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Women Writing Saints in Counter-Reformation Italy (completed)

An interdisciplinary project exploring the religious production authored by different early modern women writers in Italy from 1563 until 1700.

Painting of Saint Catherine surrounded by a group of male philosophers.

Barbatelli Bernardino, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and the philosophers (Ospedale degli Innocenti), Florence.

The project explored the depiction of female sanctity and the impact and continuities of the Reformation era in hagiographical representations. In particular, the project argues the female saint-philosopher to have been a model of knowledge, agency, and ethics for many of the women writers who lived in the watershed years before and after the Council of Trent (1545).

About the project


1. The female saint-philosopher model and its negotiation in poetry

Starting with the case studies of Vittoria Colonna (1492–1547) and Domenica Narducci da Paradiso (1473–1553), the project looked at how women authors have negotiated the legacy of female saints in their writings as both subjects of their writing as well as intellectual and ethical inspirations for their own oeuvre and authorship. Lyrical texts by secular authors will be put in close dialogue with mystical literature of their time. 

2. Hagiography and hagiographic representations by women writers

The second part of the project was devoted to hagiographical production by women authors and looked at some examples of women’s writing on female saints after the Council of Trent. The crossover between the genre and feminist positions was the main focus, particularly in relation to those authors who wrote prolifically in the secular field and were involved in ‘the woman question’, such as Lucrezia Marinella (1571-1653), Margherita Costa (1600-1657) and the case of nun Angelica Baitelli (1588-1657). In Baitelli, historical accuracy, feminist and political instances seem to be particularly prominent. 

3. Embodying sainthood: autobiographical confessional accounts and diaries by religious women

Ultimately, the project analysed how women engaged with female sanctity in the seventeenth century within a selection of autobiographical confessional accounts. The two case studies was those of Francesca Farnese (1593–1651) and mystic Veronica Giuliani (1660–1727), who shaped their writings in the light of a clear female saint genealogy for different purposes.


Through the analysis of these case studies, the project aimed:

  1. To broaden our understanding of the way women negotiated religious changes during the watershed years of Counter-Reformation up until the seventeenth-century;
  2. To shed light on the depiction as well as embodiment of sanctity in the religious production authored by different categories of women writers;
  3. To explore how women contribute to the feminisation of the sacred sphere in those centuries;
  4. To highlight intersections between religious narratives and the political and philosophical debates of the time.


This project receives funding from the European Union´s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 840913.


September 2019 - September 2021.


Women Writing Saints collaborated with the international research project The Legacy of Birgitta of Sweden: Women, Politics, and Reform in Renaissance Italy, funded by the Research Council of Norway (2018–2021).

Published Sep. 17, 2019 9:44 AM - Last modified Aug. 22, 2022 2:44 PM


Clara Stella