Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Craig A. Monson's "Nuns Behaving Badly"

Craig A. Monson is professor of music at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Disembodied Voices: Music and Culture in an Early Modern Italian Convent.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy, and reported the following:
Page 99:
[the women's father] ... acted as papal representative to the courts of France, Spain, and Vienna, where he covered himself with glory. Noble and decorated as he was, their father was almost eclipsed by the nuns' illustrious mother, Vittoria, daughter of Antonio, count of Collalto and San Salvatore and brother to Rambaldo di Collalto, knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, who had been victorious in the imperial takeover of Mantua in 1601. And nobody at Santa Maria Nuova would ever be allowed to forget the Malvezzi nuns' high station.

The family's seventeenth-century connections with Santa Maria Nuova began inauspiciously, to say the least. Maria Vinciguerra's sister, Anna Maria, might have joined her sisters at Santa Maria Nuova too. But when she had been taken to visit the convent at age three, a careless nun had dropped her out of an upstairs window. Her parents therefore decided to enroll her elsewhere, among the Discalced Carmelites of San Gabriele, across town.

Donna Maria Vinciguerra, the donor and prime mover in the lavish rebuilding and decoration of the convent church, is more difficult to identify than her sisters among Giacomo and Vittoria Collalto Malvezzi's offspring. Her name in religion does not appear in the exhaustive genealogy of the Malvezzi family, for example. But probably she is identical with Maria Carola Malvezzi, born to them in 1610 and therefore about the right age. In contrast, we know considerably more about her sister, Donna Maria Vittoria Felice Malvezzi, born in 1605, who professed at Santa Maria Nuova in 1621 shortly after their father's death.

For nuns, the choice of a religious name represented a modest opportunity for a bit of creativity. Newly professed nuns commonly “remade” the name of a deceased mother or aunt as part of their name in religion, combined with the inevitable “Maria.” Maria Vittoria Felice's selection obviously honored her mother the countess, still very much alive. Since “Vittoria Felice” also implies “happy victory,” perhaps she was also trying to acknowledge the Mantuan successes of her illustrious uncle, to whom she remained close, as we shall see.

Maria Vinciguerra's choice is much more unusual, perhaps even startling for a nun. “Mary Victorious in Battle” might encompass some play on “Madonna della Vittoria.” Since the Madonna of the...
Page 99 is quieter than readers might expect, given the book's cover, but its qualities are typical. In telling tales out of archives one is challenged to recreate “ordinary” people (especially difficult when they were “dead to the world”) and to understand what led them to extraordinary acts. Page 99 does contain a life-defining incident that sounds made up, of a sort that crops up surprisingly often in the book: without a butter fingered nun's momentary lapse, there would have been three powerful Malvezzi sisters at Santa Maria Nuova, not two. Typically, the page also teases out modest clues to explain why life (for want of a better word) happens as it does. After all, in convent tales the devil is in the details.

We might call it “A Tale of Two Sisters,” for its chief players are Maria Vittoria Felice and Maria Vinciguerra, from Bologna's preeminent Malvezzi family. The Church recognized such good breeding as a red flag in societies emphasizing humility (hence, prelates forbade nuns to hang their cardinal brothers' portraits in chapel or to embroider the family coat-of-arms on door hangings). Being well born and knowing one's own (and others') place will be overriding issues here.

“What's in a name?” The sisters' names in religion foretell quite a lot. Maria Vittoria Felice “remakes” the name of her mother (who will build a palace near the convent to look after her daughter when a mysterious psychological illness strikes her down) and possibly refers to her uncle (who will enlist the pope to affect a cure). Restored to health, Maria Vittoria Felice (well integrated within family and convent community) is elected prioress 3 times. Why would Maria Vinciguerra (who is much harder to find in Malvezzi family histories) make such an exceptional, determinedly combative name choice, and what does it say about her? An answer would require a page turn. To chronicle how Maria Vinciguerra lived up to that name (forcing gifts worth a large fortune on the convent-whether the other nuns wanted them or not-and even tearing down, ripping up and burning a convent rival's chapel donation) requires a dozen further page turns.
Learn more about the book and author at the University of Chicago Press website and Craig A. Monson's homepage.

--Marshal Zeringue