The convent of San Pier Maggiore occupied a singular position in the ritual landscape of Renaissance Florence. The convent church (now demolished) and the square on which it stood were the site of a curious ceremony. Between 1286 and 1583, whenever a new bishop took office, he “married” the abbess of San Pier Maggiore in a richly charged ceremony.
Played out over two days, the bishop’s entry rite gave visual expression to the institutional power of the local Church. Although the rite became more scripted over time, it was never uncontested. Florentine elites used the proceedings as a way to balance the bishop’s power against their own, resulting in a complex dialogue of power marked by quarrels and litigation.
The elaborate procession that wended its way to and from the episcopal palace—the first stop on this itinerary—touched vital charismatic sites, like the front of the Alessandri palace where Zanobi resuscitated a dead child. Zanobi’s successor Antoninus took off his shoes at this very spot as a sign of humility. Because San Pier Maggiore was a key stop on the bishop’s route, the entry rite suffused the surrounding neighbourhood with a heightened sense of importance.
The heart of the ritual was the “sposalizio,” an allegorical marriage ceremony that joined the incoming bishop to his new diocese, represented by the abbess of San Pier Maggiore. Florentines took this nuptial analogy seriously. The abbess and bishop exchanged rings as a sign of mutual consent, lavished each other with gifts and held a wedding banquet marking the public union of church and city.
Florentines extended this analogy so far that they even staged a fictive consummation. Every time a new bishop took office, he slept overnight in the cloister in an elaborate nuptial bed prepared by the nuns. In this enactment, physical consummation ‘perfected’ a spiritual union. The saintly Antoninus balked at this gesture, seeing it as too worldly. When he assumed office in 1446, he timed his installation to fall during Lent, the traditional season of self-denial, in order to renounce this carnal pleasure.
The abbess of San Pier Maggiore played an active role throughout these proceedings. As both parish spokesperson and the embodiment of the Florentine Church, she enjoyed unequalled status in public life. Her role was both political and ceremonial: she had the right to voice complaints from parishioners, invite special guests to the ceremony, and control access to the bishop while he was under her roof.
With few exceptions, the abbess of San Pier Maggiore belonged to one of the great Florentine families. Mona Niccolosa must have been deeply gratified when her sister Gostanza was elected to that post in 1489 after spending more than fifty years in the convent, fulfilling generations of family ambition.
Sharon T. Strocchia
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Sharon Strocchia, ‘Sacred union’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/niccolosa/nicc7_marrying/
Sally J. Cornelison, “Tales of Two Bishop Saints: Zenobius and Antoninus in Florentine Renaissance Art and History,” Sixteenth Century Journal 38 (2007): 627-656
Maureen Miller, “Why the Bishop of Florence Had to Get Married,” Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 81 (2006): 1055-91.
Sharon Strocchia, “When the Bishop Married the Abbess: Masculinity and Power in Florentine Episcopal Entry Rites, 1300-1600,” Gender & History 19 (2007): 346-68.