Locked Down in History — Venetian Convents

We’re all tired of the new restrictions on our lives, but of course, it could be worse!  Lately I have read three books about people experiencing lock-ups they were powerless to escape, and I want to do a post on each book.

When I think of women in convents, I think of devout women who have freely chosen to live a life of solitude and service.  But as I learned from the book Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Venetian Convents, for many women in the past, the reality could be very different.

From the late 15th century through the 18th, patrician families in Venice viewed marriage as a tool to forge alliances and ensure stability of their class and city-state.  Astoundingly, they felt no need to treat all their daughters equally.  They would choose one daughter to receive a large dowry, and put great effort into finding her a perfect husband, but the others might be enclosed in a convent for life, even against their will.

The marriageable daughter didn’t have much voice in selecting her husband, but she could look forward to her wedding ceremony, to banquets and celebrations in her honor, a life of fashionable silk dresses and jewels, and fine furnishings.  The daughter relegated to the nunnery also went through a ceremony when she was “Clothed” in her new habit, and received a trousseau for life in the convent, but it was greatly reduced from what the bride received, and it was communal property.

During her first year of marriage, the bride went out visiting, wearing a coronet of golden threads falling down through her loose hair.  The postulant would be confined to the convent, and have her hair cut (a rule from 1521 stated that it should be cut once a month in winter, and every two weeks in summer!), and she was supposed to keep her hair totally covered.

This system went on for at least 300 years, with the Clothing ceremonies getting more and more elaborate.  Authorities railed against the expense and waste, but as usual with sumptuary laws, they were wasting their breath.

As the future nuns tried to adjust to their new strict lives in the convent, they would find that women from other walks of life took up residence in the convents too –wealthy widows, boarding school girls, and aristocratic laywomen who stayed temporarily.  Convents needed the income from these groups and placed far fewer restrictions on their dress and pastimes, thus causing disruption and envy among the regular nuns.

In such an atmosphere, it is no wonder that many of the involuntary nuns disregarded the rules. Infractions ranged from upgrading the fabric and tailoring of their habits, to wearing lace-trimmed linen undergarments, corsets, silk stockings, gloves, and earrings. Privacy curtains were flung open in parlors, family and friends could spend hours visiting, plays and concerts were sometimes performed.  Travelers wrote of going to view the famous nuns that put themselves on display, as in the 1740s painting below.

(This painting is at Ca’Rezzonico in Venice.  Where I really, really wish I could go right now.  And San Zaccaria is still there and I would love to go there too.)

Some authorities were sympathetic to their situation.  In 1619, the ruling patriarch stated that there were over 2000 patrician women who “live in this city locked up in convents as if in public warehouses…They have confined themselves within those walls, not out of piety, but obedience to their families, making of their own liberty… a gift not only to God, but to the fatherland, the world, and their closest relatives.”

We know all this because the heads of the Venetian dioceses, called patriarchs, visited the convents regularly, and throughout the centuries, they kept records of all their visits — rules, offenses, and advice.  Author Isabella Campagnol drew on these records, as well as period travel journals, legal decrees, petitions, and letters, to describe the postulants’ attempts to cling to their identities through dress.  I enjoyed reading the excerpts from these primary sources which were sprinkled throughout the book.

I borrowed Forbidden Fashions through my library and the Hoopla app.  The main text was a quick read.  I was especially interested to learn about Arcangela Tarabotti, one of the girls who was forced into the convent.  She wrote and published several books about that experience in the 1640s and 50s, and vivid quotes from her books really bring the era into sharp focus.

About one third of the book is taken up by detailed notes, and an extensive bibliography that promise lots of interesting paths to explore. I am an inventory geek so I loved the  appendix of trousseau lists for both brides and nuns.

I was hoping for lots of illustrations, but they were few — also, they were small, in black and white, and couldn’t be expanded in this e-book version.  Granted, textiles and fashions from that era are rare, but I would have settled for photos of similar fashions that have survived, or even a list of links so I could find them online.  There is a whole chapter on the lacework and sewing that occupied these nuns, but not a single illustration. However, that caused me to go looking online, and I found plenty of lace pattern books from that time, and linked to some below.

One confusing issue in this book (and this seems to happen a lot in textile history books) is that some period illustrations were described in detail to prove a point, but not actually included the book.  When this happens, I feel lost and go paging back and forth looking for them — “Is it on the next page?  Did I miss it at the beginning of the chapter?  Is there a section of plates?  This is an e-book, I can’t just thumb through!”  I wish the author could just put a note — “Not able to include illustration in this book. Stop looking, just go back to the text.”

In spite of those illustration disappointments, I would recommend this book.  Maybe cue up some Vivaldi while you read for an hour, and lose yourself in another era, that will probably make you more thankful we are living in this one!


Some of the lace pattern books mentioned in the notes are available online:

Alessandro Paganini, Il Burato: libro de recami, 1527, (reissued 1909)

Niccolo Zoppino, Gli Universali dei Belle Recami, 1537 (reissued and annotated in 2012 by C. Kathryn Newell of Flowers of the Needle)

Isabella Catanea Parasole, Teatro delle Nobili et Virtuose Donne, 1616

And more reading on Tarabotti at Oxford Bibliographies