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  • A Convent Tale: A Century of Sisterhood in Spanish Milan
  • Sharon T. Strocchia
A Convent Tale: A Century of Sisterhood in Spanish Milan. By P. Renée Baernstein (New York and London: Routledge, 2002. xxii plus 270 pp.).

Once consigned to the margins of ecclesiastical and social history, early modern religious women have become vital players in recent historical scholarship. This slim volume continues that trend and extends it to a potentially broader audience. The book tells the intriguing story of the Milanese convent of San Paolo Converso between its foundation in 1535 and the waning influence of its dominant aristocratic family, the Sfondrati, by 1635. During this tumultuous [End Page 1092] century, the community “evolved from a marginalized experiment to an exclusive home for the city’s most prominent women.”(144) Baernstein uses the Angelic convent of San Paolo as a platform from which to view striking changes in the social and religious landscape, such as elite formation in Spanish Milan and the arc of Catholic reform before and after Trent. Relying primarily on narrative sources such as letters, biographies, and visitation records, the author conveys a vivid sense of the personalities involved in this historical drama. The book’s signal contribution is the depiction of San Paolo nuns as fully developed, three-dimensional players who sustained thick ties to family and class even after Tridentine decrees forced the enclosure of their community. Nonetheless, Baernstein seems reluctant to tackle larger issues, such as how and why female monasticism became a defining feature of early modern Italy, or to use the convent’s distinctive experience to open new angles of vision on significant social processes.

Following a sketchy introduction, Baernstein embarks on a more substantive examination of San Paolo in its early years. Founded by the young, wealthy widow Ludovica Torelli in 1535, the convent of San Paolo issued from the yeasty religious experimentation of the early sixteenth century. Twice-widowed by age twenty-eight, Torelli fashioned a social alternative to family by endowing a religious community comprised of three branches: the Angelic nuns of San Paolo, an order of male priests later known as the Barnabites, and a short-lived confraternity for married couples. This religious family, collectively called the Paulines, represented a brave new world. The socially diverse group of Milanese women who gathered around Torelli in the 1530s and 40s shared her burning interest in combining active and contemplative missions, exempt from enclosure. Marching through the streets of Milan alongside their male colleagues, the Angelics performed acts of public penance; their public roles also extended to more traditionally female activities, such as governing hospitals and houses for repentant prostitutes. To these social missions the Angelics added regular group prayer and liturgical performances. Baernstein lays bare the group’s unusual characteristics, as Italian women like Torelli sought to develop hybrid forms of religious life suited to their circumstances and spirituality. She astutely positions Torelli and her followers in the interstices between convent and family, showing how different nuns knitted together their natural and monastic families and illuminating the complex choices confronting pious women in moving from lay to religious status. Yet despite their innovations, the Angelics traveled a well-worn path. As early as the thirteenth century, Italian women had constructed similar alternatives to traditional monasticism, which met with similar ends. A more searching comparison with other female religious communities in late medieval Italy, as well as a deeper anchor in the context of Spanish Milan itself, would clarify San Paolo’s distinctive piety, social arrangements, and eventual transformation by Counter-Reformation initiatives.

Chapter Two recounts the watershed years of 1550–52, as the Paulines came under the scrutiny of the reinvigorated Roman Inquisition. In the 1540s a new guiding light for the order had emerged: the “Divine Mother” Paola Antonia Negri, who interwove the spiritual power stemming from ecstatic visions with more dangerous claims to authority over Barnabite priests. Prompted by complaints from Venetian authorities, Roman inquisitors launched a full-scale investigation [End Page 1093] of the Paulines in 1551. The resulting inquiry forced the lifelong incarceration of Negri, along with the reinvention of the Barnabites in more conservative form and the full enclosure of...

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