The Ballad of a Nun
céline delaugère in salvatore ferragamo dress, celine leather coat, vanessa seward blazer and malone souliers boots. Art Direction & Photography Sophie delaporte.
Text Cesare Cunaccia
The Nun of Monza, also known as Maria Anna − or Marianna − de Leyva y Marino, became Sister Virginia Maria, her name paying tribute to her mother, who had died at an early age. When just a child, at the tender age of 13 she was forced to enter the Benedictine order as a novice, despite having shown no signs of any kind of vocation, taking her vows at the age of 16. She had been born in 1575 in the capital city of Lombardy, in the magnificent Mannerist building – a large, sombre residential building from the late-sixteenth-century today containing none other than the offices of the Milan City Hall, known as Palazzo Marino – built by her maternal grandfather, the wealthy merchant and financier Tommaso Marino, who originated from Genoa. A theory of embezzlements, a stockpile of intrigues and ruthless legal disputes succeeded in depriving the little heiress of the conspicuous maternal bequest to which she was entitled, that is, half of the Marino legacy, and in ordering that she be forced to enter the monastery of Santa Margherita in Monza. This is the story of the scandalous life and times of our Nun, which truly contains all the ingredients of the ‘noir’ genre, from episodes that see her as an accomplice in multiple murders to those which link her to cases of sacrilege.
Nun, Countess and Lady of Monza, during the reign of Phillip III of Spain, lady Maria Anna personally managed and collected the relative taxes in the Lombard city at the gates of Milan and the surrounding territory which spanned over thirty square kilometres. She was the daughter of the local lord, Spaniard don Martino de Leyva y de la Cueva-Cabrera, who lived far away, in his country of origin, with his new wife, Anna Viquez de Moncada. The de Leyva family were the prefect embodiment of that predatory, avid and haughty band of Spanish aristocrats of low or high descent, who had made their fortune in various ways and settled in the area in and around Milan under the Spanish Empire. In the case in hand, the de Leyva family had inherited their status as the counts of Monza, thanks to the warfaring exploits during the battle of Pavia in 1525 (the battle that indeed marked the final eclipse of the ambitions of Francis I of France, who was taken a prisoner on Italian soil) of don Antonio, who was assigned the feud of Monza by Carlo V. His son Luigi, Maria Anna’s grandfather, therefore became the first Spanish Governor of Milan.
Spanish aristocrats would often marry rich native heiresses or vice versa and so succeed in entering the nobility of Lombardy. The so-called “lord (don) and lady (donna) treatment”, reserved to the Milanese nobility, is a legacy of the Spanish rule. But the relations with the local nobility were not always idyllic, often also due to futile disagreements concerning the precedence of a certain social class or its magniloquent representativeness. The great Borromeo family, of distant Tuscan origins, empowered by a series of exceptional parental allies and the owner of what was practically a state within the state, in the Lake Maggiore area and on its islands, became even more prestigious in the early XVII Century, when Carlo Borromeo, formerly the bishop of Milan, was made a saint and his cousin Federico, whom Manzoni brought to international fame, was promoted to the episcopal pulpit and then donned the purple of the cardinal’s robe in Milan. And indeed it was the Borromeo family, so strong and well-respected due to their heritage and dynastic splendour, their patronage and cultural and social commitment and finally their privileged relationship with the papal court, who continued to fly the flag of the nobility high. In fact, they would often defend the interests and position of the local nobility against foreign conquerors.
Milan in the 17th Century is not only all about decadence and political crisis, under the aegis of these two protagonists and real champions of the Counter-Reformation. Institutions like the Biblioteca Ambrosiana and the Collegio Elvetico were created thanks to them. Those who worked on these projects included prestigious architects, such as classicist Fabio Mangone and most of all the great Francesco Maria Richini, who would later be succeeded by the Baroque drift of Lorenzo Binago’s lively inspiration. But an intense setback arrived in 1630, with the onset of the plague epidemic described by Manzoni in The Betrothed, halving the population and causing the Accademia Ambrosiana to close. It was then that people launched a witch hunt for the anointers, who were considered responsible for spreading the disease according to the deep-rooted superstitious beliefs rife among the population. Manzoni, once again, dispelled the darkness of this terrible episode in La storia della Colonna Infame, 1840, an attempt to reinstate two innocent parties, health commissioner Guglielmo Piazza and barber Gian Giacomo Mora, horribly tortured and sentenced to be broken on the wheel, having been found guilty of spreading the plague epidemic using mysterious toxic substances. A monstrous machine of injustice and lies sparked by the report made by a local woman, Caterina Rosa.
During the 17th Century, noble churches and buildings sprang up in Milan; new squares and main roads were opened. In Lombardy, the art of painting commenced with an initial phase dominated by a stunning trio, Giovan Battista Crespi also known as il Cerano, Giulio Cesare Procaccini and Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli, also called il Morazzone, who all painted for the same powerful customers, the Borromeo family. They were followed by the multi-faceted, experimental talent of Daniele Crespi (also felled by the plague), and, later, by Giuseppe and Carlo Francesco Nuvolone and the refined, intensively lyric, colourist style of Francesco Cairo. If there is one work that summarises and embodies the ultimate sense of Milan under the Spanish empire, somewhere between the sacred, the fabulous and the prodigious, it can only be the one that portrays the Martirio delle Sante Rufina e Seconda, known better as Quadro delle tre mani. Fruit of the joint efforts by il Cerano, Procaccini and Morazzone, it can be dated back to 1622-25 and is kept in the Pinacoteca di Brera. It is a cinematic succession of vivid lights and dense and metaphysical shadows, blending mystical suspension, an outstanding affluence of colour, phantasmagorical spatial saturation in Auto sacramental style and a sparkling fairy-tale intent. It combines the stiff abstract Counter-Reformist canons with spectacular previews of the forthcoming Baroque movement and its infinite seductions and exaggerations.
