Communicating When Circumscribed: Lessons from the Convent

Guest Post by Gina Buonaguro –

While researching my latest novel set in a sixteenth-century Venetian convent, I was struck by how very circumscribed the world of women was, especially cloistered nuns, in ways we cannot relate to in today’s constantly connected society. One of my goals with The Virgins of Venice was to have my female characters interact with and operate within the larger society. I didn’t just want my nuns to take their vows and never have outside relationships. Convents and nuns were in fact considered integral to Venice’s overall success, with their holiness and devoutness a reflection on the city in the eyes of God. These women were also still very much a part of their natal families, important enough to be visited as key parts of familial matrimonial rituals. So how to make such sheltered women’s communications interesting and varied enough to sustain the course of an entire novel? And what can other novelists learn about cloistered – in whatever manner – characters’ communications?

The forced enclosure of certain women in Venice was extreme. For instance, the sisters of the San Zaccaria convent, where my teenage heroine is forced by her father to take the veil, could only initially leave their abbey with the abbess’s permission. After 1514, when the city fathers built a literal wall in the convent parlour to confine the nuns, they could not leave at all, under any circumstance, without facing jail time, prohibitive fines, and possible banishment. Even then, they still regularly interacted with family, friends, and society.

The most obvious method of information exchange was visitors. The nuns, even when walled in, could still visit via windows in the convent parlour their blood relations, including men such as fathers and brothers, as well as other females generally, not always family. Male visitors, especially those who worked in government, including patrician men and those of the citizen class who were essentially bureaucrats, were in particular welcomed for their knowledge of affairs of state, war, and trade, while females might bring more personal information. Both males and females could transmit gossip and rumours, sort of like today’s Twitterati. In fact, I make an oblique reference to this idea in my novel, to help connect my historical characters with contemporary readers: “It was not in my nature to gossip, which put me at odds with most of my sisters at San Zaccaria, who twittered hearsay like so many flocks of birds.”

The next conduit was servants. Convents, particularly the ones made up mostly or all of noblewomen, were host to a variety of service providers, some of whom did not take the veil and thus were allowed to leave and interact with the larger world. These women made excellent messengers and could bring word from their outings of Venetian happenings, such as festivals, fights, and fires. For instance, my main character’s maid tells her about the aborted Ascension Festival in 1509: “The city is in complete chaos. The booths were already set up in the Piazza San Marco, but early this morning the Council of Ten ordered all the merchants to pack up their wares. They cursed and grumbled, but they’re doing it. I could see into the piazza from the gondola, and Teodor [the gondolier] told me what he knows. There are armed soldiers everywhere.” This was vital information for the nuns that they might not otherwise learn.

Other workers – almost always men – were also a source of information and correspondence. Convents – even when walled in – still required repairs, which necessitated men like carpenters and painters being allowed entrance. As one nun in my novel says about the convent carpenter: “He’s here every day anyway, working on the convent and church, and goes home every night to sup with his parents.” Those with such freedom of movement were important methods of transferring information to those shut inside.

Of course, just like today, writing private letters, notes, and manuscripts were also key ways to communicate, although it is critical to keep in mind that most women of the Italian Renaissance were not literate. In The Virgins of Venice, my main character was lucky enough that her father educated her, a privilege that only a lucky few women had. Conversely, her maid is illiterate, so sending such a servant out to ferry letters and missives ensured discretion and privacy as well as presumably accurate delivery.

A few sheltered women even published their works. One of the most prolific writers of the early seventeenth century was the real-life Venetian nun and proto-feminist, Arcangela Tarabotti, who corresponded with some of the most important men in Europe; they in turn sent her books technically prohibited in the convent. One could see how her views on convents as pleasant prisons could thus take seed and flower, especially in such an era of new ideas. Another woman confined not by movement but by her profession was Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco, who published at her own expense both her poetry and letters in a quite deliberate fashion to convey messages about herself, solicit clients, and defend and rehabilitate her reputation.

Whether through casual visitations, involvement in familial ceremonies, or planned publications, historical novelists must ensure their characters correspond and exchange communication in the most accurate ways possible, keeping in mind that some people and groups had extremely limited methods of such information exchanges. Writing from such circumscribed viewpoints can be especially challenging but highly rewarding.

Gina Buonaguro’s most recent novel is the Indigo Canada bestseller and book-club favourite The Virgins of Venice, which gives a textured voice to one of the most voiceless groups of the sixteenth century – teenage girls. Gina previously coauthored six other novels, three of them historical fiction also set set in Italy: The Sidewalk Artist, Ciao Bella, and The Wolves of St. Peter’s.

For more information and to contact Gina, please visit www.ginabu.com.

The Virgins of Venice by Gina Buonaguro
The Wolves of St. Peter's by Gina Buonaguro & Janice Kirk
Scroll to Top