Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent

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9780670031832: Virgins of Venice: Broken Vows and Cloistered Lives in the Renaissance Convent

Venice in the late Renaissance was a city of fabulous wealth, reckless creativity, and growing social unrest as its maritime empire crumbled. It was also a city of walls and secrets, ghettos, and cloisters-including fifty convents housing three thousand nuns, many of them refined, upper-class women who had been immured against their will. In this utterly fascinating book, Cambridge historian Mary Laven uncovers the long-hidden stories of the "virgins of Venice" and the secret, and often surprising, lives they led.

Sifting through records kept during the Counter-Reformation, Laven has pieced together a detailed and dramatic tapestry of resourceful, determined, and passionate women who managed to lead fulfilling lives despite their virtual imprisonment. Far from being precincts of piety and silence, the convents of Venice were hotbeds of political scheming, colorful pageantry, gorgeous decoration, and illicit love affairs. One nun was so determined to sleep with her lover that she painstakingly chipped a hole in a stone wall so he could climb through under cover of night. Another expressed her individuality through obsessive gift giving while keeping records of the dangerous flirtations going on around her. Still others exercised considerable clandestine power in the dangerous game of Venetian politics.

Rich in intrigue and gossip, eye opening in its historic revelations, and written with drama and compassion, Virgins of Venice brings to life a culturally vibrant period in Venice and the hidden residents who dwelled behind its walls.

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About the Author:

Mary Laven is a lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Jesus College.

From Publishers Weekly:

This engrossing book unveils a world of convent communities far richer and more complicated than the nuns' vows of poverty, chastity and obedience would seem to allow, wherein women led "lives caught between renunciation and self-indulgence, monotony and flashes of high colour." The author explains how, in the 16th century, Venice's 50-some convents were seen as "places of vice and indiscipline," and a "spiritual liability" that called for visits by church and state authorities who would chart infractions and demand reforms. Using visitation reports, trial records, personal letters and diaries, Cambridge historian Laven weaves a fascinating social history of these women's hidden existence-lives that included "gossip-mongering," befriending prostitutes, cross-dressing, sharing beds with one another, writing love letters to priests and even cutting holes in convent walls to allow their lovers in. The problem, Laven says, was that Venetian convents served as "dumping grounds for unmarried noblewomen," many of whom had no calling to the religious life. Stripped of wealth and position and cut off from the outside world, these young women longed, more than anything, for communication-and taking lovers, sometimes, was simply the best way to get it. Laven writes with powerful empathy for the nuns, neither glorifying them nor reducing them to helpless victims. And in asserting that nuns' struggles were ultimately to define themselves as individuals against the strictures of their community, Laven makes a compelling feminist argument without employing any overblown feminist rhetoric.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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