The Florentine landmark Le Murate, on Via Ghibellina near where the Ponte alla Grazie crosses the Arno, boasts office and gallery space, a snazzy exhibition venue, a coffee shop, and apartments, a complex designed by Renzo Piano. It is counted among the finer examples of premodern buildings renewed, a preservation that not only saves an antique structure but makes it fresh, vibrant, useful to residents and visitors alike. It used to house a couple hundred nuns.
The convent of Santa Maria Annunziata, locally known as Le Murate, traces origins to the early 1400s when a group of women informally associated together in cells at the Rubaconte bridge. It was incorporated more formally with a Benedictine rule and oversight. In its Renaissance heyday, this convent had reputation as among the most populous and honorable religious houses for women. Although decrees issuing from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) pressed controls on convent populations, at its height Le Murate counted over 200 women within its walls. Renowned for sanctity and good order, Le Murate attracted support and patronage of important Florentine families, including the Medici. Several Medici women stayed in the convent. When fire struck the convent one night in 1471, Lorenzo de Medici and fellows came in person to help put it out, and Lorenzo decided then and there to donate funds to restore the house. Diplomatic visitors asked to see the convent when they came to town. When in 1487 the sultan of Turkey sent a giraffe as magnificent gift to the magnificent Lorenzo, the beast was probably brought round to Le Murate so the cloistered sisters could get a glimpse.
Le Murate is extraordinary in degree but in kind exemplifies patterns common to convent life in western Europe. Women’s monastic institutions afforded opportunities for female scholarship and leadership unavailable pretty much any where else at the time. Paradoxically, these institutions were both set apart from the busy world and braided into the fabric of civic life. Siege, plague, fire, flood, buying, selling, and burying affected them too. The historical importance of these women hangs with the ways they remained both in and outside of the busy street beyond the wall.
On those grounds alone, this colossal convent-turned-community-space would deserve a visit. But Le Murate as former convent is nearly inaccessible to the religious-history tourist. It is locked up, nearly out of imaginative reach. Efforts to conjure how centuries’ worth of cloistered female devotion would look and sound have been blocked by the slamming shut of such life. The events that slammed those doors are also essential features in the history of religious life. Thick walls, heavy wooden doors, hallways lined with individual cells and large spaces now present themselves to current comers not first as artifacts of a remodeled convent but of a reclaimed prison.
Because between its Renaissance heyday and its stylish present, Le Murate suffered what plenty of other religious houses suffered in modern Europe. The wars spilling out of Revolutionary France and the conquests of Napoleon wrought destruction in waves repeated, in Italy, with secularizing policies of the unifying state. Like other religious houses Le Murate was “suppressed” in 1808. That verb primly cloaks the more violent verbs it contains: suppression stopped the spiritual practices of daily life, dispersed women to private homes or refuges, crushed the authority structure governing the house, confiscated property and desecrated sacred space by turning it over to use as warehouses, barracks, stables, or prisons. Le Murate was turned into a prison in the nineteenth century. It stayed, notoriously, a prison during World War II when fascists tortured partisans within its cells. By the 1980s, with the building of a new jail in Florence , Le Murate’s confinement space became less useful. Valuable no longer for either contemplation or detention, it became a successful example of antique property reclaimed for glamorous 21st century use.
While violation was needed to turn this place into a prison, monastic architecture does lend itself in some respects. Parallels between claustration and incarceration are perhaps particularly evident here in Florence. One out of every twenty six persons in Renaissance Florence was a woman religious. Dowry inflation in this period made convents useful to accommodate extra daughters. As a proverb put it, a woman’s options were a husband or a wall. Sisters without vocations, that is, pledged not by their own religious call but by their parents when convent dowries cost much less than marriage dowries, were an important part of the story of places like Le Murate. For some who chose them, those heavy doors were beautiful, protectors of a life of consecrated integrity. For others, those walls and doors were a “monastic hell,” in the language of Venetian sister-without-vocation Arcangela Tarabotti (1604-1652). Tarabotti’s scathing critiques of convent life can match each sling and arrow cast against monasteries by Protestants or, later, by secularizing states.
Palimpsest-like, Le Murate’s restored building reveals themes of religious, civic, artistic, and political history of Florence and wider Europe. Physically the structure illustrates bullet points of female monasticism. Walls high and thick for enclosure, to keep unmarried women safe from the world and vice versa. Cells providing space for personal retreat. Courtyards, space for an enclosed garden, both practically and metaphorically powerful for consecrated virgins. An exterior church, where the nuns’ prayers and presence would bless visitors and patrons, and an interior one, for the sisters to do the work of daily prayer.
Opening understanding of such institutions takes work, though much scholarship about nuns and convents in last decades has brought fine material to light from city archives, regional histories, and convent chronicles. (The material reported here comes from an excellent study of such chronicles by Prof. Kate Lowe at Queen Mary University of London.) Some of these sources are not very accessible to a lay person who, walking toward the Arno, may simply want to know what that long building stretching down the street is.
When last in Florence in November, after I bought olives in a shop, the proprietor beckoned me downstairs to a low-ceilinged cellar. He wanted to show how the ground level of the city has shifted over the centuries. As he described the space he gestured broadly down the street, insistent that I recognize this space, indeed, the whole neighborhood embraced by his wave, as once the possession of an important house of women religious. Not Le Murate but another one, long since dissolved. An arch here, a doorway there, pointed out through the window of his shop showed how prominent a footprint these nuns occupied. It would be good to learn to recognize these things.