Virgins of Venice: Enclosed Lives and Broken Vows in the Renaissance Convent by Mary Laven - review by John Adamson

John Adamson

Did They Pullulate?

Virgins of Venice: Enclosed Lives and Broken Vows in the Renaissance Convent


Viking 320pp £20 order from our bookshop

Whatever else one can say about this book, it is at least brilliantly timed. There are few subjects more topical than the sexual foibles of the Roman Catholic clergy; and to judge from the reports in the American press, vice and wickedness peep from beneath the hem of almost every cassock.

One has a similar feeling after finishing this book, a study of the thirty-odd convents that housed the nuns of Renaissance Venice. For it is the broken vows of Mary Laven’s subtitle, rather than the enclosed lives of her nuns, that bulk largest in these pages. This was perhaps inevitable, since her prime source of evidence is the records of Venice’s Provveditori sopra Monasteri or ‘Convent Superintendents’, a body established in 1521 as part of a general crusade for monastic reform. Above all, the Superintendents were responsible for administering the Republic’s newly passed laws enforcing ‘enclosure’: a Roman Catholic equivalent of purdah, which in theory prevented nuns from stepping outside their convents, or even sharing a room with a member of the laity without the protection of an iron grille, separating the sacred and the secular spheres. The archives of the Overseers, now housed in Venice’s Archivio di Stato, provide a rare, and hitherto unexploited, opportunity to glimpse the sequestered world behind the convent’s walls in vivid – and often rather lurid – detail.

Why Venice had so many nuns, in relation to its overall population, remains difficult to explain. Laven offers a straightforwardly economic rationale. There was a spectacular (and peculiarly Venetian) rise in the cost of providing dowries in the course of the sixteenth century, and this meant that most of the Republic’s aristocratic families could no longer afford to provide marriage portions for all their daughters. Convents, Laven argues persuasively, became the ‘dumping grounds’ for surplus well-born daughters whose parents could not afford to launch them onto the marriage market.

Many, Laven suggests, if not most of those who entered Venice’s convents had no vocation; they were acting under compulsion – even though the Church’s own rules stated that no nun could be professed before the age of fifteen, and that she must do so voluntarily. Small wonder, then, that many rebelled against, or at least tried to ameliorate, the prescribed austerities of conventual life.

As the inspections both of the Provveditori and of the Cardinal Patriarch (Venice’s highest-ranking churchman) disclosed, instances of indiscipline abounded. These ranged from such minor infractions as the keeping of private chicken coops (when all conventual property was supposed to be held in common) and the wearing of jewellery, through to full-scale sexual scandals, like that involving Suor Laura Querini, a nun of the Convent of San Zaccaria, who in 1614 was found to have quarried through the stone walls of her nunnery in order to have sexual assignations with her lover.

The archives have provided a rich fund of illuminating anecdotes, invariably handled by Laven with subtlety and perceptiveness, and never less than engagingly told. The book’s central problem is methodological. Like many works before it that have tried to reconstruct social experience from forensic records, this one eventually founders on the ‘iceberg dilemma’. Do we assume that the Venetian magistrates were vigilant in seeking out and prosecuting mischief in the nunneries – and hence reach the conclusion that cases of serious sexual misconduct (for all their prominence in the telling here) were astonishingly rare? Or do the reported cases represent merely the tip of the iceberg? Were the cloisters pullulating with frustrated passion, and were the satires of Pietro Aretino, for whom convents were the next best thing to bawdy houses, closer to fact than fiction?

The answers to these evidential problems – perhaps excusably, as they are notoriously difficult to solve – tend to be fudged. Less excusable is the remorseless emphasis in this book on sexuality; for Laven reflects the common post-Freudian assumption that the urge towards sexual gratification is the principal drive in human life, and that it was ever thus.

Ironically, for a book that is shot through with intelligently nuanced observations, there is almost no discussion of how expectations regarding sexuality in general – and celibacy in particular- were ‘culturally constructed’ (and hence specifically of their own time) in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Venice. ‘For some, then and now,’ Laven points out, the phenomenon of a morally miscreant clergy is easily explained: ‘sexual transgression is the inevitable consequence of enforced celibacy’. The phrase ‘for some’ implies a measure of authorial distance from the primitiveness of this explanation; but as it is never balanced by an alternative, the impression is left that this is the view endorsed by the author herself.

Yet, while Laven is voluble when it comes to the racy (prostitutes in the convent parlour, lustful friars, fornicating priests), she has almost nothing to say on the things that affected the central features of daily life in the nunnery: the impact of the Church’s liturgical year; the long hours spent daily singing the Divine Office in choir; the importance of music in conventual life. Of what nuns thought of these aspects of their ‘enclosed lives’ we learn almost nothing. And the omission of music is all the more egregious for the fact that this was the Venice of Monteverdi and, later, Marcello, Lotti and Galuppi, and the sophistication of its musical culture penetrated the city’s monasteries no less than the fashionable churches of San Marco, Santa Croce, and Dorsoduro. The idea that nuns might have found fulfilment as ‘brides of Christ’ – even those who entered into this marriage, as many of their sisters did their secular unions, under compulsion – is barely considered.

Where Laven does venture into matters ecclesiastical, her touch is less sure, as in the opening sentence of Chapter 1, where we are invited to picture a procession of clerics filing into a church, ‘led by Cardinal Francesco Vendramin’. Imagine it we must; for no procession would ever have been ‘led’ by a cardinal. The Roman Ordinal prescribes that processions are led by their lowest-ranking members, with grand ecclesiastics in their proper place – the place of honour – at the end of the file.

Such cavils apart, this is an impressive, scholarly debut. It places Mary Laven among a rare breed of academics: those who can not only research, but can also convey their academic enthusiasms to the ever growing audience for history that is – as here – both original in its subject matter and ably told.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare

Follow Literary Review on Twitter