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The Catholic Historical Review 87.2 (2001) 323-324

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Book Review

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.] (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1999. Pp. xxii, 417. $70.00 clothbound; $24.00 paperback.)

Between 1550 and 1650 some fifty percent of Venetian noble women took the veil. (Noble status was a closed caste in Renaissance Venice, achieved through birth to a noble father in a legitimate marriage.) The result was that two-thirds to three-fourths of the nuns in Venetian convents were patricians in the above period. Of course, many of these were forced monachizations, as families psychologically and in other ways coerced daughters and sisters into becoming nuns so that the family patrimony could be left to the one son permitted to marry. (Some of the sons not permitted to marry also entered the religious life, but they had other options as well.) Even though the nun brought a sum of money to the convent, her "convent dowry" was considerably less than a marriage dowry. The author argues that the policy of increased monachization produced short-term benefits to the nobility, but long-term disaster, most notably a sharp decline in the number of nobles. Historians have previously noted in a general way the increase in noble nuns. The originality of this book is that the author offers precise information on the increase, and she studies the economic, political, and jurisdictional consequences.

Because some of the patrician nuns lacked commitment to the religious life they violated their vows and maintained connections to family and civil society. Hence, beginning in 1514 the state exerted disciplinary authority over the convents. When the Council of Trent imposed strict cloistering in 1563, the stage was set for battles between convents, the state, the patriarch of Venice, and the pope, over discipline and regulations.

Another consequence of increased patrician monachization was that the convents grew in wealth. The author provides excellent detailed information about convent wealth in lands and revenues in a series of tables, unfortunately located at the end of the book along with the notes. As convents grew in wealth, the government passed laws limiting the increase in ecclesiastical lands and subjecting them to civil taxation. This, in turn, led to jurisdictional fights between Republic and Papacy, with the latter usually giving way. But disputes over the convents played a significant role in bringing on the crisis of 1606-07, when the Papacy laid Venice under interdict. Sperling also shows that the convents fought state controls. For example, they successfully contested the government's attempt in 1602 to limit convent dowries to 1,000 ducats. The author merits praise for telling the story of the increase in patrician monachization and [End Page 323] for using a wealth of archival sources, especially those in the Archivio Patriarcale di Venezia. She also provides several excellent case histories illustrating the issues and problems.

The book is useful, but could have been better. Although the basic story of sending noble women into convents in order to preserve family patrimonies is straightforward, the author makes it needlessly complex by fitting it into anthropological categories. The result is jargon, tedium, and wasted pages. The long second chapter tries to connect the story of increased monachization with a change in Venetian ideology through an alleged identification of Venice with the Virgin Mary. This is unconvincing, and some of the treatises cited do not seem relevant. For example, the author seems unaware that Ludovico Dolce's Dialogo della institutione delle donne (1545) is a slightly modified translation of Juan Luis Vives' De institutione feminae christiane (1523); it has limited relevance for Venice. The book is allergic to dates; many individuals, authors, and treatises are introduced without life or publication dates, and with very little other information. "Giolito" on page 130 is never identified. The book includes much bibliography on women's history outside of Venice, but neglects some scholarship about Venetian political and religious history...


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