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Cecilia Ferrazzi

From Women in European History

By: Ben Schill, Spring 2009

Ferrazzi, Cecilia. Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint. Trans. Anne Schutte. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)


Critical Biography


Origins of the Counter-Reformation

In the autumn of 1517, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther wrote a series of propositions, later known as the Ninety-five Theses, to the archbishop of Magdeburg and Mainz. The purpose of these theses was to open a debate regarding the sale of indulgences and unintentionally began the Protestant Reformation.[1] With this open statement of aversion to certain Church abuses, people across Europe with grievances against the Catholic Church or its doctrine began to speak their minds. As a result, Protestant ideas and reforms spread rapidly throughout Europe. In response, the Catholic Church set in motion a multipronged reform movement of its own that came to be known as the Counter-Reformation with which the Holy See was determined to define Catholic doctrine, reform problems within the Church, regain recent Protestant converts to the Catholicism, and root out heresy in its own territories.[2]

The Counter Reformation, as Is Applicable to Cecilia

However, this Counter-Reformation was to be primarily the concern of men, and even though women took part in the movement, the Church hierarchy wished to both restrict their actions and reaffirm traditional gender roles.[3] Such ideas were evident in the decrees of the Council of Trent in which the Church hierarchy declared “for no nun… shall it be lawful to go out of her convent… except for some lawful cause, which is to be approved of by the bishop… and it shall not be lawful for any one… to enter within the enclosure of a nunnery, without the permission of the bishop.”[4] Clearly, the Catholic Church wished religious women to be isolated from society at large as well as under the authority of male clergy. These desires for restricting women and confirming traditional gender roles coincided with the prosecution of so-called “false saints,” that is, people, often women, who were believed to simulate holiness or sainthood. Cecilia Ferrazzi was one such woman brought before the Inquisition under the charges of “pretense of holiness.” While she was in prison, she dictated an account of her life to a scribe appointed by the court through which she hoped to refute the accusations made against her.[5] Nevertheless, she was ultimately found guilty of feigning sainthood and sentenced to seven years in prison, of which she only served two years due to an appeal to the Holy Office in Rome.[6] Yet, the question begs to be asked, why did Cecilia’s inquisitors doubt the possibility that she could be a saint and instead find her guilty of heresy? As Anne Schutte notes:

Saints… achieve positive recognition from their contemporaries---if they are perceived to embody the religious and social values considered most important at that moment… [whereas] if they appear to pose some challenge or threat to these values… they are accorded negative recognition, frequently expressed in exemplary punishment.[7]

Cecilia Ferrazzi did not represent the desired religious and social values of early modern European Catholic society in that she was a baseborn laywoman claiming to possess gifts from God as well as a woman with an excessive amount of freedom and power outside of male supervision and hence she was denied sainthood.

Early Life

Family and Early Inspiration

Cecilia Ferrazzi was born in April 1609 in Venice to Alvise Ferrazzi, a successful box-maker with a large family and several apprentices, and Maddalena Polis.[8] It is important to remember that even though her father was a prosperous artisan he was still an artisan, and accordingly the family was strictly middle class. Nonetheless, this background appears to be either unimportant or uncomfortable to Cecilia as she ignores her family history and, instead, opts to begin the account of her life at age five when her life-long illness first arose. Furthermore, she claims that at an early age she received visions of future events such as the wounding of her father or the death of one of his apprentices and of “a beautiful creature in the form of a woman in a glowing dress… who consoled [her]”[9] and relieved the pains of her illness. These visions, as well as the good example of her mother, inspired in Cecilia “a very great desire to love and enjoy Blessed God.”[10] At the age of fifteen, Cecilia decided that she would devote her life to God’s service and enter a convent rather than getting married. Although her parents were initially reluctant to allow her to become a nun, with the providential birth of a second daughter, they soon consented and began to prepare a dowry for her entrance into a convent.

