Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Benedetta Carlini and Same-Sex Desire in an Italian Convent

Benedetta Carlini, Abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God (first investigation begins, 27 May 1619)

Benedetta Carlini was born in 1590 on the night of St. Sebastian (20 January) in Vellano, a small Appenine village not far from Pescia--her father was a prosperous farmer who grew mulberries and harvested silkworm cocoons. 

At the time of her birth, it seems, her father pledged her to a life in a convent--as Carlini was later to tell the story, her mother, Midea, had a difficult labor, and the midwife told her father, Giuliano, that both mother and child would die.

Detail of two nuns embracing,
Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo,
Falling on his knees--at least as Carlini recounts the event of her birth--Giuliani prayed to God, asking him to spare the lives of his wife and unborn child. Shortly after he offered this prayer, the midwife returned, announcing the child's safe delivery.

Giuliano seems to have regarded this outcome as God's answer to his prayers. In return, he named the baby Benedetta--"blessed"--and promised that he would dedicate her to a life of God. In other words, he promised that his newborn daughter would become a nun.

Such a decision--dedicating a child to a religious life--was not uncommon for a devout family. Nor was it uncommon for such a decision to be made for financial reasons. The dowry, required for entrance into a convent, was much less than a dowry required for marriage--sometimes only a quarter, in fact. For many families, placing a daughter in a convent was as much a financial as a religious decision. (I've written about another such young woman, Arcangela Tarabotti, who was committed to a life in a convent without her assent.)

It seems that Benedetta Carlini's childhood was a happy one--and she remembers Giuliano and Midea Carlini as good parents, her home a comfortable one, with Giuliano himself educating his daughter. According to Benedetta, she knew her prayers and the litany of the saints by the time she was five, and by age six she learned to read and could begin to study the basics of Christian doctrine.  

In 1600, when she was nine, Benedetta Carlini was placed in a newly established Theatine convent in Pescia, il convento della Madre di Dio, the Convent of the Mother of God. The order of Theatines nuns, or the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, had been founded in 1583 by the Venerable Ursula Benincasa, a nun of the Order of St. Claire who had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary and of Saint Catherine of Sienna

(The Theatine order, the Congregation of Clerics Regular of the Divine Providence, had been founded in the early sixteenth century, specifically with the goal of combating the "errors" of Martin Luther but also to encourage the practice of virtue.)   

Although the convent in Pescia was not as prestigious (or expensive) as other convents near by, the Theatines were an order devoted to the the reforming of lax morals. It was also, at the time of Carlini's entry in 1599, not yet fully established—this effort, underway at the time of Carlini's entrance, might also have made her admission possible. 

Benedetta Carlini began her religious life in the convent-in-the-making quietly enough, though not entirely without incident. She claims that, on the night of her arrival, she prayed to the convent's statue of the Madonna--and that the Madonna nodded to her. 

Then, not long after, Carlini says that when she was at prayer, the Madonna "leaned over the small altar." The girl thought that the statue of the Madonna was intending to kiss her--but she was so frightened that she knocked over the statue and screamed. This resulted in nothing further--except that the "Mother Superior . . . ran over and set her straight"--that is, she returned the statue to its original place.

But, in 1613, when Carlini was twenty-three, she began to experience religious visions that she reported to the Mother Superior and to her confessor. She saw gardens, then she saw herself surrounded by animals, then she was given a vision of the "Mount of Perfection." 

In raising the topic of her experiences with the abbess of her convent, Carlini did not at first assume they were divine--both women also considered diabolical sources. Advised to fight against her visions, Carlini resisted them for two years.

In 1615, she began to suffer terrible illnesses, in particular at night, including paralysis. Physicians were unable to diagnose the source of her maladies. She continued to suffer--quietly--for another two years.  

In 1617 her visions, which she had tried so hard to suppress, returned--now, rather than visions of Jesus and the Madonna, she experienced visions of young men who pursued her, beating her with all sorts of weapons--chains, swords, and sticks. The beautiful leader of these young men also tried to seduce her, offering her a ring to seal their bond. 

So great was her torment that the convent's superiors assigned another young nun, Bartolomea Crivelli, as a companion--she was to share Carlini's cell, keep watch over her, and assist her. During her visions, Carlini spoke in the voice of angels and of Jesus, and she also seems to have appeared to observers as a beautiful young man. (Interestingly, the founder of the order of Theatine nuns, Ursula Benincasa, also had visions and ecstasies, for which she was called to Rome and examined by the pope.) 

All the while, Carlini also was an excellent manager of the convent's resources, in particular of their silk works. The convent was near completing its new building, and it was hoping that its long-sought status as a regular convent was soon to be granted. And then, on the second Friday of Lent, 1618, in the middle of the night, Carlini claimed that Jesus appeared to her one and spoke to her, an event that resulted in the stigmata appearing on her hands feet and side. Her companion, Crivelli, confirmed this miraculous event. 

Benedetta Carlini's successful management of the convent, along with the gift of stigmata, seems to have led to her election as abbess in 1619, at some point between February and May, when she was thirty years old.

And then things got crazy. Carlini, now abbess, began delivering sermons within the convent--women did not normally preach, even heads of convents--and while she preached, the listening nuns scourged themselves with whips. Her confessor was present, and he seemed to have had no objections to Carlini's sermons.

There were more visions and visitations, including one from Catherine of Siena, another from a beautiful guardian angel named Splenditello, and more visits from Jesus. One night he told Carlini to rip the heart out of her body--which Crivelli confirmed, saying she had felt the empty space in Carlini's chest. Jesus returned three days later and put his own heart into the abbess's body. 

