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Elections of Abbesses and Notions of Identity in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Italy, with Special Reference to Venice [*].

Ceremonies of election to abbess were occasions of great display. Election to this highest of offices was the defining moment of a successful nun's life, and thereafter self-identity became crucial. This article examines an anatomy of an election of 1509 by a nun from San Zaccaria in Venice; the illustrated chronicle of Santa Maria delle Vergini in Venice dated 1523, written by an anonymous nun; and the visual representation (in a range of media) of various abbesses from Florence, Pavia, and Venice. Success in election conferred the possibility of personality and consequently legitimated personalized representation.

Ceremonies of election to abbess [1] in major Italian city convents in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were occasions of great display that reflected on the individual nun, her family and kin, the convent, the order, and the secular and religious elites of the locale. Election to this highest of offices was the defining moment of a successful nun's life, requiring an immediate change in behavior (in some cases), an upsurge in decision-making, the shouldering of countless other responsibilities, and a forging of new and more prestigious personal and professional relationships. A woman chosen by her peers to be abbess was transformed by the election from someone in-significant into a figure of importance. This crossing of the line between almost certain obscurity and possible celebrity for the nun led in turn to an appreciation in the more famous convents that the name of the abbess would be recorded for posterity and that she would be held to account for and judged upon her acts while in office by later generations both in and outside the convent. Consequently, the self-identity of the abbess became crucial, as can be gleaned from an emphasis on preserving names, written descriptions, visual representations, and abbesses' coats of arms.

The important point to remember about convents is that they were exclusively female institutions sanctioned by the Catholic Church. In urban conurbations such as Venice, Florence, and Rome, waves of reform progressively insisted, especially after the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, upon the appointment of middle-class male administrators to formulate convent policy and oversee the convent's dealings with the outside world, but the extraneous and normally relatively lowly men employed by convents as stewards or gardeners or doctors were employees rather than members of the institution. Given contemporary views on the necessity of hierarchical relations within any structure, these all-female institutions had to have heads or leaders, and in contradistinction to all other organizations in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy, these could only be women as they had to be chosen from members of the institution. Abbesses were in a unique position, holding (in many cases) a very important office, with considerable powers, in a society where women's influence was otherwise indirect and plied via men. [2] Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century convent chronicles written by nuns are excellent sources of information about abbesses because the narratives of the chronicles were usually organized according to the duration of abbesships. The structure of the chronicles prioritized the actions of the reigning nun and the events that took place during her headship; time was measured by her period of tenure rather than by the tenure of male governments in the outside world.

But if abbesses are an obvious subject of study now, analyzing their elections [3] might require a little more explanation or justification. Although there are theological studies discussing the shifting canon law requirements over the centuries, [4] virtually nothing has hitherto been written on their actual practices in the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation. There is a growing controversy over the issue of forced monacation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries -- nuns being forced into convents against their will or at an age when the notion of consent had no reality; perhaps as a consequence it seems particularly interesting to dissect occasions when nuns can be seen to exercise choice in their lives within the convent. I looked at this first of all in relation to the commissioning of works of art -- how did nuns choose altarpieces, frescoes, and architectural works, and make decisions about various artists? [5] -- and now believe that abbesses' elections provide a very different, but ultimately com parable, moment when nuns were confronted with a choice in some form and had to take decisions. But while some secular women, as well as nuns, could be patrons of art, abbesses' elections provide the only known opportunity for women to vote on the Italian peninsula at this time (apart from a few stray female confraternities where the officeholders would not have exercised much power). Furthermore, the vote was to place another woman in a position of authority over them. This in itselfis sufficient reason to inquire a little more deeply into these elections.

One obvious way of approaching this topic is to make comparisons with other forms of election in this period. Confraternities, religious associations that met together for charitable and social purposes, also held elections and voted in their officers, but they were part-time groupings, whose members lived most of their lives in the ordinary world. All-female confraternities are known to have existed (although mainly from the later sixteenth century), [6] but very little work has been done on them. There was at least one active and large one in fifteenth-century Florence, the company of Santa Maria del Popolo, which met in the Carmine, but no information has come to light on its electoral practices. [7] Statutes of 1548 survive from the all-female Santa Maria della Pieta in Bologna, but the women's branch was effectively administered by a male confraterniry of the same name. The men's prior supervised the women's annual election of a prioress, and this woman was then put under the headship of a male governor elected by the women but confirmed by a vote of the men's company. [8] It is not known what form the women's elections took. In mixed confraternities, women were generally, in Nicholas Terpstra's words, "excluded from the administrative responsibilities of male membership," [9] which included voting and office-holding.

An investigation of the typology and chronology of both canonical and political elections, starring at the apex with papal elections, comparing the different forms of male religious elections with their female counterparts, and moving across to political elections such as those of the doge in Venice and the heads and officers of state in other Italian republics such as Florence, on the face of it seems more fruitful. Political elections, however, evolved from canonical elections, [10] and neither they nor guild elections, [11] which were a mixture of sortition and voting with black and white beans, had significant bearing on abbeses' elections during this period (although it is possible that the prioritizing of the local may have resulted in an occasional triumph of peculiarly local styles of election). Political elections in Florence at the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries were so complex and highly evolved that there is no possibility that they could be shadowed by abbesses' ele ctions. [12] However, there are examples of aspects of nuns' elections being directly modelled on papal elections. For instance, in the second half of the sixteenth century at the Benedictine convent of Le Murate in Florence, five abbesses in a row changed their name to Maria upon election and asked to be known as Maria prima, Maria seconda, etc., [13] the only case I know of in which nuns assumed another name when they became abbess. Papal and male abbatial elections are far more relevant because, according to canon law, elections of abbots were modelled to some extent on elections of popes, and elections of abbesses on those of abbots. But this version takes no account of the multiple divergences from the norm thrown up by the rather fluid system of control imposed on convents, whereby four or five often greatly conflicting regulators competed for eventual mastery of the theoretical set of behavior that should have constituted elections of abbesses. These elections, in differing proportions, paid lip servic e to the rule of the order, the pronouncements of popes and councils, the dictates of provincial synods, and the customs of the convent and locale. It is also worth remembering that these all-female institutions had grown up at different times and had widely different constitutions involving primary and secondary submissions to a whole range of secular authorities, in addition to the ecclesiastical authorities already listed.

The first part of the process, the voting in of an abbess, provides a suitable starring point. There were a series of differences admissible in voting systems at this date: the election could be contested or uncontested; the votes could be cast in a secret ballot or be openly declared in chapter; abbesses could be elected by a simple majority or by a two-thirds majority; candidates could be voted on in turn by each voter or each voter could have only one vote to cast. In some convents, for example in two convents in Rome that have relevant chronicles, no mention of a contested election is allowed to disturb the tranquillity of the past as recorded in their chronicles. Disunity in any form is perceived as a blot. In the Franciscan convent of San Cosimato in Rome, this was probably because the Franciscan rule specified that election to office should occur in an atmosphere of common consensus, [14] but in the Dominican convent of San Sisto sull'Appia that cannot have been the reason. In Venice, however, conteste d elections appear to be the norm and the procedures followed in elections were more complicated. There was great division attached to the election of the second abbess Francesca Zorzi [15] at Santa Maria delle Vergini in the third decade of the fifteenth century. She and the other candidate, Elena Contarini, received an equal number of openly declared votes -- twenty-eight -- from the fifty-six voters at a number of chapter meetings, and finally the doge Francesco Foscari was called in to resolve the stalemate by casting two extra votes. [16] In 1519 at San Zaccaria in Venice, the successor to Marina Marcello, Lucia Michiel, was elected via a secret ballot by twenty-three votes to three. [17] By the time of the death of the abbess of the Vergini Maria Eletti Benedetti in 1598 at the end of the sixteenth century, new rules were in operation. According to a doge's notary's record of the subsequent election, [18] which used the reported speech of two nuns acting as his informants, thirty-four women took part a nd there were three nominated candidates. In this case, the elections took place by secret ballot, with each voter voting yes or no to each candidate. To be elected abbess, the front runner had to have won two-thirds of the possible votes.

