chapter  5
20 Pages

Women behind walls: tracking nuns and socio-spatial networks in sixteenth-century Florence


In 1548, Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned a census of Florentine convents. The census required every convent in the city to supply a list recording the full names of the convent’s nuns in descending order of rank and seniority, beginning with the abbess and ending with the novices. In the absence of a formal protocol like the ones guiding episcopal visitations, some female religious houses provided more information than others, listing their confessors, young female boarders, and convent servants. Others provided incomplete lists that appear hurried and perfunctory. Some lists were recorded by ducal administrators, who apparently compiled their rosters while sitting in the convent parlour, while other lists were self-generated by nuns who provided information on their own terms and inscribed it in their own hands. Consequently, the census is marked by great variations in script, form, and level of detail, as illustrated by the two contrasting rosters shown in Figure 5.1. Despite these variations, the lists, composed between 1548 and 1552 and later compiled into a large volume, provide a fairly complete record of Florentine nunneries during this period. 1 The ducal census records the names of 2,658 professed nuns who represented approximately 4.5 per cent of the overall Florentine population and roughly 11 per cent of the city’s female residents at the time. 2 These census records provide valuable resources for examining the identities and social relationships of Florentine religious women in the mid-sixteenth century. They are also unique in that the Medici duke did not commission a comparable census of male monastic personnel.