During its four-year sojourn in Monastery San Paolo, a religious institution nearly eight centuries old, Gordon College’s program in Orvieto infused life in old spaces in ways that honored its long history. My family spent two springs there, my husband Tal and I teaching history classes, our children making themselves at home—if a little noisily—in the convent and its courtyard.

Tom More, the addled protagonist of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, holes up in an abandoned Howard Johnson’s motel when he thinks the world’s end is near. Stocking it with canned goods and bourbon, trying to ignore the obscene graffiti on the walls, More entertains three girlfriends there.  One, Moira, is especially appreciative of seemingly romantic features of the old place, but frankly uncomprehending of how it worked, who peopled it, and what kind of world called it into being. They flirt among the rickety lounge chairs and scummy pool, and when Moira discovers an old pair of sunglasses and vial of Coppertone, she exclaims in delight, “It’s like Pompey!”  It was a recurrent theme for Percy, the problem of reclaiming an old thing when its purposes are either forgotten or evacuated, a conundrum experienced with a different slant in an old-but-renewing convent in the Umbrian hilltown of Orvieto. 

Italy is dotted with monasteries of obscure identity, old purposes being forsaken, antiquity and cultural value arguing for their preservation. Of course there are religious houses still functioning as such and inhabited by consecrated men and women. But others have disappeared altogether, bulldozed to make room for new roads or apartments. And still others have been left behind when no monks or nuns were left inside.  What should be done with an old hulk of a building, often vast and sturdily built, graced with art or good views or fine acoustics?  Some uses seem consonant with their older identity: turning convent into hospital, orphanage, or school echoes the charitable works that monks and nuns once performed. Sometimes former religious status lends market cachet: consider the many erstwhile convents refitted as guesthouse, luxury hotel,orvineyard-side property.  The tumultuous wake of the French Revolution swept away many religious houses, so secularizing nineteenth-century renovators not seldom made the sacred profane, turning convents into jail, stables, barracks, or warehouses. We look more kindly on convents as theaters, libraries, galleries, showplaces of regional cuisine, though sometimes these put culture in place of cultus.

Returning monastic houses to old monastic purpose is impossible in many cases.  But new uses may furnish again Christian devotion, strong community, service to those outside, if in different ways.  During its four-year sojourn in Monastery San Paolo, a religious institution nearly eight centuries old, Gordon IN Orvieto infused life in old spaces in ways that honored its long history. My family spent two springs there, my husband Tal and I teaching history classes, our children making themselves at home—if a little noisily—in the convent and its courtyard. 

Curiosity about San Paolo should be inescapable for those waking, sleeping, teaching, and working within its walls.  Frescoes, cloisters, sculpture, gates: the physical traces of its former status should not just be strange artifacts for which we confect nostalgia.  Inhabiting the building obliges us to understand some of its traditional functions, not only in a generic way, but where possible in light of the events, intentions, indeed the residents of this particular institution. Curiosity about San Paolo can be situated in the history of women's religious life, to make sense of the kind of place it was during its long life as a cloistered convent, and to supply explanation when—given silence in source material, or missing documentation--particulars about this convent escape us.

Given the impressive age and scale of the structure, it is tempting to equate the history of San Paolo with the history of the building. Some features of the building both intrigue and explain. The long curved wall running flush with Via Postierla conceals rather than invites, because its function was to separate the consecrated women from the city outside.  The belltower rings not only the times of day but the time for prayer, marking the liturgical Hours when the sisters gathered for psalms. The Last Supper painted in the refectory reminds us, as it reminded the sisters, of the food that perishes and the food of everlasting life. But the building has been adjusted, reconfigured, rebuilt much over the centuries.  The old and new are mixed together.  The first spring that Gordon resided in the building, workmen occupied the inner courtyard, watched avidly from the window by our young son Ben. One group churned cement in a small, antique-looking mixer, while others hauled centuries’ worth of rubble off the ceiling above the refectory, sending torrents of plaster and stone and wood down a plastic chute outside. Surely they were toiling expertly in methods beyond my observation, but their work gave the impression that the dust and stone torn down on one side was mixed with water and pasted up again–-building itself as palimpsest, the new made from the old without clear division between. All over Orvieto one sees the tufa—the soft volcanic rock that makes up the cliff and much of what is built on it—crumbling in corners, dust of the stone collecting where house meets street, and those little cement mixers tucked in dark doorways or behind construction fences.  

