year was 1577, in Naples reigned Viceroy Ignigo Lopez de Hurtado de Mendoza on
behalf of Philip II, King of Spain and Naples.
The nobles of the kingdom had lost much of their feudal powers with the Spanish conquest, as a result of what they had left their castles to centralize in the capital. The feuds and related revenues were inherited from the first-born. For other sons the way of a military career, ecclesiastical and public positions was open for other sons. Their daughters were intended to tie the good marriages or to take the way of the convents and became nuns, with their vows of chastity, obedience and poverty.
The ecclesiastical world was ruled by bishops and archbishops. They exercising judicial power against the clerics and clerics in addition to the normal episcopal functions, through the Minister of the Holy Office, which had its armed gendarmes.
The monastery of St. Archangel in Bajano was adjacent to the homonymous church that is located in Sant’Arcangelo a Bajano street, which belongs to the popular quarter Forcella. Forcella includes part of the street which is called Spaccanapoli, since divided exactly in two the ancient Greek-Roman city. The convent was then the heart of the city, a short walk from the Cathedral. Today it is a building converted into housing and is uninhabited, abandoned.
The church was built in the sixth century by the Basilian monks whose monastery was adjacent to it. In the thirteenth century, the church and the monastery were refurbished by King Charles of Anjou. The monastery was converted into a convent and given in use, together with the church, the Benedictine nuns. In the convent retired Maria d’Aquino, the illegitimate daughter of Robert of Anjou, became famous by the name of Fiammetta, the woman loved by Giovanni Boccaccio.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Benedictine monastery became famous for the sad events that regarded the sisters of the same, which came to an end with the exemplary punishment of the culprits and the suppression of the convent in 1577.
Marie-Henri Bayle, known as Stendhal (1783 – 1842), dedicated a book that was very successful: the Chronicle of the convent of St. Archangel in Bajano. Carlo Tito Dalbono (1817 – 1880) father of the painter Eduardo, including the history, although in key legendary, in one of his books, story that was also cited by Benedetto Croce in relation to a picture that depicted a tragic scene.
The female convents of the epoch reproduced, within
them, exactly the society of that period with its three main social classes.
At the top of the convent there were the sisters coming from noble families who were not married and had embraced the religious life, forced or less by their families. These religious retained all the privileges of their condition, they were living a comfortable life in the convent, housed in private apartments, with nuns who served as personal valet service. The direction and management of the convent was in their hands.
The pupils of the affluent middle-class families were on an intermediate level, they had brought a large dowry to the convent. Generally they were employed in assignments that needed of a certain cultural level.
The lowest social level of the convent were of the serves, daughters of the people, who had not made any dowry, and that they were used for the most menial jobs.
We must say to fully understand the story that often the custom in the convents of the time was not to follow the vows of obedience and chastity but the contrary to them.
A certain male attendance were in all the female convents, it was destined at meeting the needs of the younger nuns. These meetings was careful to social class. The young nobles attending the pupils of distinguished families in the apartments reserved for them in the convent houses. The rude men and the workers, who frequented the monasteries to business needs, took care of the poorest young nuns, usually in barns and cellars in the convent, places frequented exclusively by these humble nuns.
Two sisters were in the convent of St. Archangel, Giulia Caracciolo and Agnese Arcamone, both of noble origins, bound together by a deep and affectionate friendship. Giulia was beautiful and haughty bearing, with a fine intelligence and an infinite stubbornness. Agnes, less beautiful and less intelligent, however, was equipped with a gentle nature that made her loved and befriended by all.
The intimate friendship of two young nuns kindled the envy of the other sisters. A companion of their convent, Eufrasia d’Alessandro of Pescopagano dukes, being in conversation with the mother superior, Constance Mastrogiudice of a noble family of Sorrento, confided her suspicions about the innocence the bond that tied Julia and Agnes. The abbess reported these circumstances to the Giulia family disclosing the name of her confidant. The powerful family Caracciolo, unable to bear the infamous accusation that the superior of the convent, very unwisely, had launched against Julia, silenced and accused the abbess of having senile due to age.
Giulia Caracciolo became aware of it and also who
had accused her and she swore revenge. She achieved the friendship of
Orsoletta, servant of Eufrasia, with gifts and congratulations, to learn the
secrets of the rival.
Eufrasia was particularly close to Chiara Frezza, the two were not very devoted to prayer, rather of openness and light trait, trying in every way to alleviate their condition of nuns disobeying often to their vows. They secretly met two young men that they has as lovers.
One day Orsoletta came to find out that the next night her mistress Eufrasia and her friend Chiara would have met in the convent their two lovers, Francesco Spiriti and Giuseppe Piatti, who would enter the garden door leading to the street where it was the Medusa fountain.
