Excerpt: 'Divas in the Convent: Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy' by Craig A. Monson


The Singing Nun, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1966

From Praeludium: Putting Nun Musicians in Their Place

The Singing Nuns of Bologna

What shall I say of the virgins of Bologna? At one time they resound in spiritual song, and at another they provide their sustenance by their labors and seek similarly to provide the material of their charity with the work of their hands. (Saint Ambrose, c. AD 392)

Moved by perpetual excesses, innumerable as the sands, which constantly erupt in the convents of our city of Bologna because of the music they unfittingly perform, I tearfully plead, prostrate at the feet of Your Most Illustrious and Reverend Lordship, that you get the Sacred Congregation to ban this music. You know that men flock much more than is respectable to nuns’ churches as if to plays and other frivolous, unholy places. As a confessor at many convents, I know for certain that there is so much contention and such warfare among them because of their musical rivalries that sometimes they would claw each other’s flesh if they could. (don Ercole Tinelli, 1593)

Twelve hundred years after Ambrose’s encomium to Bologna’s convent singers, at a time when nuns’ music more regularly offered cause for comment, clerical reaction to it had taken quite a negative turn. Had don Ercole lived another thirty years, he might have expired from a paroxysm of schadenfreude masking as indignation in the face of the unparalleled warfare at Bologna’s most musically illustrious convent. How might he have pled for a ban on convent music had he witnessed the following scene?

Finally the episcopal auditor arrived with his many yeomen to put them to the test. The nuns immediately and with one accord climbed up high and, throwing down tiles and stones, forced his retreat out of range with his squadron. Then, as the bell sounded the alarm and crowds flocked there, donna Isabetta Vizzana, crucifix in hand and with her head veiled, made the convent’s case so passionately that she moved her audience to pity and indignation. Not a few were weeping, and many called out rebelliously, “Long live the nuns of Santa Cristina,” threatening insurrection. Meanwhile, children were gathering up lots of stones and tossing them into the convent through the small gateway to ensure the nuns would not run low on ammunition. And surely the uproar would have ended in a bloodletting if the curia and their supporters had not beaten a hasty retreat. (Gasparo Bombacci, c. 1640)

What follows is, from the Catholic hierarchy’s point of view, a story of decades of discord echoing within what should have been a realm of celestial harmony: the convent of Santa Cristina della Fondazza in Bologna. At least one disgruntled convent insider agreed with her masters, alleging that these conflicts all “began because of music.” Most others from within the convent walls saw and heard things differently. Theirs was a story of often independent- minded women, who brought with them from the world to the more private sphere of Santa Cristina incongruous, often less sacrosanct conventions about sacred and secular, about social hierarchy, and (of course) about gender. It is a tale of these women’s attempts for most of a century to maintain some autonomy and some room to maneuver within an often- conflicting religious conformity imposed from the outside by the external, patriarchal Catholic hierarchy. To that hierarchy it became—and perhaps still is—a story of willful defiance.

It may come as something of a surprise that nuns’ music loomed as large as it did in the minds of many nuns, their religious superiors, and the public beyond the convent wall. Nuns of that era represented the prime example of women making music within a private sphere, one that the church authorities strove through the enforcement of unbreachable cloister to keep as private—and as religious—as possible. It should not be surprising that until quite recently we remained largely unaware of nun musicians and their accomplishments. As Elissa Weaver once put it, “Among the nuns only the saints have been remembered.” After roughly 1550, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of organists, singers, and composers can be traced within the records of Italy’s nunneries, records that largely remain unavailable to the general public. The more talented of these sacred divas may have kept out of sight, but in their own times, they were regularly on the minds of music lovers.

For young women musicians of the 1500s and 1600s, the cloister remained the obvious milieu in which to practice that profession respectably. When accepted as convent organists, these women saved their parents hundreds—indeed, thousands—of lire. For her family, the development of a daughter’s musical gifts with an eye toward the nunnery proved a very sound investment. Parents could send their daughters there with a much smaller dowry than a potential husband would require, and if the convent accepted a young woman as their organist, they might reduce her nun’s dowry by 25 to even 100 percent. Especially for a poor or orphaned girl, musical talent offered a means to rise above the convent servant class (the converse), which she might enter with a very modest dowry, to the upper, governing class (the professe), generally reserved for affluent women from elite families.