It was to be expected that reform movements, and in particular the patriarchal strictures given free rein after the Council of Trent, would challenge and interfere with convent traditions of election. Such changes are often noted with hostility and anger in the chronicles. Giustina Niccolini, the nun chronicler of the convent of Le Murate in Florence, commented upon the changes wrought in 1569 to the free movement of nuns during the ceremonies by the imposition of clausura (enclosure). [19] And although the Council of Trent had in fact been concerned about enforcing the use of the secret ballot, [20] she wrote in the 1590s of the novel usages imposed by papal decree that had led to the outlawing of secret ballots and the enforcement of a public casting of votes. In 1583 Pope Gregory XIII ordered that the tenure of office of an abbess in Italy should be for only three years and that the abbess could not hold office again until a further period of three years had elapsed. [21] Giustina Niccolini remarked upon this imposition of a three-year term of office, [22] which although unheard of at Le Murate (where one of the most famous abbesses, Scolastica Rondinelli, had held office from 1439-1475) had been in operation in many convents even in the fifteenth century for example, in the Franciscan convent of San Cosimato in Rome. [23] In certain cities, such as Parma, the elimination of abbesship held for life was one episode in the transition from government of convents by nuns' relatives to government by city authorities, [24] whereas in others the bishop, the pope or the relevant religious order championed this reform to maximize their own potential influence. In no known case was this change effected at the behest of or in the interests of the voters, but solely in the interests of external male agencies. Strictly speaking, even if an abbess were appointed for three years, the appointment should have been reconfirmed every year, and some lasted only two. [25] Age at election also became more of an issue. The Florenti ne synod of 1517 stated that only nuns over forty should be considered for the position, [26] and the Council of Trent reiterated it. [27] In Venice, the patriarch Giovanni Trevisan issued a decree on elections in April 1573 "to obviate disorders in chapter meetings": [28] it laid down procedures for ensuring that nuns did not communicate secretly with each other about their votes, or use another nun's vote, and for male overseers to be present at elections (something that was already in place in Florence). Nor surprisingly, this male intrusion into female space signalled the end of an era of voting practices for nuns in many convents. [29] Reform also signalled a change in criteria for choice of abbess, with piety and conformity counting for more than sagacity, practical experience, and outside connections.

The very simplicity of nuns' election practices meant that interference in elections, when it occurred, was much more transparent than in ordinary political elections in a republic. Nicolai Rubinstein has written that "control of elections was one of the chief instruments of Medici policy"; [30] and it appears that the manipulation of elections in Florence was successful because it was secret and hidden. Direct interference in the elections of abbesses, because it could not take place in secret, was far more likely under non-republican regimes that made no claim to be accountable. Letizia Arcangeli has found, for example, that in Parma, in the second half of the fifteenth century there was documented ducal pressure in favor of particular candidates in at least seven out of fourteen abbesses' elections at Benedictine convents. [31] In republics, interference of a different but no less bullying sort, emanating from the ecclesiastical rather than the secular authorities, took place. In Venice in June 1521 the p atriarch obtained a brief from the pope decreeing that observant vice-abbesses at reformed convents were automatically to become abbess on the death of the conventual abbess; there was to be no election and no expression of choice on the part of the nuns. [32] In February 1533, the pretext of disorder at the Dominican convent of Corpus Domini in Venice allowed the General of the Dominican Order's vicar to plead with the Council of Ten to be allowed to reform the convent. Reform in this case centered on the removal of the prioress and her second-in-command and the imposition of a new "handpicked" leader. [33] Complications of many sorts ensued, with the interests of the nuns, their relatives, the Venetian state and the Dominican Order all competing against each other. Five nuns (from the Trevisan, Loredan, Falier, Capella, and Torella families) were serially elected either prioress or vice-prioress, and finally the case was passed on to the pope and his nuncio for resolution. [34] Sanuto's account of this fias co shows the lengths to which the Venetian government was prepared to go to try to "do the right thing," ensuring that the nuns were balloted on their wishes and that elections were carried out in accordance with regulations. Unfortunately, however, government protection was not sufficient to block interference from various church bodies and personnel.

If the web of allegiances, competing regulations, and rival power brokers affecting elections sounds complicated, the process of rituals and ceremonies that lay between the death of one abbess and the legitimate and complete assumption of power by her successor can appear similarly tangled. This process could take months to complete and could consist of a number of discrete and costly elements. I want to examine a previously unnoticed anatomy of an election written as participant observation by an anonymous nun from the conventual Benedictine convent of San Zaccaria in Venice, [35] now in use by the Carabinieri, the Italian military police. This unpublished, five folio document details the course of the election of the abbess Marina Marcello in 1509, from the chapter following the death of the previous abbess to the feast celebrating the first anniversary of the election. [36] It looks as though it originally formed part of a longer convent record, either a chronicle or something more personal. After giving the date, it starts with the following words: "El me par rasonevole che dobiamo far memoria per scriptura de la nova abbadessa" (It seems reasonable to me that we should make a written memorial/record of the new abbess). [37] This recognition and memorialization of a defining moment and process on the part of the writer nun lends credence to the theory that election as abbess created a new sense of identity.

San Zaccaria was the richest and most important female convent in Renaissance Venice, slightly to the east behind San Marco, occupying a whole compound that extended from the Riva degli Schiavoni on one side through the Campo San Zaccaria to the north, bordered by the Rio dei Greci on the east. This compound had two gates that could be closed to seal it off. Much of the very early sixteenth-century Renaissance fabric of the convent survives, in particular two spectacular courtyards. [38] The fifteenth-century church was designed between 1450 and 1490 by Antonio Gambello and Mauro Codussi, the latter being one of the famous architects in Renaissance Venice, who also designed the church of San Michele in Isola and Santa Maria Formosa, for example, and began the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi. The church used by the nuns, called now the chapel of San Tarasio, abutts onto a southern section of the choir in the main church, and it is above the tenth-century crypt that is the burial place of eight early doges. In the vault of the chapel are some early frescoes by Andrea Castagno from 1442 [39] and three wonderful composite altarpieces (ancone) by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d'Alemagna, individually commissioned by two nuns, the prioress and abbess (all named) in 1443. [40] Some beautiful choir-stalls, signed by Francesco and Marco Cozzi and dated 1455-1464, which would have been in the nuns" choir, also still survive. [41]

It was against this elegant Renaissance backdrop that some of the episodes of the 1509 election took place. Although short, the anatomy of an election contains a mass of information and what follows is only a limited selection from it. The election of 26 March was contested: the two candidates were Marina Marcello and Angela Riva; the former received nineteen votes, the latter fourteen. There were thirty-four professed nuns who had votes, but one was absent and the two candidates obviously did not vote. It is not recorded how the votes were collected. Some manoeuvring had taken place prior to the election: inside the convent, the candidates and their supporters (called in convent parlance "friends" [amiche]) held a debate, while their relatives held meetings outside to discuss the matter. The participants earned the displeasure of the patriarch, who had called for an early resolution. Nor can the outcome have been wholly uncontested, for the patriarch's edict declaring the result and asking anyone with reaso n to contradict it to come forward was illicitly taken down within two hours of being pinned to the front door of the church. The bells of San Zaccaria and the nearby San Procolo were rung to announce the successful election, and many relatives and friends, male and female, came to the choir of San Zaccaria to congratulate and touch the hand of the abbess elect. There is ample evidence of the involvement of the families of the nuns in convent affairs, which seems standard in Venice, although to varying degrees depending on factors such as social status and wealth.

