Non-Cloistered Religious Women Communities in Apulia in the Early Modern Period: Research in Progress

by Angela Carbone 

The doctoral program in Sciences of Human Relations (University of Bari Aldo Moro, Department of Education, Psychology and Communication Sciences), where I have worked for many years, is divided into three branches: History and Social Policy, Formative Dynamics and Political Education, and Psychology: Cognitive, Emotional and Communicative Processes. I have supervised many doctoral students in the History program including, most recently, Domenico Uccellini. In his recent article, he has brought new elements to the research on communities of non-cloistered religious women in the Terra di Bari (countryside around the city of Bari) between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (D. Uccellini, Benefattrici e beneficate. Conservatori femminili in Terra di Bari nella prima età moderna, in E. Ivetic, a cura di, Attraverso la storia. Nuove ricerche sull’età moderna in Italia, Editoriale Scientifica, Napoli 2020, pp. 197-208).

From the historiographical background in which many research trends in the Church’s history and the history of local powers intersect, the originality of the Uccellini’s contribution lies in the fact that he looks both at the female role in charity and at the charitable practices: women acting as benefactors and women as beneficiaries.

As evidenced by exemplary female promoters of praiseworthy charitable initiatives in Naples between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Maria Lorenza Longo, founder of the Ospedale degli Incurabili (1521), Maria d’Ayerbe, founder of the Monastery of the convertite (1537), Elena Aldobrandini, founder of the Ritiro per matrone e vergini nobili (1655), there was significant female activity in the foundation of conservatories dedicated to the assistance of women “on the margins”.

In particular, there were noteworthy initiatives undertaken by noble women belonging to the Acquaviva family, one of the seven great noble families of the Kingdom of Naples to which King Ferdinand I of Aragon granted, in the second half of the fifteenth century, the right to add the name “d’Aragona” to their surname. The Conservatorio di Santa Maria delle Abbandonate was founded in 1573 in Casamassima (Bari) in fulfillment of a testamentary bequest of Dorotea Acquaviva d’Aragona, daughter of Giovanni Antonio Donato and Isabella Spinelli, with the aim of welcoming orphan and poor girls. About twenty years later, Archbishop Riccardi mentioned the hospitium in his Report ad limina of 1594, stating that there were young girls who had not made solemn profession of monastic vows but lived religiously, and that the structure was guarded and administered very properly.

The conservatory’s book of Rules, the Regule, statuti et consuetudini d’osservarsi inviolabilmente con la Divina grazia dalle M.R. figliole di Santa Maria dell’Abandonate – on which we are still working – precisely describe the everyday life of the girls and establish a whole series of behavioral norms.

In 1660, the archbishop of Bari, Diego Sersale, transformed the conservatory into a monastery of Poor Clares. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, there were still “thirty choir nuns, and ten converse nuns, who lived in a perfect common life under the rule of St. Clare as reformed by Pope Urban.”

Another important female figure linked to the Acquaviva family was Isabella Filomarino dei Principi della Rocca, wife of the Count of Conversano Gian Girolamo II Acquaviva d’Aragona (“the one-eyed men of the Apuglia (guercio delle Puglie)”) and niece of the archbishop of Naples Ascanio Filomarino.

Isabella was a cultured, devout and imperious woman (not by chance called the “asp of Apulia”); she supported with conviction the political project of her family, which aimed at using patronage and charity as effective instruments of power. In the 1640s, she established the Conservatorio di S. Leonardo in Conversano (Bari). The institute welcomed “mujeres in honestas” who wore the habit of the Dominican Third Order and who did not profess solemn vows: they led an intense “religious life”, but were free “to leave and choose another state”. 

A new female congregation was founded, again in Conversano, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, by Caterina Acquaviva d’Aragona, mother of Gian Girolamo II and mother-in-law of Isabella Filomarino. The conservatory, called “Casa Santa” (Holy House), welcomed – in addition to a pre-existing community of Discalced Capuchin nuns called “cappuccinelle” – “some spinsters, daughters of dishonest mothers” so that they might be prevented from “following the life of their mothers with the danger of losing their honor and becoming victims of the devil.” 

When Caterina Acquaviva of Aragon died, in the early 1630s, Gian Girolamo II and Isabella Filomarino put an end to this experiment by founding, in the place of the Casa Santa and of the contiguous church of S. Matteo, a convent dedicated to the saints Cosma and Damiano, which housed Franciscan tertiary sisters.  

These are only some examples of the ongoing research made possible by the study of the rich archival documentation. It is interesting to highlight the leading role assumed by some women of one of the most important families of the Kingdom of Naples, the Acquaviva of Aragon, together with the role played by the Church. These women were, on one hand, moved by an deep religious convictions. They sought spiritual purification and renewal, often following family bereavements and, in particular, the entrance into the state of widowhood. On the other hand, these charitable institutions became an expression of the Acquaviva family’s strategies for the control of the territory, the display of family prestige, and the management of their patrimony.


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