A Convent Tale: A Century of Sisterhood in Spanish Milan

A Convent TaleP. Renée Baernstein
Routledge ($27.50)

by Charisse Gendron

In 1533, in the spirit of the Catholic Reformation, Countess Ludovica Torelli bought a house near Milan for a group of Barnabite monks and female devotees bent on improving morals by doing penance in public. Two years later, the women took nuns' vows and founded San Paolo Converso, with a papal exemption from enclosure within convent walls allowing them to carry out "spontaneous acts of public humiliation," showing their scorn for worldly folk with the occasional "cordial adoration of the Cross . . . in the middle of the piazza with arms open wide."

The Barnabites and Angelics, as the nuns were called, even adopted a spiritual leader or "living saint," Paola Antonia Negri, whose raptures confirmed the divine inspiration of her teachings and of her appointments to monastic offices. But residents of San Paolo were a mixed lot. Countess Torelli's widow friends squatted there indefinitely. Extra daughters of local aristocrats entered the convent to leave more dowry money for the daughter who would marry. At least during the convent's first two decades, poor women joined without being assigned to the community's hard labor.

In 1552, the Roman Inquisition tried the Barnabites and Angelics for heresy. The Inquisitors sent the living saint Paola Antonia Negri to prison and enclosed the nuns within the convent walls, no longer to be "missionaries, governors of charitable institutions, and penitential examples of religious zeal to the city." Founder Countess Torelli left in disgust, later to start a secular girls' college—but she was the only one. The others, under a new regime with traditional aristocratic values, strove to remain in the pope's good graces by embracing enclosure, meanwhile maintaining their ties to the powerful relatives who brought the world to them in visits and letters. Still, within a generation, girls brought up in the convent would never see the Milan cathedral, a fifteen-minute walk from their residence.

The author of A Convent Tale, P. Renée Baernstein, while disappointed with the Angelics' about-face, narrates their history with justice, style, and erudition. She maintains her composure even with the introduction of Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan from 1565 to 1584. Borromeo fostered the papal bull stating that nuns could leave the convent grounds only in cases of leprosy, epidemic, or fire. He walled up San Paolo's windows and the inner church so that nuns had to stick their tongues through a grille to receive communion from the priest saying public mass. To remain his favorites, San Paolo's nuns complied, but others rebelled. When the archbishop's agent reminded the nuns of one convent to stay back from the door, they "began to raise their voices" to him, and when he threatened them with excommunication they began "hurling insolent remarks." In Rome "it was said that some nuns committed suicide rather than suffer the privations imposed by two reformers of Borromean stripe."

So long as they paid him fulsome lip service, Borromeo squinted when wealthy Angelics disobeyed his domestic regulations. Girls came to the convent with monogrammed plates and tooled leather shoes. Their friends moved in during rough spots in their marriages. But to clamp down on such infractions would be to cross the nuns' families and friends, who governed the city, endowed the convent, and held office in the church itself.

What makes the enclosure of San Paolo almost tolerable is how some women flourished there, in particular those of the Sfondrati family. Following a widowed aunt, four Sfondrati girls entered the convent in the 1530s. (Their elder brother became "The Baron"; the younger became Pope Gregory XIV.) In 1572 the Angelic Paola Antonia Sfondrati, who had seen what happens to unruly nuns and preferred subversion to defiance of the rules for female religious, was elected prioress. She, her sisters, her niece, her grandnieces, and their puppets "dominated the convent's major offices and activities" almost continuously for nearly a century.

Unable to travel like her brothers, Paola Antonia corresponded extensively with them and with those who could abet their careers and fortunes—even though, technically, paper and pens were forbidden. To the consternation of senior nuns steeped in the "old-time rigor" of Countess Torelli's day, Paola Antonia commissioned emotive frescoes and introduced controversial polyphonic singing. The senior nuns complained of new vocal stars that "they can't come to spiritual exercises nor to mortifications because they mustn't be saddened. . . . In the old days, the singers washed the dishes. . . ." Paola Antonia also managed her family's money and pressed them into donating to the convent.

Under Paola Antonia's niece Agata Sfondrati's priorate, the nuns compensated for immurement by constructing inside the convent a replica of the shrine of Loreto, complete with a life-size wax Virgin. Agata would dress up the statue on feast days and command the nuns to process it around the convent on a "pilgrimage" to the shrine. As Baernstein reminds us, such theatrics show that "one response to the convent's enclosure was a particularly vivid and highly developed life of the mind." When a Sfondrati rival, none other than Carlo Borromeo's niece, briefly captured the priorate in 1623, she turned the shrine of Loreto into a linen closet.

The Angelics left no first-hand evidence that they suffered under enclosure; Paola Antonia Sfondrati, perhaps sincerely, praised "segregation" as an aid to contemplation. (That families forced some unwilling daughters into the convent is another issue.) "The convent was the world writ small," Baernstein concludes, but it was the world with an extra crimp in it, in which hundreds of women with worldly as well as spiritual concerns lived their entire lives within the space of a city block.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003