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  • Memorializing Identity:The Foundation and Reform of San Lorenzo in Panisperna1
  • Emily E. Graham (bio)

In the year 1308, Cardinal Giacomo Colonna (d.1318) was a tremendously busy man. He had returned to Rome only a few years earlier in the aftermath of a devastating papal war waged against his family by Boniface VIII (d.1303). The papal court had been absent from the city for years, leaving an administrative void in Rome as it established itself first in Poitiers, then in Avignon from 1308 under the leadership of the Gascon pope Clement V. In 1306 Giacomo was fully reinstated to the cardinalate, and set about rebuilding his family's fortunes and reputation, as well as a number of the city's churches. He commissioned a new mosaic facade for the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and in 1308 he oversaw repairs following a fire at the Lateran basilica.2 In the same year, he requested and was given charge of a small, ruined Benedictine convent which he built into a new community for Franciscan women.

His most unobtrusive activity that year, the founding of the small convent of San Lorenzo in Panisperna, has attracted little attention in comparison with the magnificent mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore just down the street.3 Yet, when we look more closely at San Lorenzo's [End Page 467] origins and early history, the evidence of cardinal's actions and religious patronage choices raise significant questions about the current scholarly narrative on San Lorenzo: What inspired its founding? It is not, as has been often supposed, a family foundation: that role was already occupied by Giacomo's earlier foundation, San Silvestro in Capite, which flourished with ostentatious Colonna support – of which San Lorenzo had little. How did its abbess come to be the lone female correspondent of Angelo Clareno (d.c.1330s), the Franciscan schismatic and agitator? Why did Giacomo give his two convents the Rule of Blessed Isabella of France, which no other Franciscan community in Italy was allowed to adopt? Why do the convent's internal histories give conflicting information about its founding and Franciscan identity? Archival evidence, and San Lorenzo's place in Giacomo Colonna's patronage network, raise these questions and more. In doing so, the evidence challenges the current narrative of female Franciscan identity in the city, and the community's early history.

That narrative is somewhat sparse, as San Lorenzo in Panisperna has garnered little attention from scholars. The few syntheses available treat it as a facsimile of Giacomo's earlier, better-documented foundation, San Silvestro in Capite. The two foundations do have striking similarities on the surface: the same founder gave to both the same Rule and possibly a set of Constitutions, though that document survives only for San Silvestro.4 Giacomo also maintained close personal supervision of both communities, appointing trusted agents to minister to them and personally acting as their Protector and Visitator until his departure for Avignon in 1310, after which time they were guided by his handpicked [End Page 468] agents.5 But in many ways their similarities end there. They were founded differently, affiliated with different aristocratic families, had different financial trajectories, and ultimately were reformed separately in ways that altered the community's sense of their own identity and early history.

The distinction between the two convents has been overlooked in part because of the two, San Lorenzo in Panisperna has rarely been studied, and in part because poor document survival has led scholars to rely on conflicting early modern accounts, which were influenced by the convent's difficult history with Observant reform and its own early identity. Placing it in the "family monastery" category is an easy connection to make, given the strong Italian historiographical focus on baronial patrimony – but that categorization is somewhat misleading, as namelists and bequest records indicate the Colonna did not maintain a strong interest in the foundation. A closer look at evidence from San Lorenzo's archives indicates that some of the confusion regarding its foundation and reform may be the result of poor document survival and the early modern sisters' rewriting of their earlier history. San Lorenzo underwent failed attempts at imposing reforms...


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pp. 467-495
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