Once on the job, convent musicians who pled overwork might receive special privileges. Rome granted sor Giovanna Tavora in Braga, Portugal, her own, private servant after she complained, “I am always so busy with public functions that I can’t take care of the necessities in my cell, and what little time I have left barely frees me long enough to finish the Divine Office.”

For nun musicians, a convent musical career provided opportunities to perform and to rise to a certain azimuth of “star” stature in a realm associated with celestial harmony but having none of the taint commonly attributed to the public stage. Convent musicians could reach an appropriate “public” and still retain respectability—at least in the eyes of the nobility and upper classes that the nuns courted as audience, if not in the eyes of their ecclesiastical superiors. A wall divided a convent’s inner chapel, reserved for the nuns, from an outer, public church (fig. 3 A and B), accessible to the world. The nun musician, who performed behind grated windows from within the pseudoprivacy of the inner church, “spoke” to the worldly audience in the adjoining public church. In doing so, she not only surmounted the constraining walls but found a way around genteel suspicions of musical professionalism and public performance that extended from Aristotle to Castiglione and beyond.

Most Bolognese convents practiced music to some degree. San Lorenzo, Santi Naborre e Felice, Santi Vitale et Agricola, San Guglielmo, Santa Margherita, and especially Santa Cristina della Fondazza fostered notable musical traditions, which attracted audiences from Bologna and farther afield. At least a dozen composers dedicated published collections of music to Bolognese nuns, testifying both to the nuns’ musical talents and to their ongoing interests as patrons of the arts.

The city’s nun musicians are particularly interesting because they maintained their musical traditions in the face of strong and persistent opposition from the local episcopate. The restrictions on Bolognese convent music, enacted by the reforming archbishop Gabriele Paleotti, continued unabated under the comparably antipathetic Alfonso Paleotti and Ludovico Ludovisi. In the last decade of the 1600s, Archbishop Giacomo Boncompagni revived his predecessors’ earlier severity. Even in intervening periods of less strict enforcement, Bologna’s singing nuns never enjoyed the artistic encouragement of a pastor such as Archbishop Federico Borromeo of Milan. The history of the musical nuns of Bologna is thus a history of artists working against the odds yet discovering ways to maneuver around barriers regularly erected by their diocesan superiors.

The Historical and Social Background

Bolognese convent music came to prominence at a time of comparative peace, prosperity, and tranquility, following centuries of disruptions. On the other hand, before 1500 Bolognese history gives the impression of nearly perpetual political ferment.

The Bolognese liked to date the first of half a dozen periods of their city’s republican government to about the time Saint Ambrose remarked upon the singing of the city’s sacred virgins, twelve centuries before the period of this story. The last republican era began in 1276 and coincided with a time of prosperity and commercial expansion. Bologna’s situation at the intersection of routes to Rome, Florence, Milan, Ravenna, and Venice made the city a major commercial center. Its leading families grew wealthy in banking and trading, particularly in hemp. The city also specialized in finished wool and silk goods. In fact, Bologna claimed to have few rivals in the spinning and weaving of silk. More than three hundred silk mills, staffed by some three thousand laborers, lined the city’s canals by the late 1500s, and as many as six thousand other silk workers wove the thread into fabric.

Bologna’s other primary economic resource was, of course, its famous university, which attracted numerous foreign students to the city. A favorite explanation for the characteristic, deep porticoes that shade the sidewalks in Bologna was the influx of thousands of these university students, who supposedly found in the abundant arcades along the city streets a useful public extension of the tiny living spaces above their heads, garrets that commonly protruded out over the sidewalks.

During the same period Bologna gained increasing significance as a focus of devout Catholicism. Saint Dominic, who resided in Bologna off and on in 1219–21, made the Bolognese Dominican monastery one of the two principal houses of his order of friars-preachers. At his death in 1221 Dominic was interred in the church of San Domenico, where he draws pilgrims to this day. Shortly thereafter, another friar saint, Anthony of Padua, founded the Franciscan studium in Bologna. Not long after midcentury, the Augustinians and Servites joined the burgeoning Catholicism of thirteenth-century Bologna.

