“To Please the World With Their Songs”: the Battle for Music in 17th Century Convents

by Peter Tracy


It was the year 1640, and the many nuns of Bologna were trapped in their cloisters. Nevertheless, on this particular day, and after a years-long battle with church authorities, they had decided at last to make themselves heard:

“Finally the episcopal auditor arrived with his many yeomen to put them to the test. The nuns immediately and with one accord climbed up high and, throwing down tiles and stones, forced his retreat out of range with his squadron. Then, as the bell sounded the alarm and crowds flocked there, donna Isabetta Vizzana, crucifix in hand and with her head veiled, made the convent’s case so passionately that she moved her audience to pity and indignation. Not a few were weeping, and many called out rebelliously, ‘long live the nuns of Santa Cristina,’  threatening insurrection. Meanwhile, children were gathering up lots of stones and tossing them into the convent through the small gateway to ensure the nuns would not run low on ammunition. And surely the uproar would have ended in a bloodletting if the curia and their supporters had not beaten a hasty retreat. (Gasparo Bombacci, c. 1640)[1]

The nuns of Northern Italy in the 17th century were, by in large, a courageous bunch of misfits. Not each and every one of them, to be sure – and the trials and tribulations of life behind convent walls did not always result in episodes of public stone throwing – but there was always the chance, given prodding, that something rather immodest would happen if the doors of the convent were opened.

Reasons to revolt were plentiful enough: after its conclusion in 1563, the Council of Trent resulted in significant doctrinal changes throughout the Catholic world, and while these changes were ostensibly aimed at combating the threat posed by the Protestant Reformation, they ended up covering everything from the authenticity of saint’s relics to the proper music for use during mass. The result, predictably, was that some decrees were more well thought out than others:

“Prelates who met off and on at the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563 to promulgate wide-ranging Catholic reforms only got around to convents towards the end of their final session. By then many in the hierarchy were literally packing their bags to go home. The resulting reform decrees, hastily drafted, hurriedly debated, and ratified at the last minute, dramatically altered the character of female monasticism, most notably in the matter of strict monastic enclosure. After 1563 nuns who had taken final vows faced excommunication if they set foot outside the cloister wall. Any who crossed the wall in the other direction without similar permission incurred similar penalties. After the council, the physically enclosed space of the convent thus came to define an archetypical ‘women’s sphere’ having both positive and negative aspects.”[2]

While female monastic life in the Catholic world was increasingly isolated and controlled after the mid 16th century, it was not without its benefits. For one, cloisters allowed women to form close bonds of solidarity with other women, gave them a chance at social mobility and status within their corner of the church hierarchy, and created opportunities for them to take part in a musical and artistic life that would have been largely off-limits to them in the outside world.

The drawbacks were also significant: the obedience expected of nuns in this period was total, and their lives were heavily controlled by the largely male hierarchy of bishops, archbishops, and cardinals who had shut them away in the first place. Aside from its obvious appeal for those, like poor widows or orphans, who otherwise had little to expect from the outside world, the placement of women in convents often had more to do with the benefits reaped by their families than their own choices. Indeed, according to scholar Craig Monson, Bologna’s stone-throwing nuns were often being held almost against their will:

“The 1500’s and early 1600’s… brought an era of expanding convent populations to the city, second only to the late-thirteenth-century-boom. For the women involved the period growth was chiefly driven by families’ coercive practices when it came to their daughters’ futures. Rather than squander the family patrimony on the rising cost of dowries demanded by husbands of their own class, patrician families dispatched their daughters to convents in increasing numbers – with or without their consent.”[3]

Perhaps surprisingly, then, many of the women enclosed in such convents were not widows and orphans but upper-class women of means. Clearly, their wealth and connection to the leading families of Bologna, Milan, Padua, or Ravenna did not overrule the fact that, even outside of the convent walls, they were far from citizens of equal standing when compared to their male counterparts.

