Above, Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata by Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588). Painter Plautilla Nelli was a Renaissance nun in Florence who came from a wealthy merchant family. She was enclosed together with her sister in the Santa Caterina da Siena convent. She taught herself how to paint while living in the nunnery. She is the first female painter in Florence to be documented during the Renaissance.
As promised, another book that delves into a particular detail of Venetian history, specifically Renaissance, is Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent by Mary Laven. Fascinating! I read it twice in a row, and used a highlighter to mark half the book, and I’m not even a student. Yes, I’m a nerd. Nerdy for Venice! This work inspired a chapter in my book Venice; I had to write about this part of Venetian women’s history.
In a nutshell, for hundreds of years in Venice (and all over Europe), women were forced into nunneries. Specifically here: noble born ladies. The rich and powerful families wouldn’t marry all the daughters they had. If they did, all their wealth would become watered-down within a generation or two. Instead, they’d marry one daughter, sometimes two. For the rest, to the nunneries they went. Marriages were about money, power, politics…usually everything but love. So for those gals who were married, they may not have had a grand time of it either, being wed to men not of their choosing. However, they were at the very least free from the convent.
Now of course, some ladies chose a pious, cloistered life. However in Venice, evidence leans toward the conclusion that most were threatened, forced and tricked into going. Imagine being a very young girl, entering a nunnery one day, and never going out again. Living within for a lifetime while the world forgot about you…just like prison. Yes, this book retells a history that will make you very sad.
Ms. Laven’s extensive research gives us insight into just what that may have been like. We are able to see what this enclosed life would have been, from the moment these ladies entered the nunnery, to the people and surroundings within, the rules, the schedules, the activities, the arguments, the deceit, the rations, the regulations for visits, the rule-breakers…the escapees. Oh man, oh man, oh man! Or should I say oh lady! Shut away women against their wills and they will find a way to aggress it, to continue reaching for life, love, dignity and freedom. Read this book and you’ll see why history will ever be more moving than fiction!