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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Helen Hills
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.

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2004

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6. Ibid., 5. Their virginity endowed nuns with special status. Virginity offered both the ideal of Christian transcendence of mundane social divisions, with virgins symbolizing redemption, even at great personal cost, and a sort of religious superiority, in which virgins, like the angels, were free from death, which was linked to sexuality and lust. Virginity was a potentially powerful state, with the capacity to mediate between the mundane and the divine, to transcend manhood and womanhood. Ecclesiastical authorities attempted to regulate and restrict virginity, partly because of its potential for transcendence and partly to support marriage, which was brought into the sacred realm at the Council of Trent that stipulated in 1563 that marriage vows required divine confirmation and clerical supervision. On virginity, see Bugge, J., Virginitas: An Essay in the History of a Medieval Idea (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975)Google Scholar; Blok, A., “Notes on the Concept of Virginity in Mediterranean Societies,” in Men and Women in Spiritual Culture, ed. Van Kessel, E. (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1986), 2239Google Scholar; Fiume, G. and Scaraffia, L., eds., Quaderni Storici, n.s. 25:3 (1990): 701–14.Google Scholar On nuns' virginity and the city, see Sperling, J. G., Convents and the Body Politic, 127–36Google Scholar; Hills, Helen, Invisible City: the Architecture of Devotion in Aristocratic Convents in Baroque Naples (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 4561.Google Scholar

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8. While nuns' Vitae emphasize above all the inherent merits of the individual nun, they frequently reveal crucial interventions by powerful patrons. They are often written by a family relation ambitious for the elevation of one of their members and are carefully dedicated to significant political players. Thus Marchese's, D. M.Vita della Serva di Dio Suor Paola Maresca, monaca del Monastero di santa Caterina da Siena di Napoli, published by Geronimo Fasulo in Naples in 1669Google Scholar, was dedicated to Viceroy Pedro Antonio d'Aragona and promoted by Giovanni Domenico Maresca. On the patronage of female saints, see Papi, A. Benvenuti, “Il ‘patronage’ nell'agiografia femminile,” in Ragnatele di rapporti: patronage e reti di relazione nella storia delle donne, eds. Ferrante, L., Palazzi, M., and Pomata, G. (Turin: Rosenberg and Sellier, 1988), 201–18Google Scholar; Cabibbo, S. and Modica, Marilena, La Santa dei Tomasi: Storia di Suor Maria Crocefissa, 1645–1699, (Turin: Einaudi, 1989)Google Scholar; Zarri, G., ed., Finzione e santità tra medioevo e età moderna (Turin: Rosenberg and Sellier, 1991)Google Scholar; Barone, G., Caffiero, M., and Barcellona, F. Scorza, eds., Modelli di santità e modelli di comportamento, (Turin: Rosenberg and Sellier, 1994).Google Scholar For further bibliography see Ditchfield, S., “Sanctity in Early Modern Italy,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 47:1 (1996): 98112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9. This was a general pattern and by no means confined to Naples or even to southern Italy. Thus the Palermitan, sister Rosaria Caterina (1668–1716), defied her family at crucial junctures in her dedication to God in the convent of S. Vincenzo Ferrer in Carini (Mongitore, A., Compendio della Vita e Virtu della serva di Dio Suor Rosaria Caterina alias Detta di Cesù [Palermo: n.p., 1718], esp.15, 2225, 28, 41)Google Scholar; and the Capuchin nun of Pavia, Maria Domitilla Galluzzi (d.1671), disconcerted her family, including her “pious aunts,” by her search for “great poverty.” See, Matter, E. Ann, “The Personal and the Paradigm: the Book of Maria Domitilla Galluzzi,” in The Crannied Wall, ed. Monson, C. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 8797, esp. 91.Google Scholar

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11. Seventeenth-century Naples was Europe's second most populous city (after Paris). Scholars disagree as to precise figures but concur that the number of inhabitants swelled significantly. At the end of the fifteenth century immigration had increased the city's population to ca. 100,000 (at a time when the population of neither the Kingdom of Naples nor of the Mediterranean world was increasing). By the end of the century, following a boost in population due to immigration from the countryside in the second half of the sixteenth century, the population of Naples was probably in excess of 240,000. In 1630 G. C. Capaccio, Secretary of the City, estimated the population at 300,000, but that figure represents only citizens of Naples. By the middle of the seventeenth century the population of Naples reached over 400,000, probably around 450,000. De Seta, C., Napoli, (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1995), 129, 147.Google Scholar

