In every relationship, as the saying goes, one person agrees to love, the other to be loved. It’s heroes and hero-worship: the parties agree to make heroes bigger than life, and in exchange heroes can rescue worshipers. It’s a system, a bargain. While the dream lasts, everybody wins. When it goes bust, call the doctor, and maybe the cops—and just to be safe, the undertaker.
Here’s a case in point: a convent in 1850s Rome where devout women got entangled in fraud, murder, sexual hijinks, and what the Holy Office called “false holiness.” The Inquisition kept the scandal buried until 1998. It’s the basis for historian Hubert Wolf’s new book, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio.
First, a little background. Women paid a dowery to join a convent. At St. Ambrose, they withdrew from the rumbling world to lives of worship, obedience, and self-denial. They formed a family of “sisters,” mother superior, and her lieutenant, the madre vicaria. Their total devotion idealized the holy family: the heavenly Father, Son, and Mother. As brides of Christ, the women enjoyed a supremely important role, yet they were suspended between worlds. Their new heavenly family was ideal but invisible. And practically speaking, isolated in the convent, having given up their earthly families, the nuns were also orphans.
The nuns had strong incentives to treat the convent’s founder and their Mother Superior as a heroic figure: ultimately a saint. And the woman, Maria Agnese Firrau, happily obliged. To break up this cult of “false holiness,” the Church transferred mother Agnes to another convent, where she died in 1816. At St. Ambrose, nevertheless, the nuns continued to treasure (and hide) relics and letters of their bygone Mother. They prayed to her for miraculous help. And they continued the special blessing rituals she had initiated, which involved cuddling, fingering genitals, french kissing, and the like.
Thus far, this sounds like a comic tale out of Boccacio. Conventional stereotypes took for granted that frustrated nuns would be frisky. But here the story darkens.
The cult of Mother Agnese was still going strong in the 1850s when a beautiful young novice joined the order. Maria Luisa had grown up in poverty, but showed such rapturous religiosity that she was given a dowery and admitted to the order. She enjoyed the erotic initiation, and she was so politically ambitious and astute that she promptly won over enough sisters to be elected madre vicaria, second in command, almost Mother. Among sisters, you’d say, she was a hero.
Maria Luisa was charismatic and bold. Lying abed, she had visions in which she visited with the Holy Family in heaven and came back with prophecies and endorsements of her policies. To a young nun with graceful handwriting she dictated letters supposed to be from the Holy Mother. With a secret key, Maria Luisa would slip the letters into a locked wooden box to be discovered by the convent, as posted from heaven. To add lustre to her visions, with embezzled funds, Maria Luisa secretly commissioned a breathtaking gold ring which the nuns and their two Jesuit confessors professed to believe had been sent from heaven as a sign of her special status. The more superhuman she became, the more predatory her appetite. Turning against a former favorite, the saintly one dispatched her with poison.
Trouble developed when a wealthy, well-connected aristo joined the convent. Maria Luisa hoped to use Princess Katharina von Hohenzöllern-Sigmaringen’s considerable loot and prestige to found a new convent with herself as the superhero that Agnese Firrau had been. But as the princess began to learn the convent’s secrets, she threatened to squeal to the authorities. Maria Luisa then reported that God decreed the Princess would soon die. Maria Luisa prayed for her while helping out God with poison, but this time the victim survived multiple draughts of poison and pushed for an investigation.
It’s easy to scoff at the nuns’ gullibility and their repressed sexuality—not to mention the sexual abuse the women in power forced on the novices. The gender prejudices of the day kept many women poorly educated, overworked, and stifled, their energies channeled into motherhood. Like Victorian society and the Church, Sant’Ambrogio was organized around hero-worship, but with personal fervor for mother-figures rather than patriarchs. Layers of surrogate mothers protected the sisters. Agnese Firrau and Maria Luisa actually tried to be all things to their followers: sisters, mothers, heroes and quasi-divine saints. They could offer wisdom, sanctify wishes, and find ways to let stifled desires speak.
It was a system based on play. The hero-worshipers ambiguously believed and pretended to believe in the heroes’ supernatural qualities, and in return shared in the exaltation. The system offered sex, but also self-esteem, flesh and blood devotion, and security—ultimately immortality.
The convent arrested life on the edge of childhood. It guaranteed you’d have caring parents forever. Its rules and fasts regulated the mortal body and concentrated imagination on heavenly ideals, especially on love of the Holy Mother and her son. But it also offered a middle range of mediating saints and heroes who could embody what the nuns—especially the young novices badly wanted. They lived in the halo of Maria Luisa’s visionary ecstasies and the ambiguous blessings of her bed. When they caught Maria Luisa lying or being malicious, they agreed to believe that it really hadn’t been her, but rather the Devil impersonating her. There is a psychotic quality to their experience, but it also makes sense as the doubleness of play: the willing suspension of disbelief in a story; the wish to believe in a world elsewhere.
One way to appreciate this is to see it as an expression of neoteny. Among animals, we are among the slowest to grow up. Most adult animals settle into a fixed repertory of behaviors: hunt, eat, mate, sleep—rinse and repeat. By contrast, humans retain juvenile characteristics from hairlessness and small jaws to curiosity, cooperation, and play. Hero-worship and prayer both express care-soliciting behavior and submissiveness.
In patriarchy, heroes like to act the commanding adult, the tough warrior, the stern parent. The convent’s mother-heroes shared more of their followers’ hopes and fears. They needed a touch of the divine innocent or the sociopath in order to keep their followers enchanted. Some heroes (muscle beach studs and bosomy babes) pump up the body or diet to model maximum fertility. Through facelifts and fashion, they idealize undying youth. The convent appreciated Maria Luisa’s beauty and stories of dead saints whose bodies never decayed, but fertility was vexing for them.
Like a child’s imagination, heroism can be terrifying. How much is enough? When heroism gets stale, it demands greater deeds, and those feats can be criminal. After awhile, Maria Luisa’s teas in heaven with the mother of God were no longer glorious enough. When she overreached, she found herself concocting poisons
Maria Luisa’s crimes and sexual romps, like her powwows in heaven, blurred reality and play, appetites and ecstasy. The nuns inhabited a play space, giving up their birth identities for special sacred names. Walled off from everyday social feedback as in a tomb, they had roles in a cosmic story. But there must have been times when bodies whispered and heaven’s glories seemed far away and unreal. Whoever gets enough life?
Maria Luisa could kill a sister nun partly because death wasn’t real to her, partly because the strict inhibitions of convent life tried to keep life impersonal. And it’s likely that something in the woman’s impoverished, motherless childhood complicated her ability to empathize. It’s true that she used others with the cruelty of a tabloid psychopath—despite the agonies of poison victims, she never lost her nerve. Decades later, she ended up in the streets as an incoherent bag lady. But pathology isn’t the whole story, and neither is sin.
There is something terrible in Maria Luisa’s strangled greed for life. Like everybody else, she was trapped in the stories we tell to make life less strange and more satisfying. The child of poverty took other people’s money and devotion and even their lives. Filling up the hollow spaces in herself, she was voracious. hungry for that energy, real and imaginary, living and dead, earthbound and divine.
She may have been a monster, but she was one of us.