Despite the fatwa issued to her by her original proud family, then one of the most powerful in Milan, the Lady of Monza became famous thanks to the pages of intense emotive and literary contrast dedicated to her by Alessandro Manzoni in The Betrothed. A sort of long digression, spanning psychology, emotional engagement and Jansenist judgement, punctuated by feuilleton hints ranging from outbursts of pity and vibrant execration. Poor, misguided Maria Anna, transformed into Sister Gertrude, sulphurous and mercurial, is defined as the victim of a cruel social practice and an implacable dynastic cult. She becomes the symbol of all the iniquities and arrogance, misgovernment, haughtiness and oppressions experienced by the Duchy of Milan under the ravenous, unhinged Spanish rule.
«The poor wretch answered» − is a concise period; indeed it is incisive. A prophecy that sounds like an epigraph carved in stone, like the sinister shattering of broken glass. It is the laconic and resigned acceptance phrase, the creed of complete submission to lethal charme and to the vertiginous corruption of Osio that Manzoni uses to mark the beginning of the secret relationship between the two main characters of this chapter. So fatal that it loses them and overwhelms them in a crescendo of abjection, impudence and carnality, which culminates in crime. The capitulation of the Wretch takes place after an arduous courtship, also encouraged by relatives and acquaintances and conducted under everyone’s eyes. Who knows whether this is really what happened? The epilogue, the real one, will be explosive and worthy of Marlowe’s most wicked theatre, in a horrendous tragic catharsis resembling a Dostoevskij-style punishment.
Subjected to a canonical trial on cardinal Federico Borromeo’s request; and captured – like a true descendent of warriors, only after having strived to defend herself, as the mad knight Bradamante, by wielding a long ancient sword – the Lady of Monza was sentenced to being walled alive in a room of just one metre by two and a half, for 21 endless years, in the Ritiro delle Convertite di Santa Valeria in Milan, a shelter for prostitutes and destitute beggars covered in sores. How she survived this horror, in the dark, in isolation, in monstrous hygienic conditions and in the mortifying tombal humiliation of her proud, hidalgo blood, is still a huge mystery today. She received her meagre food and a breath of air from through a narrow slit, a stabbing wound in the wall. She was set free after 14 years instead of 21, in 1622, once again on Borromeo’s request, due to her having proved her repentance and complete contrition. She lived for many years after that, until 1650, helping nuns who were uncertain of their vocation and dedicating her time to various acts of mercy, consumed by rheumatoid arthritis and having been forgotten by her family. The acrid smell of scandal and bad reputation she projected on her Lares still burned her throat, stinging like a cut bathed in salt. Irremediably haughty, distant, self-conscious and even suspected of sanctity. Consumed redemption. Missa est.
Gian Paolo Osio, a runaway sentenced to death in absentia and to the total seizure of his property, would instead encounter a very different future with a rapid, chaotic ending, like the syncopated, flooring one of Il Trovatore by Verdi. Don Gian Paolo will be betrayed and abruptly removed, to the sound of punches, by his friends the Taverna family, in the basement of their building in Corso Monforte, where he had taken shelter in Milan. His cut head, with his eyes, surprised and wide open in his last incredulous spasm of pain, roll to the feet of the governor Fuentes with a timing that is second to none, in a macabre tribute and a bloody pledge of future alliance. A real story, registered in the chronicles of the time in which it took place, which is much darker and more ferocious than the fiction by Manzoni, in which Sister Gertrude and the shady Egidio play supporting roles.
An itinerary composed of cruelty and violence, of toxic ambiguity, of impunity and arrogant noble hauteur. Osio, a completely ruthless character with a firm and fatalistic faith in destiny, clearly in possession of strong protection and friendships that count and programmed to taking on the most extreme challenges, presents himself as a sort of titled Mafia boss, halfway between don Giovanni and don Rodrigo. He is a swashbuckling seducer, basically not much more than an oaf from the province, with a certain position and some properties. He has criminal tendencies and various, serious impending criminal charges to his name, including a sentence for murder. He had already flirted with a rich Catholic school girl he had spotted within the walls of the convent, clearly his favourite, easy hunting ground, Isabella of the Hortensi family. In order to quell any rumours she was moved elsewhere by her family, by request of the Lady of Monza in person. The hateful reaction of Gian Paolo Osio does not tarry, and a certain Molteno, the tax agent of the de Leyva family, is soon found dead. Shot using an arquebus, the purpose of his death is to warn and intimidate.
The scoundrel knew what it was doing. There is not much more to say. Once all resistance has failed, Maria Anna, who lived separately from the other sisters because of her status and was assisted by four auxiliary nuns and ladies in waiting whom she treated with dismissive haughtiness, sometimes even beating them, ended up weaving a forbidden relationship with Osio, the dangerous neighbour of the convent in Monza, endowed with a privileged view of her private rooms. Their love story is passionate and almost conducted in broad daylight, producing at least two children. The first child died during the birth or immediately thereafter, in 1602; the second child, Alma Francesca Margherita, was born in 1604, acknowledged by her father, and baptised in grand style among aristocrats and powerful godfathers. She would be assigned to the loving care of her paternal grandmother and would often also be taken to visit her mother.