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Sunday, November 4, 2012 - Page updated at 05:00 a.m.

Book review
'Divas in the Convent': the price of making music in a Renaissance convent

By by James McAuley
The Washington Post

'Divas in the Convent: Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy'

by Craig A. Monson

University of Chicago Press, 272 pp., $25

In Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's famous maxim, well-behaved women seldom make history. Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana is no exception.

Born in 1590, she entered Bologna's Santa Cristina della Fondazza convent at 8 years old. Although Vizzana may be a mere footnote to the Italian Renaissance nearly 350 years after her death, she was no ordinary nun. She had a gift for music and, with it, a knack for raising hell.

Following his signature theme of the subversive sister, Washington University music professor Craig A. Monson — the author of "Nuns Behaving Badly" — has woven a rich tapestry of cultural life, religious history and gender politics that puts Whoopi Goldberg's shenanigans in "Sister Act" to shame. "Divas in the Convent," a reconfigured version of an earlier academic book, primarily focuses on the story of Vizzana — the only nun in Bologna ever to be published and whose motets challenged the deeply rooted patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church.

Set in what Monson describes as the "sexually segregated, constricted sphere" of the convent, the book explains how music challenged the Council of Trent's harsh stipulation that nuns remain behind "impenetrable walls." This, he writes, "is a tale of these women's attempts for most of a century to maintain some autonomy and some room to maneuver within an often-conflicting religious conformity imposed by the external, patriarchal Catholic hierarchy."

In the end, that "willful defiance" came with a hefty price, and no one paid it more dearly than Lucrezia Vizzana. Music drove the nuns of Santa Cristina into a frenzy of intellectual activity, and Rome launched an investigation into the convent that had become a hotbed of feminine agency.

Monson has rescued Vizzana and her colleagues from obscurity. Read "Divas in the Convent" as a reminder of music's power to uplift, to challenge and to transform.

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