The Planting of San Paolo

The history of San Paolo, then, might be better pursued in terms of the religious orders inhabiting this building.  The outlines of the story draw us across eight centuries, through four different orders, situated firmly in the geography and experience of a particular place. 

San Paolo was founded in 1221, an initiative of St. Paul's-outside-the-Walls in Rome, with the approval of Pope Honorius III (1148-1227).[1] The Orvieto nuns, like the monks who inspired their community, followed the rule of St. Benedict. The monastery was shaped by several religious and political currents of its time. First, this century birthed the two great mendicant orders, the Dominicans and the Franciscans.  Indeed, Honorius III was the pope who gave the church’s endorsement to these. In Orvieto both attracted a warm following, so that before the century's end there were Franciscan and Dominican monasteries for men and women on the cliff, as well as pious laypeople who patterned their lives after those Rules.  Dominican laypeople, called tertiaries, included the Blessed Giovanna and Blessed Daniella, a correspondent of Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). Not far from San Paolo the church and monastery of San Domenico were initiated in 1233, on land given by one of the town’s ruling families, the Monaldeschi. San Pietro, a women’s Dominican house, was built adjacent shortly thereafter. It was in this flowering of mendicant piety that the sisters of San Paolo petitioned to change from Benedictine to a Dominican rule. The request they entered in 1289 received papal approval in 1303, transferring them to Dominican authority, an identity they kept for nearly five hundred years.

This affiliation highlights a second current of San Paolo’s founding period. The thirteenth century marked a high point of scholastic theology.  Dominicans, known as the Order of Preachers, were distinguished for their attention to theology, for combating heresy by showing right doctrine in clarity and truth. The leading theologian of the age, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), taught for two years in Orvieto in 1263-4. The women at San Paolo were not yet Dominicans when the Angelic Doctor was in town, but it is conceivable that they could have counted among their advisers and confessors the friends and students of St. Thomas. 

A third current shaping San Paolo's physical and spiritual location was the political turmoil of medieval Italy. War among Italian city-states raged through thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with local nobility aligned with pope (Guelph) or emperor (Ghibelline). This conflict determined the very placement of San Paolo on the edge of the cliff. Town authorities used their unusual geography to carve out protected spaces cliffside occupied by neutral, spiritual powers—a belt of monasteries--rather than contentious temporal ones. In Orvieto, the conflict pitted the Fillipeschis family against the Monaldeschis, a rivalry memorialized by Dante in the Purgatorio of the Divine Comedy.  Some chroniclers have conjectured that the area around San Paolo was razed with the Ghibelline defeat, though the convent itself likely would have been spared, given its religious identity. 

The Dominican sisters suffered a milder sort of neighborhood contention, too. Not one but five small female religious institutions were clustered in boundaries we now ascribe to San Paolo alone. Santa Cecilia, like the large monastery of San Severo across the valley, was Premonstratensian, an order founded by St. Norbert of Premontre in northern France in the twelfth century. The others, Santa Caterina, Sant' Agnese, and San Pancrazio, were also Benedictine.  The presence of these four houses together may strike us as duplication of effort, but such proliferation was fairly ordinary.  Rather than a single large house, separate monasteries might arise from a donor's special intent or devotion to a particular saint.  Patronage and reputation could swell ranks of one house over time and diminish others.  Proximity bred some conflict, particularly between San Paolo and San Cecilia. Disputes between the two were addressed under Pope Boniface VIII early in the fourteenth century, ordering San Cecilia to pay five hundred lire to incorporate small houses into their monastery, to build a wall five feet away from San Paolo, and to lower the height of their bell tower, whose peals must have disturbed the nearby nuns. The others ebbed through the next century.  The convent of Santa Caterina was eventually absorbed into San Paolo, and in the 1490s, when San Pancrazio and Sant’ Agnese numbered only a few sisters all together, the abbess of San Pancrazio renounced her office, and the women joined with San Paolo. The physical remnants of these convents took longer to remove.        