On 20 May 1619 she had a vision that would lead to her downfall. On that night, she claimed that Jesus appeared to her and said he wanted to marry her. He provided her with all the details of the ceremony, the decorations, the attendant celebrations, and the guests to be invited. Again her confessor was aware of the vision and of her plans.

At the wedding, as the other nuns watched and listened, Carlini claimed that Jesus had  a golden wedding ring for her and that, as he put it on her finger, the Virgin Mary looked on. Then, speaking through Carlini, Jesus gave a sermon--in it, he expounded on Carlini's extraordinary qualities.

Image of Theatine nun,
''I would like that this, my bride, be empress of all the nuns,'' Jesus said. He also commanded that the Grand Duke of Tuscany should be informed about her greatness. And, he added, anyone who did not obey, believe and cherish Carlini would be punished. 

But observers of this ceremony--especially those from the town--grew concerned, particularly at Jesus's warning, delivered through his bride, Carlini: "And he who does not believe in my bride shall not be saved." 

The provost of Pescia, Stefano Cecchi, the leading ecclesiastical officer of the city, ordered all who had witnessed the ceremony not to speak of it. And Carlini was removed as abbess of the convent. 

The investigation of Benedetta Carlini began on 27 May 1619--or, at least, that's when the record of the testimony begins. 

Carlini was first subjected to a physical examination--in particular the sites of the stigmata were examined, and testimony was taken from Carlini about the "how those wounds came to be on her body." The stigmata were examined again on 7 June, and then they seemed to be healed. A week later, on 14 June, the wounds on her hand, feet, side, and head seemed fresh and were again bleeding.  

But, by July, the investigation was drawn to an uneasy end, and Benedetta Carlini was restored as abbess. For another two years, she managed the convent and continued with her mystical visions. But then she went too far--on Annunciation Day ( 25 March) 1621, Carlini died. 

The frightened nuns called the confessor, who immediately arrived. He commanded Carlini to rise--which she did. And Carlini, "restored to life," began recounting all that she had seen while she was dead, including her vision of Paradise. Once again Stefano Cecchi was summoned.

This time, he did not conduct the examination himself. Instead, two papal investigators were summoned, and they began their examination with a quick summary of the premises with which they opened their report from 1623: "all novelty is dangerous and all unusual events are suspect." They believed Carlini was "deluded by the Devil."

They began to reinvestigate Carlini's claims to have received the stigmata and also her claims, not investigated earlier, about her extraordinary fasting. 

Two nuns were examined who reported seeing Carlini poke herself with a needle in order to produce her bleeding stigmata. There were also questions about the gold wedding ring Jesus had given her during their marriage ceremony. It was at first invisible to everyone except Carlini, but it miraculously appeared on her finger during the examinations. This "proof" was undercut, however, when strange yellow marks were also noted--suggesting that the "gold" ring was some kind of fake.  

This was followed up by another remarkable revelation that would be funny if it weren't so tragic. One of the great manifestations of Carlini's holiness was her fasting, and in particular her refusal to eat meat--but she was reported to have been seen eating--in secret--salami!

The final devastating revelations were made by Carlini's companion, Bartolomea Crivelli, who revealed to examiners that at night Carlini claimed to be transformed into the beautiful angel Splenditello. As Splenditello, Carlini made passionate and frequent love to Crivelli. 

During the day, while teaching Crivelli to read and write, Carlini, as Splenditello, kissed Crivelli, touched her breasts and called her his beloved. In her testimony, Crivelli said that she was the unwilling object of these erotic attentions.  

On 5 November 1623, the papal examiners issued their "final report." They noted that all traces of Carlini's stigmata had disappeared--along with them "her angels, visions, apparitions, revelations, and ecstasies." When asked about them, Carlini said that they had all gone. She also said everything she had believed and done had been because she was under the influence of the devil. The visions and her actions were not the result of her consent or of her own will--"they were done while she was out of her senses by the work of the devil." 

Things did not turn out as badly as they might have, however. Bartolomea Crivelli seems to have been unpunished for her role in events, and in particular for her sexual relationship with Carlini, perhaps because she claims to have been an unwilling participant.

But Benedetto Carlini survived what might have been a disastrous end. She disavowed all her visions.  According to the investigators, she then began living the life of an "obedient nun" under a new abbess, presumably still at the convent in Pescia. 

But, something does seem to have changed--decades later, on 7 August 1661, an unnamed nun wrote "Benedetta Carlini died at age 71 of a fever and cold pains after eighteen days of illness. She died in penitence, having spent thirty-five years in prison." While it is not clear, this entry suggests that, some time after the documentation of her life ends, Benedetta Carlini came to be more strictly held, and thus a "prisoner." 

In writing extensively about Benedetta Carlini--in fact, her archival work brought Carlini's life out of its hidden past--Judith C. Brown speculates that Carlini must have gotten herself into some kind of trouble again some three years after her investigators reported her living as an obedient nun under a new abbess--something that resulted in her imprisonment. But no further details survive.

Brown's Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, details her discovery of the documents relating the life of Benedetta Carlini.

Her subtitle--her identification of Carlini as lesbian--resulted in some controversy, not so much for her claims of same-sex relationships between two women as her identification of the modern concept of lesbian identity with a seventeenth-century woman's experiences. But the book remains a terrific read, and I recommend it highly.  

No comments:

Post a Comment