We hear about the Venetian women cloistered in convents against their will, sequestered by families who couldn’t afford their dowries, who thought they were unmarriagable, or who wanted to protect their chastity.
But here’s the story of one woman who was trying to enter the convent and wasn’t allowed in.
That’s Cecilia Ferrazzi, who died on this day in 1684.
“I turned in anguish from the pain to implore that crucified Christ to clothe me in the love of His Passion and allow me to feel some of His pain, that is, a bit of it. And then I saw something like a fire, divided into five rays like lines from His wounds, detach itself from that crucifix. And standing with my arms extended in the form of a cross, I felt those rays strike my hands, feet, and ribs, and I felt very great pains, which I feel even now most of the time” (29).
Cecilia Ferrazzi confessed this vision to a tribunal as she faced trial for supposed “pretense of sanctity” or pretending to be a holy saint. She was probably quaking with fear, being a simple citizen not used to facing robed government officials. Her heart probably raced with anxiety but also exultation as she relived her glorious vision of Christ’s love.
On April 20, 1609, Cecilia was baptized at the Church of San Lio, a small, dark church decorated now with many ex votos—silver hearts thanking the saints for their intervention to heal afflictions. She and her brothers often prayed on their knees and fasted together, sometimes even resorting to self-flagellation; Cecilia records that their mother unsuccessfully tried to moderate their zealous behavior. She seemed to burn with her devotion from an early age.
Cecilia’s greatest wish was to enter the convent, but the priests forbid it. Apparently, her visions scared people. Later in life, when Cecilia envisioned a visitation by a holy hermit, who instructed her in doing penance with a whip, she realized he was the devil in disguise. “While beating me and dragging me to and fro,” she explained, “he grabbed me by the braids and made me hit my head violently on the walls on both sides [of the room], splattering the walls with blood” (26). Her braids—and scalp—came off in the devil’s hands, and she remained bald thereafter. Was this wound self-inflicted, divine, or at the hands of someone who should have taken care of her? Was Cecilia sexually or physically abused?
Father Giorgio Polacco, who was supposed to be her prime confessor and protector during much of her adult life, decided that Cecilia needed to be exorcised, and he brought in three other priests to help. They gathered at the church of San Martino near the Arsenale and used the attached house and courtyard of Dominican friars. Cecilia “was sitting on the knees of the friar from San Giobbe, and all of them whispered in [her] ear that God give [her] patience and exhorted [her] to suffer willingly for the love of God” (71). Cecilia reported experiencing the “greatest consolation” during the exorcism, feeling like she “was in paradise” (72). By modern standards, however, people might characterize these reports as psychological abuse.
On another occasion, Father Antonio Grandi berated Cecilia for going into a trance in the Church of San Giovanni Elemosinario, yelling, “Wretch, is this the place to go into ecstasy? Get out of this church!” (53). He threw her out bodily into the streets of the Rialto district, telling her not to return. Another priest, whose name Cecilia did not know, shoved her, causing her to “fall backward over a wooden clog, which hurt [her] so badly that [she] had to be put in the care of a barber [surgeon]” (27-8). She mentioned no provocation for this action.
Church of San Giovanni Elemosinario
We know of Cecilia’s life because she was eventually brought to trial for her “pretense of sanctity.” This is chronicled in the book Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint, edited by Anne Jacobson Schutte (which is where the citations come from). I also present an overview of Cecilia’s life in my book A Beautiful Woman in Venice. For years, Cecilia ran homes where unprotected young women could live a pious life, a safe haven that Cecilia found benefactors for. Help often seemed to come from divine sources. Cecilia admitted, “I had no money, . . . but rather debts, as one can understand, since unfortunately I’ve had to spend for the girls, trusting only in God, Who provided as necessary in ways that stunned and amazed me” (74).
But then the Church intervened at put a stop to Cecilia’s good works. A woman who didn’t quite fit in their prescribed box was a threat to be silenced. Cecilia served some prison time, then house arrest, before her patrons procured her release. Her story presents a rare glimpse into yet another type of life lived by Venetian women.
(Photo of the Church of San Giovanni Elemosinario comes from this link: Church of San Giovanni Elemosinario. Photo of the Church of San Lio is by me.)