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  • Mirrors of Heaven or Worldly Theaters? Venetian Nunneries and their Music by Jonathan E. Glixon
  • Michael Talbot
Mirrors of Heaven or Worldly Theaters? Venetian Nunneries and their Music. Ed. by Jonathan E. Glixon. Pp. xvii + 451. (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2017. £35.99. ISBN 978-0-190-25912-9.)

This is a book before which one simply has to stand in awe. I cannot recall ever having read, let alone reviewed, a more impressively researched and engrossing historical account of a segment of Venetian musical life and its institutional setting. Jonathan Glixon's study of music in Venetian nunneries, which focuses mainly on the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, is his third offering in a series of major studies investigating discrete areas of music-making in the Serenissima, the earlier two having been Honoring God and the City: Music at the Venetian Confraternities, 1260–1807 (New York, 2003) and (jointly with Beth Glixon) Inventing the Business of Opera: The Impresario and his World in Seventeenth-Century Venice (New York, 2003). At the same time, Mirrors of Heaven complements four only slightly less ambitious studies by investigators of music and musicians in Italian female convents (in Bologna, Milan, Rome, and Siena respectively) during approximately the same period. These are Dale Monson, Disembodied Voices: Music and Culture in an Early Modern Convent (Berkeley, 1995); Kimberlyn Montfort, 'Music in the Convents of Counter-Reformation Rome' (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 1999); Robert Kendrick, Celestial Sirens: Nuns and their Music in Early Modern Milan (Oxford, 1996); and Colleen Reardon, Holy Concord within Sacred Walls: Nuns and Music in Siena, 1575–1700 (New York, 2002).

Mirrors of Heaven is in large part pioneering spadework, this being combined with meticulous evaluation. Glixon's ample bibliography suffices to show that up till now there has been no in-depth and wide-ranging study of music in Venetian convents—and indeed no equally detailed and analytically acute study of institutional life in the seventy-three identified Venetian nunneries (not all existing contemporaneously). Many researchers into Venetian music have doubtless pored over the indexes of the Venetian State Archives in the hope of finding account books for the two best-known local nunneries, San Lorenzo and Santa Maria della Celestia, famous in their day for the musical celebration (by male musicians) of their annual patronal festivals. But there is unfortunately nothing remotely resembling an official annual record of maestri and music performed on those occasions, merely stray references in diaries or letters. At this point, all others who might have pursued further the subject of music in Venetian nunneries, or even just one or two of them, have given up trying. Glixon's success owes most to his dogged determination to winkle out and make sense of the very discontinuous and fragmentary (both spatially and temporally) documentary evidence, but has clearly been enormously aided by his accumulated knowledge of all things Venetian and his great familiarity with the city's archives and libraries.

The organization of the book is refreshingly clear. Chapter 1, 'The Nuns of Venice and the Lagoon', sets the scene, focusing on the big picture. It discusses the familial and personal motivations for taking the veil (in which, for the more wealthy, the desire to prevent dispersal of a family's patrimony was uppermost), distinguishes different categories of nuns and novices, identifies the different religious orders to which nunneries were affiliated (in fact, in the Venetian context the choice of order had much less influence over a convent's life than the social origin of its intake, which ranged from the patriciate to the demi-monde), and reveals the institutions' mechanisms for remaining afloat financially. Key to the discussion here, and all through the book, is a diagram showing the plan of a typical Venetian convent, where the female religious and their activities, whether of a devotional nature or not, are rigorously segregated from, first, the male clergy (who in Roman Catholicism play an indispensable role); second, the other males (including musicians) who serve the convent; and, third, male visitors, including family members. The niceties of the interplay—or not—of the cloistered ('female', interior) and publicly accessible ('male', exterior) zones...


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