Imaginary autobiographical tale of Giulia Di Marco, known as Sister Parthenope, the “Holy in Life” who created the Congregation for Carnal Charity. An incredible story that made the sensation in Naples at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
My name is Giulia Di Marco. I am known in Naples as Sister Partenope. In 1575 I was born in Sepino, a small village in Molise. My father and my mother were peasants. My grandmother was a Turkish slave at the service of a Spanish nobleman in Naples. She, converted to Christianity, was married to a farmer of Sarno, my grandfather. Soon I was orphan. Still a little girl I became a maid and I went to serve a merchant of Neapolitan origins in the Campobasso town. After a few years my employer died. I went to serve the merchant’s sister, who moved to Naples, where she had some property and an apartment to live in.
I had become a young woman and the men looked at me insistently. One day I met a beautiful young man, servant of a noble gentleman. I gave myself completely to him behind his promise of marriage. After some time I realized I was pregnant. I advised my young lover about my pregnancy, but he soon went off the grid. I was taken from despair and I confessed everything to my mistress. She scolded me, but then she took care of me. My child was born with the help of my mistress, and he was immediately put on the Wheel of the “Annunziata” orphanage.
I stayed with my mistress for many years. When she died and she left her furniture inherited to me. I found convenient, to survive, to dress a nun’s habit and I began attending churches and monasteries so much that I seemed to be the most pious and devoted woman. Some wealthy ladies invited me in their house to pray together and to confide their concerns. I lived without economic worries. The devotional woman’s fame has been growing over the years. I was considered almost a holy woman.
I was thirty years old when I met Father Aniello Arciero for a case. He was a priest born in Gallipoli, who was about my age and who joined to the Congregation of the Ministers of the Sick. The encounter with Father Aniello was my fortune and my perdition together. Father Aniello was a little weird. He filled my mind with beautiful words during the confession. He moved from words to action. He was touching me everywhere. He said it was to test my and his devotion. At first there was not much to do, because Father Aniello actually seemed indifferent to my graces. Then his instincts began to awaken, and also mine. It ended that we slept together. It was 1605. Father Aniello told me his theory of salvation saying that the matters we did was God’s will. It was written in the Old Testament “to be fruitful and multiply.” God wanted us to be spiritually and physically united. He was more and more taken up by this theory, which I too was convinced. Father Aniello began to divulge it from the pulpit of the churches he attended with beautiful and meritorious words. He met a vast number of followers. He founded the “Carnal Charity” Sect. I was the emblem of this sect.
I became a “Saint”. I met the followers of the sect and others who wanted to know me. Father Aniello informed me of the secrets of the people who came to me, secrets confided to him in confession. So I could show them to know their weaknesses and anguish, with great their wonder. We joined a decadent nobleman of little coin but of great education, Giuseppe de Vicarijs, a lawyer. He was endowed with a great eloquence and a turn of phras because of his profession. I was the “Holy in Life” of the congregation, Father Aniello was the spiritual father, and Giuseppe de Vicarijs maintained the relationship with the world and was able to find the right words when confronted with religious authorities.
The first meetings of the congregation were in the house of a gentleman, Giuseppe Michele Urbano, who had made available some rooms of his house. Soon, this place was inadequate and, therefore, the headquarters were transferred to my large house in Vico de ‘Mannesi, between Via dei Tribunali and Vico dei Zuroli, nearby the chatedral. Father Aniello organized the meetings of followers, formed mainly by young men and young women. They were divided into small groups of as many females as males. After the prayers the various groups went in some rooms where they made love. The most beautiful young men were reserved for me. I was sitting. The chosen ones knelt one by one in front of me and kissed me. In a short time I went to “ecstasy”. It seemed to me natural. Instead, Father Aniello said that this was the ecstasy of a “Holy woman”. Since it was in my earnings, I accepted gladly the explanation.
The congregation of “Carnal Charity” had a great success. My home was attended by people of every class. A lot of noblemen and ladies came to me. Even the priests took part in meetings. One day I met the other “Holy in Life” in Naples, Sister Orsola Benincasa. She showed interest, but I realized her malevolence. She feared that my success could damage her popularity. Someone told me that a follower of Sister Orsola said, seeing worried her: “Even saints suffer from envy.” My troubles began from that meeting. The Teatine Friars, Suor Orsola’s protectors, told the wickedness towards me in the ears of the Holy Office. The Holy Office commissioned to the bishop of Caserta, Monsignor Deodato Gentile, to investigate what was happening in my home.
