20 gennaio 2023
by Rita Lofano

Once upon a time, there was a Kingdom of the Abbesses


I dreamed of traveling to a world both very distant and very near, close and remote. Where once upon a time, there was a kingdom that didn't need armies, a domain ruled by mysterious and powerful women in a small town in the heart of Puglia. The story I wish to tell spans five centuries. It is the story of the mitered abbesses – women who obeyed only the Pope.

The story of the mitered abbesses – women who obeyed only the Pope

I have been contemplating this story since childhood, looking at the ancient bell tower I can see from the balcony of my house. We are in Conversano, in the province of Bari, and the bell tower – not surprisingly the tallest in the city – is that of the monastery of San Benedetto. The convent already existed in the year 889, and acquired great wealth (the first Count of Conversano, Goffredo Altavilla, donated the feudal rights over the nearby village of Castellana in 1098), prospered and in 1110 passed under the direct jurisdiction of the Holy See.

The turning point came in 1266: a community of cloistered nuns, refugees from Romania and Greece, landed in Brindisi, led by an abbess of French origin, called Dametta. Since the monastery of San Benedetto had been abandoned by the monks (a completely different story, of invasions and defeats), the convent was entrusted to the Cistercian nuns, with all the privileges and possessions accumulated up to that time. And what a time! In the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the abbesses of San Benedetto counted more than the bishops, they held the golden miter and the silver pastoral – symbols of power –, they administered the rich and extensive fief of Castellana, they sat on a throne and all the clergy under their jurisdiction had to respect the rite of the ‘kissing of hands’ in their presence, even in death.

Powerful. Revered. She served only the Lord. The first mitered abbess of Conversano was therefore Dametta. “We don't know what her surname was,” explains historian Antonio Fanizzi, who accompanies us on this journey. “Her name is all that emerges from authentic documents and not from legends. The order of the Cistercian Benedictines was established in Citeaux, France. Dametta came from the monastery of Santa Maria de Viridario in Methoni. She was assigned the monastery of San Benedetto, with all the rights enjoyed by the abbot and the monks, by order of Pope Clement IV. This was the foundation of the jurisdiction of the abbess, which would last until 1810, so disliked by the bishops of the local diocese that it was described as ‘Monstrum Apuliae’.

The abbesses were elected by the sisters every 3 years. The Council of Trent established that monasteries that enjoyed this kind of jurisdiction could continue to operate as long as they had the foundation documents. The abbesses were very careful to conserve all the necessary papers, which enabled them to stay in power for so long. They were noblewomen condemned to seclusion from childhood, forced to communicate with the outside world only through grates with meshes so tight that not even a hand could pass through.

They were noblewomen condemned to seclusion from childhood, forced to communicate with the outside world only through grates with meshes so tight that not even a hand could pass through

The eldest sons of feudal families inherited the land, the others could take up arms or vows, while the daughters were forced into marriages of convenience or into a convent. In Conversano and in the nearby villages, the nobles aspired to have an abbess in the family and were ready to shell out a large dowry: six hundred ducats

“Towards the middle of the seventeenth century, the eldest son of Giangirolamo II and Isabella Filomarino, Cosimo Acquaviva d'Aragona – who had married Maria di Capua – had ten children, five boys and five girls,” Antonio tells us. “The daughters were all nuns San Benedetto. One of them, the youngest, Vita Modesta (in Polignano, people worshipped San Vito, with his preceptors, San Modesto and Santa Crescenza, hence the nun's name) escaped from San Benedetto with her betrothed Ridolfo Carofa, brother of the Duke of Noja (rival of Acquaviva d'Aragona), by digging a hole in the carpenter's workshop next to the convent. They embarked from San Vito direct to Venice, where they got married.”

But the story doesn't have a happy ending. He died in battle and she returned to Conversano with her young son. Legend has it that it was she, born Dorotea Acquaviva d'Aragona, who inspired the drawing on the ‘door of the 100 eyes’, held in the Conversano art gallery and so called because it depicts a young woman holding a long bloody knife in one hand and the pelt of a dead animal in the other, completely covered with identical, open eyes. It was allegedly the door of the cell in which she was locked up as a punishment for pursuing carnal desires, symbolized by the bull placed outside the door.

Legend, history, myth. I would love to have a time machine, to go back, to peer in on their lives, to learn the art of command, here in Conversano, in the ‘city of women’.

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