Women’s religious orders also achieved their greatest expansion in the city during the spiritual renewal of the thirteenth century. Scarcely more than half a dozen Bolognese convents date from before 1200, but by the late thirteenth century the number reached three dozen, the highest of any period.

Bologna became definitively Catholic in 1506, when Pope Julius II, Giuliano della Rovere, a former bishop of that city, entered it in full armor at the head of his troops to claim it for the papacy. After a fi nal paroxysm or two, papal rule settled in firmly and to stay by 1526. “Recognizing that [papal rule] permitted it to live merrily and pleasantly, without the disruptions of war or sedition, [Bologna] dedicated itself to it completely, valuing life in the lap of the church as a true and steady liberty, as in effect it is”—thus the Bolognese academic Camillo Baldi, writing in the early 1600s, rather cynically characterized Bologna’s abandonment of republican aspirations for a comfortable papal domination. In any case, subsequent Bolognese historiography suggests that the city’s acceptance into the bosom of Holy Mother Church ushered in a relatively trouble- free period that contrasted pleasantly with the regular disruptions of earlier centuries.

After the establishment of papal control, the rare occasions when international events directly touched Bologna arose from its ecclesiastical role, eclipsed only by that of Rome. One can come away from reading Bolognese historians with the impression that after 1550 little happened in the second city of the papal realm for two and a half centuries. In Camillo Baldi’s view, the Bolognese happily pursued wealth, comfortable living, and self-interest, relatively unscathed by the world around them:

I do not deny that now this people may not be rather soft and timid, and disaffected to work, fickle, contentious, and divided and very hostile to discomforts. This has all been increased by the fact that an extended tranquility has settled upon Italy and this city. Thus, a people dispirited in an extended peacetime, and grown enamored of comforts, rarely and with great difficulty stirs itself to take offense and easily puts up with every discomfort, however great, in civic affairs.

In sixteenth- century Bologna, increasingly powerful papal legates, whom the pontiff appointed to govern the papal state, controlled the oligarchy of leading families that constituted the Bolognese senate. Senatorial rank left economic power chiefly in the hands of the forty or fifty most important Bolognese families, whose dependence upon and allegiance to the papacy were reinforced by substantial privileges and grants of regular city revenues. This administrative system remained in force until Napoleon’s arrival in 1796.

The 1500s and early 1600s also brought an era of expanding convent populations to the city, second only to the late- thirteenth- century boom. For the women involved, the period of growth was chiefl y driven by families’ coercive practices when it came to their daughters’ futures. Rather than squander the family patrimony on the rising cost of dowries demanded by husbands of their own class, patrician families dispatched their daughters to convents in increasing numbers—with or without their consent.

Women religious thus played a perhaps unwilling but prominent part in the increasingly constrained life of late sixteenth- , seventeenth- , and early eighteenth-century Bologna. Because the church hierarchy largely succeeded at confining them within their cloisters after the 1560s, convent women played an even less visible role than they may have done in earlier times. Of Bologna’s 59,000 male and female inhabitants in 1595, 2,480 (4.2 percent) were nuns, even then more than twice the number of friars. In little more than two generations, the percentage of the city’s total female population who lived behind convent walls in 1631 had climbed to 13.8 percent. The ratio among daughters of Bolognese noble and upper-class families was considerably higher. Thus, expanding Bolognese monastic populations came to control larger and larger sections of the city until, in 1705, when the number of women taking vows had actually begun to ebb, city officials complained to the archbishop that, with one-sixth of the city area already occupied by religious corporations, further expansion had to stop.

Santa Cristina and Convent Women’s Culture

If it is true that women musicians throughout history have generally been accorded no more than a marginal place, which, in turn, governed their musical development, this is nowhere truer than in nunneries. A clearer example of male domination that devised a sexually segregated, constricted sphere for women, where they were locked away to preserve the family patrimony and protect family honor, would be diffi cult to find. Within the cloister women interacted almost exclusively with one another, “protected” from men and kept subordinate.