After a break in proceedings for Easter and Holy Week, the engagements came thick and fast. On 15 April the abbess elect put on at her own expense "a glorious meal" (un bellissimo pasto) for the nuns and the other girls in the convent, which was attended by 150 women. On 19 April she hosted a feast of sweets and wine (colazione) for the nuns, where they were furnished with cups full of sugared almonds (confetti) and biscuits made from sugar and pine nuts (pignocade) to take away for later consumption with Malvasia and other wines. And on 23 April the abbess was given possession of the convent by the patriarch at a fabulous ceremony that was recounted in detail by the nun. The patriarch arrived by boat at the canalbank (riva) of the convent, which was decorated by a long runner of carpet, accompanied by the bishops of Chissino (Chisamos on Crete) and Lepanto, the abbot of San Cipriano on Murano, and assorted canons of San Marco, to be met by Marina Marcello and a crocodile of paired nuns. The liturgical part of the ceremony took place in the nuns' choir (in the chapel of San Tarasio), with the patriarch and his vicar seated on wooden thrones, and the abbess and her nuns kneeling around the altar. When the anthems, psalms, and prayers were finished, the patriarch's notary read out the privileges of the convent, stopping whenever necessary to involve the abbess, who had to swear obedience, accept a ring, touch the altar, sit in the first (or most senior) choir-stall (the beautiful ones mentioned earlier), process with everyone else to the chapter house to take up first position there, and accept responsibility for the keys of the convent. Although the abbess's staff, the crozier (pastorale), is not mentioned in this account, other symbols of power, the ring and the keys, are passed to her. The patriarch then gave her a pep talk on her duties and responsibilities, and they all returned to the choir for a final Te Deum, prayers and benediction.

More social obligations and exchanges followed this religious office; hospitality was as crucial to the whole as liturgy. The prelates were invited by the abbess to stay on for a colazione in the convent, with a wide variety of sweetmeats and wines. She then presented the patriarch with a purse of embroidered silk (which may have been her own handiwork) containing five gold ducats of her own money, which he accepted as "a sign of love" (in signum amoris). When he and the other prelates left, the party began in earnest. "Worldly women" (done mondane), that is non-nuns, flooded into the convent for yet another colazione. The doge posted two captains, one of them a Pole, at the entrances to the convent precincts, whose task it was to stop any man from entering, and these two also had to be rewarded by the convent. Afterwards, the abbess sent yet more confectionery to the patriarch, including a marzipan weighing ten pounds, and distributed tidbits to the other officiating prelates. These sweetmeats were part of a chain of obligation and reciprocity stretching to the families of the nuns: the abbess had to pay for all the expenses of her election and its aftermath. The nuns and the relatives of the abbess helped by providing her with some of these objects, which were immediately passed on to the necessary recipients; relatives and kin played a vital role here. But the San Zaccaria nuns came from the top families in Venice where the maintenance of old, and acquisition of new, honor counted for more than financial outlay. On 8 May a further meal was given by the abbess for the nuns, seemingly identical to that of 19 April. Throughout these festivities, the convent also had to be decorated to a high standard, with tapestries, carpets, painted wainscoting panels (spallieri), and festoons adorning the cloisters and the main room (camera grande). The last entry in the description refers to the feast on the first anniversary of Marina Marcello's election, which took place on 26 March 1510. This apparently was celebrated wit hout much ceremony because of the wars following the League of Cambrai, but it still required the purchase of food, wine, and other commodities.

This account of an election stresses the sequence and duration of its processes. Although the exact configuration differed from convent to convent, the election of an abbess in Venice was protracted and complicated, requiring attention to detail and etiquette, expenditure of money and effort, and interaction at many levels with the outside world. This is borne out as well in a blueprint from San Zaccaria of how an abbess ought to be elected, written in a fifteenth-century convent ceremonial book. [42] A comparison of the eyewitness account to that of the ceremonial text shows how very closely ritual behavior was circumscribed and followed in almost all particulars. Occasional extra details can be extracted from this text, such as the different sweetmeats required for a winter (when green ginger was a prime ingredient) as opposed to a summer election, or more importantly, the model for collecting and counting votes. At the beginning of the chapter meeting, the prioress (the second-in-command) urged the nuns t o vote according to their conscience rather than their own inclination or someone else's persuasion. [43] The prioress then cast her vote for whomever she chose, and this was noted by one of the camerlenghe (procuratrixes) on a piece of paper, and then one after the other the remaining nuns were asked to cast their votes aloud so that all could hear. If a nun left the choice up to the chapter, another vote was added to the list of the candidate with the most votes. At the end, the candidate with the greatest number of votes was elected abbess. [44] According to this model, any nun could be voted upon, which does not seem to have been the case in the 1509 election when only two nuns were official candidates. The going rates of costs (for example, for the bull of confirmation) are also all provided. The existence of documents like the eyewitness account and the ceremonial text highlights the weight of tradition and the nuns' attachment to it (in this respect there was no difference between an all-male and an al l-female institution); it also testifies to the extraordinary documentary culture of Renaissance Italy.

Information about contemporary notions of abbesses' identity is also forthcoming from the convent of Santa Maria delle Vergini in Venice, which belonged to the order of San Marco Evangelista di Mantova and followed the Augustinian rule. [45] Founded in the twelfth century in the north-east corner of Venice, it shared the fate of other convents in Venice and was suppressed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Its buildings were adapted for use as a naval prison in 1809 and between 1844 and 1869 all the remaining structures were pulled down and the land taken over by the Arsenale. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the convent numbered about thirty to forty professed nuns, and a roll call of 1513 included members of the most prestigious Venetian families, such as the Donato, Pisani, Canal, Marcello, Gradenigo, Loredan, Giustiniani, Valier, Venier, Foscarini, Badoer, and Zorzi families. [46] In the Biblioteca Correr in Venice, there is an unpublished sixteenth-century chronicle of the c onvent written in a mixture of Italian, Venetian, and Latin by an as yet anonymous nun, a member of one of these elite families. From internal evidence, the chronicle was written between 20 May and 22 December 1523, [47] a time of continuing upheaval and reform for all Venetian convents, especially those, like Santa Maria delle Vergini, that were in the process of being turned from conventual to observant institutions. [48] Uniquely, this chronicle also contains illustrations, almost definitely by the writer of the chronicle or a fellow nun. One of them may be a representation of the facade of the convent church (fig. 1). [49]

Nuns' chronicles are not homogeneous and take many forms, but as they are first and foremost histories of their institutions, the heads of these institutions necessarily loom large. The status of the whole process of the elections (seen here as the historic moment of commencement of abbacy) varies enormously from chronicler to chronicler, and may depend upon the interest of the writer or be more directly related to the importance given by tradition to the election process in individual convents. What is clear too is that locale matters enormously: even comparing convents within the same order, Venice has more elaborate ceremonies than Florence, which in turn has more elaborate ceremonies than Rome, although why this should be the case is not at all plain. Some chroniclers mention the outcome of elections but ignore the process, others dwell on parts of the process, such as confirmation or possession, still others discuss contentious or contested outcomes only, a few examine in detail those elections at which they were present themselves and of which they can offer an eyewitness account rather than a description at second-hand. In yet others, historically specific circumstances lead via exceptional electoral processes and traditions to written and visual expressions of pride at manifestations of uniqueness.

The nun chronicler of Santa Maria delle Vergini [50] was motivated by a desire to memorialize the origins of her institution, and was happily able to emphasize the standing of the convent by adverting to its connections to the emperor, pope, and doge. For her, each election at the convent founded by Pope Alexander III (1159-1181), was a re-enactment of the election of the first abbess, Giulia, the daughter of Emperor Federico Barbarossa (Frederick I), whose possession had been marked by symbolic "marriage" to the doge, Sebastiano Ziani. The illustration of that event from the chronicle shows the emperor, pope, and doge seated on a tripartite wooden throne, and the abbess Giulia kneeling to receive a ring from the doge and a blessing from the pope (fig. 2). [51] The coats of arms of the three men take up at least a quarter of the scene. Giulia's funeral formed the subject of two more scenes. [52] In fact, in 1177 this pope, emperor, and doge did indeed meet in Venice to sign a peace treaty, the famous pace di Venezia. [53] The representation of their meeting in the chronicle is an attempt by the nuns to insert the history of their convent and themselves into the grand narrative of Venetian history by claiming that this moment had added resonance for them. [54] In an alternative version of history, favored by historians from the eighteenth century onwards, the foundation of the convent can be dated to 1224 and was the result of the machinations of Ugolino, bishop of Ostia, later Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241); the emperor was Frederick II and the doge was Pietro rather than Sebastiano Ziani. [55] The ceremony of marriage between abbess and doge that formed part of the election process additionally mirrored another more famous Venetian nuptial, that between the doge and the sea (or rather the subjects of the Venetian maritime colonies), which was also of thirteenth-century origin. In Florence, a symbolic marriage took place between the abbess of the Benedictine convent of San Pier Maggiore and the bishop, but the occa sion was different, as the ceremony occurred upon the appointment of the bishop and not the abbess, and thus honored him rather than her. [56] At the Vergini, external authority lay with the doge and the pope, as they had played such vital roles in the foundation; the patriarch (the honorific title of the bishop of Venice) did not have authority at this convent. [57] The ritual of marriage between abbess and doge (the doge had the iuspatronatus or rights of patronage over the convent) was one of the renowned ceremonies in Venice by the late fifteenth century. The Venetian diarist Marin Sanuto recorded only the confirmation by the doge of the abbess Leona Lion in January 1504 [58] rather than the symbolic marriage ceremony because the convent had been rocked by sexual scandal in 1502-1503 -- at least six nuns were named as sexual partners of various Venetians and non-Venetians in these two years [59] -- and it feared further adverse publicity. [60] He did, however, note the "marriage" celebrations of Margarita Badoer in June 1506, [61] of Clara Donato in September 1516 (who had in fact been elected in December 1513, but whose marriage ceremony had been delayed), [62] and of Sofia Pisani, after another long delay, in February 1529. [63]