Disaster Strikes

Yet, these plans fell through when a plague killed off Cecilia’s entire family apart from her and her sister in 1630.[11] Given her new orphan status, contemporaries would have viewed Cecilia as a putta pericolate, a “girl in danger,” because she lacked a guardian and was consequently at risk of being sexually assaulted and driven into prostitution. This danger was real and hence Cecilia was quickly placed in a foster home of sorts in order to protect her virginity.[12] Through this depiction of the early part of Cecilia’s life, one is able to establish the main roles open to women in early modern European Catholic society; that of wife, nun, prostitute, or, as Sherrill Cohen phrases it, participator in “a lay form of institutional life.”[13] While Cecilia had hoped to play the role of nun, she spent the prime years of her life participating in lay social institutions.

Similarities to St. Teresa of Avila

Perhaps intentionally on the part of Cecilia, there are clear similarities between the account of her childhood and that of the most famous female saint of the sixteenth century, Teresa of Avila. Teresa, like Cecilia, began her autobiography with a description of how she was moved to serve the Lord rather than a narrative of her family history or social background. Once more like Cecilia, Teresa describes how her family encouraged virtue in her[14], how she was beset by sickness early in life[15], how her father initially opposed her plan to enter a convent[16], and how she had visions[17], albeit later in life than Cecilia. It is possible, maybe even likely, that the themes that these two women discuss in their early lives are not by chance analogous. Cecilia declares her mother’s good example, particularly in the form of reading the lives of male and female saints to her children, stirred her to pursue a strong relationship with God.[18] Thus, it would not be a stretch to believe that Cecilia had heard or read The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself prior to writing her own autobiography and, either consciously or unconsciously, imitated Teresa’s successful formula. In fact, Cecilia even claims that the Virgin Mary appeared before her and told her “to observe the life of Saint Teresa with all the travails she had in this world, for I would have as many as she and even some more.”[19] At the very least, it seems that Cecilia was familiar with the stories of Teresa of Avila, even if it is impossible to verify whether or not she had read or heard the autobiography proper. Clearly, Cecilia likened herself to Saint Teresa of Avila, but while according to her account there are several parallels between the two, she neglects to realize their differences. Whereas Teresa was a nun and of noble birth, Cecilia was a laywoman and from the artisanal class and it was these distinctions in career and class that I believe proved key in the difference in inquisitional verdicts between the two women. Given that priests of this era were almost exclusively from the nobility, generally younger noble children, they, first of all, did not like the idea of the lower classes intruding on their "domain." Secondly, the priests, already unsympathetic to conspicuous nuns, did not appreciate those who had not received proper training, that is, the laity, stepping outside of their role and having divine pretensions. Thus, since the Catholic reformers did not want uppity lower class laity, especially women, defying the clergy, as the Protestants had done, they viewed Cecilia's claims incredulously.

Life as a Governess

From Guarded to Guardian

After living under the guardianship several different men and women, most notably Signora Marietta Capello, for about two decades, Cecilia first moved to a house of Saint Teresa under obedience to her younger sister and then to a house in near San Lorenzo.[20] It was in San Lorenzo where Cecilia’s role changed from recipient of protection to guardian in her own right. A motherless daughter of the local patrician Paolo Lion of San Lorenzo asked to live with Cecilia. Cecilia agreed, on the condition that the daughter neither leaves the house nor has any visitors except on special occasions. Soon thereafter, she accepted several other putta pericolate into her household at the bequest of her confessor and others.[21]

Information on Women's Asylums

At this point, a look at other women’s refuges from the period might be instructive in determining what went on within Cecilia’s house. On one hand, founders of these institutions recognized that women resorted to prostitution out of economic necessity and therefore either married them off, when possible, or taught them marketable skills so that they could become laborers or servants.[22] On the other hand, the administrators might stress the need for internal penitence and have the women act as nuns through fasting, vigil, discipline, and humiliation with the possibility of becoming a nun in the future[6, pp. 83-4].[23] The difference in method between these two types of institutions is most likely related to the differences between those who administered them. While the former, under the management of laypeople, pursues pragmatic change in women’s live, the latter, under the supervision of clergy, emphasizes spiritual reformation.[24]

