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True crime. Casually done.

The Nun’s Tale: Sister Virginia Maria

We all like a good love story, even true crime fans. The only difference is that the sort of romantic yarns that likely suit your slightly depraved tastes aren’t exactly fairy tales. Well actually, they are like fairy tales — the original blood-and-guts versions, rather than the Disney re-spins. If that sounds like your idea of a proper romance, then you’re in luck. In our very first Casual Criminalist short, we’re going to be looking at one of the strangest, goriest, most disgusting love stories from history.

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It takes place, as many of the great love stories do, in Italy. Milan, to be precise. The year is 1575, and a local banking family has just added a newborn girl to their numbers. Her name was Marianna de Levya y Marino. Despite being from a wealthy family, little Marianna didn’t have the easiest upbringing.

Her mother died of the plague before she was old enough to understand, and her father, the cold and uncaring Earl of Monza, was largely absent as he tended to his investments around the continent. After a tumultuous upbringing in the care of her aunt, overshadowed by a long and unsuccessful lawsuit for her maternal inheritance, Marianna was shipped off to a nunnery at the age of 13. That was just the done thing back in the day if you couldn’t be bothered with a kid: send them to the clergy, and they’re no longer your problem.

Despite the surprise twist in her life trajectory, Marianna’s time a servant of God was quite pleasant in the beginning. Her convent was actually in the town of Monza — a picturesque place just a short distance to the northeast of Milano. Marianna took on a new name after her consecration in 1591, picking the incredibly predictable Sister Virginia Maria (which must be the nun equivalent of John Smith).

And for the rest of her teens, Sister Virginia had a pretty good lifestyle. She made friends easily, read often, and became a well-liked political figure in Monza, known as a model nun. By the end of her holy career, however, she would be known for messing up pretty much every aspect of her religious duties in the worst ways imaginable. Why, you ask? Well, when our heroine reached the tender age of 22, she fell in love.

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The object of her affections was a local Casanova called Giovanni Paolo Osio, who lived in a townhouse right next to the monastery. Pretty much an archetypal wealthy ‘bad boy’, Gian Paolo had been accused of murdering a tax collector in the past. He was later pardoned, but still, this was not the sort of guy who the locals wanted their daughters going anywhere near.

Apparently he had grown tired of seducing his fellow aristocrats, and sought a more difficult challenge — competing against the Almighty himself for his kicks. So he set his sights on the young sister, after seeing her working at the girl’s school attached to the convent which he was apparently in the habit of watching from his window.

It all started out innocently enough, with the two exchanging letters using a rope dropped down from one of the monastery windows. Eventually though, they decided to take things to the next level. Being from a rich family, Sister Virginia had enough influence around town to bring a few of the other nuns onto her side, and Signor Osio’s priest buddy Father Arrigone also helped keep things under wraps.

They had a blacksmith copy the keys to the doors, and Gian Paolo used them to regularly sneak in and spend the night with Sister Virginia. In case any of our listeners aren’t familiar at all with the Catholic faith, abstinence is basically the golden rule for monks and nuns. Which is why Sister Virginia was thrown into such a crisis by her perfectly normal human behavior.

I mean, nothing she’s done so far warrants any condemnation, but it was the way she dealt with this inner turmoil that won her a place in the history books (under the chapter “Oh My God, That’s Fucking Disgusting”). See, Sister Virginia decided that the best way to conquer her bodily urges wasn’t prayer. It was… I mean, there’s no sugarcoating it: she ate Gian Paolo’s faeces. Yep. Her Clockwork Orange-esque logic was that if she could overpower her lust with pure, total disgust, then she would be able to avoid sleeping with him ever again.

I should add that modern therapists do not recommend this method for getting over your ex — the tried and true method of silently weeping yourself to sleep for months is much more effective than literal shit-munching. Which is precisely what Sister Virginia discovered: her methods were as ineffective as they were insane.