Difficulties resolved, the sisters continued on in their rule.  They followed the Dominican Constitutions, structuring devotion and government of the house.  They lived in cloister, clausura in Italian; claustration enclosed women in the monastery, in most cases for the rest of their mortal lives, apart from the world and oriented to serving the Lord, their heavenly bridegroom.  Daily life included recitation of the liturgy of the Hours, psalms and prayers sung before dawn and throughout the day.  Meals were eaten communally in the refectory.  Business and discipline were done in the chapter room.  Since women in convents could read and be educated much more than those outside, they might engage in other learned pursuits or arts: copying manuscripts, illuminating prayerbooks, even perhaps staging dramas for the “spiritual fun” of the women inside.[2]  The sisters of San Paolo earned a reputation of great piety. Women's religious institutions in fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe enjoyed (or endured) waves of reform, sometimes from the inside, and sometimes at the insistence of church officials who perceived corruption and wanted to recall inmates to their original rules and vows.  When the fiery preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) pressed for purification in Florence, for instance, the sisters of San Paolo petitioned to follow this Dominican endeavor. While officials sometimes found abuses in need of correction, reform moves also could be heavy-handed and disruptive to the life women had made for themselves inside the cloister.

Reform can be a puzzle in the history of a convent.  From our vantage, reform does not always appear to be improvement.  It might mean, in part, returning to original intentions if subsequent generations went off course, got slack, made too many accommodations to the flesh.  But some of the accommodations religious women made might look like good developments: allowing sisters to see family members, to keep a few precious possessions reminiscent of home or loved ones, to give gifts to each other or outsiders, to leave the building to do good works—or even just for personal reasons. These were the sorts of indulgences or misbehaviors reform movements often aimed to stamp out.  Nursing private loves and clinging to home were thought to undercut commitment to God and fellow sisters.  Women’s monastic rules were predominantly adaptations of those used for monks, so Augustinian, Benedictine, Clarissian, and Dominican were tailored for the presumed weakness of the second sex. To us, a more winning model of female monasticism might be the way of the canoness, following the 816 Rule of Aachen, which allowed sisters to come and go, own property, and not take perpetual vows.  Most cases of women founding new convents or renewing old ones, though, were motivated by a desire for greater rigor. However, whether inspired from without or within, these movements could strengthen women's religious houses so that when Reformation came to territories of Europe in the sixteenth century, nuns often put up stiff resistance when Protestants tried to close them. 

Given its location in the Papal States, Orvieto was not directly troubled by the Reformation.  But turmoil did spill over after the sack of Rome in 1527, when the beleaguered Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) sought refuge in the town. The Pope made a visit to San Paolo to confirm both the reputation for sanctity held by the sisters and the security of their walls. With a retinue of ecclesiastical attendants he entered the monastery. The sisters greeted him warmly and bent to kiss his feet. Then they put forth their pleas.  Entreating him to redress a long-standing irritation, they begged permission to remove the broken-down remains of the old convents of Santa Caterina and San Pancrazio. The pope agreed on condition that the nuns would establish chapels within their church dedicated to each of these saints. Reviewing this in a letter dated 1528 from Orvieto—where presumably he would have stayed in the palazzo papale next to the duomo and up the street from San Paolo—Clement VII also gave the nuns a gift of an "ampia cistern" a great stone well in their courtyard, with the papal coat-of-arms on its side.  Well-building was a legacy this pope left to Orvieto more generally.  To protect the town from siege, he also commissioned the building of the Pozzo di San Patrizio, St. Patrick’s well, an impressive sixty-two-meter deep channel designed by Sangallo the younger, with double staircases going up and down for carrying the water.

The very nature of the monastery made visitors from outside a rarity rather than an ordinary event, but others were also attracted by the promise of quiet and holiness at San Paolo.  While technically closed--claustration entailed a commitment for the nuns to stay in, and grilles, bars, and gates to keep others out--convents regularly drew women for short terms, often wealthy widows, and sometimes friends, relatives, or patrons of the sisters, not there to take vows and remain permanently but to enjoy for a time the prayerful life inside. Among such visitors San Paolo counts Vittoria Colonna (1501-1547). The poet, perhaps the best known woman writer of her age, was the daughter of a leading Roman family and friend of Michelangelo. Influenced by writings of reformers like Juan de Valdes and Bernardino Ochino, who became Protestant and fled to Switzerland, and later the English Cardinal Reginald Pole, Colonna sought and dispensed religious counsel.  She came to San Paolo in 1541. Her connections to the nuns are unclear, though she may have counted a friend or relative among them, but in her stay she likely joined in prayers and devotions of the sisters, perhaps spending time in correspondence and poetry too. 