The rules and assumptions which governed women’s lives during the Italian 16th and 17th centuries did not go unquestioned, however, whether inside or outside of the convent. “Although the convent’s indoctrination encouraged passive, unquestioning acceptance of authority”, writes Monson, “many nuns developed a kind of agency, a little room for maneuver, by evolving informal rules and customs that interpreted, challenged, and subverted the formal prescriptions imposed upon them by the church’s external hierarchy.”[4]

This testing of limits could take small forms, such as the choice to subtly decorate one’s plain black habit with a flower or two. It could also, as in Bologna, take much more direct and militant forms. Music was often at the forefront of these encounters between nuns and the church, in large part because  its composition and performance allowed for significant if highly limited contact between nuns and the outside world.

Musical education was often considered an integral part of a young, patrician girl’s education, one has to assume because it might have helped them woo a husband of equal or greater status. Even those who did not receive musical education in their previous lives were likely to have found a capable teacher within the convent walls. Thus, “a large number of musically well educated girls, some of whom composed music for their own liturgical use, populated the convents.”[5]Even recounted in broad strokes, the sheer volume of these women’s collective musical output is impressive:

“In 1593, from the convent of San Vito in Ferrara, Raffaela Aleotti’s Sacrea Cantiones, for five, seven, eight or ten voices, was published; in 1609, from the convent in Pavia, Caterina Assandra’s Collection of Motets was published; in 1613, from a convent in Milan, Claudia Sessa’s Two Sacred Monodies were published; and, also from Milan, four books of sacred music, including motets, a mass, and eight-voiced psalms, were published between 1640 and 1650 by the nun Chiara Cozzolani.”[6]

Further examples abound, the most famous of which is perhaps that of Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704). A nun at the Ursuline convent of Novarra, Leonarda composed mainly vocal sacred works such as litanies, psalm settings, vespers, responses, and four masses. In 1693 and at the age of 73, she published a set of eleven secular trio sonatas, followed three years later by a sonata for solo violin and organ continuo. Thus, scholars such as Diane Peacock Jezic “place her among the first Italian women to compose in the new Baroque instrumental genres.”[7] “Her style”, writes scholar Barbara Garvey Jackson, “is marked by an intense personal identification with… religious text”[8], such that she draws easy comparisons to earlier convent composers of the medieval era such as Hildegaard von Bingen. And the many official titles which she held during her long life at the convent – madre, madre vicaria, consigliera, etc. – as well as her significant renown within her home city indicate the degree to which a life within the convent might offer opportunities to make an impact on the outside world despite its restrictions[9].

Other women composers and musicians, however, were less content to simply climb through the ranks and publish their works. Or at least, as in the case in Bologna, music was for many nuns a rather significant agent of change in their lives, whether for good or ill. The aforementioned Isabetta Vizzana, for instance, who so passionately made her convent’s case to the citizens of Bologna, was in fact the sister of one Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590 – 1662), a composer of some renown both within and beyond the walls of the convent of Santa Cristina. In some respects, the case of the Vizzana sisters and that of the other women in their family is a typical one for this period, one in which music and the right to play it were central to the culture of nunneries throughout the region. As a case study, the example of the Vizzani at Santa Cristina suggests that life in the Italian convents of the time was far from the simplistic devotional idyll that male church authorities so desperately sought to bring about.

Deposited at the gates of the convent as small children, the Vizzana sisters were two of several women in their family who entered the convent at Santa Cristina, largely at the behest of their male relatives. Isabetta and Lucrezia were greeted at the outset by no less than three of their maternal aunts: Flaminia, Ortensia, and Camilla Bombacci, who had all entered the convent in prior decades. In 1639, their niece Maria joined the sisters, as did a more distant relation, Teresa Pompea Vizzana, who spent her sizable inheritance on numerous convent improvements. It was not uncommon at the time for multiple generations of upper-class Italian families to reunite and support each other within the convent walls, adding to the wealth and prestige of their order in the process.[10]