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15. On the Seggi, the principal source remains Turini, C., Del origine e fundatione de' Seggi di Napoli (Naples: Il Beltrano, 1644).Google Scholar See also Galasso, G., “Un'ipotesi di ‘blocco storico’ oligarchico borghese nella Napoli del ′600,” Rivista Storica Italiana 90 (1978): 507–29Google Scholar; Astarita, , Continuity of Feudal Power, 24.Google Scholar

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17. Membership of a Seggio did not confer noble status; it was a recognition of the status of established resident nobles. Contarini, L., La nobiltà di Napoli. Dialogo (Naples: Giuseppe Cacchij, 1569), 31.Google Scholar Attempts to open up Seggi to aristocratic families who were not members were thwarted in the sixteenth century, and after 1599 all applications required preliminary approval from the king. Thereafter each case was treated individually. Astarita, , Continuity of Feudal Power, 24Google Scholar. The Seggi were not abolished until the edict of April 25, 1800. Muto, , “I Segni d'honore,” 175.Google Scholar

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48. “Bonifatii VIII constitutionem, quae incipit Periculoso, renovans, sancta synodus universis episcopis sub obtestatione divini iudicii et interminatione maledictionis aeternae praecipit, ut in omnibus monasteriis sibi subiectis ordinaria, in aliis vero Sedis Apostolicae auctoritate clausuram sanctimonialium, ubi violata fuerit, diligenter restitui, et, ubi inviolata est, conservari maxime procurent, inobedientes atque contradictores per censuras ecclesiasticas aliasque poenas, quacumque sappellatione postposita, compescentes, invocatio etiam ad hoc, si opus fuerit, auxilio brachii saecularis … Nemini autem sanctimonialium liceat, post professionem exire a monasterio, etiam ad breve tempus, quocumque praetextu, nisi ex aliqua legitima causa, ab episcopo approbanda, indultis quibuscumque et privilegiis non obstantibus.” Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (Sess. 25, Cap. V), 240. This ruling opened gaping uncertainties about the correct measures to be taken with the open monasteries where enclosure had never existed. The Council ruled that professed nuns, or “sanctimoniales” (itself an ambivalent term since it was not clear whether it included tertiaries) were not to be allowed out of convents, except for a legitimate cause and with episcopal approval. This was based on the mistaken assumption that nuns who took the three solemn vows necessarily abdicated their free will, even where the rule allowed nuns to leave their convent. In fact, this renunciation had not been demanded by the popes from Sixtus IV onwards, when the solemn vows were changed to simple vows and regular tertiaries had been recognized as true professed nuns. For a discussion of the increased rigidification of interpretation of Trent, see Creytens, R., “La Riforma dei monasteri femminili,” 5053, 60, 64, 65.Google Scholar On Periculoso, see Makowski, E., Canon Law and Cloistered Women: Periculoso and Its Commentators, 1298–1545. Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Canon Law 5 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997).Google Scholar

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53. Russo, , Monasteri Femminili, 54Google Scholar; ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Gregorio Armeno, 3451. Elsewhere in Italy as in Naples, dowries varied, despite attempts to establish standard sums. See Zarri, G., “‘De Monialibus’ (Secoli XVI–XVII–XVIII),” Rivista di Storia e Letteratura Religiosa, Anno XXXIII, no. 3 (1997): 688.Google Scholar

54. Russo, , Monasteri femminili, 54 and 54Google Scholar, n. 112. The daughter of Giovanni Angelo Muscettola and Laura Caracciolo, Scolastica entered S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi aged 14, with a dowry of 1,000 ducats “to be paid after her mother's death.” ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4922, ff. 15, 20–28.

55. ASN, Mon. Sop, S. Francesco delle Cappuccinelle, 4540, ff.92r, 100r, and 108r.

56. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4922, f.18.

57. Ibid., f.18.

58. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Gregorio Armeno, 3435, f.170r.

59. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Gregorio Armeno, 3435, f.176r.

60. Tertiaries lived in convents, in communal households with other tertiaries, or with their families. See Creytens, , “La Riforma,” 1, 4649.Google Scholar

61. Boccadamo, G. G. “Le bizzoche a Napoli tra ‘600 e ’700,” in Campania Sacra 22 (1991): 361.Google Scholar

62. Ibid., 369; Russo, , Monasteri Femminili, 5557.Google Scholar

63. When, for instance, sister Ippolita Sebastiano, daughter of Giovan Francesco, the Razionale of the Reale Camera della Summaria and Tommasina Candido, decided in 1622 to leave the convent of S. Francesco delle Cappuccinelle a Pontecorvo, where she and her sister had become nuns in September 1607, the convent repaid to her family only half of the annual income on her dowry. ASN, Mon. Sop, 4540, f.22r.