Giulia reported this to her cousin Antonio Mariconda, Prince of Garagusa. The second son of Prince, Pietro Antonio, being linked to the convent for his traffic with a nun, took care to organize a trap for the two lovers, wanting to avenge his family for the affront caused by Eufrasia d’Alessandro. He lied in wait with his brother and five of his well-armed servants near the Medusa fountain.
Giulia, at the time of the appointment of the two sisters and their lovers, went by the abbess telling her everything and inviting her to go in the garden to be certain, she watched from a window.
The Mother superior surprised the two wretched women who, taking advantage of the dark, hided among the trees. The mother superior, not being able to wait longer, reprimanded severely them. The two nuns, taken by surprise, tried to reach their apartments. Meanwhile, the two lovers were attacked with weapons by Mariconda and his minions. The youths, mortally wounded, entered into the convent garden to escape the trap. After a few moments died both for serious injuries suffered in the ambush.
The abbess came to dead youths and the two nuns who had remained astonished and desperate for the show they had witnessed. She decided to discard as soon as the two bodies, dragging them out, to save the honor of the convent.
Domenico Lagne, Prince of Caposele, in amorous relationships with a nun, Camilla Origlia, was consumed by jealousy because he believed that his mistress betrayed him. Another nun, her friend Laura Sanfelice, had told him of the appointment outside the garden gate, thinking it was designed to promote Camilla and her lover. Domenico went in the street, seeing Pietro Antonio wandering out of the convent, with the gate of convent open, thought that he was the cause of his jealousy and faced and killed him with a sword.
The brother of Pietro Antonio, could not do anything to take the body with the bodies of the two unfortunate youths, that the sisters had brought near the Medusa fountain, and bury them in secret with the help of his servants.
The talk about the act of violence began to spread
in the city. But the power of the families involved the intervention of the
After what happened Eufrasia and Chiara had a good reason to hate the rival Giulia and Agnese. The mother superior also was considered an accomplice of their opponents, and was hated by them.
Speaking to her sisters, they were able to bring to their side those nuns who had also their lovers frequenting the convent secretly. They were convinced that the solution was to get rid somehow of the abbess Costanza, because they feared that, sooner or later, she would take disciplinary action against them. They were afraid of being evicted from the monastery, a dishonor which would have marked them for life.
Chiara proposed to Eufrasia and two other sisters with whom she had a close friendship, Beatrice Moccia and Caterina Barile, to poison the mother superior and her servant Agata, who had witnessed the crime, with a potion. After some discussion the proposal was accepted, but Caterina, who had secret relations with Agata, asked that the maid were saved.
Eufrasia kept preserved a poised potion of balm long before which had been prepared by a Roman physician, the potion had a poisonous effect after a few days of regular administration. Chiara took the small bottle with the potion and approached Livia, another servant of the abbess. Chiara, knowing that she loved hopelessly her cousin Paolo, promised her to help to make possible a meeting in the convent with her cousin.
She also recommended, not to run the danger of being discovered by the mother superior who had light sleeper, administering every night secretly in a drink, a little of the balm of Eufrasia, which had a calming power and would sleep deeply the abbess.
One night, when Eufrasia was on duty in the lodge, did sneak Paolo who withdrew with Livia in her room. Eufrasia left opened the latch of the door to allow the young man to go out the convent to the dawn.
Another sister, Lavinia Pignatelli, after being held in the room of Sister Camilla Origlia, passing in front of the door and seeing opened the latch, taken by a sudden inspiration, left the convent. Since the religious under the monastic robes wore a green dress, she was enough roll up the long black skirt because she did not look like a nun.
Lavinia loved a young man not reciprocated,
Francesco dei Medici who attended the parlor of the convent because of an
acquaintance. He lived a few feet of distance. Lavinia knocked on the door of
Francesco and a servant announced her to the gentleman.
In the presence of Francesco the damsel began to babble, having not prepared any speech. Still she managed to express her love for him. Francesco, honest nature, would not be involved. He took her back to the convent but, in the garden of the same, Lavinia had convulsions of love. Francesco lost her control in rescue, and the two fell into the grass tightly embraced. It happened all what usually happens between lovers.
Dawning Lavinia invited her knight to come out before awakening of the other sisters. Meanwhile Eufrasia hastened to go down in the lobby to close the door she had left open. She, crossing the garden, saw Lavinia and took her for Livia. Eufrasia caught her approaching the lamp to the face calling Livia. Lavinia still shaken for adventure took offense supremely, insulting Eufrasia, reminding the class difference between their families. The two came to blows. Then, fearing to be discovered, they quickly retreated to their rooms.
Lavinia, waking to the sound of the morning bell, remembered that Eufrasia had strangely mistaken for Livia, servant of the abbess, that the same considered her archenemy. Passing in front of Livia room, she was taken by curiosity to peek through the keyhole. She saw the nun who still squirming on his Paolo. At that moment the abbess passed. Lavinia, surprise spying, invited her to peek out of the keyhole.
