Freedom and Adultery: Elisabetta di Giano and the Right to be Forgotten

By Isabel Harvey, 21/06/2021

Protagonists: Elisabetta di Giano, from the countryside of Spoleto, and her husband,  Bernardino di Filippo.

Sources: Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari, Positiones,  1601, Letter S-V. Spoleto. 4 letters, between 12 September 1600 and 2 January 1601 (See the sources here).

Between May 1600 and September 1601, the diocese of Spoleto was without a bishop: fifteen months that allowed Elisabetta di Giano to activate her strategy of liberation. Locked up for two years already in the Monastery del Palazzo of Spoleto, where she had been personally placed by the former bishop Paolo Sanvitale, she took advantage of his disappearance to try to escape. She sent a letter to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars towards the end of 1600, explaining how the Bishop, responding to her husband’s request, had had her “arrested and imprisoned in the Monastery de Palazzo of the said City with five and a half scudi by month as cost for her roof and cover,” a sum that she had to cover alone. However, he had made her the “promise that, if she did not like to stay in the said Monastery, she would be able to move to another one to her satisfaction.” This is the reason of her letter: she wanted to change convents, since she could no longer afford to pay the rent and food, and moreover, two nuns were relatives of her husband, “which is not without great suspicion and danger for her life.[1]” However, she did not explain why her husband and his family resented her to the point that her physical safety was in danger. Nor did she explain why her husband had had her forcibly confined to a convent. The letter arrived in Rome, and the Congregation acted, as it usually did when letters were sent by lay people, by asking for more information from the Episcopal See, where only the vicar was left to dispatch urgent matters.

The vicar, Giovanni Matteo Fidutio, answered on 9 December, 1600, after having visited Elisabetta in the convent. According to him, she would have “told to Your Illustrious Lord many things that are not true,” such as the amount of money she had to pay to the convent each month. When he asked her where she wanted to be transferred, she replied that “such is not her intention […] and that she does not want to enter another Monastery but she would like to go out, and return to her house.” Seeing the vicar’s openness to grant her request, Elisabetta seized the occasion and asked instead to be completely released. The vicar refused, explaining to the woman “that she would have put herself in a manifest danger on her life for the serious offense, that she has made to her Husband.[2]” But he did not say more about the crime that had led Elisabetta to the convent.

            The vicar’s answer did not satisfy the Congregation. The vicar, not very familiar with the case, turned to Elisabetta’s husband, Bernardino di Filippo, in order to better understand why he had asked to lock his wife in a convent. Bernardino sent a memorandum to Rome in which he explained his version of events. After an argument, Elisabetta had decided to leave the marital home and live alone in the castle of Giano, inherited from her father. She had stayed there for two years, and “at the end, in that Castle, she got pregnant.” The day of delivery came, “in bed saying that she was close to death, and in addition to doctors she called the parish priest, and two Capuchin Fathers who assisted her to restore the health of the soul. In presence of said monks, and of many women and men who were there, the good woman, with the assistance of the divine justice, gave birth to a girl. When the said monks saw the birth, scandalized by such fact, they immediately fled away. This episode revealed her adultery, and we do not know what happened to the newborn.” According to Elisabetta’s husband, nobody knows what happened to the child, but Elisabetta quickly realized the seriousness of her situation. Given the number of people in her home at the time of the birth, the rumor spread quickly. According to her husband, fearing the “danger of being killed by her husband,” she asked the Bishop Sanvitale to quickly send his sbirri to take her to a safe place, the convent. Bernardino added, still hurt by the adulterous actions of his wife, that he “humbly asks to His Holiness not to allow such an enormous crime to be unpunished.[3]” He thus clearly opposed the release of his wife, without, however, ever showing a desire for revenge or presenting himself as the violent husband she described. The husband’s memorandum was accompanied by a short letter from the vicar who, cautiously, confirmed the adultery and accepted the version in which Elisabetta was the one who asked to be locked up.

            The case ends here for the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars: the husband’s version, supported by the Bishop, seems to have convinced the cardinals. Elisabetta did not insist: she most likely will request to be released to the new Bishop when he will be appointed. This story, however, demonstrates Elisabetta’s constant desire for freedom: she did not hesitate to leave her husband to live on her own, outside the control of a male figure, in her own property, and to lead the life that suited her. If, as her husband Bernardino stated, Elisabetta really asked the Bishop for protection when she realized the danger created by her adultery, then she fully assuming her act. Finally, the strategy she implemented at the time of the Bishop’s death in order to regain her freedom demonstrates her attention to the ecclesiastical justice system and its institutions, as well as a certain creativity and determination to move within it. If the case did not succeed in 1600, for Elisabetta it was certainly only a short postponement.

            The relationship between the woman and the Churchmen in this case was based on absence: the missing Bishop who left the episcopal see unoccupied for more than a year, offering an opportunity for both oblivion and action. Elisabetta tried to use this period of confusion and the space for action it created to convince other Churchmen, the cardinals of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars and the vicar of Spoleto, to erase the crime of adultery she committed that, in the end, did not appear so dramatic to her. 

[1] Archivio Apostolico Vaticano (AAV), Congregazione dei Vescovi e Regolari (CVR), Positiones (POS), 1601, Letter S-V. Spoleto. (segregata et messa nel Monasterio del Palazzo di detta Città con cinque scudi e mezzo il mese di Provisione per suo vitto) / (promissione che non piacendoli stare in detto Monastero, di metterla in una altro à sua sodisfatione) / (il che non è senza gran sospetto et periculo della sua vita)

[2] AAV, CVR, POS, 1601, Letter S-V, Spoleto, 9 December 1600. (narrato à Vostra Signoria Illustrissima molte cose, che non sono vere) / (non essere tale la sua intentione […] et che non vuol intrar in altro Monastero ma vorebbe uscire fuori, et tornarsene a casa sua) / (che lei si sarebbe posta a manifesto periculo della vita sua per la grave offesa, che lei ha fatta à suo Marito)

[3] AAV, CVR, POS, 1601, Letter S-V, Spoleto, 2 January 1601. (ultimamente in quello Castello fu resa gravida) / (messo à letto dicendo ch’era vicino à morte, et oltre à Medici fisici fece chiamare il Parocchiano, et due Padri Cappuccini ch’assistessero à ramentarli la salute dell’anima, et in presenza di detti religiosi, et di molte donne, et homini che vi erano andati, la bona donna per permissione della divina giustitia partori una figliola femina, il che visto detti Religiosi scandalizzati di tal fatto subito fuggirno via, et fù palesi questo adulterio, ne si seppi quello che facessi del parto) / (pericolo che correva d’essere ammazzata da suo marito) / (supplica humilmente la Santità Sua non permetta, ch’un delitto cosi enorme debbia passare impunito)

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