Saint Orsola, Virgin & Martyr – A Convent Play?

WOMEN. DRAMA. Castellani, Castellano (1461-1519)

La rappresentatione di Santa Orsola vergine & martire.

Siena: alla loggia del Papa, ? ca. 1601


Quarto: 19.6 x 14 cm. [20] pp. Collation: A4, B6

20th c. ivory vellum with arms of Victor Masséna, gilt.  Illustrated with 4 woodcuts, 1 of them full page. Text lightly toned, a few deckled edges, light soiling.

Illustrated with a woodcut of a statue of the Archangel Gabriel holding a lily on the title page, a woodcut (appearing twice in the text) of the martyrdom of Saint Orsola and her 11,000 virgin companions, and a full-page woodcut of a domed church with a porch (meant to represent the original resting place of the saint?).

A rare “sacra rappresentazione” (holy performance) a verse drama of the legend of Saint Orsola. Such texts were sometimes used for “convent plays”, in which the roles were performed by professed nuns and novices performed for the edification of the girl boarders (“educande”). See Black, “Church, Religion and Society in Early Modern Italy”, p. 163-165. Colleen Reardon (“Young Choristers”, p. 200) suggests that the “educande” might have performed songs during those performances. Without doubt, acting out the life of Orsola, whose legend culminates in her martyrdom at Cologne along with 11,000 virgin companions, would have resonated deeply with the “educande”.

The legend of St. Orsola and her ill-fated companions has its hazy origins in a number of late antique legends that began to coalesce in the 10th century. The basilica of St. Orsola in Cologne (the site of the saint’s martyrdom) claims to hold the relics of Orsola and the 11,000 virgins. According to the canonical legend, Orsola was a British (Cornish) princess, who set out for Gaul to marry the pagan governor of Armorica but along the way decided to make a European tour. On her way to Cologne, which was besieged by the Huns, Orsola and her companions were slaughtered. 

As Kelley Harness has observed, in the 15th-century version of the legend presented here, the author emphasizes the assertiveness and eloquence of Orsola. Ultimately, her martyrdom is a testament to both. 

“Whereas the Orsola of the 14th-century legend uses her confrontation with the Saracens to confirm her group’s dedication to the Christian faith even in death, Castellani’s Orsola defiantly refuses her enemy’s sexual advances and insults him:

‘Be confounded, you ungrateful and evil tyrant,

Without wits, reason, and intellect:

Just wait for God to castigate you

Oh, poisonous monster, unpleasing to heaven.

Look who asks me for my body!

One who is permanently destined to hell!

You wolf, dragon, lion, wild beast,

Watch out so that [divine] wrath does not fall on you.’

“Orsola’s abuse provokes Julian to his rash deed, and as he plunges an arrow into her breast he blames her for his actions [Poi che tu m’hai condotto a questa sorte]. As a result, Orsola’s martyrdom appears to stem more from her refusal of Julian than from her Christianity.”(Echoes of Women’s Voices, p. 96-7)

The attributed author of this dramatization of the legend, Castellano Castellani (1461-1519), a Florentine priest and follower of Savonarola, was the “most prolific writer of rappresentazioni… Castellani held a teaching position at the Studio (the early Florentine University) and his plays reflect his learning through frequent Latinisms (and occasionally Latin) and figurative language of literary as well as biblical origin; yet he also employs expressive examples of popular speech and gruesome scenes of torture.”(Marrone)

Edit16 61630 (listing 2 copies, in Florence and the British Library)

Colomb de Batines (comp. Bibliografia, 45) lists a 1509 edition that was lost by the 19th c. Alessandro d’Ancona included the 1516 edition of the work in his “Sacre Rappresentazioni dei secoli XIV, XV, XVI Vol 2. p. 409-444, attributing it to Castellani. The original, now lost, version most likely dates from the 2nd half of the fifteenth century. See Ludovico Zorsi, Carpaccio e la rappresentazione di Sant’Orsola: Ricerche sulla visualità dello spettacolo nel Quattrocento, p 12-13. Alfredo Cioni (Bibliografia 244-47) cites subsequent Florentine editions through 1589, and other Sienese editions “alla loggia del Papa” of 1608, 1621, and dates this undated ed. ca. 1600.

De Batines, Bibliografia delle antiche rappresentazioni italiane sacre e profane, p. 54; Sander, Le livre à figures italien depuis 1467 jusqu'à 1530, 6322; Cioni, Bibliografia delle Sacre Rappresentazioni, p. 247, n. 10