After the "marriage" of Margarita Badoer, Sanuto referred to three other vital aspects of the election process: publicity, display, and hospitality. Relatives, patrons, and other important and relevant guests were invited to the expensively decorated convent to share a meal in celebration of the occasion. Margarita Badoer's victory party consisted of a meal for 500 women and men (although only a few of the latter) in the convent refectory, and the richness of the decoration of the convent church and the silver and gold on display were a cause for comment. In June 1512 Sanuto described the post-election party of the new abbess of San Giovanni di Torcello, Marieta Querini, where 300 guests were seated. He was censorious because the proceedings had been reported to the podesta (administrative head of a commune) of Torcello, and state intervention had ensured that no male (bar priests and servants) had been allowed to enter the convent, or even to enter the church, which Sanuto claimed was habitually open to eve ryone. Fifty "zentilhomeni" (nobles) were therefore fed outside the precinct, but as soon as the captain posted by the Council of Ten left in the evening, all the guests flooded into the convent to see the decorations. [64] Sanuto obviously believed the interference of the Council of Ten not only to be a break with tradition and an illicit exercise of power, but also to have caused a serious breach of hospitality. The Venetian state justified its interference on these occasions on the grounds of their potential for creating and harboring disorder. It does seem to be true that ceremonies and festivities connected with abbesses' elections provided unrivalled opportunities for groups of men to enter female convents. 'While some legitimately wanted to celebrate with their relatives, others seem to have been attracted by the lure of the forbidden, On 9 June 1430, for example, the day that the second abbess named Francesca Zorzi was consecrated at Santa Maria delle Vergini, a group of six men (one mature and five y oung men) climbed up the vine and over the convent wall into the cloister and attacked the custodians of the host in the convent church. Obviously on the lookout for trouble, this pack of males, who could possibly have been drunk, was saved from heavy sentences because one of their number was Lorenzo Foscan, the son of the doge. [65] Invading the sacred and sexually charged space of convents was a well-known pastime for young men, and choosing occasions when convents were more accessible and porous, such as feast days when some members of the public were allowed to enter, made the enterprise more interesting. Other male behavior in relation to entering convents was against the law and troubled the authorities but was more pleasant for the nuns. On 25 May 1509 sixteen young men from good families were charged with having spent the night at the convent of Santa Maria Celeste (known as La Celestia) a few months earlier on the occasion of the first feast (pasto) of the abbess elect. As well as abundant food, ther e was music ("trombe e pifari") and the night was spent in dancing. [66] The young men are described as munegini and may indeed have been the special friends or lovers of particular nuns at the convent. These two examples of men being prosecuted for their presence in convents during festivities connected with abbesses' elections highlight the tensions and ambiguities inherent in ceremonies centered on women. Publicity involving females was double-edged; these occasions required publicity to be successful, but pubity also brought unwelcome attention, both from groups of young men and from the authorities. Hospitality and display were needed to express the solemnity and importance of the event and to give it equivalence with male ceremonies, but fear of disorder and unregulated females led to the imposition of measures of social control. These ambiguities in turn fostered male interest in these events and spawned unruly or unlicensed male behavior during the ceremonies.

The nun chronicler of the Vergini was also preoccupied with the symbolic marriages following the election of a new abbess. However, the elements of the election process described in words by the chronicler and images by the illustrator followed set but non-identical patterns according to medium. The chronicler wrote about the meeting in chapter that led to the election, always naming each voter; she sometimes recorded the text of the bull from the pope confirming the election, [67] and normally included the text of the Latin oration given by another nun during the ceremony of possession -- this demonstration of learning and status was another peculiarity for which the convent was famous. She never referred to the social context of the elections nor alluded to the complex networks of exchange and reciprocity that were its social currency. Visually, on the other hand, using a standard formula for each incumbent, the illustrator focused on the moment when the doge gave the ring to the abbess.

It is worthwhile investigating three of these visual representations because they are so rare and because they too, albeit in a different fashion, highlight the role of display and the importance of known (and knoweable) identity. They are quite extraordinary because the coat of arms of the abbess's patrilineage is always displayed, alongside those of the reigning doge and the reigning pope. In conventual convents in Venice, nuns were known by their religious name and by their surname; the practice of shedding surnames was not enforced except at observant convents. This display of coats of arms has some similarities to that in one of the images of the veiling and consecration of a named nun from the convent of San Donato in Polverosa outside Florence dating from the first decade of the sixteenth century. There, in conscious or unconscious imitation of the display of the coats of arms of the fathers of two families joined in marriage, the coats of arms of the nun's father's family, the degli Albizzi, and of h er mother's family, the Vecchietti, were exhibited. [68] The source for both the unusual displays at abbesses' and at nuns' symbolic marriages is the depiction of a wedding couple parading the coats of arms of the two lineages to be joined together. A rather plain Venetian example of this is that of Zaccaria Freschi (from a cittadino family) and Dorotea Zaccaria, whose marriage of 1486 was illustrated in the Freschi family history. [69]

The first Vergini image relates to the election of Maria Ziani under Pope Innocent III (fig. 3). [70] Innocent's coat of arms is empty, presumably because the nun chronicler did not know what it looked like. The doge was Pietro Ziani so the doge's and the abbess's coats of arms are the same. This image is in a slightly different format than the others. The abbess sits in her abbess's chair, facing the viewer. [71] The doge sits on her right, behind a piece of embroidery, members of the Venetian government sit on either side of them, and seven nuns and monks in white sit on the steps below them, so that the sense of hierarchy, with women below men, is maintained. Evidence that the white outfits in the chronicle represent reality comes from a miniature (probably by the Venetian artist Cristoforo Cortese) [72] in a fifteenth-century manuscript of the profession liturgy for Santa Maria delle Vergini (fig. 4). [73] Asolitary Vergini nun, in rather bulky white garb and an unflattering headdress, is on her knees in front of a seated bishop.

The second example from the chronicle is in the standard format, mirroring the pose in the miniature, which could conceivably have been its source. In it, sometime in the first decade of the fifteenth century, the first abbess named Francesca Zorzi is being given her ring by her symbolic spouse, the doge (fig. 5). [74] He sits on a rather elaborate wooden throne and she kneels below him. The three coats of arms are all Venetian, as the pope, Gregory XII, was the Venetian Angelo Correr. The Zorzi coat of arms, with a plain horizontal bar across the center, also appears on the abbess's tombslab dating from 1428, now in the Seminario patriarcale in Venice. [75] The third example, in identical format but with additional detail, shows the abbess Clara Donato on her knees being given a ring by the doge Leonardo Loredan on 21 December 1513; the Medici palle indicate that the reigning pope was Leo X (fig. 6). [76] In none of these representations, even the ones taking place contemporaneously with the illustrations, are there portraits or attempts at portraits, of either the abbess or the pope. Instead, identities are indicated by dress, position within the image, and by coat of arms, all things that were additionally indicators of status.

