A Female Presence

Written by  Franco Fortini
A city's memories: the Ursulines in Ferrara.
Laura Guidi and Maurizia Muratori have undertaken research, to be published soon, on the Ursuline sisters who recently gave up their last House in Ferrara: the Via Cosmè Tura college.

The Ursulines, a lay order founded in the early 16th century by Angela Merici and recognized at Ferrara in 1584 by Bishop Paolo Leoni, were somewhat unusual sisters. Unusual in particular during the Counter-Reformation, because they offered an alternative to what had hitherto been a strictly limited choice for respectable women: marriage or an enclosed convent.

Their presence in the city was something new, for they took an active role in defending their own bodies and honour, working for the revival of the Church and the spread of Christian belief on the basis of private vows and while remaining, albeit in a limited and careful fashion, integrated into the life of the city and its surroundings.

Another unusual feature of the order was its dedication to the intellectual and cultural improvement of women, as well as to their religious well-being. This presence had a real impact on the city, and not only in physical terms. They had occupied their last location, the Via Cosmè Tura, since 1800. Previously they had been in Via Alberto Lollio, formerly Via Spazzarusco, where they moved in 1647.
From then on, the people of Ferrara had had to come to terms with changes in that part of the town brought about by women, mostly nuns: the transformation of a group of small houses into a kind of convent. Whether or not to call it a convent was doubtful, since the women living there were no longer enclosed behind the convent grill as they had always been in the past.

The very location of this first Ursuline convent, situated only a few steps from the symbols of male power that were the Castello Estense and the Archbishop's Palace, challenged the established order within the city, an order which its residents had considered immutable for centuries, and brought to the fore not only changes in configuration but also changes in meaning.
People realised that the idea that they had always had of a convent no longer corresponded with the new order created by nuns who were actively engaged in society.

The new Ursuline establishment in Via Cosmè Tura was a striking example of this. The large building not only housed women who mediated between God and society but was actively involved, through the new approach taken by these nuns, in the renewal of life in the city. Even during the fast-moving and traumatic last two centuries, these nuns interpreted events and reacted accordingly to bring relief to the town.