Suspicions of Abuse and Heresy

Unfortunately, Cecilia is scant on details of what life was like for the girls living in her house, perhaps because she believes it is patently obvious to her readers or maybe for more sinister reasons. One would assume that as a laywoman, her houses would fall under the category of those that attempt to create economic alternatives to prostitution for women, yet Cecilia’s account of the girls seems to focus on maintaining their virginity rather than preparing them for life outside of the refuge. Moreover, Cecilia’s preoccupation with her own purity and relationship with God would seem to suggest that her house would probably have been categorized as one of those that pursues spiritual reform. The Catholic Church would no doubt have been suspicious with a laywoman who taught other women how to live piously. In fact, even though there are several hints of abuse against her girls in Cecilia’s account as is evident through the fact that several women die in her house, a few run away, and one runaway, when found, screams that she does not want to return[25], it is the charges that she has gifts from God and that she acted as a confessor, a duty performed by ordained male clergy, that most interests the inquisitors as one is able to gather from the transcripts of her trial.

Enter the Roman Inquisition

The title page of Cecilia Ferrazzi's trial record from [26]

Charges of Heresy and Concealing Evidence in Her Account

In May of 1664, two women, one, a mother of women under Cecilia’s governorship, and the other, a former resident of Cecilia’s refuge, denounced her to the Roman Inquisition.[27] The Holy See then prosecuted Cecilia under the charge of pretense of holiness.[28] Cecilia denied the charges and in her autobiography, she is careful to evade certain topics or explains them in clandestine manners. Rather than declaring outright that she has stigmata or is able to live on communion, she has the priest Giovanni Battista Pollaco yell it at several nuns that refuse to admit Cecilia into their convent[29] in the autobiography. Moreover, as was noted above, Cecilia is vague, perhaps intentionally, on the subject of what exactly she does in her role as governess or what life is like for the girls under her guardianship. One could infer that she believed that her expected audience, the inquisitors, would not be pleased with what they read, so she felt the need to conceal her gifts and the extent of her influence.

Magdalena de la Cruz, a False Saint

Cecilia was right to have proceeded with caution when explaining either her gifts or her occupation. Outright declaration of such gifts from God or the conspicuous exertion of power would be immodest and would arouse suspicion as is clear from the trial of Magdalena de la Cruz of Spain in 1544-1546. Magdalena claimed to have had experiences similar to those of Cecilia such as visions, raptures, battles with demons, and the ability to live off the Eucharist.[30] Furthermore, her popularity was such that she was elected abbess of her convent. Yet, she soon came under suspicion when it was rumored that she used the alms that she had received as she pleased.[31] Eventually, the Spanish Inquisition investigated these charges of corruption and pretense of holiness, to which Magdalena confessed to the inquisitors that she had either lied about her gifts or they had been granted to her by demons. In return for her confession, she received a relatively mild punishment in which she was demoted to a nun of the lowest order for the rest of her life.[32] From these records, one can deduce that gifts from God, especially when manifested in women, were often assumed to be the work of the devil during this period and that women that wielded too much power, such as spending money as they pleased, without proper male supervision were subject to suspicion. Magdalena seems to have been investigated because she overstepped her roles as a woman, acted too boldly, and accumulated too much influence.

Cecilia's Trial

Thus, when Cecilia was brought before the inquisitors on similar charges to Magdalena, the inquisitors mainly questioned her on the origin of her gifts and on the subject of confessing her girls because the information on these two topics would illustrate whether or not Cecilia had acted outside of her station and gender. The first, second, and fourth interrogations dealt with the subjects of the ability to live on communion[33], the presence of stigmata[34], and her visions[35], respectively, while the third interrogation focused on the topic of the confession of the girls.[36] In these interrogations, Cecilia ensured that she answered the inquisitor’s questions cautiously and, like Teresa of Avila, dismissed herself as a sinner or did not claim any certainty in what she had seen or what had happened to her in her account. By portraying herself as a sinner and not maintaining any certainty in her abilities, Cecilia attempts to simulate humility and modesty, two traits of the ideal Counter-Reformation woman. Hence, any preconceptions that the inquisitors had concerning Cecilia would be dispelled upon hearing the story of this virtuous Catholic woman, or so Cecilia must have hoped. Yet, as was stated, she was found guilty of heresy in 1665 and sentenced to prison rather than being accepted as a living saint. Ironically, the autobiography that she had hoped would prove her innocence was instead used by her inquisitors to augment their prosecution, as the notes on the manuscript demonstrate.[37] For information on Roman inquisitorial procedure, see Roman Inquisitorial Procedure.