The sixteenth century is distinguished as a period of reform and of important visits, given and received, by the nuns of San Paolo.  Visitation records repeatedly praised the piety and order of the monastery. The strength of San Paolo’s community was evidenced further by the tasks they were given in founding and renewing other women’s communities.  In 1529 six sisters, five Florentines and an Orvietana, were dispatched to help set up a new Dominican house, Santa Caterina, in Viterbo.  In 1555, when the nuns of San Tommaso in Perugia wished to move from Cistercian to Dominican rule, Pope Julius II selected sisters Cherubina, Caterina Polidori, and Serafina Buttifango to help the work. And in a project dear to the heart of Pope Pius V, the crumbling monastery of St. Bernard in the lovely Tuscan town of Montepulciano was to be renewed in 1571, in memory of the town’s own St. Agnes, so three were sent from San Paolo to help with the project. 

The women tapped for these projects may have been extraordinary rather than typical, not least in that their unusual service outside the convent rendered them visible to posterity.  It would be desirable to know more of the sisters of San Paolo: records, names, of the many women who spent their lives there might afford models of piety to emulate or lore of colorful but nettlesome personalities, and would trace connections between families of Orvieto and the convent. A few women were cited by clerical visitors for office-holding or distinctions in piety, like Sister Alessandra Caccini, of the group sent to Viterbo, a Florentine who became abbess and was reputed for praying on her knees a hundred times a day.  Among the best commemorated is Domenica Tarugi, prioress, reformer, and mystic.  Domenica will serve for us as an example of the kind of God-loving life that women came to San Paolo to lead. 

Domenica Tarugi was born to a distinguished Orvieto family in 1518, her father decorated officer of the papal army.  When she took her vows at San Paolo at age nineteen, the prioress saw an orb of light around her head when she put on the young woman’s veil. To Sister Domenica, San Paolo was the very vestibule of paradise.  She sang out her love for God in the choir night and day.  When the sisters were summoned by bell for prayers at night, often they found Domenica there already.  She passed hours with sick or elderly sisters in the infirmary. When a full moon illuminated the cliffs, she would look with delight at the countryside around Orvieto, composing soliloquies of praise to her Creator.[3]

Much of the countryside and cityscape she admired would have looked like it does now: to one side a corner of the grey-and-white striped duomo, plus the belltower of the cathedral and other churches in town; the Premonstratensian abbey of San Severo across the valley, and paths and vineyards marking the slope down in stretches of green farmland dotted with silver-leafed olive trees, small herds of shaggy sheep shuttled between field and barn.  To the other side, the bristling fortress built under the auspices of Cardinal Egidio Albornoz, (1310-1367) made plain the city's connection to papal powers. The stories about Domenica report her watching at night, but if she looked out in the early morning, perhaps between early prayers and work, she might have seen little of the valley at all, white mist of a cloud caught down below that makes the monastery seem suspended in air.

Domenica had lived in San Paolo for thirty-five years when, at age 54, distinguished by her leadership and piety, she was sent at the behest of Pope Pius V toMontepulciano.  Montepulciano was the hometown of the thirteenth-century St. Agnes, and the pope wished to honor her life with a convent of the saint’s own Dominican order.  Suor Domenica and two other sisters went out on footand were greeted by a great crowd,  including bishops, clerics, military officers, and others who acclaimed the newcomers and marked their arrival with brilliant torchlight.  Pius V named Domenica the prioress of the monastery.  From Tuscany and beyond, a rush of young women, titled and common, sought the veil and the chance to live a holy life under Domenica’s direction.   She led them with distinction until, at age 70, troubled by blindness and infirmity, she asked to be relieved of her office.  Not seldom visited by angels, Domenica was graced with a particularly special vision near the end of days, when three heavenly guests appeared to her one evening and assured her that she would soon join their numbers.  The vision was attested by three other elderly nuns who saw the bright guests exit, and confirmed one as St. Catherine of Siena and another as the local St. Agnes, but—endearingly—debated amongst themselves whether the last was Margaret of Savoy or Giovanna of Orvieto.   Domenicadied shortly after,  in May of 1604.

