Periodical Reviews -- By: John A. Adair

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 177:708 (Oct 2020)
Article: Periodical Reviews
Author: John A. Adair

Periodical Reviews

By The Faculty And Staff Of Dallas Theological Seminary

John A. Adair


“The Piety of Female Friendship: Convent and Court in Sixteenth-Century Mantua,” Jennifer A. Cavalli, Sixteenth Century Journal 50.2 (2019): 399–420.

The task of historians involves bringing forward the words and deeds of those who have come before us to better understand the lives and concerns of historical people, that old and forgotten ideas might be reignited in contemporary contexts, and that we might receive insight into the human condition. One of the great limitations that historians faces is in the kinds of stories and people we know anything about. Since history is largely done through writing, most of our access today is to powerful, wealthy, and/or educated men who had the means themselves to either write or have their tales written down by others.

Cavalli’s exploration of female friendship in sixteenth century Mantua, an incisive work of historical scholarship, takes on an extra layer of significance because it deals with women. The settings are convents in north-central Italy, the concrete materials the letters that women sent to one another in the convents and outside them. Cavalli argues that the relationships begun outside the convent continued after women took their vows. Further, Cavalli underlines the significance of these friendships, part of which was to ensure material support for the convents. Also the exchange of letters provided spiritual nourishment and “fostered a sense of belonging for the women (religious and lay) they connected” (400).

Cavalli focuses much of her attention on a layperson, Isabella d’Este, marchesa (noblewoman) of Mantua. Her letters describe the spiritual benefit she believes she has received from her interaction with the nuns. One in particular, Osanna Andreasi, served Isabella in particular ways—praying for the provision of a male heir and praying that Isabella might overcome an illness, both of which occurred.

Cavalli also details how Isabella was able to exercise her power and influence to establish a new convent in Verona. As a woman of means who was deeply involved in the broader society, Isabella often wrote of more “worldly” issues such as travel and “the secular administration of justice” (404). Further, she had material power at her fingertips, discussing with the nuns repairs needed on the convent—the implication being that Isabella would send the needed funds.

These letters also reveal ways in which the nuns continued to use these relationships in order to advance their own continued interests—even those outside the convent. In one le...

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