The Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri
by Ellen Hickman
The Sisters of San Matteo belonged to the order of Poor Clares, also known as Poor Ladies, Sisters of Saint Clare or Clarisses. Chiara Offreducio (Clare of Assisi, 1194-1253) founded the order in the thirteenth century under the tutelage of her friend and teacher St. Francis of Assisi. Clare was the eldest daughter of a noble Italian family who fled her family home in 1212 at the age of eighteen to pursue a religious life. Francis helped her join a wealthy and well-respected convent, but Clare's devotion to Francis's teachings of poverty and a renunciation of worldly goods conflicted with the comfort and security she found there. Under Francis's guidance, she established an order at San Damiano that was dedicated to a life of poverty and prayer. Clare fought the church hierarchy for permission for her new order to live without possessions of any kind. She believed that worldly goods got in the way of spirituality and the kind of religious contemplation she advocated. Clare's request for poverty was unheard of, and she struggled throughout her life to gain approval for a Rule that reflected the teachings of St. Francis in place of the modified Rule of St. Benedict that had been approved for her order. Her Rule was finally approved in 1253 as she was on her deathbed.
This was the first Rule written by a woman for religious women. Because of her tenacity and dedication to the religious life Clare earned the respect of even those she fought, and was canonized shortly after her death. The Poor Clares lived a completely cloistered life and because of their refusal to own property of any kind they were dependent on the generosity of others for their support. They are to this day considered to be the most ascetic of the Catholic orders. Many of their practices derive from the practices of Clare who fasted, encouraged menial labor, and gave up all forms of comfort in order to live a simple life, close to God.
For more information on the Poor Clares, see The Poor Clares, the English-language web site of the order.
Little is known about the convent of San Matteo (founded in 1309) where Maria Celeste lived, except for what is found in her letters. It is obvious from her letters that the Poor Clares at San Matteo lived in a state of poverty that was not too far removed from that of their founding Mother. The sisters at San Matteo supported themselves with money from relatives (like that which Maria Celeste frequently requested from Galileo) and they also spent a great deal of time baking and sewing to raise funds for their subsistence. The Clares, however, did not traditionally require a dowry upon entry, as many of the wealthier convents did, and thus they lacked a stable money supply. In Maria Celeste's day, convents were an acceptable substitute for marriage for daughters of the upper classes. It is not unusual that Galileo's daughters should be placed in a convent, but the poverty of the convent of San Matteo seems almost unfitting to a man like Galileo. The girls, however, were probably placed in a convent in the first place because Galileo could not afford the sizeable dowry necessary to gain an acceptable husband, and thus a convent with a high entrance fee was equally impractical. The convent of San Matteo was popular with the middle classes, because the entrance fee was lower than that of a convent inside the walls of Florence. The location of the convent, however, made it more difficult to supervise than one inside the city, and the convent had several scandals involving relationships between nuns and laymen during the fifteenth century. Reforms instituted by Grand Duke Cosimo II in the middle of the sixteenth century had, however, put an end to these scandals. Yet, the case of the father confessor taking liberties with the sisters that Maria Celeste refers to in her letters is an example of how difficult it was to properly supervise life in a convent outside the walls of Florence.
Galileo was by no means a particularly cruel father in placing his daughters in such a poor surrounding, as they could not stay as unmarried females in his house and this was the best he could afford for them. Ignoring their heavy workload, the chores the sisters did were not so different from what they would have done in their father's household, or their own, had they gotten married. Indeed, despite their hard work nuns lived longer than women in the general population because they did not have to risk the dangers of childbirth.
Omer Englebert, Saint Francis of Assisi tr. Edward Hutton. London: Burns Oates, 1950.
Elizabeth Makowski, Canon Law and Cloistered Women. Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997.
Michael Robson, St Francis of Assisi: The Legend and the Life. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1997.
The Catholic Encyclopedia On-Line, www.knight.org/advent/cathen/ Articles: "Convent," "Saint Clare of Assisi," "Poor Clares."
Thanks to Professor Sharon Strocchia for information on the convent of San Matteo
©1995 Al Van Helden