by Tony Perrottet
I went to Venice to research both Napoleon’s Privates and The Sinner’s Grand Tour, and found that the subject of randy nuns came up constantly. It seems that the fantasy of the sex-filled Venetian convent, which crops up in novels, dialogues, Casanova’s memoir and modern porn films, dates back for centuries… and, even better, has a concrete historical basis.
SEX AND THE RENAISSANCE NUN
Overheated? Certainly in the details. But while Aretino’s work is hardly a documentary of convent life, its roots lie in reality. By poring over contemporary letters, diaries and legal documents, historians have established that Venetian nunneries were the most liberated in Europe. In the 1400s, the skyrocketing cost of dowries meant that many of the city’s noblest families were obliged to place their teenage daughters, regardless of their wishes, in convents. Few of these developed a spiritual calling. It was openly accepted that the top convents were a “safety valve” for Venice’s surplus of well-born single women, who could go on to enjoy a level of sexual freedom unique for the time.
The nunneries were run like luxury boutique hotels. Novices were given duplicate keys so they could come and go as they pleased from their palatial apartments, which were filled with artworks and overlooked the Grand Canal. Wearing the most fashionable, low-cut dresses, they would entertain male visitors with wine-fuelled banquets, then invite their beaux to spend the night in their rooms. They took romantic gondola rides with admirers to private picnics to the islands of the Venice Lagoon and went on poetic moonlit walks in the secluded gardens. The most passionate eloped – presumably with men who were not obsessed with dowries. The mature-age abbesses rode the city in luxury carriages with their pet dogs and oversaw their girls’ activities with a maternal eye. If a nun fell pregnant, she would simply give birth in the privacy of the convent and the pass the child off as an orphan abandoned on the doorstep.
Church officials in Venice and Rome turned a blind eye to these activities, but reluctantly investigated some of the most blatant and scandalous cases. The Italian academic Guido Ruggiero has pored over countless documents to find that only thirty-three convents were prosecuted for “sex crimes against God” (as they were called, since the nuns were in theological terms the brides of Christ). The legal details read like a cheesy Italian soap opera. One Sister Filipa Barbarigo was found to have juggled ten different lovers at the same time – an impressive roster of nobles, artists and even, playing with fire, her own abbess’ boyfriend. Violent scenes of jealousy erupted one night at the busiest convent, Sant’Angelo di Contorta, when a certain Marco Bono interrupted his lover Filipa Sanuto in her room with another man and chased him into the street, then went after a dozen other nun’s naked boyfriends with his sword. A few days later, the brother of one of Sister Filipa’s other lovers pursued her angrily through the convent and slapped her for seducing the young boy with her “unbridled lusts.”
Signor Ruggiero helpfully collated his findings into two tables, the second of which suggests that the Church was particularly zealous in prosecuting nuns who had dabbled in “rough trade” – low-born boatmen, carpenters, artisans or gardeners.
By the 1500s, the famous nunneries of Venice even attracted tourists: Male travelers from England and Holland were delighted to mingle with such refined women who like Japanese geisha offered private musical concerts and engaged them in sophisticated conversation on literature and the arts. The Venetian diarist Girolamo Priuli denounced them as unofficial courtesans, sleeping with foreigners in exchange for financial presents. This discreet arrangement exploded in scandal in 1561, when a convent founded for reformed prostitutes was found to be in business, with the Father confessor as pimp – having had relations with twenty of his charges himself.