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Divas in the Convent

Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy

When eight-year-old Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590–1662) entered one of the preeminent convents in Bologna in 1598, she had no idea what cloistered life had in store for her. Thanks to clandestine instruction from a local maestro di cappella—and despite the church hierarchy’s vehement opposition to all convent music—Vizzana became the star of the convent, composing works so thoroughly modern and expressive that a recent critic described them as “historical treasures.” But at the very moment when Vizzana’s works appeared in 1623—she would be the only Bolognese nun ever to publish her music—extraordinary troubles beset her and her fellow nuns, as episcopal authorities arrived to investigate anonymous allegations of sisterly improprieties with male members of their order.
Craig A. Monson retells the story of Vizzana and the nuns of Santa Cristina to elucidate the role that music played in the lives of these cloistered women. Gifted singers, instrumentalists, and composers, these nuns used music not only to forge links with the community beyond convent walls, but also to challenge and circumvent ecclesiastical authority. Monson explains how the sisters of Santa Cristina—refusing to accept what the church hierarchy called God’s will and what the nuns perceived as a besmirching of their honor—fought back with words and music, and when these proved futile, with bricks, roof tiles, and stones. These women defied one Bolognese archbishop after another, cardinals in Rome, and even the pope himself, until threats of excommunication and abandonment by their families brought them to their knees twenty-five years later. By then, Santa Cristina’s imaginative but frail composer literally had been driven mad by the conflict.
Monson’s fascinating narrative relies heavily on the words of its various protagonists, on both sides of the cloister wall, who emerge vividly as imaginative, independent-minded, and not always sympathetic figures. In restoring the musically gifted Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana to history, Monson introduces readers to the full range of captivating characters who played their parts in seventeenth-century convent life.

Read the Introduction.

296 pages | 32 halftones, 4 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 1995, 2012

History: European History

Medieval Studies

Music: General Music

Religion: Christianity


“[A] rich tapestry of cultural life, religious history, and gender politics that puts Whoopi Goldberg’s shenanigans in Sister Act to shame. . . . Monson has rescued Vizzana and her colleagues from obscurity. Read Divas in the Convent as a reminder of music’s power to uplift, to challenge, and to transform.”

James McAuley | Washington Post

“If the mark of a good book is that it opens up a new universe, then this book certainly qualifies. Monson kicks open the cloistered doors of Santa Cristina and tells a story of unparalleled talent among the inhabitants, who desire to create and sing music worthy of their high calling but pay a price in doing so. Meticulously researched, it is the story of nuns’ love for music and the struggle against those who tell them to ‘resign themselves with good cheer to God’s ordering of things, as made manifest through their superiors.’ The world of 17th-century convent life can seem foreign to modern-day church folks, and then again by simply changing the word ‘music’ to any one of the issues faced by similar religious communities today, perhaps it isn’t so much different 300 years later. The maneuverings recorded in letters and documents now held in various Italian archives make this book a model to those who want to see history come alive.”

Brad Short | Off the Shelf

“This is a substantial work of scholarship that brings tremendous insights into the inner workings, politics, and musical culture of Bolognese convents of the early seicento. . . . The book’s lively prose is enhanced by a good variety of illustrations and musical examples. Also included are a helpful glossary of terms and short biographical sketches of individuals mentioned in the text. Recommended.”

W. E. Grim, Strayer University | Choice

“This book provides readers with a thoroughly researched study of the reckless resistance of the Santa Cristina nuns, doomed to failure in the increasingly patriarchal post-Tridentine church. Included are excellent supplementary materials, including genealogies, glossaries, convent photographs, scores, etc. It is a must for those interested in women’s history. It is also of great value to musical experts and performers. It is erudite, lively, and full of fascinating information that will surely repay additional readings.”

Sixteenth Century Journal

“Craig A. Monson’s updated account of how the seventeenth-century Bolognese nun Lucrezia Vizzana was able to reflect the ecclesiastical, spiritual, and musical concerns of her day is bound to appeal to a wide audience both in and beyond academe. He delves into rivalry, betrayal, and madness in such lucid and elegant prose, so free from jargon, that it is almost a guilty pleasure to read. Especially satisfying is the ‘codetta’ to the book that allows it to come triumphantly full circle, with Vizzana’s voice echoing from beyond the grave.”

Colleen Reardon, University of California, Irvine

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface to the New Edition
Dramatis Personae
List of Abbreviations
Praeludium: Putting Nun Musicians in Their Place
1 Donna Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana of Santa Cristina della Fondazza
2 Lucrezia Vizzana’s Musical Apprenticeship
3 Musical and Monastic Disobedience in Vizzana’s Componimenti musicali
4 Hearing Lucrezia Vizzana’s Voice
5 Troubles in an Earthly Paradise: “It Began Because of Music”
6 Voices of Discord at Santa Cristina
7 Losing Battles with a Bishop: “We Cared for Babylon, and She Is Not Healed”
8 A Gentler Means to a Bitter End
9 “Pomp Indecent for Religious Observance and Modesty”
10 Another Bishop, Another Battle, a Different Outcome
11 A Last Battle and an Uneasy Peace
12 Coda
Further Reading and Listening

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