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Divas in the Convent: Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy

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When eight-year-old Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590–1662) entered one of the preeminent convents in Bologna in 1598, she had no idea what cloistered life had in store for her. Thanks to clandestine instruction from a local maestro di cappella—and despite the church hierarchy’s vehement opposition to all convent music—Vizzana became the star of the convent, composing works so When eight-year-old Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590–1662) entered one of the preeminent convents in Bologna in 1598, she had no idea what cloistered life had in store for her. Thanks to clandestine instruction from a local maestro di cappella—and despite the church hierarchy’s vehement opposition to all convent music—Vizzana became the star of the convent, composing works so thoroughly modern and expressive that a recent critic described them as “historical treasures.” But at the very moment when Vizzana’s works appeared in 1623—she would be the only Bolognese nun ever to publish her music—extraordinary troubles beset her and her fellow nuns, as episcopal authorities arrived to investigate anonymous allegations of sisterly improprieties with male members of their order.           Craig A. Monson retells the story of Vizzana and the nuns of Santa Cristina to elucidate the role that music played in the lives of these cloistered women. Gifted singers, instrumentalists, and composers, these nuns used music not only to forge links with the community beyond convent walls, but also to challenge and circumvent ecclesiastical authority. Monson explains how the sisters of Santa Cristina—refusing to accept what the church hierarchy called God’s will and what the nuns perceived as a besmirching of their honor—fought back with words and music, and when these proved futile, with bricks, roof tiles, and stones. These women defied one Bolognese archbishop after another, cardinals in Rome, and even the pope himself, until threats of excommunication and abandonment by their families brought them to their knees twenty-five years later. By then, Santa Cristina’s imaginative but frail composer literally had been driven mad by the conflict.           Monson’s fascinating narrative relies heavily on the words of its various protagonists, on both sides of the cloister wall, who emerge vividly as imaginative, independent-minded, and not always sympathetic figures. In restoring the musically gifted Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana to history, Monson introduces readers to the full range of captivating characters who played their parts in seventeenth-century convent life. 


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When eight-year-old Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590–1662) entered one of the preeminent convents in Bologna in 1598, she had no idea what cloistered life had in store for her. Thanks to clandestine instruction from a local maestro di cappella—and despite the church hierarchy’s vehement opposition to all convent music—Vizzana became the star of the convent, composing works so When eight-year-old Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590–1662) entered one of the preeminent convents in Bologna in 1598, she had no idea what cloistered life had in store for her. Thanks to clandestine instruction from a local maestro di cappella—and despite the church hierarchy’s vehement opposition to all convent music—Vizzana became the star of the convent, composing works so thoroughly modern and expressive that a recent critic described them as “historical treasures.” But at the very moment when Vizzana’s works appeared in 1623—she would be the only Bolognese nun ever to publish her music—extraordinary troubles beset her and her fellow nuns, as episcopal authorities arrived to investigate anonymous allegations of sisterly improprieties with male members of their order.           Craig A. Monson retells the story of Vizzana and the nuns of Santa Cristina to elucidate the role that music played in the lives of these cloistered women. Gifted singers, instrumentalists, and composers, these nuns used music not only to forge links with the community beyond convent walls, but also to challenge and circumvent ecclesiastical authority. Monson explains how the sisters of Santa Cristina—refusing to accept what the church hierarchy called God’s will and what the nuns perceived as a besmirching of their honor—fought back with words and music, and when these proved futile, with bricks, roof tiles, and stones. These women defied one Bolognese archbishop after another, cardinals in Rome, and even the pope himself, until threats of excommunication and abandonment by their families brought them to their knees twenty-five years later. By then, Santa Cristina’s imaginative but frail composer literally had been driven mad by the conflict.           Monson’s fascinating narrative relies heavily on the words of its various protagonists, on both sides of the cloister wall, who emerge vividly as imaginative, independent-minded, and not always sympathetic figures. In restoring the musically gifted Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana to history, Monson introduces readers to the full range of captivating characters who played their parts in seventeenth-century convent life. 

39 review for Divas in the Convent: Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy

  1. 5 out of 5

    Susan Waller

    A fascinating story of women trying to hold on to a little bit of power over their own lives, against intransigent church hierarchy. For me, it went into too much detail, both about church inner-workings and personal scandals. I had no idea: After roughly 1550, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of organists, singers, and composers can be traced within the records of Italy’s nunneries, records that largely remain unavailable to the general public. The more talented of these sacred divas may have kept out A fascinating story of women trying to hold on to a little bit of power over their own lives, against intransigent church hierarchy. For me, it went into too much detail, both about church inner-workings and personal scandals. I had no idea: After roughly 1550, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of organists, singers, and composers can be traced within the records of Italy’s nunneries, records that largely remain unavailable to the general public. The more talented of these sacred divas may have kept out of sight, but in their own times, they were regularly on the minds of music lovers.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Tena

    Truthfully, I was expecting "Diva" to mean "vain or undisciplined," but it was actually used literally: "a principal female singer in an opera or concert organization." Very well researched. It read a bit dryly for me, however there were plenty of fascinating details abounding within that kept me interested. Disclaimer: I won this in a GOODREADS giveaway. I would't have read it on my own initiative but the cover intrigued me when I received it. Truthfully, I was expecting "Diva" to mean "vain or undisciplined," but it was actually used literally: "a principal female singer in an opera or concert organization." Very well researched. It read a bit dryly for me, however there were plenty of fascinating details abounding within that kept me interested. Disclaimer: I won this in a GOODREADS giveaway. I would't have read it on my own initiative but the cover intrigued me when I received it.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sheila

  4. 4 out of 5

    Liliana

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lenore

  6. 4 out of 5

    Hayley

  7. 5 out of 5

    Ruth Feathers

  8. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    780.88271 M755 2012

  10. 4 out of 5

    adam m. butryn jr

  11. 4 out of 5

    Manolis

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rita

  13. 5 out of 5

    dex

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michele Davis

  15. 4 out of 5

    Tonya

  16. 4 out of 5

    Marie

  17. 5 out of 5

    University of Chicago Press

  18. 4 out of 5

    Pilar Rivett

  19. 5 out of 5

    Stella

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jan

  21. 4 out of 5

    Holly

  22. 4 out of 5

    frogfairie

  23. 4 out of 5

    Reader50

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly

  27. 5 out of 5

    Pat

  28. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  29. 4 out of 5

    Chantel Rich

  30. 4 out of 5

    Grace

  31. 5 out of 5

    Laura

  32. 5 out of 5

    Christina

  33. 5 out of 5

    Lindsey

  34. 4 out of 5

    Oz Ortega

  35. 5 out of 5

    --------

  36. 4 out of 5

    graceofgod

  37. 4 out of 5

    Adrian

  38. 5 out of 5

    Leah

  39. 5 out of 5

    Julie

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