In my final section I should like to consider the memorialization of the abbess set in motion by her election. The nub of the matter is that success in election for nuns conferred the possibility of personality Nuns were not "real" or rounded people, with individual characters, but were supposed to exist only at a collective level. The head of the collective, however, as she had to take decisions, was not expected to be anonymous, and she could, therefore, appear in portraits and expect to be recognized by later generations. It is a great paradox that nuns became individuals [77] through a corporate process (election as abbess); obviously the illustrator of the Vergini chronicle had taken on board the fact that abbesses' identity was crucial by including their coats of arms, but had not managed the next step of conferring individuality through personalized portraits. In a recent article on portraiture, Luke Syson has noted an increasing tendency in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century "to glorify indivi dual virtues at the expense of family identity" (116), but this precept cannot usually be applied to women in the period because they lacked tangible or recognized achievements. Abbesses, on the other hand, having occupied an official position and wielded recognized authority, were able to be judged according to these criteria, and then were able to refer to these criteria on their memorials. Syson believes portraiture falls into the same category as official biographies and public funeral orations: they are all "examples of antique models being exploited for contemporary, propagandist ... purposes" (116-17). It is of great relevance to the study of abbesses' identities that versions of all three of these memorializing actions were taking place in the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation. Biographies of abbesses are the most routine: they appear in all the convent chronicles written by nuns, as well as some written by men. When written by a nun from the same convent as the reigning or former abbess, they were sanctioned by the convent and constituted a near-official biography. Funeral orations for abbesses probably took place although they may not have been documented or preserved. Funerals for abbesses of important convents were grand affairs. But at the Vergini, as we have seen, Latin orations were given by a fellow nun at the ceremony of possession of a new abbess. These were indeed recorded, both in the convent chronicle and elsewhere, and towards the end of the sixteenth century they started to appear in print. [78]

No study has yet been published on the subject of abbesses' portraits in the Renaissance, nor even on the broader theme of nuns' portraits. Catherine King's recent book on female patrons includes a chapter on "Self-portraits," which covers much essential ground while focusing on wives and widows. [79] Nuns as patrons, especially those in Florence, are now beginning to receive widespread attention. [80] But the chronology for donor portraits in paintings and sculpture constructed by Dirk Kocks and reviewed by Catherine King in relation to female donors, needs to be revised once again, taking into consideration abbess donors. The trend that arrived towards the end of the sixteenth century was for standing, full- or three-quarter length, fullsquare depictions, but the chronology of depictions is not strictly linear. Some abbess representations in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century donor portraits are small-scale, but others are large-scale; some are kneeling and others are standing; some appear in scenes with the Virgin Mary or assorted saints, while others are single figure portraits; some appear in the position of honor to the left of the painting and others more modestly to the right. Most importantly, a significant proportion of abbess representations appear individualized and personalized, and some even include intimations or clues to identity. Abbess portraits are found in many media: large altarpieces, [81] smaller panel paintings, tombs, and other pieces of sculpture. The few under consideration here are all ones in which the office of the nun depicted can be seen, read or worked out from the representation itself, either through the inclusion of a symbol of office (usually a crozier) or an inscription including name and rank or the initials of the abbess. Either the abbess appears alone as a donor and is the sole nun represented or she is clearly marked out as the abbess from the rest of the nuns. In all of the depictions the identity of the abbess must have been of paramount importance, and the abbesses thu s depicted must have been confident that their names would live on forever in their communities. Many, many more representations of abbesses exist, in which abbesses are portrayed at the head of their flock of nuns or are incorporated into paintings as commissioners but lack features or symbols that allow them to be identified either as individuals or as abbesses.

The greatest challenge facing those interested in portraiture is the precise apportioning of intention. Women's portraits in general make this exercise additionally complex because of the expectations attached to women's behavior, in particular the opprobrium attached to attention seeking and the inordinate praise attached to modesty and submission. The contradictions inherent in rule by women mean that abbesses' portraits further increase the complications in the range of available possibilities. Taking a hypothetical representation of an abbess in a fifteenth-century painting, elements of it could have been decided upon by the abbess herself, other nuns in the convent, the artist, a male or female patron who was financially involved in the commission, or even a male procurator, prior, or confessor attached to the convent. The exact combination would have depended upon the characters, abilities, and tastes of those involved, and on the circumstances. However, even this oversimplifies the situation, as a ver y strong depiction of an abbess would not necessarily signify the involvement of the abbess, but may represent a male angle on her position. In the absence of documentary material that would allow one to assess levels of involvement, it seems prudent to examine abbesses' portraits for what they can tell us about general notions of identity connected with women's office-holding rather than as individual case studies of possible female commissions. Crucial to this is an analysis of the abbesses' spatial relationship to others, both male and female, in the image.

There is a rather fine portrait of the abbess Umiliana di Tommaso Lenzi in the Museo of the ex-convent of Sant'Apollonia in Florence (fig. 7), which has been overlooked by art historians. The inscription attached to the bottom of the painting proclaims that Lenzi was the founder and permanent abbess, but it does not report of which convent. [82] To set the portrait in context, we have a description of Lenzi's election in the chronicle of the Benedictine convent of Le Murate in Florence, where she had been a nun for forty-eight years, having entered the convent at the age of twelve. One of the patrons of Le Murate, the Duchess Eleonora of Toledo, wife of Cosimo de' Medici, conceived the idea in the mid-sixteenth century of founding a new convent, to be called the Santissima Concezione, on via della Scala. [83] The rest of her family favored her plan, and after her death her son Ferdinando decided to staff it with nuns from Le Murate. The nuns were understandably very reluctant but were not in a position to re fuse a request from their ruler bolstered by the backing of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, so finally in 1592 they called a chapter meeting and Umiliana Lenzi was elected abbess.

This election by the convent was, in the words of the chronicler, "against its every wish" [84] and "appeared more divine than human, carried out rather in heaven than by us on earth." [85] The nun chronicler seems here to be adverting, albeit clumsily, to a particular type of election per quasi inspirationem (almost by inspiration), election by unanimous and spontaneous consent of all the electors. This method of choosing a head of a religious institution was declared invalid at Trent for all but papal elections, [86] but it still had obvious attractions for other religious groups as it signified divine intervention. The official version of this type of election meant that actual balloting was rendered redundant; in nuns' accounts, either it is not specified whether balloting took place or the inspiration took a slightly different form. At the Franciscan convent of Santa Lucia in Foligno in 1477, the nuns were being persecuted by the provincial vicar who had relieved the old abbess of her office and deprive d six or seven of the most suitable candidates of their voting rights. At the scrutiny meeting, God came to their aid by causing the election of a poor unthought-of creature. Another Franciscan present claimed to have seen a white dove moving from ear to ear of each of the nuns; he declared the election had been carried out miraculously on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Realistic detail backed up this version of events: according to the nun chronicler, the abbess elect had to be given better clothes as she had been cooking before the election and was dressed in rags. [87]

Although the painter of the portrait of Lenzi as abbess is not known at the moment, it must have been painted in Florence sometime soon after 1592, as Lenzi was already sixty at that date and the woman in the portrait does not look considerably older (although nuns supposedly aged more slowly and lived longer than women in the secular world). [88] Lenzi is wearing the uniform of the new convent, proclaiming allegiance to the knights of Santo Stefano (and through them to the Medici grand dukes) by wearing their emblem on her chest. These knights had been set up by Duke Cosimo in 1562 to engage in warfare against the Turks by concentrating on addressing the problem of Mediterranean piracy. The order was in practice largely ceremonial and defensive. It seems most likely that this portrait was a grand-ducal commission, as the abbess is very unlikely to have commissioned it herself and the quality of the painting is quite sophisticated. The abbess's right hand lies on a closed book, and in her left she holds her crozier, her staff of office, topped with an elaborate agnus dei. It is not known whereabouts in the convent this portrait hung, but it surely would have been in a prominent position in a communal room, such as the refectory or chapter house; it is unlikely that it would have been positioned in the church or in the abbess's apartment. I would like to posit that Umiliana Lenzi's was in essence an election portrait, showing the newly elected and appointed abbess in all her glory. Umiliana Lenzi was in luck: success in election for her has meant a permanent and personalized memorialization.

