Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 592-594
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Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice
Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice. By Jutta Gisela Sperling. Women in Culture and Society Series, edited by Catharine R. Stimpson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. xxi + 417. $70.00 (cloth). $24.00 (paper).
Sperling tells the dramatic story of how large numbers of Venetian noblewomen were forced into convents in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This occurred just as both church and secular authorities were establishing new and sometimes draconian policies that severely limited these women's social, economic, and physical independence. Other historians have explained these "involuntary monachizations" as primarily the result of exorbitant dowries that had become the practice among the patrician class, which made feasible the marriage of only a few women in any given family. But Sperling argues that these "involuntary nuns" played a more central role in a complex system of political and social strategies. Borrowing the term potlach (potlatch) from anthropology, she describes the Venetian ruling class as engaged in a complicated system of reciprocal gift giving. In this "potlach alla veneziana," women's bodies were the objects at hand, given either to other families in marriage or to convents. The latter "gifts" helped make possible the former, but Sperling also asserts that the "sacrifice" of a woman to the convent, where she could neither reproduce nor cement alliances in any immediate fashion, was potlach at its most extreme, expressed in the "spectacular waste" of women's bodies. She writes that "the most highly developed and most noble form of competitive gift-giving is the conspicuous destruction of wealth, [thus] the ritual waste of patrician women's reproductive capacities can be seen as potlach" (p. 59). For Sperling, Venetian patricians were not forcing their daughters into convents simply to avoid having to pay another enormous dowry. Instead, they were taking a long view, treating these monachizations as part of a series of strategies designed to further the male line.
Sperling's incorporation of the anthropological concept of potlach into her examination of the relationship between convents and wider Venetian society is both intriguing and problematic. Predictably, her main challenge here is to provide evidence that the patricians themselves viewed the monachization of their daughters as potlach. But while imagery consistent with the idea of the potlach can be found in artistic depictions of Venice's birth and the Republic's metaphorical identity as both virgin and queen, there is little empirical evidence that early modern Venetian patricians conceived of monachizations, enforced or otherwise, as part of a reciprocal system of gifts (see, for example, p. 237).
Sperling makes a stronger case for the link between political realities and political imagery and does an elegant and persuasive job of showing how images of the convent, both pictorial and written, were a crucial way for the Venetian ruling class to affirm its stability and integrity (p. 228). [End Page 592] She convincingly describes how "the image of an 'immaculate' female body governed not only the discourse of female encloisterment, but also the rhetoric and politics of aristocratic closure and republican perfection" (p. 12). Paradoxically, Venice's iconographic status as a pure "Queen of the Adriatic" was often challenged by the city's simultaneous, persistent image as a capital of commerce, famous for its opulent luxury and the beauty and hospitality of its courtesans. Venice as Virgin dueled with Venice as Whore in public discourse, and the tension between those two images found expression in attitudes toward conventual life. Though convents were supposed to be the ultimate expression of Venetian purity on many levels, their residents regularly contended with accusations of sinful behavior that sullied both the convents' and the Republic's image as a repository of untainted virtue. Questionable behavior ranged from sexual dalliances with men or with one another to asserting too much authority (political and financial) for the taste of both secular and ecclesiastical authorities.
Another major accomplishment is to...