Witches, Feminism, and a 15th century Bolognese Countess

From high atop the Sasso Marconi mountainside one can view the Palazzo Sanuti-Bevilacqua a 15th century villa, and home to a most remarkable medieval woman, and early Italian feminist. 

While I was hiking through this stunning and atmospheric area I was amazed to learn about Nicolosa Sanuti.

Nicolosa Sanuti was the daughter of Antonio Castellani, a notary, and Margherita Franchini. After her marriage to the Count Nicol√≤ Sanuti, she became the owner of a vast lands in the province of Bologna. Along the bank of Reno River, the Sanuti family built the villa that was their residence and still bears their name, Palazzo Sanuti. From the beautiful fountains located inside the property the adjacent hamlet took its name, Fontana. 

Madonna and child

Inner courtyard including a photograph below from the turn of the last century depicting the fountain from which the hamlet took its name.

The Palazzo Sanuti Bevilacqua Degli Ariosti is currently in use as a private residence and office, but the influence of the original Countess is still very much felt and remembered. 

The historic plaque above recalls Nicolosa's fight against draconian laws which dictated what women could and could not wear in public.  In 1453 Roman Catholic Cardinal Basilios Bessarion of Bologna enacted his own particularly restrictive sumptuary laws, especially with regard to women.

In response, Nicolosa Sanuti wrote to the cardinal (in perfect Latin) arguing against his politics, in which she underlined the injustice of having to oblige women to adopt different and more modest customs than those of all the other Europeans. She also pointed out that fashion was viewed as symbol of femininity, and that women were already prevented from wearing the clothes of magistrates, militia and priests. She accused him of not wanting to take into account the greatness of women who all descend from Sappho, Artemisia, and Cornelia.

Not only was her letter one of the precious few in that time period to be written and conceived by a woman, but she was the only one who contested the theoretical assumptions underlying the sumptuary laws.

The reaction from the government of Bologna was negative. Cardinal Bessarion left her letter unanswered. And the canon Matteo Bosso publicly questioned the identity of the author considering a woman incapable of writing with such eloquence, and in Latin.

Countess Sanuti was a contemporary of Ginevra Sforza the wife and counselor of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Lord of Bologna, and Gentile Budrioli, wife of the notary Alessandro Cimieri and student at the University of Bologna, who was accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake in 1498.

All three of these women were unpopular with the Church and State, the Countess for challenging the sumptuary laws, Ginevra for having the ear and influence over her powerful husband, and Gentile for her skills as a healer and astrologer. While the first two women had powerful stations within society, Gentile did not and she may have paid a price for the sins of her feminist counterparts with her brutal execution in the main square of Bologna.

Nicolosa Sanuti died in 1505 in Bologna.

During the same year and due to several conspiracies the Pope ordered the Bentivoglios including Ginevra to leave the city, their properties in Bologna were looted and the Palazzo Bentivoglio was razed. Ginevra was excommunicated by the Church and she died on the 16th of May 1507. Her body was buried in a common grave.

The Palazzo Sanuti-Bevilacqua is located in an area where I have been studying local folklore. La Rupe of Sasso Marconi is geologically significant and has a rich history. In 1283 it was chosen as a site to build a shrine and sanctuary to the Venerated Virgin of Sasso. Over the years the rock mountain had been excavated, and there are a series of tunnels still visible, where in centuries past poor people lived like cavemen. On the night of June 23rd 1892 the side of the cliff facing the river crashed down and crushed the houses below it. 14 people died that night and many others were injured.

Following the tragic event stories of black magic, witchcraft, and strange mystery lights have plagued the area. Before hiking through the area I had not heard of the feminist Countess Sanuti before. And after researching more about her and her contemporaries Ginevra and Gentile, I now wonder if the accusations of witchery in the area and black magic somehow link back to the courageous Nicolosa Sanuti?

All of the photographs above with the exception of those from the historical archive were taken by me in March 2018.


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