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Different ways of looking

Monasteries are not incurable

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02 October 2021

The experience of the Capuchin Poor Clares, known as the Trentatré, of Naples


When I ring through on the intercom of via Pisanelli, No. 8, I am not alone. There are three thousand years of history that have walked night and day along this street. Located in the heart of Naples, there is the third decumanus, which is the one that tourists do not visit, and which since the Middle Ages has been called the Anticaglia.

The name came about from the great amphitheater where Nero sang. Embedded with the curves of the buildings, the arches still separate windows in Via Pisanelli.  The cave appears under a typically low windowless house at street level.  The landlady opens the door to visitors, moving the bed so they can descend to the time of the Roman Empire, in the neighborhood where the Alexandrians ran races with torches.

However, it’s not just the Greek and Roman traces that make the Anticaglia precious, for the city’s millennial sacred history is layered here too. In the same places where the temples of Caponapoli stood, from the time of the Byzantine Duchy until the nineteenth century. Along this road that cuts through the acropolis of Partenope, monasteries and churches were superimposed, in the Angevin, Aragonese and Spanish periods. An Aragonese knight in a courtly pose spies on passers-by in the courtyard of Palazzo Bonifacio, among the clothes hanging and a wall mounted boiler. A little further on is the home of the poet Torquato Tasso.

And here, in Via Pisanelli 8, there is the last cloistered monastery in Naples, which has remained intact since its foundation in the sixteenth century. The founder was Venerable Maria Lorenza Longo, a Catalan lady who was miraculously healed by Our Lady of Loreto, for which the cause of beatification is underway. At this point, we are in Santa Maria di Gerusalemme, the monastery known as the Monastery of the Thirty-three, where the rule requires that no more than thirty-three sisters are housed, one for each year of those of Christ. The story of Maria Lorenza Longo is famous because Naples (and Europe) owes to her the recognition for having established the first public hospital that was open to the poor. Called the Incurabili, it has been a center and lighthouse of medical science for three centuries, home to a sumptuous eighteenth-century pharmacy and a museum of medical arts. It took a woman to come up with a hospital that made no distinction between rich and poor, just as, three centuries later, it took another woman, Teresa Filangieri, to imagine a hospital dedicated only to children, which is the current Santobono, the oldest pediatric hospital in the world.

I am here to ring on the doorbell of the Capuchin Poor Clares of the Thirty-three precisely because it is women who do great works, yet they always go unrecognized or unrewarded for their intuitions or vocations. For example, nuns are not supported economically by the Church, they receive no incentives, all the more so if they make a profession of absolute poverty like the Capuchin Poor Clares of the venerable Longo.

How does a sixteenth-century monastery, with all its maintenance costs, sustain itself? How do the Thirty-three, who have been much fewer in number for many years, manage to support themselves? I came to ask the abbess, Sister Rosa Lupoli.

When the metal door swings open, a physiotherapist goes upstairs with me, heading for the older sisters’ rooms. She passes me at the level of the parlor, while a smiling sister hands me a key so that I open a small door and enter an austere and very simple room with a Renaissance window overlooking the garden, where I wait for Sister Rosa, in the parlor.

Today, some scholars have made a surprise visit to photograph Maria Longo’s head, a precious relic belonging to the Monastery, so I have time to enjoy a little of the wind that blows through the ancient walls on this hot summer day. However, another breeze must arrive, with Sister Rosa, who is almost my age and seems like a child: a powerful intelligent, joyful women who is full of enthusiasm. Before commencing. I must say I stayed with Sister Rosa to talk well beyond the interview, when we shared memories and passions, but the first question could be no other that: how do you manage? How do you survive, with what economic resources do you keep a monastery going?

The total independence of women’s monasteries is taken for granted, so in the lay world this news is a revelation and surprising. The case of the Thirty-three is even more specific, since personal poverty is an unquestionable condition for solemn profession.  The Capuchin Poor Clares entered the cloister by renouncing twice before a notary any personal property, family inheritance and any possible inheritance they might receive in the future from third parties. The Clarian origin of the order establishes an authentic poverty: one must live with Providence, day by day, what one receives as a free gift. And that is all.

So, no private property, only donations, and these not continuously given. At a push, handicraft work is permitted, for example, in other times the monastery was famous for its wax figures and for the production of silk embroideries on religious vestments; but, today, with a very small number of sisters and the advancing age, these activities have disappeared.

Therefore, how do they eat, how do they buy medicines? Moreover, what about the upkeep of the old building? Because these costs fall entirely on the income from guests at the monastery. Recently, says Sister Rosa, the pipework broke, and with great difficulty we obtained the connection to the city gas for heating. How can these expenses be covered?

Moreover, the superintendence makes plans and drawings, which respect the antiquity and historicity of the property, which became state property with the unification of Italy.  Therefore, the Thirty-three, now eight in number, live on voluntary donations that arrive at Christmas or Easter. Some of the sisters who were present in the monastery in the years following the 1980 earthquake enjoyed a very meagre social pension, which has since been discontinued.

Among the obligations left by the Venerable Maria Longo, it was the Incurabili’s turn to take care of the Thirty-three. However, in reality, says Sister Rosa, the hospital has always tried to rid itself of the commitment and, at the same time, to take possession of some parts of the monastery.  Only recently, the historical anti-tubercular dispensary and the frescoed refectory have been recovered and it is hoped that the wall built in the middle of the cloister garden will be removed soon.

