November 27, 2011
I went to Venice to research both Napoleon’s Privates and The Sinner’s Grand Tour, and found that he 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
Italian nuns have left quite a subversive legacy. This is thanks largely to the literary labors of Pietro Aretino, a Venetian author who is today hailed as the “father of modern pornography.” In addition to his ground-breaking book of sonnets – The Sixteen Postures, which described a string of athletic sexual positions with handy engravings – Aretino penned the classic Secret Life of Nuns, whose panting prose would not be out of place on a nerve.com site today. It depicts lonely young novices in ritualized “jousts” with monks and priests (“First tilt went to the trumpeter… spurring himself on with his fingers, he ran his lance right into his lady-friend’s target right up to the hilt…”) and devoted to the pastinaca muranese, “crystal turnip,” a state-of-the-art dildo made of fine Venetian glass and filled with warm water. The nuns kept erotic manuals hidden in their prayer books and always offered their charity to male pilgrims (“We’ll try every which way,” declares one nun as the penitents arrive, “there’s bound to be one that suits us!”)
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 (below), 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.