Music and Demons in a 17th-century Italian Convent
In 1608, Eleonora d’Este, daughter of Duke Cesare d’Este of Modena, entered the convent of Santa Chiara in Carpi, near Modena. Taking the name of Suor Angela Caterina, the Este princess soon turned her convent quarters into a small fiefdom of the family dynasty, complete with her own servants, kitchen and living quarters, and even her own private chapel. Using her position as abbess of S. Chiara, as well as her father’s wealth and influence, she became an active patron of music and the arts within the convent, enlisting the services of some of the best musicians and teachers in the area and hosting entertainments in her convent quarters. When a new spiritual director attempted to reign in these “worldly” activities, charges arose of group possession of a number of nuns by the devil. During the years 1636-1639, the convent witnessed visits by the Inquisition, exorcisms, and battles between the princess nun and members of her own family. This scandalous state of affairs finally ended with Suor Angela Catherina’s exile to the convent of San Geminiano in Modena, itself renowned for its music, having been the home to Suor Sulpitia Cesis, nun, lutenist and author of a collection of Motetti Spirituali for 2-12 voices. Cesis’ collection is remarkable not only for the quality of the music itself, but also for the fact that it contains specific indications for cornetts and trombones, musical instruments official prohibited within the convent walls.
This theater piece recounts the remarkable tale of power, intrigue, death and demonic possession inside a 17th-century Italian convent. It features acting, dancing and especially music: early music from the period played and sung live by members of Cappella Artemisia, recordings of compositions by Italian nuns performed by the ensemble, and live electronics created expressly for this performance.