From Bahia to Parma, 1735

By Eva Dal Canto 28.05.2020

Protagonist: Romualdo da San Donnino

Sources: Archivio di Stato di Parma in Raccolta Manoscritti B 49

The late 18th century was undoubtedly characterized by the presence of a great number of missionaries in the colonies that had been established in the newly conquered areas of the New Continent. Such is the case of Brazil, that had been subjected to the dominance of the Portuguese Crown for more than one century when the letters of Romualdo da San Donnino, Capuchin friar, reached his patroness in the Duchy of Parma. In his communications, the missionary frequently addressed the matter of femininity and the approach of women to Christian values; in this post we will analyze his account on free European women and their everyday lives in the colony.

In the first of his two letters Romualdo da San Donnino proceeds in giving the Duchess of Parma, Dorotea, some general information regarding the travel and the asset of the mission; after discussing the local agriculture and dietary habits, he moves on to describing how European women dealt with the geographical and cultural change:

” […] Le donne bianche portano sottana, camicia ed un manto sulla stessa che si stende fino ai piedi. Di giorno non escono se non rarissimo, la maggior parte va a sentire messa innanzi giorno o se ne assolvono totalmente sotto pretesto di non avere serpentina, negri e negre e manto da uscire propriamente: la superbia regna non in sign(o)re ma in donnicciuole che in casa stanno quasi nude e fanno digiuni in mandioca a misura scarsa e acqua fangosa […]”

In this first passage, the Capuchin starts with the description of the most common clothing style among white women, consisting of a skirt, a shirt, and a cloak. It is important to notice that in all his writings, da San Donnino tries to operate a differentiation between white and black women, openly implying that the first were embodying all the characteristic of modesty inspired by Catholicism whilst the second, as “Heretics”, were deemed to be immoral by nature:

“[…] Da sì abominevole immodestia e dalla totale mancanza di Dottrina Cristiana e quasi totale di Predica, non è da stupire se proviene un costume più da infedele che da cristiano […]”

Discussing the status of European women, the missionary reflects on the reciprocal influence between them and the others. He states that the first might be suffering the influence of the second, being prompted to behave in reproachable manners. In this extract he says that not only do European women neglect their religious duties, they also seldom appreciate dressing less and dieting. Then he continues by giving his account on the rather luxurious lifestyle led by them:

” […] La signoria benestante e ricca vive con lusso moderato nel vestire, accompagnandosi di Preti e Prete e preciosità di Rede o Serpentine, che sono le carrozze del paese levate sulle spalle di due negri. La V(ostra) Alt(ez)za Ser(enissi)ma potesse vedere la preziosità degli abiti, la quantità di diamanti e dell’oro, il numero delle schiave con che compariscono in pubblico alle volte queste signore le riputerebbe gran principesse, eppure non giungono alla condizione di nobiltà […]”

It appears to be clear that what the missionary is trying to convey is an analysis of what he encounters under a double dichotomy: he doesn’t, in fact, divide what he sees merely under the category of “Christian” and “Heretics”, but also compares the New and the Old Continent using his interlocutor, the Duchess, as a set example of Christian nobility. Similar comparisons might be found in missions from other geographic areas, such as Angola, and often give us a perspective on matters such as childbirth. Further on in his letter, which I will analyze in other posts, Romualdo da San Donnino explores the practice of marriage between enslaved females and their owners, confirming his point of view on women’s sexuality and proclivity to sin.

Note on the source: the letters will be uploaded and transcripted soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.