Once confined and separate within the women’s sphere created and enforced by the church hierarchy, the impenetrable walls—both physical and social—allowed women to interact with men hardly at all, and then only under strictest control, through veiled windows protected by grates and shutters. Any unauthorized contacts between the genders were almost invariably described in overtly or implicitly sexual language.

Yet in a time when many—and in some cities, most—upper- class women from an early age had no other destiny than the cloister, this must have seemed the “natural” life option. Although the number of authentic religious vocations may have been limited, many cloistered women found the life tolerable, or at least never thought to question whether such a system was right or wrong. For the numerous widows and abused wives who sought refuge there in later life, the cloister probably represented the preferable choice, or certainly the lesser evil, among such women’s meager life options. For the artistically creative, the cloister provided a wider, if imperfect, space in which to exercise their talents than was readily available to them in the world.

Though often forcibly enclosed within this imperfect, socially ambivalent “women’s sphere,” nuns also found means to manipulate it. Although the convent’s indoctrination encouraged passive, unquestioning acceptance of authority, many nuns developed a kind of agency, a little room for maneuver, by evolving informal rules and customs that interpreted, challenged, and subverted the formal prescriptions imposed upon them by the church’s external hierarchy.

Thus, nuns might choose to miss parts of the daily round of services in order to prepare musical or dramatic performances—or merely to make sweetmeats in the kitchen. Some modified their convent’s dress code by adorning their habits with jewels, ruffles, and other bits of finery. To achieve a little freedom from the more austere realities of convent life, many found diversion as often as possible in the public parlatorios, or parlors, even while religious services were going on in chapel. These sites of distraction and temptation, where nuns visited with family and friends, separated from them by a wall pierced by grated and shuttered windows, rivaled convent choir lofts as targets of clerical disapproval.

Ecclesiastical superiors’ constant stream of prohibitions directed at these convent infractions reveal what the sisters must actually have been doing—not behavior that they dutifully and obediently avoided. Church authorities’ attempts to cover every contingency in their repeated rulings reveal that the sisters were past masters—or mistresses—at discovering loopholes in restrictions, even though rule breaking for nuns carried a heavy psychic burden, laden with guilt, sin, and potential violation of their vow of obedience. Church authorities persistently employed a vocabulary that harped on the women’s childishness and sinful disobedience as they condemned what prelates perceived as nuns’ repeated backsliding. But the complexities of ecclesiastical bureaucracy mediated against fully effective enforcement and, in turn, provided nuns with ample and diverse opportunities to fragment authority and counter the dint of authority.

Prelates who met off and on at the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563 to promulgate wide-ranging Catholic reforms only got around to convents toward the end of their final session. By then many in the hierarchy were literally packing their bags to go home. The resulting reform decrees, hastily drafted, hurriedly debated, and ratified at the last minute, dramatically altered the character of female monasticism, most notably in the matter of strict monastic enclosure. After 1563 nuns who had taken final vows faced excommunication if they set foot outside the cloister wall. Any who crossed the wall in the other direction without special permission incurred similar penalties. After the council, the physically enclosed space of the convent thus came to define an archetypical “women’s sphere” having both positive and negative aspects. To the favor of those enclosed within them, cloistered spaces, while conceived to promote separation and subordination, could be shaped advantageously at least to some degree. Nuns found ways to render their spaces somewhat less private; that is, they opened windows (sometimes metaphorical) in convent walls without demolishing them. At the hands of talented women, music could and did become a powerful tool partially to de-privatize architectural spaces. Further, nuns employed it to forge affective and, in the broad sense, political links with networks in the external, public sphere.

Convent women’s culture also extended outward through intertwining social networks that constituted a particularly vital aspect of life inside the convent. In this way, a complex web linked convent with parish, neighborhood, and kin. Nuns, whom the world and society had set apart, came to depend for any agency in the world on their successful social use of influence on such networks. These networks included not only men (members of nuns’ families, class, and sympathetic religious orders) but also other women: female members of their own families or of the Bolognese patriciate, nuns of the city or of their own religious order further afield, and even such female saints as Catherine Vigri of Bologna. The nuns of Santa Cristina even invoked the influence of the mothers of cardinals in distant cities—with some success, apparently. Such effective agency suggests that wide-ranging informal bonds of solidarity, friendship, and shared expectations based on class and gender existed between the convent and the outside world. Since women did not employ these bonds for thoroughgoing critiques of the patriarchal system and concrete plans to change it, they cannot properly be termed “feminist.” Nevertheless, they testify to the existence of a “female consciousness” in their day.

