Carlini, Benedetta 1590–1661

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Carlini, Benedetta

Abbess of the Theatine convent Holy Mary of Pescia Italy, Benedetta Carlini was born January 20th in Vellano and figures in the Miscellanea Medicea, a file containing short transcripts, letters and summaries of documents no longer extant (Brown 1986). Carlini appears in the file as a result of clerical inquiries (processi) concerning her claims of mystical visions and miracles. Beginning in 1619 and continuing through 1623, these inquiries focused on whether Carlini might be a saint and the investigators tried to determine the validity of her spiritual experiences, which included receiving the stigmata (the marks associated with the wounds inflicted on Christ at his crucifixion), exchanging hearts with Christ, and becoming Christ's bride in a public ceremony in which Christ praised her through her own mouth. The testimony of several nuns later established that Carlini had not only faked her stigmata and flirted with a priest, but engaged in a same-sex relationship with Bartolomea Crivelli, another nun.

First written about in Judith Brown's Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986), Carlini's case is intriguing and has sparked much debate. Lesbian historian Lillian Faderman faults Brown's work for the "calculated sensationalism of its name" (Faderman 1987, p. 576). Brown explains her use of "lesbian sexuality" and "lesbian nun" for "reasons of convenience to describe acts and persons called 'lesbian' in our own time" (Brown 1986, p. 171). That language, however, contextualizes Carlini only in modern terms of sexual identity, not in seventeenth-century Italian categories. Since the investigation considered sodomy, the clerics themselves might have categorized Carlini as a tribade.

After reexamination of the archival documents, historian Rudolph Bell launched a spirited exchange with Brown concerning her manuscript readings. He disagrees that the crossed out passages and unsteady handwriting associated with descriptions of the sexual acts reveal the male investigator's anxiety and interprets them as evidence of the erratic narrative of Crivelli. Further whereas Brown contends that the investigations were reopened in 1622, resulting in the collection of damaging evidence, Bell sees the entire period from 1619 to 1623 as one process that initially sought to confirm Carlini's status as a holy woman, but evolved into a political stratagem to eliminate a problematic abbess. Bell cites evidence that Carlini had long had problems establishing her authority and had called upon the Medici family for support. Moreover the 1622 and 1623 interviews document the dissatisfaction of the abbey's nuns who, according to Bell, wished to unseat Carlini.

During those interviews Crivelli, who had earlier corroborated the Carlini's visions, confessed that the two had engaged "in the most immodest acts" for more than two years, several times per week (Brown 1986, p. 117). Their sexual practices included kissing and genital rubbing but involved no instruments. Crivelli's version claimed Carlini took the persona of a male angel, Splenditello, when she "sinned with her by force" (Brown 1986, p.122). As Splenditello, the abbess allegedly told her companion their acts were not sin, since "it was the Angel Splentidello and not she that did these things" (Brown 1986, p. 119). The entire account relies on Crivelli's testimony since Carlini never admitted she had engaged in sexual acts. Instead of eliciting accusations of sodomy, the affair was quietly resolved: Carlini, agreeing to charges of possession, was removed as abbess. Though the presumed diabolical origin of her sexual activities was paramount, Carlini's outing as a lesbian contributed to her removal, and for the following thirty-five years until her death on August 7, 1661, she lived in solitary confinement.

see also Monasticism.


Bell, Rudolph M. 1987. "Renaissance Sexuality and the Florentine Archives: An Exchange." Renaissance Quarterly 40(3): 485-511.

Brown, Judith. 1986. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Faderman, Lilian. 1987. "Review of Immodest Acts: the Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy and Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence." Signs 12(3): 576-579.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. "Review of Immodest Acts: the Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy and Holy Anorexia." American Journal of Sociology, 93(1): 234-236.

                                                Holly Ransom