64. Russo, , Monasteri Femminili, 54, and ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Monica, 4637, f.13r.Google Scholar

65. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Monica, 4637, f.11r.

66. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Monica, 4637, f.12v–13r.

67. Novices and young professed nuns were taught Christian doctrine, confession, and Communion; a teacher (maestra) listened to their recitations of the Rosary, divine office, and Mass, and ensured that they did not read profane books or read or write letters without approval. Russo, , Monasteri Femminili, 6567.Google Scholar

68. Russo, , Monasteri Femminili, 68.Google Scholar

69. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4922, f.196.

70. This practice extended throughout the peninsula and to France and Spain.

71. Russo, , Monasteri Femminili, 64.Google Scholar

72. Russo, , Monasteri Femminili, 60.Google Scholar

73. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Francesco delle Cappuccinelle, 4540, f.4r. Nevertheless at the Sapienza, dowries rose to 3,000 ducats by the 1630s.

74. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Francesco delle Cappuccinelle, 4540, f.4r.

75. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Francesco delle Cappuccinelle, 4540, f.4r.

76. Strazzullo, F., Edilizia e urbanistica a Napoli dal '500 al '700 (Naples: Arte Tipografica, 1995), 221.Google Scholar

77. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Maria Donn'Albina, 3307, f.633r.

78. Ibid.

79. ASN, Mon Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4922, f.161.

80. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4922, f.172.

81. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4922, f.170.

82. One cannot simply dismiss the use of this language as “simply conventional.” Conventions tell us about the society in which they circulate.

83. Macciucca, Vargas, Dissertazione attorno alla Riforma degli Abusi introdotti ne' Munasterij delle Monache per le Doti e per le spese die vogliono dalle donzelle (Naples: Fiorentino, 1745), lxviii.Google Scholar

84. “la nobiltà del sangue e … la bontà e la santità della vita.” De Lellis, C., Aggiunta alla Napoli Sacra di D. Cesare d'Engenio Caracciolo, Napolitano, ed. Aceto, F. (Naples: Fiorentino, 1977), 1:122.Google Scholar

85. “non solo vi sono e vi sono state SSre. delle Illme. e nobilissime Piazze, seù Seggi di questa fedelissima Città e vasto Regno, ma dalle Spagne l'Avalos, et altre, e dalla Francia le Valses, di Rega. stirpe e sangue Reale; si che questo Venerabile Monastero si conserva con quell'Ille. Decoro, e splendida magnificenza di nobiltà che ricevé dalla sua primiera e gloriosa Culla.” ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Maria Donn'Albina, 3211, f.3.

86. “non solo era fondato mà fioriva in grand[issi]mo Santità e nobiltà.” ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Maria Donn'Albina, 3501, f.1r.

87. Regio, P. and Torbizi, C., Vita di S. Patricia vergine Figlia dell'Imperator Costante e Protettrice della Città, e Regno di Napoli, Descritta già da Monsignor Paolo Regio … e poi … ampliata da Cleonte Torbizi, ad istanza delle molte Reveren. Monache del Monasterio di S. Patricia di Napoli (Naples: Franco Savio Corbelletti, 1643), 4143.Google Scholar

88. Celano, C., Notizie del belloGoogle Scholar; Caracciolo, C. D'Engenio, Napoli sacra … ove oltre le vere orgini, e fundationi di tutte le chiese monasterij, cappelle, spedali, e d'altri luoghi sacri della città di Napoli, e de' suoi borghi, si tratta di tutti i corpi, e reliquie dé santi e beati, che vi si trovano, ed. Chiarini, G. B. (Naples: Ottavio Beltrano, 1624).Google Scholar

89. Quoted by Scarano, C., “La Chiesa e il monastero di S. Francesco dell'Osservanza,” Napoli Nobilissima 25 (1986): fasc.111, 57.Google Scholar

90. Ibid., 58. These women were prominent patrons of the convent. Further research is needed to clarify their involvement.

91. On the complexity of issues determining choice of location and manner of noble burial in Naples, see Visceglia, M. A., “Corpo e sepoltura nei testamenti della nobiltà napoletana (XVI–XVIII secolo),” Quaderni Storici 50:2 (1982): 583614. The circumstances and motives in and for which lay men and women electing to be buried in female convent churches require further research, both in Naples and elsewhere.Google Scholar

92. Celano, , Notizie, III, 801.Google Scholar

93. ASN, Mon. Sop., Donn'Albina, 3211, f.2.

94. “acciò si veda come dissi che tutti i tre Monasteri erano di nobiltà segnalissima,” ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Maria Donn'Albina, 3211, f.6.

