THE NUNS OF SANT’AMBROGIO: THE TRUE STORY OF A CONVENT IN SCANDAL
By Hubert Wolf
Long before the current landslide of reports of child sexual abuse became headline news, the Catholic Church was a hotbed of scandal. Indeed, the link goes back as far as the dawn of the modern mass media, with prints of all the debaucheries going on behind cloistered walls making great propaganda material during the Reformation. Catholic theme porn was off and running.
More recently, an entire sub-sub-genre of semi-mainstream Eurotrash films in the 1970s dubbed “nunsploitation” took convents as the setting for tales of sexual perversion. A notorious precursor was Ken Russell’s 1971 film The Devils, which even managed to get banned in many countries.
The fact that Russell’s film was based on an actual story of mass hysteria in a French convent in the seventeenth century tells us that where there’s smut, there may be fire. Sometimes even the most shocking and sensational stories of priests and nuns gone bad are true.
Which brings us to the scandal that overtook the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome in the mid-nineteenth century. The story begins with one of the convent’s nuns, a minor German princess, begging her cousin (an archbishop close to the pope) to rescue her from Sant’Ambrogio, where she said the nuns were behaving in various wicked ways and even trying to poison her.
The subsequent investigation conducted by the Church’s Inquisition confirmed the princess’s accusations, and then some. As Hubert Wolf discovered when poking about the newly opened archives of the Inquisition, “what had sounded like an outrageous fantasy turned out to be a true story of a convent in scandal.” Heresy, all kinds of sexual delinquencies (at least by nineteenth-century Catholic standards), and even murder had occurred behind Sant’Ambrogio’s walls.
In a paralegal proceeding taking over two and a half years the Inquisition slowly dug out the truth. The malefactors were punished (though those with the best connections got off easy), and then . . . the Church buried the story. It sat in the archives for 150 years, waiting for someone to discover it.
A lot of modern true crime reporting has a tendency to get bogged down in the mountain of evidence thrown up by a trial. It’s the problem of having too much information. Wolf was faced with the same difficulty here, as he had to wade through all of the extensive interviews and reports made by the Inquisition and somehow turn them into a coherent narrative. He mostly succeeds, helped along by just how sensational the revelations were, but there are times when he might have condensed and streamlined his account a bit, especially as the witnesses kept changing their stories.
As a Church historian, however, Wolf is very good at both describing the process of the investigation and then explaining its fallout. He also provides helpful insights into the nature of convent life and Church politics in nineteenth century Italy, which was in many ways more medieval than modern.
But despite that sense of temporal dislocation, it’s still a story with an obvious contemporary relevance and message. Scandal and secrecy go hand in hand. A more open Church would have fewer fires to put out.
Review first published May 2, 2015.