This portrait of an abbess is unusual. From the early fifteenth century there is a representation of an individual, full-length, life-size abbess, but it is on her tombslab. Francesca Zorzi, the first abbess of that name at the Vergini, died in 1428 and her memorial was sculpted in Istrian stone (fig. 8) and placed, according to the chronicle, "at the entrance to the choir" of the church. [89] The convent church was not a private or closed space, and although the choir would have been for the nuns' use only, this tombslab would have caught the attention of any visitors because they were personally addressed by its inscription. In the early nineteenth century, the tombslab still bore two legible inscriptions, both in gothic letters. The first, at the head of the figure above the cushion on which her head lay, asked fellow nuns and everyone else to pray to God for Francesca Zorzi. This presupposed a larger audience than that of the nuns alone. Around the edge of the tombslab the second inscription proclaimed: "Here lies Francesca Zorzi, abbess of Santa Maria delle Vergini of the order of St. Mark the Evangelist, who died on 24 April 1428, and who ruled in a most praiseworthy fashion for 23 years and 4 months. May she rest in peace." [90] This choice of wording emphasizes the individual and active nature of the abbess's virtues by commenting upon her rule, stressing her personal contribution. The tombslab is now in the Seminario patriarcale, but much of the lettering of the inscriptions is illegible. Unfortunately, no one in the nineteenth century recorded the content of the two coats of arms in the foliage at the head of the tombslab. The one on the left is still recognizable as the horizontal bar of the Zorzi family, but the one on the right has crumbled away into oblivion. Could it have been the coat of arms of her mother's family? Or was her identity constructed entirely around her father's patrilineage? It is not known whether the tombslab was commissioned by Zorzi herself before her death or by the following abbess and nuns after her death in recognition of her achievements. It is possible that it was commissioned in connection with the local acknowledgement of Francesca Zorzi's beatification. [91] The lines of the tombslab are straightforward and pleasing. Lying with her head on an elaborately decorated and tasselled pillow, Zorzi is dressed in her habit, which collects voluminously at the bottom of the tombslab. Her crossed hands lie on top of her stomach and are slightly exaggerated in size, and a knot of cloth tops her head. She is framed in a gothic space enclosed by elegant twisted barley sugar pillars and a trefoil arch, which in turn is decorated with flowers and foliage and the coats of arms. The poor state of conservation of the tombslab means that it is difficult to comment authoritatively upon the level of individualization of the abbess's features, although the tone of the inscriptions and the inclusion of coats of arms as identifying markers certainly stress the personal.

Abbesses before the end of the sixteenth century who commissioned works of art and who wished to be recorded normally had themselves placed in paintings or sculptures as witnesses at best and appendages at worst to saints and holy figures in religious scenes. In the majority of cases in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there is no way of telling from the image who the abbess is, unless one knows the precise date or an inscription is included in the painting. A painting of oil on poplar or cotton wood of the Magdalene being transported by angels (fig. 9), supposedly from the Vergini, [92] now in the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, attributed to Antonio Vivarini (1418/20-1476/84), falls into this category. [93] It is tall and thin, shaped around a human body, and measures 103 x 44 cm. The giant-sized and soulful-looking Magdalene, [94] her body clothed by locks of her own shaggy hair but her feet, hands and neck bare, with hands folded in prayer, is borne aloft by six miniature angels, all clinging to her thick hair, with pert, upright wings and abundantly flowing robes modestly covering them from head to toe. In the bottom left of the picture, in a rocky and inhospitable cave, kneeling with hands folded in prayer, is a tiny abbess, identifiable as such by her staff, dressed in the Vergini colors of white with a black head-dress. Abbess and angels are afforded equality by being depicted on the same (minuscule) scale, but because of her enormous proportions all attention is focused on the person and personality of the Magdalene. The abbess was obviously the donor or commissioner, but her tiny size has made meaningless any facial individualization and time has erased any connection of hers to the picture. There are four possible candidates for the post of abbess in this painting: Sordamor Morosini (abbess 1433-1453), Pantasilea Contarini (abbess 1453-1461), Franceschina Querini (abbess 1461-1483), and Elisabeta Bragadin (who became abbess in 1483); one of these must have had a particular devotion to Mary Magdal ene. [95] The painting was presumably commissioned for the altar of St. Mary Magdalene in the convent church, [96] where it would have been accessible to and seen by nuns and public alike, but as yet no documents relating to it have come to light.

The example of Andriola de Barrachis, [97] abbess of the Benedictine convent of San Felice in Pavia in the late fifteenth century, is instructive by contrast. [98] Her representation is unambiguous, and she painted it herself. The oil on wood painting of the Enthroned Virgin and Child with nuns, now in the Pinacoteca Malaspina in the Museo Civico, Pavia, measures 100 x 50cm (fig. 10). [99] In it, de Barrachis has portrayed a Madonna with a child on her left knee, two angel musicians behind the throne, and four smaller-scale nuns kneeling at her feet. The Christ child holds an open book on his knee with his left hand, while with his right he blesses de Barrachis in her role as abbess. Mary's right hand hovers just above de Barrachis's head, marking her out as the most important and most favored nun. She makes explicit her dual status as author of the image and abbess of the convent by including an inscription: "This is the work of the Reverend Mother Andriola de Barrachis, abbess of this convent, 1489." [100] She even gives physical form to the link by placing her abbess's crozier, her official symbol of office, against her right shoulder and letting it lead directly to the plaque containing the inscription. Although small-scale when compared to Mary, de Barrachis has placed herself in the position of honor on the Virgin's right and the viewer's left. Here there can be no argument over intention. The abbess as artist and commissioner must have decided exactly how she would portray herself; the choice was entirely hers. An interest in achievement must have made her include the date of execution. A date was similarly included on an inscription placed by her on a capitol in the convent courtyard: "Mother Andriola de Barrachis, abbess, caused this to be made, 1500." [101] The inscription on the painting referring to "this convent" suggests that it hung in a place to which all the nuns, and probably the public on occasion, had access; otherwise the phrase would have been redundant. Given its subject matter, it is most likely that it was on show in the convent church. Earlier commentators used de Barrachis's gender as a weakness upon which to hang derisory comments about her skill as a painter, [102] instead of using her work to investigate statements about her identity and self worth. De Barrachis's rendition of herself is an extraordinarily rare and early self-portrait of a woman from the fifteenth century. The very fact that she felt able to do this, and the way she described herself to others, visually and in inscriptions, shows the boost to identity that being an abbess gave her.

A Cistercian abbess from the convent of San Matteo (Maffio) di Mazzorbo in Venice figures extremely prominently in an altarpiece of St Matthew Enthroned with Saints commissioned for the high altar of the convent church, [103] and now in a private collection in Venice (fig. 11). [104] The painting contains an inscription stating that the work was by Giovanni Mansueti, a pupil of Giovanni Bellini, [105] and Mansueti's authorship is no longer questioned. [106] In fact, a record of Mansueti's receipts for this painting, dated 8 February 1516, were extant in the convent's archives in the seventeenth century, although they are now lost. [107] The painting of oil on canvas is large (211 x 322 cm at its largest) and the composition striking. Matthew sits on an ornate throne in a very elaborate architectural setting at the front of an arcaded loggia, with four bearded male saints at his feet, two to the left and two to the right, and three putti musicians playing instruments sitting on the steps beneath him. The four saints are, from left to right: Peter, Benedict, Bernard (the famous Cistercian monk), and John the Evangelist. Matthew holds a pen in his right hand while an attendant angel to his right proffers an inkwell. On his left, at a level below that of Matthew but above that of the four male saints, is a youthful abbess, who was originally though to be a "santa monaca" (such as Veronica), but who does not have a halo and who is most probably the commissioner. She is dressed in white Cistercian robes, holds a crozier in her right hand, and wears a ring on the third finger of her right hand. The abbess's crozier has a much more elaborate representation on it (possibly of Tobias and the angel) than the croziers held by Saints Bernard and Benedict, which are both of a leafy design and not figurative. The top of the abbess's crazier is level with Matthew's head, while the crozier top of the founder to the left is level with the abbess's hands. It is also unusual for a donor figure to be represented behind, rather than in front of, the intercessor saints. The abbess's literally elevated position within the composition, her proximity to the central figure, and her superior crozier indicate her importance. The incumbent of the office at San Matteo in 1516 appears to have been Francesca Valier. [108] The features of the abbess are individualized and there is no reason not to suppose that this is a contemporary portrait.