Through Inquistors' Eyes

A Dominican friar, inquisitors tended to be recruited from the Dominican Order, from http://www.fromoldbooks.org/OldEngland/pages/1029-Dominican,-or-Black-Friar/1029-Dominican,-or-Black-Friar-q75-358x500.jpg

In order to understand their verdict, one must look at Cecilia as her inquisitors would have seen her. In her trial, Cecilia behaved modestly and followed, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the successful formula of Teresa of Avila. However, she was a non-noble laywoman, supposedly with divine favors, who lived relatively independently with numerous young women under her command. She clearly had a passion for religion and it would not be presumptuous to believe that this passion translated onto her girls in some manner. Furthermore, the Catholic Church at this time was attempting to reaffirm traditional gender roles and wanted women, both lay and religious, to be under the supervision of men. Even though laywomen acting as governesses of women's asylums was acceptable, even preferable to men doing the same, to the Church hierarchy, it was not admissible for them to instruct their girls in Church teachings or perform the duties of male clergy, in other words to assume the roles of men. Cecilia was in a position where she could influence many souls and her divine gifts would lend weight to her actions and teachings. The fact that she lived essentially free from the guidance of men made her position all the more threatening and dubious to the Church. Her inquisitors must have concluded that finding her innocent would be far too dangerous and would not coincide with the goals of the traditionalistic Church. Yet, a draconian punishment would have been equally undesirable because the Church might appear cruel, given that Cecilia appears to have acted with humility and that much of the evidence against her appears to be rumors. Consequently, the inquisitors elected to give her a relatively light sentence of seven years in prison so as to make a firm statement on the social and gender roles of the Counter-Reformation without being too harsh. Thus, since Cecilia did not embody the conservative spirit of the Counter-Reformation, it is, in my opinion, little surprise that she was condemned instead of becoming a de facto saint.


Due to the fact that the Inquistion’s trial transcripts were kept secret, the first time Cecilia’s autobiography was published was in 1990.[38] It is interesting to note that the only source on Cecilia from her lifetime hitherto had been in a book called The Present State of the Republick of Venice, by the English author Jean Gailhard.[39] This book was a collection of stories of inquisitorial trials in which Gailhard wished to portray Venice as corrupt and unchristian.[40] Gailhard falsely depicted Cecilia’s life in that he claimed that she had had a deceased husband, she beat her wards, and she allowed Venetian nobles to sleep with them.[41] Essentially, he used Cecilia as an example of improper moral conduct. I think this use of negative recognition in order to illustrate appropriate behavior is a major theme in Cecilia’s life. As is evident through the account above, Cecilia Ferrazzi, despite her somewhat unique experience as a “false saint,” conveys much to one about gender roles in early modern European Catholic society. From her early years, one sees that she was limited to a choice of only four roles in the world and, by circumstance, was forced into a particular one. In addition, she claimed that early in her life she was blessed with certain gifts from God, such as visions. When she assumed the role of governess, she came under suspicion for having gone beyond what was acceptable behavior for her gender. Finally, she was tried and found guilty of heresy, perhaps for exceeding the roles appropriate for her gender, class, and occupation. In essence, her punishment was meant to be an example to others who would try to do the same. The zeitgeist of that era was such that women were increasingly restricted in their roles and the Catholic Church desired male supervision over women at all times because they were believed to be highly susceptible to sexual transgressions. It is no coincidence that the Age of Reformations coincided with witch hunts. As William Monter observes:

