It’s hard to believe I haven’t posted in nearly a year. My first year of full-time teaching kicked my butt–so much fun, but so many lesson plans to make! Now that I can take a breather, I finally have time to post here about some of the amazing women from history I’ve discovered in the last year–many of them the result of insightful questions asked of me by my students. This particular post comes about because while we were studying Renaissance artists and authors, Fiona asked (apropos of Michelangelo and Leonardo): It seems like there was some sort of more-or-less openly gay culture in the Medici courts. What about lesbians? Do we know anything about Renaissance lesbians?
Darn it! I’d been so focused on providing examples of female writers and artists that I’d overlooked the sexual orientation piece! And I was embarrassed to admit that day that beyond knowing they MUST have been out there, I had no actual examples of Renaissance lesbians to provide. (1)
So…off I went to do some research, and the first example I came across was so wonderfully strange, so incredibly surreal, that, dear readers, I knew not only that I would bring it back to class, but that I would eventually share it with you here. Nothing I’m about to write is new–whole books have been written about these wonderful characters from history: the Tuscan nun Sister Benedetta Carlini, her young lover (also a nun), and a randy male angel named – wait for it – Splenditello, who possessed Benedetta from time to time, and whose supernatural presence presumably both explained and condoned her lesbian relationship (at least in Benedetta’s own eyes). (2)
Splenditello, the Best Alter-ego Ever
Yes, that’s right. Benedetta believed that she was possessed by a male angel named Splenditello. I’m not sure if the name sounds more like a low-sugar Nutella substitute or a dominatrix. All I know is that if I ever live out my fantasy of being a DJ in a New York City club, that will be my nom de guerre. And I’ll wear a black catsuit with a cape and wings while in the DJ booth.
Ahem… back to Renaissance history. Benedetta and her fabulous alter-ego Splenditello would remain unknown to us were it not for the work of historian Judith Brown, who discovered the transcripts of church inquests into Benedetta’s mystical claims while doing research in the Florence city archives. Dating from 1619-1623, these investigations were carried out by a series of local and papal officials not because of Benedetta’s lesbian relationship (at least not at first), but rather, because she claimed to have had a series of increasingly fervent visions and mystical experiences. Church authorities were bent on determining whether or not Sister Benedetta’s exceptional religious life was the work of God or of demonic forces.
Benedetta: The Life of an Ordinary Woman?
So who was Benedetta, anyway? As far as we know, she was just plain folk–the daughter of a middle-class villager from one of the numerous hamlets that dot the Apennine mountains. That, in and of itself, makes Benedetta special. We have so few accounts of “regular” women’s lives before relatively modern times. And then there’s the fact that though we possess a fair number of references to lesbian conduct (especially by finger-wagging male authors of church moral codes), we can count on fewer than 10 fingers the number of pre-modern, detailed accounts of lesbian love affairs. Thanks to those nosey inquisitors, we have nothing if not a wealth of details about Benedetta’s (and her young lover, Bartolomea’s) love life. So in some ways, Benedetta represents a rare glimpse into the life of an “ordinary” Renaissance woman.
Except for that angel thing. That makes Benedetta (or should I say, Splenditello?) just a little bit special. Apparently, though Benedetta was given to the Theatine nuns at age nine, she was not content to remain an anonymous country girl alongside her more urbane fellow sisters. Far from staying in the lower position indicated by her humble village birth, she quickly rose to a position of prominence within the convent based on the splendor of her visions. While in trances, she spoke in the voices of angels, or even of Jesus; at times, she even seemed to her sisters to take on the appearance of a young man. Eventually, she even displayed the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) on her hands, feet, side, and head.
At least at first, many of her sisters and local church officials were persuaded. But the visions were also accompanied, at times, by painful episodes of diabolical temptation and pain. Benedetta’s superiors were both amazed and alarmed by her “visitations,” so they assigned her a younger companion, Bartolomea Crivelli, to share her cell, observe her during her visions, and provide whatever assistance Benedetta’s unusual situation required. (It was Bartolomea who initially confirmed that Benedetta’s stigmata had appeared as the result of a visit from Christ himself on the night of the second Friday of Lent, 1618.)
As Benedetta’s stature in the convent grew, so did the outrageousness of her visions. By 1619, she was the abbess, delivering sermons to the assembled nuns while they scourged themselves with whips in an attempt to purify themselves. To give some perspective, even without the whips, Benedetta’s preaching alone would probably have earned her the suspicion of the various male church authorities: women were not permitted to preach. Benedetta, however, neatly side-stepped that rule by insisting that it was not she herself who was preaching; she was merely speaking in trance while possessed by a (male) angel. Further night-time visitations followed–Catherine of Siena appeared, as did the aforementioned Splenditello, a beautiful boy in a white robe. Each time, these “visitors” didn’t so much appear to Benedetta as take up residence in her body. In her voice they would issue commands (don’t eat meat, eggs, and milk products), or dole out praise (usually for Benedetta herself). One time, Bartolomea reported, Jesus visited, tore out Benedetta’s heart, and then three days later, replaced it with his own. Bartolomea had confirmed this rather startling encounter by feeling a deep “void” when she placed her hand on Benedetta’s chest.
