Church History


“Enamelled with the Blood of a Noble Lineage”: Tracing Noble Blood and Female Holiness in Early Modern Neapolitan Convents and Their Architecture1

Helen Hillsa1

a1 Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Manchester, U.K.

The stark antithesis between the secular and the religious has been effectively challenged by scholarship of early modern Italy, which has shown the degree to which these fields necessarily overlapped. Nevertheless, studies of early modern female devotion, especially within convents, often present women as caught between competing claims of kinship and clerical authority, a conflict between family and convent, an opposition between the secular and the divine. This paper argues that within Neapolitan conventual circles, at least, nuns' noble blood was regarded as enhancing the spiritual value of their convents, and that, on the whole, the way in which the Decrees of the Council of Trent were interpreted served to “aristocratize” convents. Something of a fusion occurred between nobility and spirituality in women. This paper relates this fusion to discourses on nobility and to the aristocratization of convent culture after enclosure at Trent, examining how it marked post-Tridentine Neapolitan convent architecture and urbanism. In short, I argue that nuns' nobility enhanced the spiritual value of Neapolitan convents after Trent, and that such status was communicated discursively, architecturally, and urbanistically.


1 Research for this article was made possible by an AHRB Matching Leave Award taken in conjunction with Manchester University research leave (2001–02) and British Academy Small Grants. I am pleased to thank those institutions for their support. My colleagues in the School of Art History and Archaeology displayed their generosity of spirit and intellectual commitment in their support for my research leave. My greatest debts are to Neapolitans. Giuliana Boccadamo, Gaetana Cantone, Giuseppe Galasso, Cesare de Seta, Genoveffa Palumbo, and Architetto C. Pasinetti deserve special thanks. I am indebted to the unfailing efficiency and helpfulness of Nicola Spinosa, director of the Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli, and to his staff. My thanks also to Felicita de Negri and her staff at the Archivio di Stato, to all at the Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli (especially in the manuscript section), the Archivio Diocesano, and the Biblioteca della Società Napoletana di Storia Patria. Massimo Velo in Naples and Michael Pollard and Derek Trillo provided timely photographic assistance. Encouragement and stimulating insights throughout the process of research and writing came from many people, but I should thank especially Sara Cabibbo, Sarah Cormack, Joseph Connors, Simon Ditchfield, Irene Fosi, Peter Higginson, Roberto Rusconi, and Mike Savage. I presented an earlier version of this paper at the “Religion and the Early Modern State” conference at Keele University in June, 2003; it benefited considerably from the questions I received then. Margaret Littler gave thoughtful feedback during the last stages of writing. Elegant translations were provided by Mary Pardo; otherwise they are my own. Finally, I should like to thank the anonymous readers of Church History for their stimulating questions and insightful suggestions in the last stages.