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

By Lowe, Kate | Renaissance Quarterly, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Lowe, Kate, Renaissance Quarterly


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. …

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