southern provincial town of Reggio Calabria, where a group of high-born Dominican nuns reportedly burned down their convent in 1673. Was the fire an accident related to silk production, or did the nuns conspire to torch their own convent so they could go home? As testimony before the local Curia unfolded, tensions engulfed the community; several of the alleged instigators were imprisoned on the archbishop's orders. Rebuilding the destroyed complex dragged on for several years, during which time the nuns and their families became more deeply embroiled in power struggles with the archbishop. By 1680, however, the unruly nuns had been settled once again in their old surroundings; their freedom from the cloister had been short-lived but their enmities remained intact. This haunting tale, told with great sympathy and verve, deserves more analysis and contextualization than it gets here. The sheer audacity of such behavior steals the show, pushing the instrumental role Italian nuns played in local politics to the background.
Story three returns to Bologna but continues the thread of internecine convent quarrels, this time over needlework and other decorations nuns commissioned for their community. In the mid-seventeenth century, class distinctions reared their ugly head at the Dominican house of Santa Maria Nuova. Rival nuns from wealthy families sought to outdo each other in adorning the convent church, drawing lower-class serving sisters into their battles. Although factionalism was endemic to early modem Italian convents, it rarely took the form--as it did in this community--of competing artistic patronage that ultimately led one side to destroy competitors' gifts.
The next tale takes us to Pavia, where a Carmelite nun and her teen-aged female companion slipped away from their convent one rainy day in 1651. Were these two women lovers seeking a more congenial setting for their clandestine affair, or was their flight merely a last-ditch effort to escape constant recriminations by the senior nuns? Monson deftly tacks his way through the complicated testimony that followed their unsuccessful escape, showing how the two fugitives, lay witnesses, the community of nuns, and their superiors each put a different spin on seemingly scandalous events. In the process, the author neatly illuminates emotional aspects attached to the "particular friendships" that so worried clerical officials.
The final story--one of the most poignant and analytically satisfying--considers the nocturnal escapades of the musical nun Christina Cavazza in early eighteenth-century Bologna. Enamored of the opera, Cavazza snuck out of the convent disguised as an abbot to attend several musical performances staged at the newly re-opened opera houses in Carnival in 1708. She herself was a talented singer living in a community known for its musical excellence. But her musical enthusiasms proved to be her undoing: emboldened by three clandestine forays to the opera, the masquerading nun was caught by her sisters on her fourth attempt. Cavazza was transferred to a rural convent, where she eventually rose from subordinate status to the position of prioress, only to be returned to her home convent in Bologna some thirty years after her misadventures. Despite her eventual homecoming, Cavazza was never again a musical nun. Monson's archival detective work in reconstructing this complex story and its shifting cultural and religious backdrop is indeed impressive.
These fascinating episodes document the creative, often extreme measures some involuntary nuns took to improve life situations they judged distasteful or even intolerable. At the same time, however, Monson's presentation reflects some conceptual problems in thinking about the ways that resistance and rebellion relate to other forms of agency. The book privileges bold acts of insubordination--arson, escape--as clear expressions of personal initiative while downplaying the role of less spectacular behavior like needlework in giving nuns a personal or public voice. Even though the variety of tales told here precludes a single unifying theme and a clear set of conclusions, the book provides tremendous insight into the high toll exacted by forced professions and the often paradoxical effects Tridentine reform had on generations of Italian nuns.
Sharon T. Strocchia