Nobody Likes a Bridezilla
Eventually, though, Benedetta’s visions went too far. In May of 1619, Jesus appeared to Benedetta insisting on, not just marrying her, but marrying her publicly, and with a very specific bridezilla-like set of wedding demands: the guest list, the decorations, the precise (and elaborate) specifications for the procession and ceremony. And to top it off, when the nuptials were finally performed before her incredulous sisters, Christ (speaking through Benedetta, of course) insisted that his new bride be made “empress of all nuns.” Apparently her sisters disagreed, for as Judith Brown noted laconically in her book, “The investigation began the next day.” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine they put up with her demands for as long as they did. Scourging with whips? OK. Ripping out hearts? No problem. Wedding with Christ that ends in demands for coronation? Whoa there, girl. You’ve gone too far now.
At first, the ecclesiastical authorities who were called in upheld her visions, but over time, her claims began to crumble. Some nuns who spied on her through a keyhole saw her pricking herself in the hands with a needle–evidence that her “stigmata” was self-produced. And then the (extremely Italian) climax: Benedetta, who claimed to be too saintly to eat meat, was spotted sneaking salami and mortadella on the side. Who could blame her, really? What’s the point of being Italian if you can’t enjoy a little antipasti? But that was it. The church determined it was time to get to the bottom of this salami-eating bride of Christ.
Sister Bartolomea was questioned, and under oath, revealed that Benedetta (in the guise of Splenditello), made passionate love to her. (And, perhaps even more touchingly, taught her how to read.) According to the records, he called Bartolomea his beloved as he touched her breasts and kissed her. Benedetta’s young companion claimed that she was an unwilling recipient of Splenditello’s affections, and perhaps for this reason, was never censured for her role in the affair. Benedetta, on the other hand, was imprisoned within the convent until her death, 35 years later.
Which is Worse: Lesbianism or Demon Possession?
It seems fairly clear from the archival material that Benedetta was imprisoned for fraud, not for her lesbian activities. That’s not to say that her relationship was condoned–the lesbian sex certainly was censured and produced as further evidence of her overall unreliability. However, what’s interesting to note about the entire episode is how relatively little scandal is attached to the lesbian behavior. Honestly, Salami-gate (as I like to call it) appears to have been more damning in the eyes of the church authorities. Whether that’s because lesbianism was regarded as a relatively minor sin, or whether the magnitude of Benedetta’s false claims was so great that they eclipsed the other elements of her tale is difficult to tell.
It’s certainly true that by Benedetta’s time, issues of demon possession and witchcraft were becoming ever more prominent. The counter-reformation, which pitted the Catholic church against the various new religious groups that blossomed after Luther’s reforms, highlighted questions of religious authority. When someone made new religious claims, the Church wanted to know who was speaking. Did the mystic in question really speak for Christ, or did some more nefarious element stand behind his or her words? Was his or her message Truth with a capital T, or superstition?
The latter was a category of thought that had gained new importance in the climate of scientific inquiry heralded by the Renaissance thinkers. Protestant reformers and Catholic counter-Reformation preachers alike hurled accusations of superstition at one another: the Catholic mass was superstitious in its insistence on the physical transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood; reformers within the Catholic church were sometimes labeled “superstitious” when they advocated for greater freedom to interpret the scriptures; women who previously had held sway in their villages as herbal healers and midwives were deemed superstitious because their traditions didn’t find a basis in either Catholic dogma or Protestant scripture. In this light, Benedetta’s attempt to ground her own authority in the seemingly unquestionable guise of male angels and Christ himself seems understandable. At least, sort of.
As several scholars have noted, Benedetta’s claims might have passed muster a century or two earlier, when female mystics (and indeed, mystics of all sorts) were less likely to produce a paranoid reaction on the part of a Church that was now being dragged apart by sectarian violence. But then again, perhaps the audacity of Benedetta’s claims would have done her in irregardless. It does seem that both the increasing narcissism of her visions and the demands made on her fellow nuns were her undoing. Other nuns had had visions of being wed to Christ (most notably Catherine of Siena, who “visited” Benedetta and may have inspired her own nuptials). But these other women were noted for their humility, a trait that does not appear to have been Benedetta’s forte.