Monsignor Gentile found that nothing particularly serious happened in the congregation but, having found some things that were inappropriate in his opinion, he wanted me to move to the convent of “Sant’Antonio di Padova” near the Monastery of “Sapienza” of Naples. He ordered I could talk only to the nuns of the monastery. Father Aniello Arciero, however, was summoned to Rome and interrogated by the prosecutors of Holy Office. His actions were judged to be imprudent. He had an obligation to reside in Rome and was denied the right to confess.
I stayed in the monastery of Sant’Antonio di Padova for three years. A new confessor was assigned me, Father Ludovico Antinoro. All men are the same after all, priests or non-priests, just having to know how to deal with they. After a while, Father Ludovico became my first defender. He was an enthusiast about my sanctity with his superiors. The other nuns of the monastery also began to appreciate me. I also met one of the noblest woman of the realm, Donna Violante de Toledo, who attended the monastery as secular nun. Soon we became friends and, as Donna Violante was very educated, I dictated her noble and theologically correct messages that secretly my friend Giuseppe de Vicarijs suggested to me, which she then delivered to the highest prelates.
Monsignor Gentile, who was not a fool, understood the danger of what I was managing, so he decided that I had to be transferred to a monastery in Cerrito. Even I had the prohibition of talking to anyone in this new monastery. In 1610 fortunately Stefano de Vicarijs became bishop of Caserta. Giuseppe de Vicarijs, falsifying some documents, appeared to the bishop as a relative. He became very familiar with the prelate, so he could convince him to transfer me to a convent of Nocera.
Giuseppe told his alleged relative, who was the new prosecutor of the Holy Office, the envy and false allegations that had caused my imprisonment in the monastery. Medical certificates were also attested to my precarious state of health and the need I went back to Naples. So it was. The day I left Nocera, I had become famous in that place as a holy woman so that the priests played the bells of their churches.
In the time of my absence from Naples, my fame had grown enormously instead of falling asleep. The noble Don Alfonso Suarez, who had very high offices, made available to me his house so that I could receive the congregation’s faithful. My community was attended by so many people, many of whom were of noble families. Even Caterina Roscias y Sandoval, Countess Lemos, Viceroy’s wife Pedro Fernandez de Castro, attended the house of Don Suarez to meet me.
Not being able to resume my good habits in that house, I moved to a very spacious apartment on the Fonseca hill, towards Capodimonte, which I used for my home and congregation. The pleasant meetings of the followers of two sexes resumed in this new dwelling, made up of many rooms. My meetings also continued with the youngest and handsome of them. Now all the Neapolitan nobility was involved.
Because of the great number of followers of my prayers, there was a chance for some gentleman to meet women of his family who, without the knowledge her relatives, attended the congregation. It was necessary to avoid these fortuitous encounters in the small groups that formed and then retreated into the various rooms to join in sexually meetings. I was very careful that Giuseppe de Vicarijs did not do this inconvenience in choosing the participants in meetings, formed a pair number of men and women,
The contrasts continued with the Teatine Friars. I told my followers not to attend and not even talk to the Friars, not to give an occasion for accusations against my congregation. I asked support to the Jesuits in their new church that was in front of that of Santa Chiara Monastery, in order to better counter these envy.
One day it happened that our Sister Francesca, a holy woman dedicated to alleviating the sufferings of the sick, was called into the home of Don Cesare Cangiante, who was very ill. In the same home his confessor, Father Teatine Benedetto Mandina, had gone. Sister Francesca and Father Benedict met several times in the home of the infirmary. Sister Francesca was deceived with beautiful words from Father Mandina. She told him things of the congregation that had to be a secret. She told, though not fully, what I did with my young adepts. Even four Teatine priests had been my followers. Over time, however, they were detached, returning to their old obedience.
Father Mandina put together what Sister Francesca told and the story, though purged of the most insane things, collected by the four repentant priests. The religious were forced to full confession by their superiors in the order. To get Sister Francesca off my back, who had been convinced to confess everything, I made her conceal in the convent of Nocera with a stratagem, where I had stayed for a few years, and so avoid that this naive Sister could say all that she knew the hated teatines. Father Mandina, however, did not stop and he made to return to Naples Sister Francesca on the advice of Father Giacomo Grasso, a well-known priest, lover of literature and a good and prudent person. He collected in writing the testimonies of Francesca and those of the four priests, my former followers, delivering everything to the delegate of the Holy Office, Monsignor Maranta, Bishop of Calvi.
