Immagine tratta dal volume Cronaca del convento di sant'Arcangelo a Bajano - Archivi di Napoli 1860

Loves and crimes in the convent of Sant’Arcangelo in Bajano

Amori e delitti nel convento di Sant’Arcangelo a Bajano (Leggi versione in italiano)

This is the chronicle of events that took place in the monastery of St. Archangel in Bajano of Naples. The events found their sad conclusion in the year 1577. Nuns of the convent, as novellas sirens, attracted beautiful and handsome young men for their games of love.

It was 1577, it was in Naples, Ignigo Viceroy Lopez de Hurtado de Mendoza on behalf of Philip II, king of Spain and Naples reigned.

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 concentrate in the capital. The feuds and related revenues were inherited from the first-born. Other sons had to undertake the way of a military career, ecclesiastical and public positions. Their daughters were intended to make 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 their normal episcopal functions, through the Minister of the Holy Office, which had its armed gendarmes.

The monastery of Sant’Arcangelo in Bajano was adjacent to the homonymous church that is located in Sant’Arcangelo in Bajano street, which belongs to the popular district of 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 in the heart of the city, a short walk from the Cathedral. Today it is a building converted into housing and is uninhabited and 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. Maria d’Aquino retired in the convent She was the illegitimate daughter of Robert of Anjou, became famous by the name of Fiammetta, the woman loved by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Chiesa di Sant'Arcangelo a bajano - Baku 2009 CC BY-SA 3.0
Chiesa di Sant’Arcangelo a bajano – Baku 2009  CC BY-SA 3.0

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 Beyle, known as Stendhal (1783- 1842), dedicated a book that was very successful: the Chronicle of the convent of Sant’Arcangelo in Bajano. Carlo Tito Dalbono (1817-1880) father of the painter Eduardo, including the history, although in legendary key, in a book of his. The story 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 the time with its three main social classes. There were, at the top of the convent, the sisters coming from noble families who were not married and had embraced the religious life, forced or less by their relatives. These religious retained all the privileges of their condition, they enjoied a comfortable life in the convent, housed in private apartments, with nuns who served them as personal valet. The management of the convent was in their hands.

The pupils of the affluent middle-class families were on an intermediate step. 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. They were used for the most menial jobs.

To fully understand the story, we must know 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 presence of men were in all the female convents, This presence was destined at meeting the needs of the younger nuns. This meetings was careful to social class. The young nobles were attending the nuns of distinguished families, in the apartments reserved for them in the convent houses. The rude men and the workers, who frequented the monasteries for working 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 Sant’Arcangelo, Giulia Caracciolo and Agnese Arcamone, both of noble origins, bound together by a deep and affectionate friendship. Giulia was beautiful and praud presence, with a fine intelligence. Agnese, who were less beautiful and less intelligent, was equipped with a gentle nature that everybody loved her.

The intimate friendship of two young nuns created the envy of the other sisters. A sister of their convent, Eufrasia d’Alessandro of Dukes of Pescopagano, being in conversation with the mother superior, Constanza Mastrogiudice of a noble family of Sorrento, confided her suspicions about the innocence the bond that tied Giulia and Agnese. The abbess reported these circumstances to the family of Giulia 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 Giulia, hushed and accused the abbess of having senile as a result of age.

Giulia Caracciolo, became aware of it and also who had accused her, 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 nuns were not very devoted to prayer, but they had openness and thoughtless trait. They tried 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 learned that the next night her mistress Eufrasia and her friend Chiara had to meet in the convent their two lovers, Francesco Spiriti and Giuseppe Piatti, who had to enter from the garden door leading to the street where the Medusa fountain was.
Giulia reported this matter to her cousin Antonio Mariconda, Prince of Garagusa. The second son of Prince, Pietro Antonio, being linked to the convent for his plot of 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 was awaiting two lovers with his brother and five 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. Giulia 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 approached to dead youths and the two nuns who were astonished and desperate for the show they had witnessed. She decided to discard as soon as the two bodies of youths, dragging them out, to save the honor of the convent.

