Holy Stilettos!

09.14.14 9:45 AM ET

The Venetian Nuns Who Ditched Their Habits for High Fashion

For centuries, there was a renegade group of nuns in Venice who clung to the lavish fashions and up-to-date styles of the secular world. The higher the heel, the closer to God, right?

Crosses dot the tourist maps of Venice, denoting churches and former convents, some of which have been left to crumble into the ground. But uncovering their histories leads to a startling realization: they weren’t all as innocent as one might assume.

The convents of Venice once served, shock horror, not only as the homes of pious women in black habits, but also as the houses of glamorous nuns who followed high fashion and wore make-up, fur, and high heels.

Textile historian Isabella Campagnol explains this on a recent tour of the convents in downtrodden Venetian neighborhoods and her favorite stomping grounds on the island of Murano, where she was born and raised.

Campagnol is the author of Forbidden Fashions: Invisible Luxuries in Early Venetian Convents, the story of the daring nuns who chose to spice up their clothing from the 15th century up until the mid-18 century when most of the convents were closed. The book is the result of a footnote she found in the Venice city archives that referred to a nun who was denounced for her fabulous outfit.

After making this discovery, Campagnol recalled that the famous ladies man Casanova had referred to some un-nun-like costumes in his memoirs.

In writing about his illicit affairs with nuns and some nuns’ practice of jumping over convent walls to hot foot it to parties, Casanova thought to include descriptions of these renegades’ outfits. His memoirs led Campagnol to a convent at the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli on Murano, where Mr. Casanova had a lover.

The church dates back 1180 when, Ginevra Gradenigo, a Venetian noblewoman forced to become a nun, donated the land to build a monastery. Today, a forlorn air hangs over Santa Maria degli Angeli, like a graveyard where ghosts are buried.

One can imagine Ginevra’s soul, hovering behind the vacant windows on a recent gloomy Venice day as residents walk dogs through the scrappy lawn, a dead bird tossed to one side, all but oblivious to the story within.

“I has [sic] been walking here all my life, and yet I never knew its rich history,” Campagnol says of the convent in which Casanova found his daring nuns.

As the story goes, many Venetian nuns were noble women forced into the convent to save their families from bankruptcy. Some lived lavish lives inside, and protested or maintained their status through dress. There was once over 2000 nuns living in around 30 convents in Venice. 

Campagnol studied the ‘Visite Pastorali a Monasteri Femminili,’ recording the patriarchs inspections of the convents, from the archives of the Dioceses of Venice.

Although there were no pictures, “There were very detailed descriptions. You could tell that they were wearing the same [clothing] as on the outside,” she says. “Some of the descriptions were so exact that, as a dress historian, I knew what they were talking about.”

"In the 15th century, for example, they might have worn a dress with a wide neck and high waist and décolleté, or even a pointed corset, then in fashion," she says.

Nuns were supposed to wear habits at all times.

The typical habit for a nun was a, “long-sleeved tunic, reaching the floor and no décolleté, showing,” Campagnol says. “Short hair was to be completely covered by a long veil, the neck covered by a wimple. In theory, they should have worn this all the time.”

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The Venetian police force is headquartered in the former convent, Santa Zaccaria, another site that has seen more exciting days. “In the parlor of the monastery of Santa Zaccaria in 1696, they organized a Carnevale ball in which many noblemen with their lady friends all masqueraded as Moors, danced the night away with the nuns,” Campagnol says standing outside the church near Piazza San Marco.

And so the stories and the off-the-beaten-track tour continues. Up beyond the Fondamente Nove vaporetto stop with its views of the Venice cemetery, is a nondescript convent which looks shuttered. It too enjoyed a sartorial twist.

On August 25, 1525, in the monastery of Santa Maria della Celestia, "a nun from the Tagiapiera family was singled out by the patriarch himself, Gerolamo Querini, for having long hair elegantly gathered in braids. He was so angry that, according to the records, he grabbed her and cut her hair with his own hands,” Campagnol says.

And there is more. “In 1595, Suor Dorothea Sforza, Suor Mansueta Pase  and Suor Marietta Dolfin were denounced by their fellow nuns because they proudly wore "ornaments and high-heeled clogs, and silk stockings with gilt lace.”

And bangs were controversial even then.

“In 1620, a Suor Chiara del Calice was accused of wearing bangs, picking her eyebrows and hiding  scented waters and perfumes,” she adds.

And forget architecture. In a couple of convents situated close to the Biennale headquarters in Giardini, Campagnol uncovered more secrets.

“In 1692, it was noted that in the monastery of san Giuseppe di Castello, in the summer, some nuns used sleeveless and sometimes transparent habits, raising indignation among the people who saw them in the parlor,” she says.

“Even Arcangela Tarabotti, a nun in the monastery of Sant Anna and feminist writer, was accused by a fellow writer, monk Angelico Aprosio, of ‘wearing her bonnet untied and maliciously leaving visible her breast that were only scarcely covered by a thin veil.”

On the other side of town, the scandals continued.

“In 1635, Suor Arcangela Correr of the monastery of Sant' Alvise was reported to have ‘painted herself white and red,’ while a Suor Stella of the same monastery was denounced because she kept mirrors in her cell and used to show herself, presumably all made up, at the window facing the canal,” she says.

Campagnol found in the Venice archives more details about sometimes lavish existences inside the convents and nuns living in opulently decorated cells with riches brought from their homes, which she is hoping to write about.

“A lot has been written about nuns, as patrons of the arts or regarding property, and there is documentation of men jumping over the walls and nuns going to costume parties but the dress part has never been described in detail,” she says.

Wandering around Venice, looking at the local nuns in their boring black habits, I wondered, what happened to their sense of style and fun?