Since she arrived thirty years ago, Sister Rosa has not lost heart and has gradually restored the frescoed refectory of the convent, entrusting it to a non-profit organization. The Atrio delle Trentatré, which hosts concerts, conventions and cultural events in exchange for freely given donations, but she does not hide the fact that there have been times when they have accepted meals from Caritas.

After all, the stories of ostracism, prejudice and abandonment that concern female monastic vows are ancient and include a unilateral and decidedly anti-feminist view of the facts. When we speak of monastic vows, we think above all of women being forced to accept them, which over the centuries has produced the image of Manzoni’s nun of Monza. The violent action of the abolition of post-unification orders is invisible, forgotten, cancelled, which emptied, by force, the female monasteries throughout Italy, particularly in Naples where they were numerous in number.

There were thousands of nuns of every order in the city. In fact, the city owes to the nuns the ‘sfogliate’ and ‘santarosa’ pastry tradition. These were ancient orders, with well-kept and crowded churches. With the Unification, a replica of the similar Bonapartist action half a century before occured, leading to the Neapolitan monasteries were emptied, the nuns sent away, and their goods confiscated. Everything became the property of the State,  and there was reason for this, given the artistic wealth in some of these places, such as Santa Patrizia, which is a thousand-year-old monastery in San Gregorio Armeno, or Santa Chiara, the fulcrum of religiosity linked to Angevin and Aragonese power. Matilde Serao is the only person to have spoken about this gigantic despoliation and the violence inflicted on the nuns who were forced to return to the secular world without any economic support.

Her novel written in 1901 is entitled Suor Giovanna della Croce [Sister Joan of the Cross]. This book is an extraordinary fresco that recounts the emptying of the convent of Suor Orsola. A portrait of the fear and incomprehension of the cloistered nuns who were forced out onto the street from one day to the next, often without a family to return to. These nuns were ousted from the dimension of asceticism, which they had chosen with profound love and desire. They were removed from a community which was their new true family of choice, and thrown into panic by the loss of all economic support. When the elderly abbess of the monastery returns, albeit with pain and confusion, to her rich family of origin, Sister Giovanna is faced with hunger, humiliation, deception and violence. Material poverty was followed by human indifference on the streets and in their homes. Examples include, a sister and a nephew who cheat, rob and chase her away, the humiliation of selling some of her embroidery to a prostitute, while caring for a dying mother-in-law, and working in the home of a judge in dispute with his wife. 

When chatting with Sister Rosa, the deep anguish felt reading Matilde Serao’s novel becomes a tangible ghost in the breezy parlor, especially when she tells me her personal story. Originally from Ischia, a very devout mother and a childhood and adolescence spent far from the Church. Sister Rosa was a professional volleyball player, from the age of thirteen to twenty-three, and played in second league. She received a degree in Modern Literature from the Oriental Institute in Naples. An accident prevented her from continuing with the sport and she was left with the doubt that there was an unanswered question between her and God. She began to follow and study in the parish; then enrolled –as the only woman-, in the Neapolitan Faculty of Theology. However, it is the decision of a friend of hers, whom she did not even see that much, that introduces her to the Thirty-three, On February 3, 1990, with many other Ischians, Rosa accompanied Angela, who had already chosen the cloister, to the monastery. It seemed just not possible to her that this world could interest her or attract her in anyway. Instead, she watched her friend enter, witnessed Angela’s parents desperation, then inquired herself. She spoke at length with Sister Chiara, whom she asked for news and clarifications.

In just a few months, everything changed. Sister Rosa entered the monastery, May 5 of the same year, met her friend Angela, who eventually left after six years, while Sister Rosa remained, for thirty, very happy years. It has not been a painless journey, for she had to first convince her parish priest, then help her parents over the shock. After all, it was not taken for granted that their loved ones would accept such a radical choice, which includes the renunciation of all economic security, which can be considered the false deity of our time.

From this serene, happy space, which is not oblivious of the world (Sister Rosa is a Napoli fan, she is the one who decided there should be an updated website, a presence on Facebook and a more intense relationship with the city, also thanks to the non-profit organization that organizes guided tours in the accessible spaces of the Thirty-three) that comes the certainty of another reality.

I ask Sister Rosa who comes today to that wheel where she once looked out to ask, who is drawn to the cloister. She replies that is often adult women who come, in their forties, disappointed by life, but then leave because they do not understand that the cloister is a means and not a vow.

At this juncture, we finally begin to talk about consecrated institutes in a mixed direction, where male and female are together, though it is difficult to dialogue with male religious in the Church, who are both uninterested and unaware of the female monastic world.

I leave Santa Maria in Gerusalemme with the impression of seeing the unspoken beautiful ancient Naples even more, which is deprived of other voices, other testimonies, new feminine truths. It seems impossible that here, too, the inequality we are still fighting against and which affects women, originates precisely from here. Yet, it seems to me, this is where the real news comes from, from this cloister that survived the Unification of Italy because it was so poor that it did not interest anyone’s financial aspirations.

A poverty that represents the truest and oldest wealth; and the existence of which we should all be a little more concerned about.

by Antonella Cilento


The Author

Antonella Cilento (Naples) Strega Prize finalist in 2014 with Lisario o il piacere infinito delle donne (Mondadori), has published novels, collections of short stories, and historical reports.

Since 1993, she has directed one of the oldest Italian writing schools, Lalineascritta - Laboratori di Scrittura (www.lalineascritta.it) and coordinates the first MA of writing and publishing in Southern Italy, Sema, with Università Suor Orsola Benincasa.

La caffettiera di carta (Bompiani) is a collection of almost 30 years of her writing lessons.  In addition, she directs Strange Couples, a review of international literature.

She writes for the theater and La Repubblica - Naples.