Benedetta Carlini (1591-1661) was a Catholic mystic and lesbian nun, who lived in Counter-Reformation Italy during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Judith Brown chronicled her life in Immodest Acts (1986), which discussed the events that led to her archival significance for historians of women's spirituality and lesbianism.
Benedetta Carlini was born to a middle-class Italian family, which was able to buy her a place in a reasonably comfortable convent, the Convent of the Mother of God, at Pescia. When she was thirty, Benedetta was made abbess of the convent, but then reported a disturbing series of visions in which men were trying to kill her. Fearful that Sister Benedetta was being harassed by demonic entities, the other sisters assigned Sister Bartolemea to her cell. Thereafter, Sister Benedetta's more disturbing visions ceased, but she still encountered alleged supernatural visitations.
These came to the attention of the Counter-Reformation Papacy, determined to subordinate potentially troublesome mystics if they showed any signs of independent or 'heretical' spirituality. Although they paid three to four visits to the nunnery, it wasn't until they interrogated Sister Bartolemea that they found that Benedetta and Bartolemea were lovers. According to Bartolemea, Sister Benedetta would make love to her, and both would experience the mystical epiphanies that Sister Benedetta described.
According to Brown, it may not have been Benedetta's lesbianism that led to her ultimate downfall and imprisonment, as much as her egotism. However, Bartolemea's admission was enough to insure that Benedetta was stripped of her primacy as abbess and then held under guard for the remaining 35 years of her life. She died in 1661, while her former lover, Sister Bartolomea, predeceased her by one year, dying in 1660.
Alternative interpretations of Carlini
E. Ann Matter, a feminist religious scholar, has an alternative perspective on the case of Benedetta Carlini, and wrote about it in the Journal of Homosexuality in 1990. She compared and contrasted two autobiographical accounts from Benedetta Carlini and another seventeenth century Italian Catholic mystic, Maria Domitilla Galluzzi of Pavia. Carlini and Galluzi were both self-designated visionaries and highly regarded by their religious and secular communities, but each was subject to suspicion and close scrutiny by church hierarchy. Benedetta Carlini's trial records related the aforementioned series of sexual contacts with Bartolomea, while Maria Domitilla Galluzzi seems to have had no sexual experiences within her own mystical framework. Matter's article questioned whether scholars might have succumbed to the temptation to simply transpose the sexual self-understanding of figures in their own historical context to past historical environments. "Lesbian nun" might be viewed as too simplistic a description, and alongside Maria Galluzzi, Benedetta Carlini's sexuality might be viewed as organised around an elaborate organic connection between the spiritual and the sensual.
However, it might be noted that Matter has written extensively on Galluzzi in other contexts, and Brown's study of Carlini occurs in greater depth than her counterpart.
- Judith Brown: Immodest Acts: The Life of A Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy: New York: Oxford University Press: 1986: ISBN 0-19-503675-1
- E.Ann Matter: "Discourses of Desire: Sexuality and Christian Women's Visionary Narratives" in Journal of Homosexuality: 18/89(1989-1990): 119 - 132
- Vanda (playwright): 'Vile Affections: Based on the True Story of Benedetta Carlini', 2006: (First produced at the NY International Fringe Festival, August, 2006. Recently translated into German.) see www.vandaplaywright.com
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