The story of Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana and her music, which occupies our attention in early chapters, shifts from everyday social interactions to singular events around the publication of her Componimenti musicali in 1623. Not long afterward, Vizzana’s modestly flourishing musical career withers at its height. The nuns of Santa Cristina move from the relatively ordinary world of women’s culture into a contrasting world of dramatic events, crises, and direct action. Their struggles, beginning internally and possibly because of music in the early 1600s but chiefly precipitated by Archbishop Ludovico Ludovisi and the Bolognese diocesan hierarchy, expand outward to involve the diocesan curia, various congregations of cardinals in Rome, and even the pope himself. Lucrezia Vizzana is caught up, swept along, and lost in political events within the convent walls and across them. The resulting crises, which one disgruntled sister claims “began because of music,” change the convent of Santa Cristina decisively and quite literally overwhelm its composing nun.

I intended originally to write a history of music at Santa Cristina and of the composer Lucrezia Vizzana, but when I encountered the era of crisis at the convent, I was compelled to redirect my narrative away from music, which becomes a minor motif during the turbulent 1620s, 1630s, and 1640s, when the other nuns hijack the narrative in different directions. As I examine the sorts of strife that arose among ambitious, talented, and frequently creative upper-class women, conscious of their abilities and their station, others eclipse Lucrezia Vizzana and emerge as complex, strong, but not always sympathetic personalities. Yet, despite deep differences, the nuns were able ultimately to unite when it became necessary to oppose threats to what they valued in their way of life.

What started as the story of a “great woman” composer of the 1620s ended as the history of families that reappear in successive generations. In the hope of unwinding some sense of order from the confusing tangle of Bombacci, Boncompagni, and Vizzani family relationships, I have placed a list of dramatis personae at the beginning of the book. To forestall some additional and, for some readers, inordinate explanation in the text, a glossary of Latin, Italian, religious, and musical terms appears at the back of the book.

Finding Convent Women’s Voices

The fact that the post-Tridentine Catholic hierarchy intended nunneries to be completely private habitations for women compounds the challenge of rediscovering convent music and of re-creating its place in the life of Santa Cristina della Fondazza. One must rely on fleeting and often disconnected glimpses, drawn from widely scattered and fragmentary information. Among the most important sources are the convent archives. Santa Cristina’s archive, long kept in a locked chamber near the convent’s main parlatorio, was transferred after the Napoleonic monastic suppression to the Fondo Demaniale in Bologna’s Archivio di Stato. Amid hundreds upon hundreds of legal contracts concerning nuns’ dowries, transfer of property, loans, and the business of running a convent, we discover, often by accident, more personal details such as inventories of nuns’ property, informal chronicles of the most important (and many unimportant) events, necrologies (memorials to deceased members), and so on. These reveal the institution’s more private face. Unfortunately, the Demaniale records have been to some extent dispersed, pilfered, and misplaced. And so, for example, Santa Cristina’s most significant archival sources about music, cited in their own seventeenth- century inventories, have completely disappeared.

Although the impersonal and formal nature of much convent archival material creates a barrier between modern observers and the historically distant nuns, some of the documents from Santa Cristina’s archive permit us to approach them more directly. The lengthy transcript of the pastoral visitation to the convent in 1622–23, when a notary took down the nuns’ comments largely verbatim, provides a wealth of information about convent life in the nuns’ own words. It permits us to hear some echo of the nuns’ own voices, including Lucrezia Vizzana’s. In dozens of private letters between the nuns and their advocates written between 1696 and 1705, during subsequent struggles with the diocesan curia, my protagonists speak much less guardedly than in more official documents. Here we may catch glimpses of wit, humor, and affection.