Seventeenth-century Monuments and Miracles

The seventeenth century yielded two critical sources touching the life of San Paolo.  In 1631, the sisters’ Dominican confessor, Tommaso Bottini, published an encomium of the house, collecting papal documents relevant to its past and memorializing some of its holy members. Too late to register in Bottini’s work but significant to the sisters’ devotions and reputation, the monastery acquired a painting of Jesus carrying his cross and wearing a crown of thorns, the miraculous image of the Santissimo Salvatore, most holy Savior.  The artist and the picture’s origins are unknown, but its path to San Paolo was full of high drama.  

A well-born young Orvietano named Balancini set out on a mercantile voyage, was captured by Turkish pirates in Algeria and enslaved. Forced to clean out the stables of his master, he held out hope that deliverance would someday come from heaven. One day when he was working in the stalls, he discovered this picture of Jesus.  Balancini knew not how the image arrived there in the filth—perhaps it had been taken from a church or Christian home--but after much weeping and prayer, the young man one day stole away with the image tucked under his clothes. He made his way unseen through crowded streets and reached a ship that brought him safely back to his family in Orvieto—the first of the picture’s miracles. From the Balancini family the image was acquired by another clan, the Palazzis, whose daughter Suor Angela Vittoria joined San Paolo in 1653 and brought it with her.  The picture was credited with numerous miraculous healings in its next century and a half, including the deliverance of Orvieto from the plague. So great was local desire to see the image that the nuns agreed to move it on occasion from their private, interior chapel to the public church. On solemn festivals or processions through the next century, Orvietani could see it in San Paolo. On at least one occasion, the nuns from San Pietro across the corso very much wanted to behold it, and so it was borne to them in what must have been an impressive procession.[4]

Absent written sources, the art and architecture of the monastery indicate that the seventeenth century probably marked a period of flourishing. Women’s monasteries often possessed a “double church.”  One would be accessible to townspeople, male and female, and one would be inside their own private space that might abut the other with a window or grille to allow them to hear mass and be heard singing, and receive the sacrament, but not see or be seen. After the nuns had cleared away remnants of the other monasteries as Clement VII allowed, they built a new church.  It was dedicated in 1607, with frescoes inside attributed to Gian Maria Colombi in 1617 and an altar purportedly designed by Ippolito Scalza.[5] The existence of these features indicates important activity and resources: the projects would have had to be funded by the sisters or benefactors, whose willingness to give money to the convent hints at its continued support and prestige in the town.  Patrons might have had relatives at San Paolo, or wished to express a particular devotion by bankrolling its embellishment.  For their part, the sisters could have helped choose or influence the building style or decorative subjects of the church.[6] Chronicles of other Italian convents note mothers superior selecting particular artists or styles, meeting or corresponding with patrons and artists, usually with mediation of a male relative or clergyman. Sisters would also have had to accommodate the presence of workmen, presumably a worthwhile presence but nonetheless an intrusion into the cloister. 

Parts of both interior and exterior churches have been renovated at San Paolo in recent years, the interior church newly painted, its walls a crisp white in the bright space with frescoes of Christ’s Passion visible if damaged. It contrasts the exterior church markedly, with its much larger fresco cycle of the life of Saint Paul, multiple altars, and more elaborate carvings and moldings.  Even with the adjustments of intervening centuries, the contrast between the simplicity of the interior church and the embellishment of the exterior are obvious. Why would nuns be willing to pay for, commission, and solicit patronage for a church they themselves would not even use, perhaps never enter? Their motivation followed from their ministry.  As they prayed for relatives and city and church behind their walls, offering their piety for the good of those outside, so too a beautiful and inspiring space in a public church would serve as their gift to the city, with art designed or ordered or paid for through their efforts.  Two examples are the chapels Clement VII ordered for the former monasteries, San Pancrazio and Santa Caterina, underwritten by sisters Vittoria Vaschiensi and Clelia degli Albizi.[7] The exterior church was an expression of the interior life of the convent.  It was also, of course, a meeting point between sisters inside and world outside, and some of the art in the chiesa of San Paolo bears witness to the connections the sisters may have enjoyed, either because women of important families lived inside or because the sisters otherwise enjoyed noble favor.  A profile portrait of Faustina Monaldeschi above one window suggests links to that powerful clan.