Domenico Lagne, Prince of Caposele, had an amorous relationships with a nun, Camilla Origlia. He was consumed by jealousy because he believed that his mistress betrayed him. Another nun, his friend Laura Sanfelice, had told him of the appointment outside the garden gate. She thought that the meeting was between Camilla and her lover. Domenico Lagne went in the streetnear Medusa funtain. Seeing Pietro Antonio wandering out of the convent, with the gate of convent open, Domenico 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 of his relative with the bodies of the two unfortunate youths, that the nuns had brought near the Medusa fountain. He buried them in secret with the help of his servants.

The gossip about the act of violence began to spread in the city. But the power of the families involved the intervention of the authorities.

Eufrasia and Chiara, after what happened, had a good reason to hate the rival Giulia and Agnese. Also the mother superior was considered an accomplice of their opponents, and was hated by them. Speaking to the their sisters, they were able to take to their reasons those nuns who had also their lovers frequenting secretly the convent. They was convinced that the solution was to get rid somehow of the abbess Costanza. 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 seal their life.

Chiara suggested 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. The proposal was accepted after some discussion, but Caterina, who had secret relations with Agata, asked that the maid were saved.

Eufrasia kept preserved a poised potion of balsam, long before which had been prepared by a Roman physician. The potion had a fatal 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 organize 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 balsam of Eufrasia, which had a calming power and would sleep deeply the abbess.

One night, Eufrasia, who 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 stayed in the room of Sister Camilla Origlia, passed in front of the door and saw opened the latch. She had a sudden inspiration. She 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 de 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 his control helping her. The two fell on the grass in a tight hug. It happened all what usually happens between lovers.

Dawning Lavinia invited her lover to go 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 her with name of Livia. Lavinia, still shaken for her adventure, took its as an affront. She insulted Eufrasia, reminding the class difference between their families. The two came to blows. Then they quickly retreated to their rooms fearing to be discovered.

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 was squirming on his Paolo. At that time the abbess passed. Lavinia, surprise spying, invited the abbess to peek out of the keyhole.
The abbess, shocked by what her eyes saw, knocked imperiously to the door. Paolo hid 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, getting all the blame. The two religious remained 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 went 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, grew sick and died. The appointment of the new mother superior was starting a real war. Every nun, belonging to a noble family, managed with the help of his relatives to appoint this nun or that as abbess to her liking.

Chiara, to counter the plots of other sisters, went and spoke 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 spoke with the Duke who promised to promote the appointment of Elena as mother superior of the convent.

The niece, contacted reluctantly and confidentiality by her aunt, without have it repeated twice, immediately made available herself for Francesco Acquaviva, without that the aunt had asked it twice. The duke, satisfied in his desires, kept his promise convincing the archbishop to appoint Elena Marchese abbess of the convent.

The abbess was enable to control the exuberance of nuns because of her weakness, who continued unabated in their bad habits. Rumors, that regarded the vicissitudes of the nuns, were heared by Andrea da Avellino, a priest lawyer of the curia, who proceeded to an inspection in the convent.

He discovered some of the terrible things 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 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 Sant’Arcangelo.

She made to bring a harpsichord in her room at the monastery to practice and to delight with the music the other nuns, because Candida played very well that instrument. 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 for 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 Cardinal asked his vicar to investigate in the convent to know what was happening.

The vicar did the investigation with the assistance of the new Mother superior of the convent, Angela Palma. He searched in the nuns residences, where he found several suspicious things. During interrogation some of the religious reported incidents of which they were aware for revenge or fear, including the poisoning of the mother superior Constanza Mastrogiudice. All the illegal activities emerged in short time.

The vicar told the archbishop, who instructed a secret trial in which the participation of the accused nuns were 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.

During 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. At the same time Duke of Nardò, madly in love with 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 her heart.
The convent of Sant’Arcangelo in Bajano was finally closed by order of the archbishop by that day.

So ended that place of iniquity, which is still sadly abandoned.

Anonimo: Cronaca del convento di Sant’Arcangelo a Bajano, pubblicato a cura di Stendhal’Arcangelo_a_Baiano
Carlo Tito Dalbono: Le tradizioni popolari spiegate con la storia e gli edifizi del tempo, De Marchi 1841