- Scritture dell’anima: Esperienze religiose femminili nella Toscana del Settecento by Elena Bottoni
Scritture dell’anima, Elena Bottoni’s first book, originated as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Pisa under Adriano Prosperi’s direction. Not long thereafter, it appeared in book form in a series edited by her Doktorvater. Only recently did The Catholic Historical Review receive a review copy.
Bottoni focuses on the extensive writings of four Tuscan tertiaries, all Franciscan affiliates: Maria Caterina Biondi, born Giovanna (1667–1729), is allotted 122 pages; Maria Antonia Colle, born Anna Maria Antonia and known in religion as Maria Luigia del Cuore di Gesù (1723–72), is allotted fifty; Maria Caterina Brondi (1684–1719), is allotted sixty-six; and Maria Virginia Boccherini, born Maria Teresa Antonia Gaetana (1761–1801), is allotted thirty-six. Why the author deploys the chapters in this order is not explained. The sequence is not chronological, presumably because she does not see or is not interested in change over time. It is not governed, at least not explicitly, by the decreasing complexity or interest of each case. The only plausible surmise, that the order depends on the amount written by each woman, is not supported by much explicit attention to quantity.
By “soul writings,” Bottoni means autobiographical accounts por mandato, as Hispanists put it—that is, ordered by spiritual directors for the purposes of evaluating and controlling their penitents’ religious ideas. Some, the written equivalents of a general confession covering an entire life up to the present moment, usually came into being when a spiritual director first took charge of a new penitent. Thereafter, he mandated composition at frequent intervals, often a week or less. Not infrequently, the lines of authority between (ideally) authoritative priests and at least initially submissive female penitents blurred. When a director became the collaborator or even the disciple of a “spiritual mother,” both fell under scrutiny by the local inquisitor and his masters; in Colle’s case, they were summoned to appear in Rome. The authorities’ officially expressed concern was “quietism.” Under the surface lay their fear that the gender hierarchies were being overturned—a specter not explored in this book.
The strength of Scritture dell’anima, best shown in the long section on Biondi, lies in the author’s careful exploration of how these women moved from writing [End Page 618] unwillingly for their spiritual directors to writing about themselves to gaining satisfaction in writing for themselves. Bottoni raises an important question that, unfortunately, she does not attempt to answer: how, at least in the beginning, could a young woman obey her director’s command if she were completely illiterate or possessed only minimal skill in putting quill to paper? The author dutifully cites most of the scholarship on early-modern female literacy but does not put it to use. Nor does she make more than superficial observations about the handwriting samples reproduced in the book. Unsurprisingly, Boccherini, educanda in and then professed member of a Third Order Franciscan house, wrote in a fluent cursive hand. Among the three who had received little or no education, Colle and perhaps Brondi (many of whose writings survive only in copies made by others) wrote in print, without joining the letters in words. Biondi remains a mystery. Despite the author’s dismissive remarks to the contrary, she mastered a sophisticated cursive hand. She must have had help. Who provided it? Was it her inflexible first director, the Oratorian Antonio Gaetano Buti, or someone else? The answer may not be certain, but at least Bottoni might have speculated.