The Arno flooded with distressing regularity, and perhaps might still; the last major flood was in 1966. One of the perils of building a city in a deep valley traversed by a river originating in the mountains to the northeast. Renaissance Italians periodically witnessed their city underwater, and as Ercole says, this was perhaps hardest to bear for those who were unable to flee their homes.

The Convent of Le Murate was one such place, and we have a record of the rising waters of 1557 written by one of the nuns, Sister Giustina Niccolini. Ercole’s tale of nuns pulling one another to higher floors comes from the Chronicle of Le Murate, and Sister Giustina writes with deeply moving sadness of the elderly nuns who allowed others to go first, sacrificing their lives so that the convent could survive through the younger generations.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Italian nuns had a process known as enclosure forced upon them by hardening papal policies, turning convents that had been porous social spaces that participated in broader city life into closed-off spaces of enforced contemplation and self-denial. Le Murate was purpose built for the newly enclosed nuns of the city, while others, such as the Orbatello you will visit with Marietta in another Hidden Florence walk, were converted to enclosed spaces, walls heightened and windows shrunk. Though enclosed, both nuns and the communities around them might subvert their isolation: Lorenzo de’ Medici himself had a reputation for singing ballads outside the wall, and apparently once made a bet with a friend that he could climb the walls of le Murate to visit the women inside.

In the nineteenth century the convent was abolished and the building became the men’s prison of Florence. It remained a prison for approximately 100 years, from 1883-1985. The Renaissance walls served to enclose both women and men over the centuries.

After 1985 the building was renovated and some of the old convent spaces restored: while you are here, it is very much worth entering the old courtyards through the Viccolo delle Vecchie Carceri and having a look at the old convent. Since we are at the end of our Crime and Punishment walk, you might also deserve a relaxing drink at the very nice café you’ll find inside. Thank you for coming along on our Crime and Punishment walk: as you’ve seen, the process of making amends and delivering justice was one that was physically inscribed across the city of Renaissance Florence.

Colin Rose

Visit Le Murate exhibition spaces and cafe.

To cite this essay, we suggest:
Colin Rose, ‘A history behind walls’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter,

Further reading:

Giustina Niccolini, trans. Saundra Lynn Weddle, The Chronicle of Le Murate. The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe : The Toronto Series 12. Toronto: Iter Inc, 2011.

Sharon T. Strocchia, Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.