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Excerpted from

Virgins of Venice; Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent


The door stands open and the sunshine floods in. It lights a scene of gaiety: an elegant and airy room peopled with well-dressed nobles, and with servants carrying great platters of cakes and other delicacies-one waiter is poised with a live bird. From the wigs and costumes, it is not hard to guess that this is an eighteenth-century scene. The mood is relaxed and cheerful. Indeed, one could mistake the place for an assembly room or a salon were it not for the bleak images of the stations of the cross adorning the far wall, or the cagelike grilles' that separate the noble visitors from their hosts. For this is, in fact, the parlor of San Lorenzo, as depicted in an engraving of 1722.

It is impossible to find visual records from earlier than the eighteenth century of this liminal space, which has been so central to the accounts of nuns' experiences offered in this book. But the Dutch engraver of the San Lorenzo piece, Petrus van der Aa, appears to have initiated something of a genre with it. Giovanni Antonio Guardi and Gian Domenico Tiepolo both painted scenes of convent parlors showing nuns crowding at the iron grates in order to speak with their relatives and enjoy the merriments. And what merriments there were to be had! Both paintings have as their focal point a puppet theater, evidently intended for the amusement of all present.

From the onset of the Counter-Reformation to the Enlightenment not much had changed in the convent parlors. Nuns had consistently encouraged laypeople to visit, and had relied on the enticements of food, drink, music and theater in

order to maintain their connections with the wider world. Certainly, in interpreting the visual evidence, we must allow for considerable artistic license. That the iron bars on the parlor windows are so widely spaced is perhaps a contrivance to allow the clear representation of the women who stood within. The presence of a Punch-and-Judy show among the nuns' guests was possibly more fanciful than realistic. And yet contemporary trial evidence suggests that the artists' representations were grounded in fact. A band of musicians consisting of eight men-referred to in the documents rather grandly as an academy-came to the parlor of Sant'Alvise twice in June 1750 in order to play to the nuns and their guests, in recitals which had been arranged at the expense of one of the converse, Maria Gioconda.

And so the convent magistrates continued to prosecute infractions of enclosure, and nuns persisted in their strategic socializing. The directives of the Counter-Reformation had certainly left their mark on conditions in the nunnery, but they had not succeeded in severing religious women from the society in which they were so firmly embedded.

The convents of Venice might have continued in this way into the modern era, had it not been for a further set of "reforms," fit to rival the ruthlessness of Henry VIII's in their expediency and suddenness. When Tiepolo and Guardi were at work, the days of the ancient republic of Venice were numbered. The year 1797 would see the introduction of the radical but short-lived regime of the Democratic Municipality, which was followed by a series of dominations by foreign powers. The Austrian Hapsburgs arrived for the first time in January 1798; in 1805-06, they were driven out by Napoleon. French rule continued until 1814, when the Austrians returned to Venice. Their renewed domination lasted for more than half a century, with a brief revolutionary interlude in 1848-49, when the popular government of Daniele Manin seized power. Finally, in 1866,Venice became part of the newly unified Italian state,

Of all the changes wrought by these successive governments, those imposed upon the church were among the most radical. Uneasy with the sprawl and power of the city's religious institutions, each regime had attempted to rationalize ecclesiastical organization, with varying degrees of respect for those whose lives would be affected. The most hostile phase of reform was that instigated by the Napoleonic government. Ecclesiastical property was confiscated, over three hundred confraternities were closed down, and many of the educational functions of the church were removed from its control.

Most significant of all, however, was the decree of 1810, which commanded the systematic suppression of monasteries and convents throughout the Venetian lands, now ruled as part of Napoleons satellite Kingdom of Italy. In the patriarchate of Venice alone, sixty religious houses were closed during the Napoleonic period. Of the monks and friars, 507 were cast out of their communities and either sent back to their places of origin (if they came from outside the Veneto) or forced to relinquish the religious life. Still more devastating was the impact on the far larger population of nuns: 1,130 women were expelled from their enclosed convents. It was expected that they would seek refuge with their families; they were prohibited from reestablishing any kind of community and from wearing the religious habit. Although state pensions were provided, in recompense for the conventual dowries that had been lost, many nuns-particularly the old-must have found returning to the world hugely traumatic. And for women from families that had once used the nunnery to unburden themselves of responsibility for their daughters it cannot have been easy to come home.

The fates of these women are tantalizingly obscure. It is much easier to trace the histories of the institutions they left behind. Soon after the suppressions, some convents were razed to the ground with little regard for their architectural value. Those that escaped demolition were ransacked by the state. They yielded paintings and treasures that decked out palaces and museums in Paris and Milan or, more commonly, were sold off to fill the coffers of the government.5 As for the empty shells that remained, with their dormitories built to accommodate scores of nuns, their lofty refectories and high-walled courtyards, these were often converted effordessly into military barracks.

Walking around Venice today, it is not easy to visualize the thirty-odd nunneries that once constituted such a sizable presence in the city. Many of the surviving convents are removed from public view. Spirito Santo and San Iseppo are now schools; San Zaccaria is the headquarters of the carabinieri, the police section of the Italian army; San Lorenzo is a home for the elderly. Sant'Anna, the convent that had once shut in an embittered Arcangela Tarabotti, lies in semidereliction, awaiting redevelopment. But could she return to Venice today, the seventeenth-century nun would doubtless be struck more by the fates of Le Convertite (once the convent that accommodated penitent women) and Santa Maria Maggiore. The former has become the women's prison; the latter is the city's main goal. The urge to confine and separate lives on-so too, no doubt, the power of human relationships to undermine the walls of enclosed institutions.

Tags: Religion and Spirituality