Ferrazzi, Cecilia (1609-1684)

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Cecilia Ferrazzi was not a writer in any traditional sense of the word. In fact, she seems to have lacked basic literacy skills beyond the ability to sign her name. Nonetheless, in 1664 she dictated a compelling autobiography to a scribe during her trial by the Venetian Inquisition. This fascinating egodocument remained buried among the many pages of testimony that form Ferrazzi's trial record until the historian Anne Jacobson Schutte found and published the text in 1990.

In her autobiography Ferrazzi consistently depicts herself as embracing the monastic virtue of obedience when dealing with her superiors, be they her parents, guardians, or confessors; however, throughout her lifetime she struggled against individuals and institutions that opposed her desire to pursue a religious vocation. She was born in Venice in 1609 to Maddelena Polis and Alvise Ferrazzi, a prosperous artisan from Bassano. Her parents wanted her to marry, but young Cecilia resisted this plan, declaring her intention to enter a convent. After the birth of her sister Maria, her parents relented and agreed to allow Cecilia to take the veil. In 1630, however, a plague swept through the city taking the lives of the Ferrazzi sisters' parents and brothers. While Maria became a Carmelite nun and founded the Venetian convent of Saint Teresa, Cecilia, who suffered from many physical infirmities, was an undesirable candidate for monastic life. Instead, Ferrazzi spent twenty-two years in the care of various guardians, living at first with an uncle who tried unsuccessfully to force her to marry and then with Venetian nobles sympathetic to her religious devotion. These men and women offered Ferrazzi economic security in exchange for domestic services, and more importantly, protection from threats to her chastity and reputation. In all these years, Ferrazzi never abandoned her dream to take the veil. Even when in 1538 the Venetian government thwarted her plan to found a Carmelite convent, Ferrazzi continued to pursue a religious life.

Repeatedly rejected by existing religious institutions, Ferrazzi began to fashion a vocation for herself in 1652 when she was hired to care for the daughters of a Venetian patrician. Soon, with the financial support of Venetian nobles who recognized the valuable social service that she provided, Ferrazzi began to take in putte pericolanti, young girls and women at risk for abuse and exploitation. Ferrazzi saw to both the spiritual and physical needs of those in her care. Her operation grew steadily and by 1658 housed more than 200 girls in a palazzo donated by Francesco Vendramin. After a number of complaints that Ferrazzi had refused to release girls to their relatives, the private charity entered the public realm when it was brought under the supervision of the Provveditori sopra monasteri, the branch of the Venetian government responsible for regulating religious houses.

The occasion to craft her autobiography arose when Ferrazzi was arrested and brought before the Venetian Inquisition in 1664. The prostitute Chiara Bacchis, the mother of one of her charges, had denounced Ferrazzi for "pretense to holiness," claiming that she forced the girls to worship her as if she were a saint and confessed them, a sacrament reserved for priests. Although the investigation commenced in a routine fashion, with the Inquisitors posing questions to the accused, Ferrazzi's trial took a curious turn when she requested and received the privilege of dictating her autobiography to a court appointed scribe sent to her prison cell. Typically, the Inquisitorial courts instructed their scribes first to copy down testimony exactly as the witness delivered it; then, to read the testimony back to the witness and make any necessary corrections; and, finally, to obtain the witness's approval by way of a signature or mark. For this reason, we can be fairly certain that the voice we find in Ferrazzi's inquisitorial autobiography has not been unduly filtered or mediated.

Although Ferrazzi seems not to have received any formal education, Anne Schutte has demonstrated that she modeled her life story on contemporary stories of the lives of saints, which others read to her. In imitation of these holy biographies, the first part of Ferrazzi's autobiography supplies a chronological account of her life, while the remaining two thirds of the autobiography are organized according to topics, including her battles with the devil, her visions of saints and the Virgin Mary, and examples of divine grace that enabled her to foresee future events or cure the sick.

Perhaps the most surprising and perplexing aspect of this text for contemporary readers is the graphic description of Ferrazzi's corporeal suffering. In the opening lines of her autobiography she declares that she had always been sickly; however, she experiences and understands many of her bodily afflictions as spiritual trials and triumphs. She endures painful bladder stones and ulcerated wounds with the greatest patience through the intercession of the Virgin Mary and other holy figures. Due to digestive problems she lives for long periods without eating surviving, she claims, solely on communion. Ferrazzi's contemporaries were often unsure whether to view these ailments as evidence of her holiness or as proof of her desire to deceive others into believing that she was a living saint. For example, in 1637-8, Ferrazzi came to the attention of Venetian clerics because of wounds on her hands thought by some to be holy signs; however, after an investigation they concluded that these sores were not stigmata.

In 1665, at the conclusion of a 15 month trial involving some 300 witnesses, Cecilia Ferrazzi was convicted of heresy and sentenced to seven years in prison. Appeals on her behalf won her a transfer in 1667 from a Venetian prison to the home of the Bishop of Padua Gregorio Barbarigo, where she lived under a sort of house arrest. Two years later, she was released from this confinement. Nothing is known about her life from this point until her death in 1684.

Ferrazzi's signed copy of her autobiography figures as only a small part of her massive trial record now held in the Venetian State Archive. In 1990, Anne Schutte published the autobiography, as well as the four interrogations that preceded Ferrazzi's encounter with her amanuensis, under the title Autobiografia di una santa mancata (1609-1664) (Bergamo: Pierluigi Lubrina Editore). Schutte's English translation of these documents, entitled Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint, appeared in 1996 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).


  • Schutte, Anne Jacobson. Aspiring Saints: Pretense of Holiness, Inquisition, and Gender in the Republic of Venice (1618-1750) . Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • ---. "Ferrazzi, Cecilia." Dizionario biografico degli italiani. Vol. 46. Rome: Istituto della enciclopedia italiana, 1996. 781-784.
  • ---. "Ferrazzi, Maria." Dizionario biografico degli italiani. Vol. 46. Rome: Istituto della enciclopedia italiana, 1996. 791-793.
  • ---. "Inquisition and Female Autobiography: The Case of Cecilia Ferrazzi." The Crannied Wall: Women, Religion, and the Arts in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Craig A. Monson. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992. 105-118.
  • ---. "Per Speculum in Enigmate: Failed Saints, Artists, and Self-Construction of the Female Body in Early Modern Italy." Creative Women in Medieval and Early Modern Italy: A Religious and Artistic Renaissance. Eds. E. Ann Matter and John Coakley. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. 185-200.
  • ---. " 'Questo non è il ritratto che ho fatto io': Painters, the Inquisition and the Shape of Sanctity in Seventeenth-Century Venice." Florence and Italy: Renaissance Studies in Honour of Nicolai Rubinstein. Eds. Peter Denley and Caroline Elam. London: Westfield College, Committee for Medieval Studies, 1998. 419-431.
  • ---. "Suffering from the Stone: The Accounts of Michel de Montaigne and Cecilia Ferrazzi," Bibliothèque d'humanisme et renaissance 64 (2002): 21-36.

Submitted by Suzanne Magnanini, The University of Colorado, Boulder, 2005.

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