Benedetta Carlini

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Benedetta Carlini (1591–1661) was a Catholic mystic and lesbian nun who lived in counter-reformation Italy. Judith C. Brown chronicled her life in Immodest Acts (1986), which discussed the events that led to her significance for historians of women's spirituality and lesbianism, while Brian Levack has recently explained the events described as a form of religious theatre and dramaturgy which permitted women greater social and sexual agency than Baroque Catholic religious passivity usually permitted. Canadian playwright and director Rosemary Rowe has written a play about her affair with Sister Bartolomea, Benedetta Carlini: Lesbian Nun of Renaissance Italy.


Benedetta Carlini was born to a middle-class Italian family, who were able to buy her a place in a reasonably comfortable convent, the Convent of the Mother of God, at Pescia. When she was thirty, Benedetta was made abbess of the convent, but then reported a disturbing series of visions in which men were trying to kill her. Fearful that Sister Benedetta was being harassed by demons, the other sisters confined Sister Bartolemea to her cell. Thereafter, Sister Benedetta's more disturbing visions ceased, but she still encountered alleged supernatural visitations.

These came to the attention of the counter-reformation Papacy, determined to subordinate potentially troublesome mystics if they showed any signs of independent or heretical spirituality. Although they paid three to four visits to the nunnery, it wasn't until they interrogated Sister Bartolemea that they found that Benedetta and Bartolemea had engaged in sexual relations. Bartolomea gave testimony that Benedetta sexually molested her and engaged in frottage with her while possessed by the spirit of a male demon known as Splenditello.

According to Brown, it may not have been Benedetta's lesbianism that led to her ultimate downfall and imprisonment, as much as her egotism. However, Bartolemea's admission was enough to ensure that Benedetta was stripped of her primacy as abbess and held under guard for the remaining 35 years of her life. She died in 1661. Her lover, Sister Bartolomea, died one year earlier in 1660.

Alternative interpretations of Carlini[edit]

E. Ann Matter, a feminist religious scholar, has an alternative perspective on the case of Benedetta Carlini, and wrote about it in the Journal of Homosexuality in 1990. She compared and contrasted two autobiographical accounts from Benedetta Carlini and another 17th century Italian Catholic mystic, Maria Domitilla Galluzzi of Pavia. Carlini and Galluzi were both self-designated visionaries and highly regarded by their religious and secular communities, but each was subject to suspicion and close scrutiny by church hierarchy. Benedetta Carlini's trial records related the aforementioned series of sexual contacts with Bartolomea, while Maria Domitilla Galluzzi seems to have had no sexual experiences within her own mystical framework. Matter's article questioned whether scholars might have succumbed to the temptation to simply transpose the sexual self-understanding of figures in their own historical context to past historical environments. "Lesbian nun" might be viewed as too simplistic a description, and alongside Maria Galluzzi, Benedetta Carlini's "sexuality might be viewed as organised around an elaborate organic connection between the spiritual and the sensual." [1]

However, it might be noted that Matter has written extensively on Galluzzi in other contexts, and Brown's study of Carlini occurs in greater depth than that of her counterpart.

More recently, Brian Levack has analysed the Carlini case and others in the context of his work on demonic possession and exorcism in the Baroque era of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. He notes that the case in question was anomalous, as according to Carlini's account, she was possessed by an angelic entity, Splendiletto, when she made love to Sister Bartolomea. Levack departs from the above authors in placing the event in philosophical and historical context, noting the rise of nominalism within seventeenth and eighteenth century Catholic thought, which attributed greater scope for agency and supernatural activity from demonic entities than had previously been the case. Such signs were described as convulsions, pain, loss of bodily function (and other symptoms that one might describe as apparent epilepsy from this description), levitation, trance experiences, mystical visions, blasphemy, abuse of sacred objects and vomiting of particular objects as well as immoral actions and gestures and exhibitionism. Levack argues that this provided the female subjects of exorcist rituals with the chance to engage in relative social and sexual agency compared to gender role expectations of social passivity. Possession was a form of dramaturgy and religious theatre, Levack argues, as was demonology. According to Levack, then, Carlini and other recorded instances of Baroque possession were engaged as active participants within a social ritual and theatrical performance that reflected contemporary Baroque religious culture.


  1. ^ Matter, E. Ann. 1989-1990. "Discourses of Desire: Sexuality and Christian Women's Visionary Narratives." Journal of Homosexuality 18, no. 3-4: 119-131.
  • Judith Brown: Immodest Acts: The Life of A Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy: New York: Oxford University Press: 1986: ISBN 0-19-503675-1
  • E.Ann Matter: "Discourses of Desire: Sexuality and Christian Women's Visionary Narratives" in Journal of Homosexuality: 18/89(1989–1990): 119 - 132
  • Brian Levack: The Devil Within: Exorcism and Possession in the Christian West: New Haven: Yale University Press: 2013: ISBN 0300114729
  • Vanda (playwright): 'Vile Affections: Based on the True Story of Benedetta Carlini', 2006: (First produced at the New York International Fringe Festival, August, 2006. Recently translated into German.) see