As Cosimo says, once girls entered a convent they became part of a tightly bound community of ritual and prayer. Indeed, once they professed they were legally dead to the world, and often they even left their birth names behind. At Sant’ Apollonia, Cosimo talks about the Portinari sisters, Piera and Margherita, the daughters of his late bank manager in Florence. When these girls were placed in the convent in 1434, aged seven and eight, they were immediately renamed Filippa and Benedetta to mark their new religious status.
The experience of Piera and Margherita was fairly common, increasingly so by the time we meet Cosimo in the late 1450s. This was a transformative period for female monastic life in Italy. Numbers were rising sharply, in Florence reaching roughly 1,300 nuns, or one in 16 women, by 1480. Some of these women entered out of spiritual conviction, inspired by a new push for strict observance, to make convents beacons of civic holiness. But most were girls placed there by their families. Florence led the way for forced professions as the city’s elite gained greater influence over convents and sent their ‘excess’ daughters there, gaining spiritual benefits and limiting the number of dowries they had to find to make good matches.
Yet once inside the convent, nuns weren’t really dead to the world, they remained closely involved with it. These self-governing female religious communities had immense spiritual clout through their intercessory prayers. As one convent put it, “prayers are offered for the good state of this city; which prayers, coming as they do from persons of such great piety, are worth more than two thousand horses”. Nuns leveraged these prayers for patronage – for construction funds, goods, tax relief, or other favours. It’s in this context that we come across Sant’ Apollonia’s Piera Portinari once again. In 1472, now a nun in her forties, she wrote to Lorenzo de’ Medici to ask for cash for a poor woman whose daughters had no dowries.
Nuns were involved in urban daily life in many other ways too. During the fifteenth century convents became vital workshops in the city’s growing silk industry, reeling and spinning the thread to be sent to weavers. At the end of the century they started to run commercial pharmacies, making quality products for the local healthcare economy. Convents were also among the city’s biggest landlords, managing swathes of rental property. It was income from property, granted by the reforming pope Eugenius IV, that transformed the Observant convent of Sant’ Apollonia into one of Florence’s premier religious houses from the 1440s, allowing the nuns to rebuild and commission Andrea del Castagno to paint a Last Supper for their refectory.
The spiritual, social and economic profile of convents such as Sant’ Apollonia or San Pier Maggiore, which you can visit on another walk (Niccolosa: Saints and Sinners, 8), was therefore something to be reckoned with. And while it is true that, like Piera and Margherita Portinari, the majority of nuns started out as girls forced into professions, they often went on to possess significantly greater agency than the image of involuntary enclosure suggests.
You can visit the refectory, and Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper, free in the museum of Sant’ Apollonia
To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Sisters in spirit’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/cosimo/5-sisters-in-spirit/
John Spencer, Andrea del Castagno and his Patrons (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1991)
Sharon Strocchia, Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009)
Sharon Strocchia, ‘The Nun Apothecaries of Renaissance Florence: Marketing Medicines in the Convent’, Renaissance Studies, 25, 5 (2011), 627-47