Indeed, by the early 1600’s Santa Cristina had “become one of the wealthiest, most exclusive, and most artistically distinguished of Bologna’s monasteries for women.”[11] Music was at the forefront of these artistic pursuits: “given music’s normal place in liturgy”, writes Monson, “nuns’ musical performance could be justified… as a natural part of the professed nuns’ sanctified work: the recitation of the Divine Office, prayer, and intercession.”[12]Yet while music was a time-honored practice at Santa Cristina by the early 17th century, a series of Bolognese archbishops had for decades been putting into effect increasingly strict statutes on the subject of music within convents, culminating in archbishop Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi’s 1622 ban on “all music but plainchant, all musical instruments but organ or harpsichord, all performances by outside musicians, and any lessons by outside music teachers.”[13]

The life of a nun was, in theory, meant to be defined by chastity, poverty, and spiritual pursuits, and it is clear that many male members of the church hierarchy considered music antithetical to these aims (not thinking, of course, to ask the nuns for their opinions on the matter). For instance, one indictment of the time opines:

“Experience demonstrates that the excessive study that nuns devote these days to their songs not  only fails to serve the end to which music was permitted them – to praise God and be aroused to the contemplation of celestial harmony – but instead also impedes them from greater goods and encumbers their souls in perpetual distraction. It causes them vainly to expend precious time that they could use more fruitfully. And while they stand with their bodies within the sacred cloisters, it causes them to wander outside in their hearts, nourishing within themselves an ambitious desire to please the world with their songs.”[14]

Aside from music being seen as a waste of time, then, it was also seen as potentially politically subversive, allowing for contact with and influence on the outside world in a way that was potentially dangerous for the male clerics who would rather see the sisters sequestered completely from society. Unsurprisingly, the nuns of Bologna had other ideas, and when it came to dodging ecclesiastical decrees, their most effective weapon seems often to have been taking them absurdly literally. When the archbishop of Bologna acted to stop the city’s nuns from giving organ concerts to listeners from the public (who gathered in their outer church yet could not enter the convent proper) the nuns of Sant’Omobono decided to comply:

“In December 1584, the nuns of Sant’Omobono were among the first to subvert [the archbishop’s] decree against convent organs while still observing it to the letter. They did indeed remove the organ that protruded into their external church and walled up the opening as required… but once the organ had been enlarged and made more powerful, they had it reinstalled in their inner church six months later and positioned so that ‘resounding excellently well, it still creates delightful harmony for those outside.’”[15]

Thus, the nuns took many an order exactly literally, but absolutely no further. “We’ve been told to remove the organ from the church”, they might have said, “but no one told us we couldn’t put it back somewhere else.” This and other methods of subversion – such as appealing over the heads of the archbishops to higher authorities or playing members of the church hierarchy off one another – were commonplace in 17th century convents whether the issue at hand was music, attire, keeping pets, or making toffee in the kitchen during the recitation of the Divine Offices. The success of these strategies within Santa Cristina is evidenced by, among other things, Lucrezia Vizzana’s own musical training, which was extensive and which was most likely overseen by her aunt Camilla, an organist.  Other capable musicians of this time at Santa Cristina included Emilia Grassi, choir mistress, and the singer Adeodata Leoni. Such was their apparent skill that, “among some ten musical publications dedicated to convent women in Bologna between 1582 and 1675, no fewer than five… were dedicated to nuns from Santa Cristina.”[16] It seems the convent music was not only heard by many a connoisseur in Bologna during this period, but that it had a much more powerful impact than the many contemporary decrees against music might suggest. Indeed, these decrees may have been aimed specifically at blunting the soft power wielded by these nuns through their music.

It is important to remember, however, that these tactics for carving out small spaces of influence did not entail a reversal of the basic formula of convent life: the bishops made the rules, and the nuns were to a large degree under their control. Indeed, while the projects of subversion undertaken at convents like Santa Cristina were by no means ineffective, they were also not without their dangers.

