The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal

Written by Hubert Wolf Ruth Martin (trans.)
Review by Jeanne Mackin

In 1853, Katharina von Hohenzollern, twice widowed, finally followed her heart’s desire and entered a convent. But she got a little more than she bargained for, in the Roman convent of Sant’Ambrogio: fake miracles, illicit sex, poisonings and attempted murder. How she managed to survive the several attempts on her life, and how the church responded to the charges and the scandal, are the heart of this dense, scholarly tome. Wolf tells a story, but his real purpose is to analyze the story and set it into historical context: the Church at the beginning of its modern period, and Italy, at the beginning of its national period.

What this reader found most fascinating, though, is Wolf’s portrayal of religious belief turned away from sense and into medieval channels of superstition. How Maria Luisa, the beautiful, young novice mistress of Sant’Ambrogio was able to convince the other nuns that her secluded nights with Padre Peter were spent in prayer, and that the handwritten letters from the Virgin, ordering murders and poisoning, were authentic, speaks to the credibility of some and the non-existent moral compass of others. Wolf’s study is dense and well-documented – an important source for mid-19th century cultural history.