Both the decoration and the number of symbols and attributes are weighty. The whole background of the painting is full of elaborate decoration and architectural detail. It is also a heavily bookish affair. Matthew carries one on his throne, as do all four of the other male saints. Saints Matthew and Peter's books are open. Peter also carries two large keys and John the Evangelist carries a chalice. [109] Their gazes are worthy of comment. Several of the saints look out at the viewer, and one of the putti musicians glares out almost defiantly, but the abbess stares steadfastly in front, at right angles to the picture plane and the viewer. The abbess's depiction in profile against a dark background once again singles her out for attention and allows her features to be highlighted and preserved. This altarpiece was positioned on the high altar of the convent church and was therefore greatly valued. As the convent was not reformed until the 1520s, nuns and public alike would have been able to enjoy it, at least in its first years of existence. The nuns would have had the added luxury of seeing their abbess holding her own in the exalted company of great saints, and of visualizing the concrete benefits and rise in status that election as abbess could bring.

The final representations to be examined are slightly different. In the Seminario patriarcale in Venice is a large early sixteenth-century handbasin (lavabo or lavamani), [110] which was originally placed against the western wall of the refectory in Santa Maria delle Verigini. [111] Dated 1531, this elegant basin in the style of Tullio Lombardo, made of green porphyry, verde antico, and Verona marble, includes a bas-relief in the top containing images of the Virgin and child, and two donor nuns (fig. 12). Its cost must have been not inconsiderable. The composition of the Virgin and child is slightly retardataire, but the image of the once painted marble nuns is novel and exciting. It seems likely that the initials SP and MB carved onto this basin refer to Sofia Pisani and Marina Barbaro, two abbesses at the Vergini around this date. [112] Marina Barbaro was elected right at the end of 1523 and died in 1527, the year in which Sofia Pisani was elected. [113] That two abbesses are recorded suggests both played a part in the commission, payment, and execution of the work; and here the names of the two are indicated by markers on the work itself. Double representations like this are extremely infrequent, and in this particular instance it is likely that they are portraits of the two commissioning abbesses. The two women are individualized, and Marina Barbaro is decidedly older and chubbier. All the nuns in the convent would therefore have seen these portraits several times a day in the refectory, and so although they were not displayed in a place to which the public had access, and their viewing was restricted to insiders, future generations of the community could have been expected to recognize and honor them. In terms of ensuring continuity of connection between abbess and work when seeking a memorial, it still might have been safer to commission manuscripts rather than portraits in the early sixteenth century. Marina Barbaro commissioned a new manuscript containing the service of her consecration as abbess at Sant a Maria delle Vergini on 25 January 1524, which is now in the British Library in London, [114] where everybody knows that it is hers. Names could be included so much more easily in a written work.

This article has been trying to show that nuns' elections in this period were important or interesting or both for a number of reasons. There is bountiful and largely untapped material of various sorts available for analysis. It is to be hoped that an examination of differing forms of abbesses' elections will in the future enable more to be known about the place of women's ceremony and ritual in different parts of the Italian peninsula, and maybe will even reveal more about local attitudes towards the notion of female authority in each of these societies. Textual and visual descriptions of abbesses' elections and images of abbesses that adverted to their official position prompt the formulation of new understandings about nuns' processes of decision-making and the exercise of choice in selecting leaders, and about notions of identity that accompanied female office. Abbesses held important positions and were important individuals; they could therefore commission or expect to have commissioned permanent and pe rsonalized memorials.


(*.) Earlier versions of parts of this article were given as papers at Goldsmiths' College and the Institute of Historical Research in London, and at the universities of Bern, Bristol, and Reading. I am grateful to the participants in these places for their interest and suggestions. I should like to thank Marta Ajmar, Ian Bavington Jones, Italico Brass, Fibi Ferace, and Kate Jansen for their help and the two readers for Renaissance Quarterly for their close reading of the article. The staff at the Biblioteca del Museo Correr in Venice were particularly helpful and kind, as was Alessandra Schiavon at the Archivio di Stato in Venice. A portion of the research for this article was carried out while I was in receipt of a generous grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.

The following abbreviations will be used in this article: ASR = Archivio di Stato, Rome; ASV = Archivio di Stato, Venice, and ACRS = Archivio delle corporazioni religiose soppresse in ASV; BCV = Biblioteca del Museo Correr, Venice; BNCF = Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence.

(1.) In most convents, the head was called the abbess and the second-in-command was called the prioress. However, at Dominican (and various other) convents, the head was called the prioress. Throughout this article, I shall use abbess in a general sense to indicate the official, elected head of the convent.

(2.) See the entry under abbesses by Pie de Langogne in Dictionnaire de theologie catholique, vol. 1, column (hereafter col.) 18; the entry under abbesse by J. de Puniet in Dictionnaire de spiritualite ascetique, vol. 1, cols. 57-59; and the entry under abbadessa by A. Pantoni in Pelliccia and Rocca, vol. 1, cols. 14-22. See also Bowe, 1-34.

(3.) See the articles on elezioni by L. Moulin and P. Tocanel in Pelliccia and Rocca, vol. 3, cols. 1080-94.

(4.) A good example of this type of study is Parsons; see in particular 27-29.

(5.) Lowe, 1998a.

(6.) Black, 35.

(7.) Henderson, 111.

(8.) Terpstra, 116-17 and 127.

(9.) Ibid., 123.

(10.) Moulin, 785-97.

(11.) Staley, 117-19.

(12.) To be initiated into these complexities, see Rubinstein, 1997, and Rubinstein, 1954, 151-94 and 321-47.

(13.) BNCF, II II 509, fats. 94v, 97v, 106v, 118v, 119v.

(14.) See a copy of St. Francis's rule for women included in Scandella, 132-33.

(15.) Confusingly, there were two abbesses called Francesca Zorzi; the second followed the first into office. The first died in 1428 and die second in 1431.

(16.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 42v.

(17.) ASR, Congregazioni religiose femminili, 4226, n. 4 (Miscellanea). (

(18.) ASV, Cancelleria inferiore, Archivio del doge 203.

(19.) BNCF, II II 509, fol. 117r.

(20.) Session XXV, de regularibus, c. 6.

(21.) Bullarum diplomatum, vol. 8, col. 404.

(22.) BNCF, II II 509, fol. 157v.

(23.) See the chronicle composed by Suor Orsola Formicini of San Cosimato (in three versions) at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries. The first version is in Rome, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Fondi Minori, MSS Varia 6, the second version is in Rome, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Fondi Minori, MSS Varia 5, and the third in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. Lat. 7847.

(24.) Arcangeli, 168.

(25.) Spiazzi, 225.

(26.) Mansi, vol. 35, col. 259.

(27.) Session XXV, de regularibus, c. 7.

(28.) Pilot 64-65. The decree forms part of a collection in BCV, cod. Correr CCCLXXV (2570), 239-41.

(29.) Parsons, 134.

(30.) Rubinstein, 1997, vi.

(31.) Arcangeli, 170.

(32.) Sanuto, vol. 30, col. 309.

(33.) Ibid., vol. 57, cols. 489-90.

(34.) Ibid., cols. 493-94, 496, 547-48.

(35.) On this convent, see Primhak, 1991; Primhak, 2000, esp. 92-98; Mazzucco, 38-40; McAndrew, 268-81; and Cicogna, 2: 105-72.

(36.) ASR, Congregazioni religiose femminili 4226, no.4 (Miscellanea). This contains discrete pieces.

(37.) Ibid.

(38.) Paoletti, 1: 60-84, 109-10; Franzoi and di Stefano, 390-405.

(39.) Spencer, 95-102.

(40.) Humfrey, 1990, 199-201; and Pallucchini, 99-100.

(41.) They are illustrated in Bertoli and Perissa, 22.

(42.) This cerimoniale is in ACRS, S. Zaccaria, Busta 5, and the section on electing an abbess ("el modo che se observa nela chreacion de una abbadessa") runs from fols. 6r-12r. Vicky Primhak analyzes the procedures and ceremonies accompanying the election described in the cerimoniale in Primhak, 1991, 106-08, 109-10, 141-43; and Primhak, 2000, 98-100.