It’s also true that just as Benedetta grounded her transgressive claim to authority in mystical garb, so too she grounded her transgressive sexuality the same way. Her excessive religious experiences were what first created the conditions for her to have a round-the-clock female companion in her cell; “Splenditello” and his cherubic charms then wrapped the two women’s lesbian affair in a feathery halo of angel light. Whether or not her lover Bartolomea really felt coerced into the relationship or was simply cowered by the Church authorities into disowning it, we’ll never know. One thing’s for sure: for a short time, Benedetta created an enchanted fantasy world in which she could enjoy a same-sex relationship with another lower class woman. Not only that, but she could work those very interactions into a complex imagery that very nearly secured her position as abbess of a convent full of her socio-economic “betters.” Plus, she left us a story that seems to put the oomph into that old chestnut, “the truth is stranger than fiction.” It’s hard to believe her story hasn’t yet been made into a softcore period drama featuring two young Hollywood starlets. (3)
Lesbians in the Classroom
So, to circle back to the question of teaching: what, if anything, does the story of Benedetta offer our students beyond a ripping good yarn? Well, to begin with, there’s that. She’s got to be one of the more colorful figures from history–one who, like so many women from the past, would have been overlooked had it not been for the work of a diligent female historian. That alone should recommend her inclusion among the canon of “historical figures we love to hate/hate to love.” For every Alcibiades or Billy the Kid, there’s a Sister Benedetta waiting to be found. We owe it to our students to present them with rip-roaring tales of female hucksters and bad girls just as much as we feed them better-known tales of male ne’er-do-wells.
But perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that, as I mentioned before, Benedetta and Bartolomea’s affair is one of a handful of pre-modern lesbian sexual relationships we have detailed information about. Finding a way to work in those few examples we do have is vital for the overall academic and social health of our classrooms as we strive to diversify our curriculum. Making sure we include gay and lesbian figures in our canon can often be as simple as mentioning the sexuality of figures we already teach–from Alexander the Great to Leonardo da Vinci and beyond. It doesn’t add much in the way of extra work or prep time, and it makes visible what has so often remained hidden or secret. More importantly, it can give wind to the wings of the kids in our classes who need help claiming and owning their own identities.
But for the history of women and lesbians, we usually need to dig a little deeper. We know so little about the sexual relationships of pre-modern women that we have to be more actively on the lookout for those few examples available to us. Benedetta is one of those rare women. And not only that, but her story fits nicely into the Waldorf curriculum. Almost every Waldorf high school does a block on Renaissance/Reformation history. (As do many public schools.) And in that block, one inevitably winds up addressing the way the Church fractured and fought about questions of authority. Benedetta is a beautiful example to single out as a representation of the tensions and complexities of the period: a middle-class Catholic girl tries to gain authority within a system that was stacked against her on multiple counts. She manages to “play” the system for awhile, working every possible angle to achieve her ultimate ends, which appear to have been two-fold: to become abbess (and possibly “empress”) of the convent, and to win Bartolomea’s affections. And she succeeded at both before her own sense of inflated worth tripped her up. When she finally fell, she fell hard, and was condemned by the Church authorities to a pretty miserable end. But the fact that there were women out there who “played the system” and very nearly won can inspire our students, who are so often on the verge of becoming disillusioned by the sheer weight of the historical inequities suffered by women, the poor, and the many others oppressed by Renaissance and Reformation religion and politics.
I know my own students, when I brought them this story, whooped with glee when they heard the name “Splenditello.” Their faces hung slack-jawed when I described to them Benedetta’s increasing demands for glory, and her daring courtship of Bartolomea in the guise of the cherubic boy. And they let out a groan of pity when I revealed Benedetta’s fate. The whole thing took about five minutes of class, but it was certainly the high-point of the day. Though they may forget the details of Benedetta’s tale (though I doubt they’ll forget the name “Splenditello”), they won’t forget the most important point of the story, the one that answered Fiona’s question that day we studied the Medici: lesbian women certainly DID exist in the Renaissance, Fiona. And some of them were ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS.
1. A caveat here: I realize that classifying same-sex behavior during the European Renaissance as “gay” or “lesbian” is neither historically accurate nor optimal, given the different ways both gender and sexuality were figured in that period (and varied dramatically region to region). However, it’s both quicker than all the longer ways of designating homoerotic/homosocial behavior, and, perhaps more importantly, it’s more true to high school classrooms. In my experience, most high school kids fundamentally want some sort of connection to the people they study. Kids either questioning their own sexuality or trying to figure out their response to how our own culture treats people in same-sex relationships don’t necessarily want to hear about how same-sex relationships were DIFFERENT historically–they’re often looking for confirmation that someone out there before them experienced something SIMILAR to what they’ve been going through. (Or witnessing around them.) This is not to say that there’s no place for the discussion of how sexuality has been envisioned differently at different times in history; it’s just to note that these questions tend to be loaded for high schoolers, and should be approached with a gentleness that might not be as vital when talking to adults or even college students.
2. The definitive book about Sister Benedetta is Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, by Judith C. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). A great summary and review of the book can be found in the NYTimes archives: Frederika Randall, “Divine Visions, Diabolical Obsessions” The New York Times, January 19, 1986. See also Stephen Greenblatt’s review in the London Review of Books, No. 8. Vol. 11. June 19, 1986. There’s also a terrific, very readable overview of Medieval and Renaissance lesbianism in both Europe and the Near East here; it includes (towards the end) some rather racy quotes from the inquest conducted against Benedetta.
3. It has, however, been made into a play that was performed at the 2006 New York Fringe Festival: Vanda, “Vile Affections: Based on the True Story of Benedetta Carlini,” 2006.