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So the lovers continued on with their trysts, and Sister Virginia ended up falling pregnant twice. In 1602, her first baby was stillborn. Then in 1603, she gave birth to a healthy daughter, who was snuck off to live in the house of Gian Paolo and officially recognized as his illegitimate kid a few years later. By this point the townspeople basically knew who the mother was, but it was only discussed in hushed whispers.

Perhaps because of these extra-scandalous developments, the consciences of their co-conspirators eventually started to stir up trouble. In 1606, one of the other nuns decided she’d had enough (possibly to save her own skin from God’s wrath). She threatened to drag the whole affair out of the shadows, which would likely have had some pretty severe consequences back in 17th century Italy (likely involving chains and fire, or something along those lines).

But see, prison wasn’t exactly Gian Paolo’s thing, so he silenced the nun in the only way he could: he killed her with a crowbar to the head, and had two of the other nuns hide her in a chicken coop. Sister Virginia wasn’t just an innocent bystander either. She was responsible for making sure all the other nuns kept their mouths shut, lest they meet the same fate. Suddenly the monastery was looking a lot more like a prison block than a house of God. So even in a house of God, the same age old rules apply: snitches get stitches.

But the two lovers were on edge now, unsatisfied that their threats of violence would be enough to cover their tracks. So not only the snitch got stitches, but also the poor blacksmith who had forged the keys. Gian Paolo even hired an assassin to shoot the town herbalist, who had sold the nun some medicines used for old-timey abortions.

It’s likely that adding to their body count harmed their case rather than helped it, because word slowly made it through to the top brass in Milan — the governor himself. In 1607 he ordered an investigation into the murders and surrounding rumors, which led to the arrest of Gian Paolo, Sister Virginia, and all those who aided them in their decade-long binge of sin.

Many of them were subjected to, or threatened with, the aforementioned chains and fire, tortured until they spun the same gruesome yarn which I’ve just outlined for you (albeit with far more screaming and repenting than in my version).

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Gian Paolo caught a lucky break when he was able to escape from captivity, avoiding the death penalty which was dished out to him in his absence. But what the courts couldn’t carry out, one of his friends managed to do instead. While hiding out with the Count of Landriano, his host had Gian Paolo stabbed to death in his basement. His head was taken to the local governor, while his body was walled into a niche in the palace, where his headless ghost is said to wander to this day (presumably looking for women to hit on like a spectral Joey from Friends).

And our anti-heroine, the nun with questionable dietary choices — she was sentenced to life behind bricks. Yes bricks, not bars. She was to spend the rest of her days in a tiny, bricked-off room, which was a tiny 3.3m squared. Her defense in court was basically that Satan made her do it. She didn’t quite phrase it like that, but the gist was that evil forces had placed unescapable urges inside her, so she wasn’t acting on her own volition. That’s a shaky defense at best, but probably held water a lot better back in olden-time religious courts than it would nowadays.

So after serving 13 years of her sentence, Sister Virginia was judged to be sufficiently repentant and reformed to return to her holy service, although who knows what 13 years of solitary confinement did to her already quirky psychology. At any rate, she became known in godly circles as a model of repentance, and wrote a series of letters instructing young nuns on how to deal with their earthly impulses.

These now sit alongside other classics such as OJ Simpson’s Guide to a Marital Bliss, and Charles Bronson’s Practical Anger Management, in the Do As I Say, Not As I Do self-help section.

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So there you have it: a story of lust, love, murder, and some disgusting other stuff which I won’t bother repeating. Although she’s not the most sympathetic character, I think it’s worth asking, to what extent was Sister Virginia herself a victim here? Our humble crime podcast isn’t the first bit of media to explore the idea.

In his 1840 novel The Betrothed, Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni made a case in her defense. His literary version of the famous nun dropped all of the fecal details, and portrayed her instead as a mistreated and innocent girl, starved of parental affection and manipulated by a sadistic playboy.

Do we buy that? Not really, I don’t think. In reality, Virginia got her hands far more dirty (in more ways than one) than that sanitized account would have us believe. And with that final judgment, I’ll let you go to try and get the images from the past 10 minutes out of your head.

Peace be with you.

Amen.

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