(43.) ACRS, S. Zaccaria, Busra 5, Cerimoniale, fol. 6v: "Ve priego tute che voi vede quel ch'ale conscientie vostre par de elezer non a conpiacencia ne a persuaxion ma tuto a laude del nostro Signor Dio et beneficio del nostro monasterio."

(44.) Ibid., Cerimoniale, fol. 6v.

(45.) On the convent of the Vergini, see Zorzi, 2:364-67; Battiston, 19-37, and Cicogna, 5: 5-96, 624-30.

(46.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 54v.

(47.) The last doge named is Andrea Gritti, who was elected on 20 May 1523 (BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 3r), and the last abbess mentioned is Clara Donato, who was dead by 22 December 1523 (ACRS, S. M. delle Vergini 2, filza E). The chronicle claimed to incorporate some parts of a work or works of earlier composition.

(48.) Giuliani, 16-53.

(49.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 10r.

(50.) An earlier version of part of the chronicle is in BCV, cod. Cicogna 1825. The illustrations in both versions are by the same person, which indicates that the illustrator was very likely also to have been a nun in the convent.

(51.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 18v.

(52.) Ibid., fol. 27r.

(53.) On the peace and its depictions in Venice, see Wolters, 162-78; and Martindale, 76-124.

(54.) BCV cod. Cotter 317, fol. 15v.

(55.) Compare the account in BCV, cod. Correr 317 with that in Muir, 127-28.

(56.) Conti, 95-99; and Viviani della Robbia, 43-46.

(57.) Bowe, 13.

(58.) Sanuto, vol. 5, col. 655.

(59.) ASV, Avogaria di comun, Raspe 3659, fols. 136v-138r, 185r-186v, 203v-205r.

(60.) Sanuto, vol. 4, cols. 305 and 387, and vol. 5, cols. 40 and 264-65; and BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 53v.

(61.) Sanuto, vol. 6, cal. 353; and BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 54r.

(62.) Sanuto, vol. 22, cols. 520-21 and 538-39; and BCV cad. Correr 317, fol. 54v.

(63.) Sanuto, vol. 49, col. 429 reports the event but without naming the abbess; see Cornelio, 6, document of 10 June 1527 conceding the election of Sofia Pisani.

(64.) Sanuto, vol. 14, cal. 435.

(65.) ASV, Avogaria di comun, Raspe 3648, fols. 39v and 40r.

(66.) Sanuto, vol. 8, col. 307.

(67.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 42r.

(68.) Gabinetto dei disegli degli Uffizi, Florence, Inv. 1890, no. 3335; and Lowe, 1998b, 56-60.

(69.) Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice, MSS ital., cl. VII, 165 (8867), "Memorie dell'illustre famiglia de' Freschi cittadini originarii veneti," fol. 7r.

(70.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 29v.

(71.) Some of these chairs still survive. There is a late fifteenth- or early sixteenth-century one now in the ex-Benedictine convent of Sant'Apollonia in Florence, which bears the Strozzi arms.

(72.) On whom, see Huter, 9-16. The attribution is made by comparing this miniature with that in a manuscript of "the benediction and consecration of virgins" owned by the nuns of S. Lorenzo Martire in Venice, and now in Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, A 125 sup., fol. 90r. See Lowe, 1998b, 54-56.

(73.) BCV, cod. Cicogna 1569, fol. 1r.

(74.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 41v.

(75.) Guida del visitatore, 40.

(76.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 54v.

(77.) On the interesting question of the representations of individuals, see Boehm.

(78.) For example, Suor Aurelia Querini delivered an oration at the Vergini in Venice upon the election of Suora Sofia Malipiero as abbess in February 1598. It was published the same year -- Oratio sororis Aureliae Quirino -- and was also published in 1604 by Sansovino and Stringa, fol. 127r and v.

(79.) "King, 1998.

(80.) Ibid., 1992, and 1995, 2:255-65; Gardner, 27-57; Roberts, 120-54; Thomas, 1993a and 1993b; Lowe, 1998a.

(81.) Peter Humfrey has counted seventeen altarpieces commissioned for female convents in metropolitan Venice between 1450 and 1530, but unfortunately he does not provide a precise list so it is impossible to know if any of them contain nun or abbess donors. See Humfrey, 89, 90-91. I believe that many more altarpieces existed in convents than appear in his tables but that their survival rate, and the difficulties of attaching existing altarpieces firmly to specific convents, have resulted in their under representation.


(83.) Paatz and Paatz, 1:476-81.

(84.) BNCF, II II 509, fol. 149v: "contra a ogni suo volere."

(85.) Ibid., fol. 150r: "parve opera piu divina che humana, fatta prima in cielo che da noi in terra."

(86.) L. Moulin, "Elezioni," in Pelliccia and Rocca, vol. 3, col. 1083.

(87.) Scandella, 20-21.

(88.) Brown, 117-52.

(89.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fol. 42v.


(91.) Musolino et al., 36, claims that it was the second Francesca Zorzi (the one who died in 1431) who was a beata, but it was the first.

(92.) Zorzi, 2:366-67.

(93.) Gemaldegalerie Berlin, 78-79 and 465.

(94.) For comparable images, see Mosca, esp. 35-37.

(95.) BCV, cod. Correr 317, fols. 44r, 45v, 47r, 48r.

(96.) There was definitely an altar to the Magdalene in the church at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and this Vivarini painting probably adorned its precursor. See Zorzi, 2:365 and 367.

(97.) I should like to thank Marco Pellegtini for bringing de Barrachis to my attention.

(98.) She was already abbess when the city and diocese of Pavia underwent a pastoral visitation from Amicus de Fossulanis, a canon carrying out the visitation on behalf of Bishop Jacopo Ammannati, in 1460. See Toscani, 61-62, 124-25. Barrachis and two others were absent harvesting fruit when S. Felice was visited.

(99.) Peroni, 159-60.


(101.) The inscription reads: "D. ANDRIOLA DE BARRACHIS ABBATISSA FEC[IT]. FI[ERI] 1500."

(102.) Natali, 342-44; and Peroni, 160. More recently, her authorship has been altogether denied and "reattributed" to the "Maestro di Andriola de Barrachis." See M. Tanzi's entries for that artist in Pittura a Pavia, 211 and 213; and Albertario, 891 n. 101.

(103.) Zorzi, 2:430-1.

(104.) According to information from the present owner, after being taken from the convent at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this painting remained in the depositi demaniali until 1822. It was later bought by the present owner's grandfather from the auction of the Collezione Papadopoli. A different provenance is sketched by Miller, 104 n.21.


(106.) Marco Boschini in 1674 described this altarpiece in situ but still wrote that it was "della scuola del Vivarini." See Boschini, 40; and Borenius, 16, 18.

(107.) ACRS, S. Matteo di Mazzorbo, Busta 2, vol. 1, n. 113, insert 1. This hitherto unnoticed reference appears in a catastico of 1681: "1515 8 Febraro. Diverse ricevute di q. Zuane Mansueti per fattura di una palla." The Venetian year started on 1 March, so the year was in reality 1516.

(108.) Suor Francesca Valier is named as abbess in a document of 10 June 1522 in ACRS, S. Matteo di Mazzorbo, Busta 5, n. 337, insert 1, and Suor Francesca (but without specifying a surname) writes some accounts as abbess on 15 Match 1507 in ACRS, S. Matteo di Mazzorbo, Busta 4, no. 153, insert 1.

(109.) For other representations of John the Evangelist with a chalice, see Kaftal, cols. 525-44.

(110.) Guida del visitatore, 115-17.

(111.) See the 1852 plan of the Vergini by Giovanni Casoni, inserted into the copy of Cicogna, vol. 5, in the Biblioteca Correr, where the position of the lavabo is indicated by the letter C.

(112.) Cicogna, 5:94.

(113.) Michaela Cuppo was elected abbess between Barbaro and Pisani, but she died almost immediately (ACRS, S. M. delle Vergini 2, filza E and filza F).

(114.) The British Library, London, Additional MS 21182. See also Catalogue of the Additions, 335.


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Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Death and the Cardinal: The Two Bodies of Guillaume d'Estouteville [*].
Next Article:Nuns and Their Art: The Case of San Zaccaria in Renaissance Venice [*].

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