Given the important control over convents exercised by the Catholic hierarchy, its archives have proved particularly useful. The Archivio Generale Arcivescovile in Bologna contains a small but signifi cant collection of documents related to reforms under Archbishops Gabriele Paleotti and Alfonso Paleotti. Here we encounter primarily the official view of convent life, created and promoted by the male professional clergy. The archive also preserves many bureaucratic records of Santa Cristina’s prolonged struggles with the archbishopric that appear nowhere else.

Of the congregations of the Roman curia, the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars was clearly the most important for convent government, for it had the final word on every aspect of monastic discipline and conduct. Because music was suspect and frequently the subject of disagreement between nuns and their diocesan superiors, the archive of the Congregation of Bishops contains thousands of pages of petitions for dispensations and judgments related to music. These are interspersed among hundreds of thousands of documents from throughout the Catholic world, contained in some two thousand cartons in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano. The records of the Congregation of Bishops are a chief witness to the struggles between Santa Cristina and the diocesan hierarchy from 1620 to the early eighteenth century. But amid the records of major events documents may occasionally surface to elucidate the lives of individual nuns such as Lucrezia Vizzana.

Some of the large gaps left by these sources can be filled by documentary materials preserved chiefly in the Archivio di Stato, the Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio, and the Biblioteca Universitaria in Bologna. These include notarial acts plus jottings and records from various chroniclers and diarists—often usefully recording history from the viewpoint of the nobleman on the street. Although no formal history of the sort created in other convents survives for Santa Cristina, the convent necrology transmits details about individual nuns, recorded at their deaths. For Santa Cristina the previously unexamined “La caduta di Santa Cristina di Bologna” (The fall of Santa Cristina in Bologna) by the Camaldolese monk Mauro Ruggeri—which survives in the archive of his order’s mother house at Camaldoli—offers an extraordinary and richly detailed behind-the-scenes eyewitness account of the turmoil during the 1620s through the 1640s, turmoil that had barely concluded when Ruggeri, who had served as convent confessor at the start of the turbulence, put pen to paper.

Only a few hundred of Lucrezia Vizzana’s own words survive: from testimony before episcopal investigators and a few personal petitions to the Congregation of Bishops. As we shall see, they are anything but candid. A second, perhaps more revealing window into her life and worldview can be found in her music. Of course, given music’s ineffable nature, using it as biographical evidence risks going astray. But the texts of Vizzana’s Componimenti musicali, especially as highlighted by music of particular boldness and expressivity, offer hints about the composer’s character that are hard to ignore. Her motets suggest that Lucrezia Vizzana spoke the language and shared the cosmology of imaginative, gifted women religious over several centuries. It is also possible that they reflect her view of the crises that dominated convent life in the decade before she ventured into print and that seem, in the end, to have silenced her altogether.

I shall therefore examine some of Vizzana’s music in detail. I shall do so, however, with a minimum of music theory or specialized vocabulary. While the analyses may require a reader’s patience, they will not demand greater musical sophistication than Vizzana might have expected from her seventeenth- century audience. Fortunately, all the motets from Componimenti musicali, as well as music by other composers discussed here, are now readily available in excellent performances on compact disc and downloadable versions. The reader who wishes to hear her music will find the most important CD titles and track numbers indicated at relevant points in the text.

In the wider perspective of church history from that time, struggles with diocesan superiors were hardly unique to Santa Cristina. More unusual—at least given our present understanding of the time—is the indomitable persistence, for generation after generation, of nuns at Santa Cristina in refusing to submit to the will of the local archbishop or to relinquish their liberty, as represented through their religious links to the Camaldolese order. Do the attitudes and actions of the sisters of Santa Cristina contrast, then, with Camillo Baldi’s assessment of the tepid political commitment of the Bolognese upper classes at that time? In these nuns’ struggles, music and particular rituals emerge as central. Like many other tactical weapons that women with little direct power have utilized over the centuries, music and ritual provided the nuns of Santa Cristina with indirect, somewhat ambiguous, but potentially effective means of working toward goals and facilitating their agency in the world.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 1-12 of Divas in the Convent: Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy by Craig A. Monson, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)