By Kate Lowe
COLLeGIUM: Studies Across Disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Volume 2: The Trouble with Ribs: Women, Men and Gender in Early Modern Europe (2007)
Abstract: S. M. delle Vergini and S. Zaccaria were the two most important and successful female convents in Renaissance Venice. Although rather different in many respects, this essay suggests that many useful insights about the reasons for their success can be gained from their redesignation and analysis as fields of power (rather than viewing them primarily as religious institutions). Even though inmates of convents were the most regulated group in fifteenth and sixteenth-century Europe, canonesses and nuns at these two convents were able to generate and harness multiple sorts of power in a variety of ways. For example, their strategies of empowerment included making the most of their convent traditions and privileged patrician backgrounds to forge special relationships with a succession of doges and emperors. The women raised awareness of their convents by making them “attractive” in a variety of ways, and presented them to the outside world as hierarchical institutions with female heads, and distinctive and powerful identities. When convents were reformed in Venice after 1519, the two institutions tried to assert their authority and autonomy but were crushed by the imposition of enclosure and enforced religion, with the result that their configuration as significant fields of power was severely curtailed.
In this essay I shall investigate the two most important and successful female convents in Renaissance Venice – S. M. delle Vergini (which I shall refer to as Le Vergini from now on) and S. Zaccaria – to see how they managed to maintain their position in a city full of greater and lesser female “religious” houses, amid a barrage of other institutions and bodies vying for attention at all levels. The focus here is on successful, all-female institutions, but the intention is that this investigation will facilitate interesting comparisons to secular and non-institutional women’s attempts to generate and harness power in early modern Europe. I am using power here to encompass the whole spectrum of possibilities: from power related to an ability to “govern” and exert authority over others, to the more diffuse agency-related power that was available in a wide variety of situations. An interest in agency-related power – at one level the ability to make a decision or choose between alternatives – is a continuation of previous work I have carried out on the notion and exercising of choice in the Renaissance.