Querciolo Mazzonis, Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy. Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula (1474-1540), The Catholic University of America Press, Washington D.C., 2007.

Querciolo Mazzonis, Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy.  Angela Merici and the Company of St. Ursula (1474-1540), The Catholic University of America Press, Washington D.C., 2007.  £22.75, ISBN-13: 978-0-8132-1490-0 (paperback), pp. xvi + 247.


Reviewed by Dr Laurence Lux-Sterritt, LERMA, Université d’Aix-Marseille, France.  September 2007.

Querciolo Mazzonis’s book brings to life a detailed picture of the early Company of St Ursula in Renaissance Italy; focusing upon the writings of Angela Merici and the documents relating to the first stages of Ursuline history, it fills a gap in a field of research which, so far, had concentrated on the later development of the Ursulines and offered interpretations which owed more to men such as Carlo Borromeo, who reorganised the movement after Merici’s death, than to the foundress herself.

The initial chapter sets the early Ursulines in their political, religious and cultural contexts, and emphasises their link with the strong legacy of female medieval movements such as beguines, tertiaries or pinzochere; Angela Merici embraced many of the radical traits of these active lay communities, since she and her companions eschewed cloisters or congregations but rather retained their individuality, often staying with their own families.  If some chose to live together, this was purely a matter of personal choice rather than a requirement.  Yet Angela Merici was also an innovator: Mazzonis presents her as the first woman to organise specific characteristics of a female, lay and active Company into a formal religious rule; moreover, unlike her medieval predecessors, she made physical virginity a condition for membership in her Company.  This was not a gathering of mothers, wives or widows, although such devout women could be associated to the Company in the office of Matrone who, provided valued practical or financial assistance.

Thus, the Company was unique since, despite their lack of enclosure, vows or distinctive habit, the Ursulines considered themselves as ‘brides of Christ’, married to Christ yet living in the world.  They functioned without a hierarchy, establishing quasi-familial bonds and helping each other as equals; the younger virgins were guided in their spiritual development by older or more experienced members called the Colonelle, but there were no offices implying the superiority of one member over another.  Thanks to this flexible organisation, the Company was governed by the women themselves; moreover, it achieved complete financial self-sufficiency through the support of its associated helpers and the work undertaken by its own members.  It was therefore able to function without the assistance or supervision of men.

On the subject of work, Mazzonis dispels what he calls ‘a famous but erroneous commonplace regarding Merici’s institute’ (p. 45) by pointing out that, contrary to later interpretations, these early Ursulines were neither particularly involved in charitable work in hospitals nor in teaching poor girls.  He convincingly argues that works of charity did not constitute a central part of the initial Ursuline spirituality since these occupations were left unmentioned in the Rule.  Merici’s ideal was, on the contrary, centred upon the self and highlighted individuality rather than communal identity, valuing an interior spiritual life rather than public manifestations of faith.

Yet this deep personal piety and mysticism were expressed in the world, and chapter 2 focuses upon the ways in which such a social and cultural oddity was perceived in fifteenth century Brescia, dwelling upon the factors which led to its acceptance by the middle classes but to its utter rejections by the aristocracy.  Indeed, thanks to a sociological study, it is shown that contrary to their successors, early Ursulines often belonged to an artisan background and were held in great contempt by the local nobility, who rejected their lack of formal status.

Chapter 3 appears as the argumentative core of the study, centred upon female spirituality in pre-Tridentine Italy.  After contrasting traits of male and female spiritualities, Mazzonis presents penance as typically female and discusses the concept of passivity in mysticism.  He argues that Angela Merici’s ideal correlated, to a degree, with the accepted Renaissance definition of woman, whilst in other respects, it adapted  and rejected some gendered notions which she considered as limiting female agency.  Early Ursulines did not view themselves as passive in their contemplation but rather, through a process of identification with Christ’s role, they envisaged themselves as active.  Their contact with the divine was direct, without the intermediary of clergymen which Carlo Borromeo would later insist upon: for the Company, the mystical very much prevailed over the institutional.

Chapter 4, entitled ‘Spiritual Trends in Pre-Tridentine Italy’, explores how members of the Company achieved personal sanctification through renouncing social status and recognition, and deals with Angela Merici’s Rule upon poverty, humility and individuality, as well as upon such acts of penance of fasting.  It develops an analysis of her views on charity, and compares her ideals with those of contemporary writers such as Ignatius Loyola.  This highly interesting study of Merici’s spirituality leads to the fifth and final chapter, which starts by expounding her notions about the self.  At this stage, the structure of the book may be the source of some confusion since the beginning of this chapter explores concepts which echo the themes discussed already in preceding sections.  This leads to a sense of repetition, or of fragmentation of the thematic unity of the argument.   However, the specificity of the chapter is finally brought to the fore as it moves on to examine the later developments of the Company, particularly after Angela Merici’s death when it was brought under male ecclesiastical authority and given a more rigorous institutionalised form, replacing the horizontal, familial links which thus far united the members with a vertical hierarchy which was more in keeping with organised and recognised female religious life in post-Tridentine Italy.

The extensive bibliography testifies to the depth of the research undertaken for this study, and the result is a book which will be most useful to anyone interested in the history of the Ursulines but also, in a wider context, the history of the evolution of female spirituality before and after Trent.  Querciolo Mazzonis has shown very clearly that Angela Merici had implemented a way of life and articulated a spirituality which were original and unique, but which did not survive her.  Thus, her ideal was no longer at the core of the vocation  of those who became the female teaching and catechising Order par excellence in the seventeenth-century France, but it had been replaced by a spirituality which was deemed by male clerics to be better suited to female aptitudes.