Other paintings in the inside the monastery, undated and unattributed, were presumably commissioned for benefit of the sisters themselves, since outsiders normally would not have seen them.  Bottini notes a painting of the Virgin Mary at the top of the stairs that was much loved by the sisters.  It may or may not be the one still there, facing the second-floor stairwell. The enthroned Madonna holds the Christ child and is attended by several saints, including St. Jerome and St. Dominic.  Above, a lunette shows a woman in white bending at the foot of another, prone and clothed in black.  It is a reference to the life of Saint Catherine of Siena who, when she bent to venerate the body of the deceased Agnes of Montepulciano (1268-1317), found that the saint had lifted her foot so she would not need to bend down so far—a testimony to the sanctity of both women.  The scene would have been familiar to Dominican women. Other saints appear in frescoes beneath the cupola a few steps down the second-floor hallway.  Some are in poor condition, some invisible and others we must be content to reckon as anonymous saints.  Saint Dominic is recognizable, next to St. Peter Martyr, with the knife in his skull recalling his means of death.  Though we cannot now discern the face of the third figure, St. Thomas Aquinas often joined these two in Dominican iconography.  In any case, this art served to remind sisters, as they made their way through the building during each day, to whom they should pray and whom they joined, as Dominicans, in a community of worship. 

Into Modernity

San Paolo’s career as a Dominican monastery came to an abrupt halt at the opening of the nineteenth century.  What has San Paolo to do with Napoleon, the quiet life of cloistered nuns with the noisy advance of the French army?  In 1810 Napoleon’s troops closed down San Paolo, as they did many other religious institutions in Italy.  Not only anticlericalism and resentment of Church properties motivated this suppression, but also conviction that a place like San Paolo had no practical purpose: from the perspective of reformers desiring a secular state, a house with women sitting around praying and contemplating God was utterly useless, even parasitical.  The sisters were dispersed to private homes.  The last prioress, Enrica Romani, went back when possible to retrieve the miraculous Santissimo Salvatore, and kept it in the home where she was sheltered.  When Orvieto returned to papal orbit after 1815, the sisters were unable to return to San Paolo but instead joined their Dominican consorelle at San Pietro.  San Paolo eventually was repaired through the efforts of a local canon, Faustino Valentini. Not Dominicans but by sisters from the Adorers of the Sacred Heart occupied it from 1842. After the unification of Italy, a new round of religious suppressions came at the reign of Vittorio Emmanuele II (1820-1878). In an ironic reversal, owing to the dissolution of their house, sisters from San Pietro came to live at San Paolo with the Adorers (Adoratrici) before they were evicted finally at the beginning of the twentieth century.  

The few remaining Dominican women then found refuge finally in the Istituto Santissimo Salvatore on the Piazza del Popolo, where the miraculous image is protected and venerated by a group of tertiariesto this day. When the Adorers of the Sacred Heart united with the Adorers of the Most Precious Blood of Christ in 1964, the building accommodated them, serving for a while as a school and at last housing the elderly Adoratrici.  The Adorers currently at San Paolo live in a yellow house across the courtyard from the main building, and though sadly declining in number as they rise in age, still gather in the chiesa at least twice daily for prayer, walk in their lovely garden, and smile and wave from windows as the students come and go. Their institute was one founded in the nineteenth century as a reversal of women’s contemplative life, emphasizing instead the active apostolate, committed to charitable works and particularly education.  But in the gentle irony of spending old age this way in the old monastery, the balance seems to have tipped back to the contemplative, their days consisting more in prayer and staying inside the walls than in doings outside.  

Convent Life Reconsidered

Imagining what would count for success in our current use of San Paolo offers a foothold to survey the nuns’ accomplishment.  How would we measure the success of a convent?   Perhaps, counterintuitively, its apparent insignificance and continuity should make us appraise it as important.  For a religious house to survive long, observing prayers and devotional practices in roughly the same way over centuries, governed by women and kept up by outsiders supportive of its mission, represents a substantial achievement even before it crosses paths with political or military history. The sisters prayed, kept discipline, celebrated feasts, managed business, and received new members until stopped by circumstances beyond their control. San Paolo spent centuries preparing women for heaven. 

