Thursday, June 25, 2009


Il di che amor nei lacci mi prese,
Mi fe’ cangar di mia vita sembiante;
E quando Amor per forza l’arco istese
Non vale a’ colpi suoi cor di diamante:
Fugge la maraviglia a chi lo intese.
Poiché mi feci al suo signor costante
Poiché m’ebbe ferito col suo strale,
Ben par che si goda del mio male.

Gerusalemme Liberato Torquato Tasso

So just what kind of a slut was the Monaca di Monza? There that got your attention. She is Monza's 'other' claim to fame, besides the race track. Oh, Monza has other illustrious sons and daughters, The previously mentioned Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards, the terribly bourgeoise Victorian painter Mose Bianchi, (can you be Italian and yet Victorian? I think so) - he painted this picture - and Gianni Citterio, Monza's favourite home grown communist partisan (one of a very small band, I'm bound to suspect). Giacomo Puccini lived here for a year, his son was born in a small house on the road by the train station. A bit of a far cry from Torre del Lago. Then of course you've got the on-off presence of various Royal and Noble personages at the Villa Reale. Did I mention Umberto I, the only king of Italy to get himself assassinated, was shot here in Monza? Gaetano Bresci travelled all the way from New Jersey to Monza, to shoot the king, when he was waving at the crowd on his way home after a horse show. There is an ‘Expiatory Chapel' here in town, built by the people of Monza, a sort of public apology in granite. Bresci was punched to death by the guards in prison on the Island of Santo Stefano the following year.
The other worthies of Monza are all rather dusty academics, scientists, minor politicians. All of which makes the Monaca a figure of relief in the history of the city.
She was a noblewoman, Marianna de Leyva, of Spanish blood, and she wasn't born in Monza, but in Milan, in the year 1576 or thereabouts, around the time the poem above was first published. Her mother, Virginia, died when she was tiny, and she ended up in care of an aunt, pretty much forgotten by her father who went back to Spain (the dominating European power of the time)and remarried when Marianna was still a child. Left in Monza, like a lot of noblewomen of the period, she was destined for the monastery at about age 13, it's cheaper than paying a dowry, and in fact, the money promised to the convent in Monza never did get paid. Her father 'borrowed' most of the fortune she was to inherit from her mother, the rest was appropriated by her elder half-brotherand his family. Her life as a nun - she took her mother's name, and was known as Suor Virginia - was far from one of suffering and quiet resignation, though. Her father and his brother shared control on alternate years of the revenue from the levies charged on goods coming in and out oof the county of Monza. In the years when Virginia's father was the beneficiary, he put the 20something Virginia in charge basically of the whole town, making her the 'Signora' of Monza, the Lady, overseeing repairs, civic modernization, and the collection of income. Contemporary sources show she was pretty good at it, self assured and capable, and pretty popular at the convent where, naturally she was also pretty much in charge.

Next door to the convent lived the Osio family. The menfolk - the name Osio is very close to the word for laziness in Italian, ozio - all seem to have been wild. They were known or suspected in a vast number of incidents around the county of Monza, in which their rivals were killed, robbed and beaten up. The blackest sheep, however, was Giovanni Paolo. Virginia seems to have been wise to him at first, she caught him making eyes at one of the young girls entrusted to the convent, and had a stern letter written to him, and sent the girl home, as 'non-nun material'. But a couple of years after this, when Giovanni Paolo came back to Monza after being forced into hiding for various misdeeds, after a long series of letters passed over the wall on a string, addressed to Virginia. He was a looker, but not much of a writer of love letters, it seems. A certain Father Arrigone, family friend and interested in Virginia himself, wrote a lot of the letters, Pandar-style (oh, you, google it. I'll give you a heads-up, it's nothing to do with pandas.) In the end, Virginia fell for him. Osio, not the priest. Two children were born over the next couple of years; the first died, the second, a little girl, lived with her father. Virginia got to see her every now and again in the Osio house.
Nobody said anything for quite a long time. For several years, Virginia continued her work as a teacher in the small convent, and when called on, as the Lady of Monza. She seems to have had to spend a fair bit of time coping with the faction of nuns who were not her cronies, and relying heavily on the complicity of two or three who she could utterly rely on. One can imagine the atmosphere in the building - there were only about 20 nuns all told, plus young women being educated and/or groomed for the veil. Thanks to her her closest friends, Suor Virginia continued to see Giovanni Paolo in the convent and in his house, with the excuse in part that he was thinking about becoming a cappuccino... Not that she didn't try to get over him. She kept throwing away the keys - perhaps as many as 50 - he had made for the door that separated the two houses. She had the windows that overlooked the Osio house walled up, and for a time took to drinking a 'tea' made with his excrement. Not surprisingly Suor Virginia suffered some serious health problems.
So far, she seems a fairly sympathetic figure, a woman in her mid twenties falling for a handsome neighbour, having a child with him, even under the constraints of her life as a nun, which, on the whole, was one of the few ways an intelligent woman could have some sort of career. Popes and priests often had families they took only a little trouble to hide. To paint her as an evil person under those circumstances smacks of mysogeny.
But then the story changes.
About eight years after their relationship began, one of the young women in the nunnery, Caterina de Meda, unhappy at her treatment by suor Virginia and generally not looking forward to a life in the convent, decided to tell the open secret to a visiting bigwig. They tried to talk her out of it, but she was adamant, and, the night before her big tell-all moment, Giovanni Paolo killed her, and buried her body in the hen house. They cut off the head of the girl, presumably to slow down identification if the body should be found, and they made a hole in the convent wall so that is would seem she had run away. A few months went by, but stories continued to surface. The man who had,made all those keys started talking around town, and Giovanni Paolo killed him, got himself arrested for also trying to kill some other people connected with the story. It was a hushed-up affair, the arrest, you might not be able to get away with nurder in 1600, but if you come from a powerful faminly there was a good chance you'd pay a fairly light price. But the lovers made a serious mistake. Instead of staying quiet, they started a letter-writing campaign trying to get Giovanni Paolo out of jail. Soon more important clergy heard not only about the deaths but about the irregularities in the convent, and suddenly Virginia was in the middle of a scandal. The gruesone remains of Caterina di Meda showed up. Not long afterwards, Virginia's two closest friends in the nunnery began to get worried they are going to be sucked into the general disgrace, and asked Osio to help them escape. He helped them leave the convent, only to kill them that same night, with, it seems, Virginia's knowledge. Her concern for her honour, over the lives of her friends, strikes a jarring note. It's hard to know if the accounts read this way because of the anti-Spanish bias of the chroniclers, or if she, the last of the de Leyvas, really was that haughty. Perhaps a bit of both.
Eventually, after a series of trials involving torture and interrogation of all the parties involved, Giovanni Paolo got himself murdered. His house was knocked down and became a popula venue for ball games. A lot of balls ended up over the convent wall. They were not returned. Virginia was found guilty of "various crimes" not specified in court documents, and sentenced to be walled up in a cell in the worst women's prison in Milan, the 'convent' of S. Valeria. The cell was about 9 feet by 4 feet square. She was in there for 14 years. Then they decided she was sorry.
She spent the rest of her long life a sort of Mother Theresa to the Milanese prostitutes of the S. Valeria, "old and bent, emaciated and venerable" still fiercely proud of her de Leyva blood. I don't know what happened to the child, Alma Francesca Margherita.
The convent of S. Margherita is gone, too, swept away under the rug, like all things a small neat town might be expected to want to forget. But where the convent was, you will find a road known as the via della Signora, for Virginia, when she was the Lady of Monza, not just the monaca. And on the building on the corner, there is still a madonna and child.

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