The abbess, shocked by what her eyes saw, knocked imperiously to the door. Paolo hid naked behind a piece of furniture while Livia opened the door. The abbess and Lavinia immediately saw the young man who, still naked, knelt asking for forgiveness, shouldering all the blame. The two religious remained somewhat troubled by this young muscular body. The superior invited him to return to bed and wait. Outputs that were out of the room, Livia was supremely reprimanded but, not wanting to create a scandal, the mother superior made sure that the young man came out silent from the convent. Not long after he was killed by some men remained unknown.
A few days later Constanza Mastrogiudice, due to the potion that had been administered to her without her knowledge, fell ill and died. It was going to start a real war for the appointment of the new mother superior. Every nun, belonging to a titled family, managed with the help of his family to appoint this or that to her liking.
Chiara, to counter the plots of her other sisters, turned to Francesco Acquaviva, Duke of Nardò, she had noticed very interested of the Duke in a nun, Zenobia, the niece of an elderly nun, Elena Marchese. Chiara convinced Elena, with much persuasion, to talk to the niece of the Duke, after she had made arrangements with the Duke. In return he would facilitated the appointment of Elena as mother superior of the convent.
niece, contacted reluctantly and confidentiality by her aunt, without have it
repeated twice, immediately made of Francesco Acquaviva available, without that
the aunt had asked it twice. The duke, satisfied in his desires, kept his
promise convincing the archbishop to appoint Elena Marquis abbess of the
The abbess could not control the exuberance of her sisters because of her weakness, who continued unabated in their reckless habits. Rumors, that regarded the vicissitudes of the nuns, were heard by Andrea of Avellino, a priest lawyer of the curia, who proceeded to an inspection in the convent.
He discovered at least some of the atrocities that took place in the convent. The priest intended to inform the archbishop for the right punishment. But he had no time. The families of religious, alerted, made sure that Andrea of Avellino was moved away from the city, after a failed attempt to kill him.
Only after many years, Father Andrea, who was proclaimed a saint by Pope Clement XI in 1712, was able to return to Naples after having had important positions in different parts of Italy, collaborating with Cardinal Carlo Borromeo of Milan. In 1567 he became provost in charge of the basilica of S. Giovanni Maggiore in Naples.
A new scandal regarded the convent. Candida Milano of barons of St. George, was in love with a young man of low social class. The family to stop the affair which had already exceeded the limits of decency, arranged for Candida to take the vows of a nun in the convent of St. Archangel house.
Because Candida played very well the harpsichord, she made it carry in her room at the monastery to practice and to delight with the music her sisters. Candida arranged that her lover hid in the case of the harpsichord. It happened that when harpsichord arrived, she was engaged in religious services. When she managed to return to the room immediately she opened the case of the harpsichord which was locked, finding her lover dead suffocated from lack of air. The body of the unlucky young was taken away from the convent with the help of Zenobia and with the intervention of the Duke of Nardò. Despite the secrecy, the voice of this new scandal spread abroad in the city.
The rumors were headed by the Archbishop, Cardinal Paolo Burali d’Arezzo, who was a violent and impulsive person. The Burali d’Arezzo Cardinal asked his vicar to investigate in the convent to know what was going on.
The vicar did the investigation with the assistance of the new Mother superior of the convent, Angela Palma. He searched in the quarters of the nuns, where he found several suspicious things. During interrogation some of the religious, revenge or fear, reported incidents of which they were aware, including the poisoning of the mother superior Constance Mastrogiudice. All the illegal activities came to light in short time.
The vicar told the archbishop, who instructed a secret trial in which the participation of the accused nuns was not allowed. Shortly after the ruling was issued.
The vicar of the archdiocese and the gendarmes went to the convent to execute the provisions of curial court.
The nuns Clare and Eufrasia had been sentenced to death by poisoning. The sisters Camilla, Laura, Zenobia and Elena had been expelled and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Seven other nuns had been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
The reading of the judgment Zenobia launched on her aunt Elena, author of her misfortune, and hit her with a knife that was hidden under her clothes. Camilla threw herself from a window overlooking the garden. Laura pierced her chest with a sharp stiletto. Right at that moment the Duke of Nardò, madly in love of Zenobia, learned of the vicar’s visit and the reasons that led him to the convent, rushed within the same armed with a sword, in a flash he picked Zenobia up and fled taking her to safety.
The Vicar, despite the terrible things that happened, continued execution of sentences. Chiara and Eufrasia were forced to drink hemlock. Chiara, to hasten her death, took a dagger that was on a table, as evidence of the crimes, and pierced his heart.
The convent of St. Archangel in Bajano was finally closed by that day by order of the archbishop.
So ended that den of iniquity, which is still sadly abandoned.
(Photo at the top: Chiesa di Sant’Arcangelo a Bajano, Baku, 2009 CC BY-SA 3.0)