95. ASN, Mon. Sop., Armeno, S. Gregorio, 3435, ”Esemplare delle nobili memorie della Rda. Fulvia Caracciola, 1577,“ 146v148r.Google Scholar

96. Metaphrastes, Simeon, Vita di S. Gregorio Archivescovo Armenia, ed. Gravina, Fr. F., Hanc Vitam cum miraculis s. Gregorij collectam ex Metaphraste, exemplari Longobardo, and relationibus Christianitatis Armeniae (Naples: n.p., 1630).Google Scholar

97. Metaphrastes, , Vita, 190–91.Google Scholar

98. In 1520 the Seggio of Nido insisted that “four quarters” of any member's immediate ancestors must have been gentlemen. Vitale, , “Modelli Culturali,” 67.Google Scholar

99. In his late-fifteenth-century discussion of nobility, Giovanni Pontano refers specifically to “stragula gemmis intertexta” as an appropriate means to demonstrate “splendor.” Pontano, G., “De splendore,” in Opera omnia soluta oratione compposita (Venice: Aldi Andrea Iunio, 1518), 138rGoogle Scholar, quoted by Vitale, , “Modelli culturali,” 2829, n. 1.Google Scholar

100. Metaphrastes, , Vita, 191.Google Scholar

101. Ibid., 190–91.

102. Labrot, G., Collections of Paintings in Naples 1600–1780 (Munich: K. G. Saur, 1992), 6.Google Scholar The best account of palace building in baroque Naples remains Labrot, G., Palazzi Napoletani: Storie di nobili e cortegiani 1520–1750 (Naples: Electa, 1993).Google Scholar See also Baroni in città. Residenze e comportamenti dell'aristocrazia napoletana 1530–1734 (Naples: Società Editrice Napoletana, 1979), esp. 49Google Scholar; “Le comportement collectif,” 45–71. On the significance of the Viceregal Court for Neapolitan urbanism, see De Seta, C., Napoli (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1995), 95164Google Scholar; Napoli fra Rinascimento e Illuminismo (Naples: Electa, 1997), 60127Google Scholar; Galasso, G., Napoli capitale: identità politica e identità cittadina (Naples: Electa, 1998), 125–31Google Scholar; Strazzullo, F., Edilizia e urbanistica a Napoli dal'500 al ′700 (Naples: Arte Tipografica, 1995) 330.Google Scholar

103. I am here concerned with the way in which convents (including their architecture) were presented as part of the aristocratic (dynastic) body constituting the city of Naples.

104. “situata in mezzo di molti altri monasteri di RRde. Monache, … come altresi tra molti Palagi principali ed Edificij de Particolari, e da che ave avuto principio sin' a tempi correnti si è mantenuto, e si mantiene con ogni splendore, e decoro, per essere stato sempre abitato da Religiose di famiglie, e nobili, e molto Illustri, e Civili di questa Città.” ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Maria della Consolazione, 4672, f.2. An almost identical claim occurs a few pages later in the account by Cesare d'Ingenio Caracciolo, Ibid., f.12.

105. Cantone, , “I Conservatory dell'Imbrecciata di Gesù e Maria,” 215Google Scholar. The Cappuccinelle, the Maddalena, and the Periclitanti were founded as conservatories. The Cappuccinelle had its origins in 1585 when Giovan Luca Giglio and Eleonora Scarpato “began by getting some girls to enter, gathering them throughout the city, exhorting them to take the aforementioned [monastic] habit, and to attend at set hours to say office and other prayers, in imitation of the Capuchin fathers.” ASN, Mon. Sop, 4540, f.2r. The Maddalena, founded here in 1605, housed poor girls, and the Periclitanti, founded in 1674, was dedicated to “protecting the honour of those damsels who were increasingly ensnared by wolves.” Celano refers to the girls of the Periclitanti as “the damsels who through poverty are at risk of losing their honesty.” Celano, ed. Chiarini, 799.

106. See Hills, , Invisible City, 120–39.Google Scholar

107. “apportare notabile pregiudizio” (Monasteri soppressi, S. Andrea, 4939, f.267), quoted by Colombo, A., “Sant' Andrea delle Dame,” Napoli Nobilissima 13., fasc. IV, p. 3.Google Scholar

108. Colombo, A., “Sant' Andrea delle Dame,” Napoli Nobilissima 13, fasc. IV, p. 4.Google Scholar

109. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4919, f.33r.

110. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4919, f.33r.

111. ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4949, ff.46r–445r.

112. “non era necessario, ma puramente voluntario, per magnificenza.” ASN, Mon. Sop., S. Giuseppe dei Ruffi, 4919, f.46r.

113. “La Pianta e sito di detto antichissimo e nobilissimo monastero existe in forma quadrata, con semetria di finissima Architettura a la moderna ridotto, con magnificenza di bellissime stanze e correlative, e degne alia grandezza di tante nobilissime suore, spose di Giesù Christo” ASN, Mon. Sop., Donn'Albina, 3211, f.4.

114. On the practice of building in “blocks” or isole, see De Seta, C., Napoli (Roma-Bari: Laterza), 136–40Google Scholar; Strazzullo, F., Edilizia e Urbanistica a Napoli dal '500 al '700 (Naples: Arte Tipografica, 1999), 77124.Google Scholar On aristocratic palace architecture at this date in Naples, see Labrot, G., Baroni in città, esp. 4850, and “Le Comportement collectif,” 4571.Google Scholar

115. For all its grandiosity the portal of Palazzo Maddaloni is not central, as a result of the piecemeal building of the palace. See Labrot, G., Palazzi Napoletani, 122–25Google Scholar; Cantone, G., Napoli Barocca e Cosimo Fanzago (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1990), 125–29.Google Scholar

116. The grandiose rusticated entrance does not simply signify “entrance,” since in seventeenth-century Naples non-aulic entrances were unadorned. It marks the entrance as socially significant and noble and was the symbolic object of antinoble attack during revolts. See Labrot, , Palazzi napoletani, 124, 125–27.Google Scholar

117. Tim Benton first drew my attention to the degree to which this facade resembles a palace. Palazzo Gravina was built for Ferdinando Orsini, duke of Gravina. The building was begun in 1513 by Gabriele D'Angelo and finished in 1549 by Giovanni Francesco de Palma (Mormanno). For Palazzo Gravina, see Ceci, G., “Il Palazzo Gravina,” Napoli Nobilissima 6 (1897): 24, 2431Google Scholar; Chierici, U., “II Palazzo Gravina,” Atti del I congresso nazionale di storia dell'architettura (1936) (Florence: n.p., 1938), 217–29Google Scholar; Rotili, M., L'arte del Cinquecento nel regno di Napoli (Naples: Società Editrice Napoletana, 1972), 5859Google Scholar; Labrot, , Palazzi napoletani, 124, 128, 328, n. 86.Google Scholar

118. “the new street will be of the greatest convenience to the public and to traffic allowing the passage of goods from the quarter of the Marina del Vino to the quarter above, since there is no other street which provides such convenience, apart from Mezzocanone and the strada delli ferri vecchi.” ASN, Mon. Sop., SS. Marcellino e Festo, 2882, printed document of ca.1720, n.p.

119. “nel Mon[aster]o di s. Marcellino vivono le donne del primo ordine di questa Città, le quali per servir' à Dio, e publico bene, havendosi eletto menare la lor' vita in perpetua clausura, post'in non cale i diletti del mondo, e commodo delle proprie case, sono meritevoli di tutta la maggior' equità, ed attenzione, acciò non si pentono del loro stato, e per l'innanzi non s'arrestino dal professarvi.” ASN, Mon. Sop., SS. Marcellino e Festo, 2882, undated printed pamphlet, ca.1720, n.p.

120. The rents of 166 ducats and 6 carlini paid by the Benedictines to date for the disputed properties were returned to them. ASN, Mon. Sop., SS. Marcellino e Festo, 2882, n.p.

121. I am not suggesting that the decision was determined solely by the arguments advanced by either side. The Jesuits were probably successful because of their consolidated position with regime change after the War of the Spanish Succession, but the terms in which they and the nuns advanced their position are telling.

122. Likewise, an ecclesiastical treatise on the role of women by Agostino Valier, Bishop of Verona, describes cloistered virgins as playing an important role in reconstituting the discipline of their city, by furnishing through their well ordered respected convents a bulwark (“baluardo”) against evil. De'Ricordi del cardinale Agostino Valiero lasciati alle Monache nella sua Visitazione fatta l'anno del santissimo Giubileo MDLXXV (Padua: n.p., 1744 [1575]), 22.Google Scholar