- Rooms to ShareConvent Cells and Social Relations in Early Modern Italy
The 30th October 1675. I, Donna Armenia Poepanni, a nun in the Most Serene Monastery of Saint Giulia of Brescia . . . donate my room and its annex to Donna Regina Savoldi to be kept and possessed in my company for the rest of my life and after my death she can do as she pleases with it.1
Donna Armenia addressed these lines to the father superiors of her convent. The cell she wanted to bequeath to her companion, with whom she was already sharing it, was located right above the loggie of this huge Benedictine complex of Lombard foundation, which developed around three cloisters and a large garden at the bottom of the hill overlooking the city. A few years before, Armenia had inherited this cell from another nun, who had in turn inherited it from a third sister who had built it using generous private funding from her brother. Now Armenia intended to extend this chain. In her request to the superiors she made clear that she was the 'owner' of the cell and that no one but the nun she had chosen as her successor could claim any rights over this space. Whether Armenia, a member of the powerful local elite, actually wrote this note herself or—more likely—had it written by someone else on her behalf, she wanted it to have 'the same function as if it were written by the hand of a public notary'.2 Indeed, her name and the date appear at the bottom of her paper, like in any other official document or will.
Cells undoubtedly provided the nuns with personal comfort, the company of a restricted circle of peers, as well as an appropriate retreat for the [End Page 55] spiritual exercises and prayers which were the primary obligations of monastic life.3 They allowed nuns to lead a partially private existence, and maintain a standard of living similar to the one they had been used to before entering religion, even though this was in deep contrast with the rule of religious poverty and the regime of communal property that they were bound to follow. The daughters of rich families in particular benefited from the use of one or more cells, furnished with the most amazing variety of material objects of domestic and devotional use, such as linens and woollen cloths, dressing items, furniture, crockery, sacred objects, paintings, and images made of clay, wood, or fabric. Nuns lived in these cells individually, or in small groups of relatives, servants, or friends, sometimes sharing their personal allowances in cash or food.
In those rare cases where historians have focused their attention on nuns' cells they have emphasized how these spaces materialized the dynastic management of convents.4 Elite families moved entire 'clans' of their women—sisters, aunts, and nieces—into female monastic institutions which they endowed with rents, alms, or sumptuous works of art. Convents provided important connections with local ecclesiastical politics, and above all an honourable and economically advantageous home for 'surplus' daughters.5 [End Page 56] Religious dowries paid to the convent for each woman who entered were substantially cheaper than the ever more expensive marriage dowries, and therefore more congenial to the patrimonial strategies of patrician groups seeking to keep family property within the male line.6 All this is undeniably true, and the interaction between family history and convent history opened up new paths for looking at how gender and family strategies determined the functioning of female monastic institutions, and how convents played a role in consolidating the local power of the elites.7 But while scholars analysing social networks have recognized the variety of clienteles and non-kinship ties operating together with kinship ones, studies of convents have adopted a narrower interpretation. These studies have focused on family relations, and glossed over the key role played by personal relations inside monastic communities. To be sure, convents were subject to extensive family influence and control. Furthermore, they reproduced symbolic families made of 'sisters', 'mother abbesses', and 'father superiors'. Nevertheless they belonged to the society that had created them, and non-family relations represented...