Lucrezia Vizzana was among those at Santa Cristina who had publications dedicated to her, and she also published her own collection of motets in 1623 titled Componimenti musicali. Yet, not long after her debut as a composer (and partly because of it) life at Santa Cristina descended into a series of protracted and more explicit battles with the church hierarchy, culminating in Isabetta Vizzanna’s impassioned speech and her sister’s ultimate retreat from musical life. In large part, this strife seems to have stemmed directly from the musical life of the convent (a rivalry between choir members being the likely culprit).[17]We can only assume that many such incidents involving music were part of the lives of other composing nuns such as Cozzolani, Leonarda, and Aleotti, as well as any of the myriad of anonymous nuns for whom music was, broadly speaking, a political and social tool as well as a tool of devotion. Indeed, despite the internal strife sometimes caused by artistic life in the convents, nuns’ ability to act together effectively with women both within and outside the convent has significant implications for the ways we think about the lives of women across 16th and 17th century Italy. According to Monson, the effective agency of the nuns in recruiting a variety of other women to their cause, from fellow nuns to the mothers of cardinals:

“suggests that wide-ranging informal bonds of solidarity, friendship, and shared expectations based on class and gender existed between the convent and the outside world. Since women did not employ these bonds for thorough going critiques of the patriarchal system and concrete plans to change it, they cannot properly be termed ‘feminist.’ Nevertheless, they testify to the existence of a ‘female consciousness’ in their day.”[18]

Although the musical life of Italian convents offers us a relatively well-documented example of this so-called “female consciousness”, we should by no means assume that it was limited to the women of monastic orders. In fact, as we have seen, the nuns of northern Italy’s monastic orders formed, against all odds, an important series of nodes in a network of solidarity and careful subversion that must have extended well beyond the walls of the convent. In large part through the social ramifications of their musical practice, the nuns of the late Italian Renaissance and early Baroque era were able to reclaim pieces of their autonomy, and to participate in the long history of women finding means of self-expression and self-assertion even in the most restrictive of circumstances.

 Below, you’ll find a playlist featuring selections from the work of Northern Italy’s singing sisters, including music by Vizzana, Leonarda, Cozzolani, Aleotti, Cesis, and more.


Early Music Seattle: Music of the Sisters



Briscoe, James R. Historical Anthology of Music by Women. Indiana University Press, 1987.

Carter, Tim. Music in Late Renaissance & Early Baroque Italy. B.T. Batsford, 1992.

Jezic, Diane., and Wood, Elizabeth. Women Composers : the Lost Tradition Found. 2nd ed. / 2nd ed. prepared by Elizabeth Wood., Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1994.

Monson, Craig. Disembodied Voices : Music and Culture in an Early Modern Italian Convent. University of California Press, 1995.

Monson, Craig. Divas in the Convent : Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy. The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Monson, Craig. Nuns Behaving Badly : Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy.        University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Reardon, Colleen. Holy Concord Within Sacred Walls : Nuns and Music in Siena, 1575-1700. Oxford     University Press, 2002.

[1]     Craig Monson, Divas in the Convent : Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy, (The University of Chicago Press, 2012), pp. 2.

[2]     Monson (2012)  pp. 8.

[3]     Monson (2012) pp. 6

[4]     Monson (2012) pp. 7

[5]     Diane Jezic and Elizabeth Wood, Women Composers : the Lost Tradition Found (2nd ed. / 2nd ed. prepared by Elizabeth Wood., Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1994), pp. 32.

[6]     Jezic pp. 32.

[7]     Jezic pp. 31-32.

[8]     James R. Briscoe, Historical Anthology of Music by Women, (Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 39.

[9]     Briscoe pp. 39.

[10]   Monson (2012) pp. 20

[11]   Monson (2012) pp. 17

[12]   Monson (2012) pp. 45

[13]   Monson (2012) pp. 44

[14]   Monson Divas pp. 42

[15]   Monson Divas pp. 46

[16]   Monson Divas pp. 55

[17]   Monson (2012) pp. 107

[18]   Monson (2012) pp. 9