Performed Embodiment, Sacred Eroticism, and Voice in Devotions by Early Seventeenth-Century Italian Nuns

This dissertation comprises a series of close readings of music written and performed in intimate devotional contexts by nun composers Sulpitia Cesis, Alba Tressina, and Lucrezia Vizzana in seventeenth-century convents in Modena, Vicenza, and Bologna, respectively. I argue that in singing music written by their sisters, nuns were able to use their voices to mediate a space between their own corporeal bodies and an ephemeral Divine presence. In so doing, these nuns were able to engage in practices conducive to the experience of ecstasy for both singers and listeners, cultivate an outlet for creativity and entertainment, and strengthen their relationships with one another and with the Divine. This mediation also functioned as an act of self-empowerment, as nuns derived agency through composing, performing, and listening to this music. Nuns’ voices therefore occupied a queer and transgressive space that threatened patriarchal control over women’s sexualities, allowing for more autonomous nurturing of their own identities and spiritualities. Through musicking, nuns were able to communicate with each other, with God, and with the outside world through choice of text, musical setting thereof, manipulation of performance space, and subtle relational cues between singers and audience members.

I draw from a range of disciplines: historical musicology, sound studies, queer studies, theater and art history, liturgical history, and Renaissance medicine. My methodologies are similarly multivalent and include “thick” description of the real-time experience of musical performance, sonic space, and the role of the listener; close examination of texts and their relationship to the music; hermeneutical analysis of the musical scores; and analysis of the gestures, bodily movements, and non-verbal cues that occur between singers and audience members during performance.