Still, there can be something irreducibly strange to us about convent life, given current assumptions about piety and the sea-change in the condition of women.  Historians of female monasticism often emphasize the contrast between opportunities available inside convent walls versus those women might attain outside, in centuries before our own.  Pre-modern women were confronted with a choice between a husband or a veil, life as a wife or a nun.  There were real benefits to be had from choosing the latter. Admittedly this choice was most viable for those already possessed of adequate wealth and status.  Admission to a convent as a “choir nun,” rather than in a servant capacity, required a dowry just as marriage did.  Italy experienced dowry inflation from fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, the amount required to marry off a well-born daughter spiking beyond the means of many families, a development that fueled the building of convents, whose dowries were comparatively smaller. Some women made forced professions.   Venetian nun Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-1652), in her books Paternal Tyranny and Monastic Hell, thundered against decisions to cloister daughters without calling or desire simply because it made sense in disposition of family property. Those owing their habit to "family strategies" rather than choice could suffer and rebel through the misbehaviors that gave monastic life the taint of corruption. Nevertheless, for those with or without strong vocation, consecrated virginity was not the only good to be had inside the walls.  As nuns, women could be educated, participate in elections and hold office, produce art and literature, in ways unimaginable outside those walls in centuries past.  In addition, they would be relieved of the ordinary household labor and childbearing that normally consumed--even ended—the mortal life of the average laywoman. 

In principle women should take the veil to live a life devoted to God in prayer, not just as an alternative to marriage or a path to pursue learning or leadership.  The goal is as valid now as then. Yet women’s religious orders were based on social patterns and religious culture that have vanished. The push factors pressing women into convents have changed.  Many other possibilities for work and independence exist, not just husband or veil. The perks of convent life might pale in contrast to those now found outside: to become a nun, women now forsake prospects not only of husband, childbearing, and family, but status, salary, and flexibility. Given birth rates and life spans in Italy, family strategies now might dictate opposite pressures; should a young woman want to join an order, her parents might be reluctant to let an only daughter take the veil. 

If push factors have moved, pull factors are different too. Many young women still may desire a life dedicated to God.  Among our students in the Orvieto program I have seen some with deep and strong devotion.  But they would express this by a life of service rather than one of contemplation. The wall was a hallmark of women's religious life in the west for much of the stretch of Christendom.  Separation from the world mattered for monks, too, but claustration was long an expected, if contested, precondition for nuns.  In historical accounts the wall sometimes seems more than half the point of women's religious life in the first place—an emphasis misplaced, exaggerated by worries about women's seductiveness and vulnerability. Here many of the most pious undergraduates may stand frankly uncomprehending before the convent wall, put off by the equation of devotion with the cloistered life.  The example of, say, Mother Teresa, makes sense to them: loving God means loving neighbor, and something beautiful for God can be feeding the poor, caring for the orphan, healing the sick.  (Teaching, that perennial post open for sisters to blend active and contemplative disciplines, curiously can fail to make the cut of selfless, God-honoring occupations.)  Protestant theology of vocation also deals a blow. If any work can be sacred to God, the reason for exercising one's talents in the context of a religious order, distanced from family and under church authority, is a hard sell. 

The students in Gordon’s program in Orvieto oft are exhorted to be present in the town during this semester abroad rather than succumbing to distractions of electronic connections to other places, other social calendars: really to be of Orvieto while in it. Imagining the cloistered life in an Orvieto convent puts a different spin on the Christian challenge to be in the world but not of it.  Most women who became nuns during San Paolo’s heyday would expect never to leave convent walls again. Students whose four-month Italian idyll passes too quickly might envy an existence planted in Orvieto for good. Yet these sisters would have been of Orvieto but hardly in it, belonging deeply and importantly to the city—cities valued the blessings accrued by having consecrated women praying for them—drawn from some of its most prominent families, but segmented off in a way that parted them from some of its loveliest attributes and familiar features.  Family occasions, periods of illness, signs of changed seasons, holidays would pass for them within the walls.  Even the chief feast of the Christian calendar, the Vigil on Saturday night before Easter, they would celebrate not at the Duomo but inside San Paolo.  They might look at, remember, pray for the city, correspond and even visit with family, but after taking the veil they spent their lives at once in and outside the city.  Sister Domenica's gaze over the countryside was a distant one.  It is to be hoped that she enjoyed her journey to Montepulciano, and that the Tuscan landscape didn’t look too shabby in comparison in the years before her sight failed. 

