Sex and the Renaissance Nun
Why Venetian nunneries were once hotbeds of passion.
Italian nuns have left quite a subversive legacy. This is thanks largely to the literary labors of Pietro Aretino, a Venetian author who is today hailed as the “father of modern pornography.” In addition to his ground-breaking book of sonnets – The Sixteen Postures, which described a string of athletic sexual positions with handy engravings – Aretino penned the classic Secret Life of Nuns, whose panting prose would not be out of place on nerve.com today. It depicts lonely young novices in ritualized “jousts” with monks and priests (“First tilt went to the trumpeter…spurring himself on with his fingers, he ran his lance right into his lady-friend’s target right up to the hilt…”) and devoted to the pastinaca muranese, “crystal turnip,” a state-of-the-art dildo made of fine Venetian glass and filled with warm water. The nuns kept erotic manuals hidden in their prayer books and always offered their charity to male pilgrims (“We’ll try every which way,” declares one nun as the penitents arrive, “there’s bound to be one that suits us!”)
Overheated? Certainly in the details. But while Aretino’s work is hardly a documentary of convent life, its roots lie in reality. By poring over contemporary letters, diaries, and legal documents, historians have established that Venetian nunneries were the most liberated in Europe. In the 1400s, the skyrocketing cost of dowries meant that many of the city’s noblest families were obliged to place their teenage daughters, regardless of their wishes, in convents. Few of these developed a spiritual calling. It was openly accepted that the top convents were a “safety valve” for Venice’s surplus of well-born single women, who could go on to enjoy a level of sexual freedom unique for the time.
The nunneries were run like luxury boutique hotels. Novices were given duplicate keys so they could come and go as they pleased from their palatial apartments, which were filled with artwork and overlooked the Grand Canal. Wearing the most fashionable, low-cut dresses, they would entertain male visitors with wine-fuelled banquets, then invite their beaux to spend the night in their rooms. They took romantic gondola rides with admirers to private picnics on the islands of the Venice Lagoon, and went on poetic moonlit walks in the secluded gardens. The most passionate eloped – presumably with men who were not obsessed with dowries. The mature-age abbesses rode the city in luxury carriages with their pet dogs and oversaw their girls’ activities with a maternal eye. If a nun fell pregnant, she would simply give birth in the privacy of the convent and the pass the child off as an orphan abandoned on the doorstep.
Church officials in Venice and Rome turned a blind eye to these activities, but reluctantly investigated some of the most blatant and scandalous cases. The Italian academic Guido Ruggiero has pored over countless documents to find that only 33 convents were prosecuted for “sex crimes against God” (as they were called, since the nuns were in theological terms the brides of Christ). The legal details read like a cheesy Italian soap opera. One Sister Filipa Barbarigo was found to have juggled 10 different lovers at the same time – an impressive roster of nobles, artists, and even, playing with fire, her own abbess’ boyfriend. Violent scenes of jealousy erupted one night at the busiest convent, Sant’Angelo di Contorta, when a certain Marco Bono interrupted his lover Filipa Sanuto in her room with another man and chased him into the street, then went after a dozen other nuns’ naked boyfriends with his sword. A few days later, the brother of one of Sister Filipa’s other lovers pursued her angrily through the convent and slapped her for seducing the young boy with her “unbridled lusts." Signor Ruggiero's findings suggest that the Church was particularly zealous in prosecuting nuns who had dabbled in “rough trade” – low-born boatmen, carpenters, artisans, or gardeners.
By the 1500s, the famous nunneries of Venice even attracted tourists: Male travelers from England and Holland were delighted to mingle with such refined women who, like Japanese geisha, offered private musical concerts and engaged them in sophisticated conversation on literature and the arts. The Venetian diarist Girolamo Priuli denounced them as unofficial courtesans, sleeping with foreigners in exchange for financial presents. This discreet arrangement exploded in scandal in 1561, when a convent founded for reformed prostitutes was discovered to be in business, with the Father confessor as pimp, having had relations with 20 of his charges himself.Still, only one convent became so flagrant that it was closed by the pope in 1474 — Sant’Angelo di Contorta. The others continued their libertine activities unabated. As the author Elizabeth Abbot sums up, in a line worthy of Pietro Aretino himself: “Unwilling nuns understood only the hot tingling of their yearning loins.”
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Aretino, Pietro, The Secret Lives of Nuns (trans. Rosa Maria Falvo, Hesperus Press, 2003); King, Margaret L., Women of the Renaissance (Chicago, 1991); Ruggiero, Guido, The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice (New York, 1985) and Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage and Power at the End of the Renaissance (New York, 1993).
Sappho in the ConventDespite the rampant bed-hopping in Italian nunneries, there is almost no mention of lesbianism in legal records. Sapphic love doesn’t even getting a passing mention as a sin in Dante’s vision of hell. The trouble is, ever since antiquity, male writers have seemed unable to conceive that physical attraction was even possible between women.
Thus Benedetta Carlini, the abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia near Florence, has become celebrated as the only nun in Renaissance Italy to be prosecuted for “unnatural relations” with another woman. In the course of two Church investigations between 1619 and 1623, she described visions in which the statue of the Virgin Mary tried to kiss her, and her belief that a handsome angel named Splenditello had entered the body of a young nun Bartolomea, whom she then engaged in ecstatic caresses. Other Italian nuns who were discovered taking male lovers usually only received a rap over the knuckles, but Benedetta was cruelly sentenced to a lifetime of solitary confinement within the convent, where she remained, lonely and ignored, for 35 years until her death. •
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Brown, Judith, Immodest Acts: the Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, (New York, 1986).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.