I started to worry. In agreement with Giuseppe De Vicarijs I interested all the followers of noble origins to intervene with the ecclesiastical authorities in my defense and in defense of my congregation, pointing out that the accusations were the result of the envy. Even the viceroy, personally urged by his wife Countess of Lemos, one of my most beloved followers, intervened personally against the bishop. The bishop, who was pressed by the Teatine Friars, said me that my confession with my repentance would led to extremely small penalties. Even the bishop feared the scandal which would follow because of the impressive number of followers of the congregation. Somehow he tried to settle the matter in silence.
The inquisitors of Rome removed the bishop of Calvi from office. He showed weakness. They appointed a special delegate for my trial, Monsignor Nunzio who, without any hesitation, made me arrested by the archbishopric gendarmes. Giuseppe de Vicarijs was also arrested. Father Aniello Arciero was imprisoned in Rome. He had not been moving from that city for three years, as it was ordained to him. During the night, Giuseppe and I were transferred to Rome.
A large number of our confreres, knowing the imprisonment and the transfer, were also in Rome protesting in the streets against our imprisonment. They were all young people belonging to the best Neapolitan families. Nevertheless, they were also imprisoned. Only the intervention of their powerful families made them free even after numerous months of imprisonment.
We were subjected to interrogation. The inquisitor of the Holy Office invited me to confess my faults, making me understand that my mistakes were caused by the bad teachings of Father Aniello Arciero. So I did, to save me the torture and the capital punishment. Similarly Father Aniello and Giuseppe de Vicarijs behaved. The court found us guilty of heresy and sentenced us to jail for life.
On July 12, 1615, we were taken to the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The whole cardinal’s college was in the church. A crowd of people, noble and plebeian, was in church and out of the church. The sentence was read that recognized us as guilty of heresy and condemned us to life imprisonment. I was the first to read my act of abjuring where I stated that what I had done was the work of the devil, I regretted and recognized the right path that was indicated to me by the church. The same did my two unlucky companions. We were dressed in the yellow suit of the penitents and were transferred to the prisons of Castel Sant’Angelo.
The strange and clamorous affair of the Congregation of “Carnal Charity” closed with the sentence of heresy of the three protagonists. On 9 August the sentence of condemnation was also read in the Cathedral of Naples by Archbishop Cardinal Carafa. Sister Giulia Di Marco and her two companions died in the prisons of Castel Sant’Angelo. The dates of death of the three prisoners does not know.
The congregation of “Carnal Charity” was the Neapolitan “Quietist” circle. “Quietism” indicated an alternative way to salvation, to be achieved with the desire of God and the quiet of the soul, with a life lived in a normal way, thus also fulfilling every carnal desire. When, the grace came, spontaneously Earthly possessions and pleasures are renounced. The “Quietism”, the most exponent of which was Miguel de Molinos, was tolerated by the religious authorities until the end of 1600. Pope Innocent XII proclaimed the heresy of the quietist doctrine in 1689.
The painting by Michelangelo da Caravaggio “The Seven Works of Mercy“, commissioned in 1606 by Luigi Carafa Colonna for Pio Monte della Misericordia, shows a female figure who gives the naked breast to an old man, representing the work of mercy of “Feed the hungry.” This figure appears to be influenced by the activity of the sect of “Carnal Charity”. It is reasonable to think that Caravaggio had the opportunity to meet Sister Giulia through members of the Colonna family, followers of the same, of whom Caravaggio was a guest in Naples.
The sculpture “Ecstasy of Santa Teresa” of Gian Lorenzo Bernini is inspired, according to some art scholars, to so-called “ecstasy”, very earthy, of Sister Giulia Di Marco. Bernini’s father, Pietro, seems to be an attendee of the sessions of “prayer” and “ecstasy” by Di Marco.
Anonimo, Istoria di suor Giulia Di Marco e della falsa dottrina insegnata da lei, dal padre Aniello Arciero, e da Giuseppe De Vicariiis, Manoscritto della Bibl. Prov.le di Foggia
Vigilante Antonio, La carità carnale, Istoria di Suor Giulia di Marco, Rainone editore, 2006