Gordon College’s residence in monasteries such as San Paolo, then, offers chance to regard the experience that consecrated women and men lived.  Current use of spaces once enclosed and dedicated to prayer might be unrecognizable to sisters like Domenica, but nonetheless honors the professions made by such people.  Prayer is offered, as with the nuns’ own day, both to the glory of God and in intercession for those outside.  Room is made for learning and silence.  Work is done on behalf of the community.  Art is made and enjoyed in a place of beauty, retreat, and conversation.

Agnes R. Howard has taught regularly for the History and English departments of Gordon College. As often as possible, she teaches a course in "Women, Family and Religion in the early modern era" for the Gordon IN Orvieto program.

[1] The basic account of San Paolo’s history is offered in the authoritative nineteenth-century guide to the city, Tommaso Piccolomini-Adami, Guida storico-artistica della citta di Orvieto.  Siena: 1883, 237-243. Piccolomini-Adami in turn relies on the seventeenth-century report of Tommaso Bottini, Memorie dell’Originie & Progressi del Monasterio delle Monache di San Paolo Orvieto dell’Ordine di S. D. 1631.

[2]  While we have no certain evidence that the sisters of San Paolo staged dramas, other convents in Italy, particularly around Florence, did so during the Renaissance, performing sacre rappresentazioni and lives of saints for the edification and training of the sisters and sometimes guests, a practice San Paolo plausibly could have shared. See Elissa B. Weaver. Convent Theater in Early Modern Italy: Spiritual Fun and Learning for Women. Cambridge, 2007.

[3] This and following discussion of the Blessed Domenica Tarugi relies on Aurelio Ficarelli, Sancta Urbevetana Legio. Orvieto: Tipografia degli Orfanelli, 1962.

[4] M. Tarcisia Cecchitelli, ed., L’Istituto SS. Salvatore: Una Presenza Feminile Domenicana in Orvieto. Marsili Editore, 1994. Ceccitelli’s book offers a reprinting of a nineteenth-century Dominican’s story of the miraculous image upon which this section relies.

[5] Documentation of the art inside Chiesa di San Paolo appears in Adami and in additional detail in Pericle Perali, Note Storiche di Topografia. Note Storiche d’Arte dell’Originie al 1800. Orvieto, 1919.

[6]  For discussion of how women in other orders influenced and commissioned the art in their monasteries, see Mary Ann Winklemes, “Taking Part: Benedictine Nuns as Patrons of Art and Architecture, “ in Geraldine A. Johnson and Sara F. Matthews Grieco, eds, . Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997) and Jeryldene M. Wood, Women, Art, and Spirituality: The Poor Clares of Early Modern Italy.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

[7] Adami 240

This outlines the long history of San Paolo, but hardly serves to answer for eight centuries of religious life in one place. The gaps in the story frustrate.  But they are themselves part of San Paolo's history, created as they were by the experience of the house and its residents. Fire, flood, and pestilence might share blame for erasing records that could tell more, but the largest portion might be laid at the feet of Napoleon, whose suppression of monasteries not only evicted women from the cloister but dispersed or destroyed their records. Still, these regrettable periods demonstrate how closely linked was the convent to the world outside, though seemingly protected from the political and economic turns by which we often assign periods to time. The internal narrative of San Paolo is lost because of the French Revolution, Napoleonic wars, and Italian Unification, landmarks of the nineteenth century that determined both the fate of this convent and our perspective on it.  

Records that would shed light on both monumental and quotidian events of San Paolo are missing.  Some female monasteries have rich sources: chronicles of important annual events, reports to superiors or sister houses, rosters of new sisters, necrologies, inventories, account books, bishop's visitations.  The Council of Trent ordered convents to keep careful records, so even those not doing so before had official sanction since the sixteenth century.  When found, these records are treasures allowing historians to assess in minute detail the patterns of the convent. Who lived there? Why did these women choose one religious house over another? How did families dictate their choice of religious life, and did they miss or stay in contact with those families? Did they flourish in piety, languish, love, or grow worse? How did they think about or experience crises that raged outside their walls? What did they say to one another? What did they make? 

Past the gaps left by war and decay stretch lacunae left by our own limitations and incuriosity.  Though sources have long been known to exist for some convents, the boom in this scholarship commenced only recently. Historical records for nuns’ lives were available long before scholars availed themselves: perhaps it wasn't clear why any should care. Beyond nostalgia, or local or antiquarian interest, why should historians make much of an outdated institution, intentionally separate from its own time and place, walled up, apparently extreme in its devotional observance?