Accused witches were disproportionately widows, while infanticide defendants were single women; both groups lived outside direct male supervision in this age of reinforced patriarchal nuclear families. Their “unnatural” position aroused suspicion and sometimes fear; neighborhood enmities did the rest. [42]

While Cecilia was neither a witch nor a baby killer, she was able to live outside male supervision without problems and even governed a few hundred girls. This situation was enough to make churchmen suspicious of her actions and motives and it did not help that she was a middle class laywoman, who claimed to possess gifts from God. Since she was independent, powerful, and a “little woman” supposedly blessed by God, Cecilia Ferrazzi did not embody the religious and social values of the time and was condemned as a heretic rather than beatified as a saint. While other women, like Saint Teresa of Avila, have used religion as a means of escaping societal restraints, religion appears to have brought suspicion upon Cecilia. Thus, one can see that even though religion presents women with many opportunities that they normally would not have had, it also serves to reinforce societal norms and ideals, that is those of a patriarchal society.


  1. "Martin Luther." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 08 May. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/351950/Martin-Luther>.
  2. Wiesner-Hanks, Merry, E. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008) p. 224
  3. Ibid. pp. 230-1
  4. Waterworth, James. Ed. and Trans. The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent. (London: Dolman, 1848) Session 25, On Regulars and Nuns, Chapter V
  5. Ferrazzi, Cecilia. Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint. Trans. Anne Schutte. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) p. 11
  6. Ibid. p. 16
  7. Schutte, Anne. Aspiring Saints: Pretense of Holiness, Inquisition, and Gender in the Republic of Venice, 1618-1750. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)
  8. Ferrazzi, Cecilia. Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint. Trans. Anne Schutte. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) p. 9
  9. Ibid. pp. 39-41
  10. Ibid. p. 39
  11. Ibid. pp. 42-3
  12. Ibid. pp. 9-10
  13. Cohen, Sherrill. The Evolution of Women’s Asylums since 1500: From Refugees for Ex-Prostitutes to Shelters for Battered Women. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) p. 13
  14. St. Teresa of Avila. The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself. Trans. J.M. Cohen. (London: Penguin Books, 1957) pp. 23-4
  15. Ibid. pp. 31-2
  16. Ibid. p. 32
  17. Ibid. p. 196
  18. Ferrazzi, Cecilia. Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint. Trans. Anne Schutte. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) p. 39
  19. Ibid. p. 46
  20. Ibid. pp. 43-7
  21. Ibid. p. 49
  22. Cohen, Sherrill. The Evolution of Women’s Asylums since 1500: From Refugees for Ex-Prostitutes to Shelters for Battered Women. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) pp. 81-2
  23. Ibid. pp. 83-4
  24. Ibid. p. 85
  25. Ferrazzi, Cecilia. Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint. Trans. Anne Schutte. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) pp. 48-50
  26. Schutte, Anne. Aspiring Saints: Pretense of Holiness, Inquisition, and Gender in the Republic of Venice, 1618-1750. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) p. 14
  27. Ibid. pp. 13-4
  28. Ibid. p. 14
  29. Ferrazzi, Cecilia. Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint. Trans. Anne Schutte. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) pp. 61-2
  30. Homza, Lu Ann. Ed and Trans. The Spanish Inquisition 1478-1614: An Anthology of Sources. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006) pp. 171-4
  31. Ibid. p. 169
  32. Ibid. pp. 174-5
  33. Ferrazzi, Cecilia. Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint. Trans. Anne Schutte. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) p. 23
  34. Ibid. p. 29
  35. Ibid. p. 37
  36. Ibid. pp. 32-3
  37. Ibid. p. 13
  38. Ibid. p. 17
  39. Ibid. p. 17
  40. Ibid. p. 17
  41. Ibid. p. 17
  42. Monter, William, “Protestant Wives, Catholic Saints, and the Devil's Handmaid: Women in the Age of Reformations.” In Becoming Visible: Women in European History. Eds. Renate Bridenthal et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987) pp. 201-19

Annotated Bibliography and Other Sources

Annotated Bibliography for Cecilia Ferrazzi

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