Brown (economic history, Stanford) stumbled across the bizarre story of Sister Benedetta Carlini (1590-1661), Abbess of the...


IMMODEST ACTS: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy

Brown (economic history, Stanford) stumbled across the bizarre story of Sister Benedetta Carlini (1590-1661), Abbess of the Theatine Convent of the Mother of God, while browsing through the State Archives in Florence. The enthusiastic author makes more of her discovery than seems justified: it's difficult to see how any study that touches on lesbianism, even in a convent, deals with ""hitherto unexplored areas of women's sexual lives."" Nonetheless, Brown has unearthed a compelling tale, and she does a fine job of research and writing about the nether side of Renaissance Roman Catholicism. Sister Benedetta joined a convent at age nine. By 23, she was the fearful recipient of amazing visions, including a splendidly arrayed Jesus who protected her from a pack of wild beasts. A few years later, the Son of God imprinted the stigmata on her hands, feet, and chest. Other miracles followed. Benedetta's prestige seemed assured, her rule as abbess ironclad. But doubts began to arise. An initial investigation turned up nothing, but a second, more thorough inquiry found Sister Benedetta to be vain and uncharitable, her visions demonically inspired, her stigmata the product of an adroitly wielded needle. Above all, the second investigation ferreted out a homosexual affair between Benedetta and another nun--a disclosure that truly shocked the investigators, reports Brown, because lesbian activity was so sub rosa in the 16th century that few people even knew of its existence. As a punishment, Benedetta was imprisoned behind convent walls until her death 35 years later. Brown prefaces her subject's tale with a provocative discussion of the suppressed history of lesbianism during the Christian era. Adopting a feminist perspective, she nonetheless sails skillfully through religious and psychoanalytic interpretations of Benedetta's actions without really taking sides. It should be noted, however, that the author's initial focus on lesbianism (a slant implied also in the book's subtitle) is misleading: only a small portion of the ensuing text deals with Benedetta's sexuality, the bulk being an absorbing account of a nun driven by fierce psychopathological forces into a quicksand of self-delusion. While of limited general interest, this pithy account of visions, miracles, and sexual deviance in a 16th-century Italian convent should captivate students of feminism or religious history.

Pub Date: Nov. 14, 1985

ISBN: 0195042255

Page Count: -

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1985