The monastery and the Pio Conservatorio of Santa Caterina

The foundation of the monastery of Santa Caterina, intended to welcome poor and morally endangered girls, referred to as "pericolanti" or "pericolate" (at risk) in the language of the time, was part of a series of initiatives of charitable, educational and spiritual intent, aimed above all at the female part of the population. These initiatives were especially prevalent in Padova and the neighbouring territories during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Courtyard of the Collegio del SoccorsoCourtyard of the Collegio del Soccorso at the beginning of the 20th century (source: Un'opera di redenzione, 1931)

At the end of the 16th century, for example, two institutions dedicated to assisting young girls had been founded in the city: the first in 1576, built at the behest of the bishop of Padova himself, Federico Cornaro, with the support of some noble citizens, was named the Pio luogo di Santa Maria del Soccorso, or simply Soccorso ("Relief"), and was located near the church of the same name in the district of Pontecorvo, where - Portenari tells us - «those misguided maidens who have allowed themselves to be deceived by wicked men and who have lost their virginal flower are welcomed». The second institution, the Conservatorio delle zitelle Gasparine, was founded with a testamentary legacy by the Francesco Gasparini (1598), a citizen of Padova, initially as a shelter for poor and infirm young people, and then elevated to a boarding school «to educate noble or at least civilized maidens» (Guida di Padova, 1842, p. 371).

Collegio delle dimesseWing of the Collegio delle Dimesse facing via Cavalletto in a 19th century image (source: Dimesse a Padova, 2015)

A few years later, in 1615, thanks to the action of some women led by Maria Alberghetti (1578-1664), the Collegio delle Dimesse was established in the villa of Morosina Bollani, located in the "pleasant district of Vanzo", which was donated to the community that had just arrived in the city with the aim of giving "girls of noble and well-to-do families a broad education" (De Vivo, 1994, p. 481).

Towards the end of the century, another charitable institution with philanthropic and educational purposes was the so-called "Loco delle Vergini" ("Place of the Virgins") in Piazzola sul Brenta (established before 1680), based in the villa of Marco Contarini, Procurator of San Marco, where young orphaned girls or those from poor families were received, who received a basic education (reading, writing and counting) imbued with religiousness, acquiring practical skills and "love for industriousness", all at the expense of the Venetian nobleman (Donvito, 1995, p. 85). 

As can be understood, these are institutes - most often of a religious nature - with partly assimilable aims, committed to recovering young people from the streets and directing them to a morally accepted life (in this, the luoghi di Santa Caterina e del Soccorso, at least in the first period of their history, stood out) and also teaching the first rudiments of learning, including writing, reading and knowledge of the catechism, as well as "know-how" in relation to the domestic sphere. 

Widespread education, provided as much as possible to the entire female population, was, after all, a prevalent concern in those years of transition between the 16th and 17th centuries on the entire European continent, where it sparked discussions between those who considered it impossible, useless or even dangerous and those who instead supported and promoted it. In this debate the city of Padova was able to put itself in line with the most up-to-date cultural demands of the time, as demonstrated both by the flourishing of the numerous institutes, mentioned above, intended for the reception and education of young women and, at the highest level, by the awarding of the degree to Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia on the 25th of June, 1678, the first woman in the history of the University to receive the doctoral insignia.

It is in the background of these events that the institution of the monastery, then the Pio Conservatorio di Santa Caterina, should be read: in the next pages we will read about its history.