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The Sacred in Italy

Issue cover
Cover Caption: Jacopo Pontormo, St Jerome, 1527-1528, image via

Jon R. Snyder, Simonetta Falasca Zamponi, and Laura Wittman, Editors

Cindy Stanphill and Aria Dal Molin, Managing Editors

A Tribute to John Marino

John Marino: An Appreciation

A memorial to John Marino by Jack M. Greenstein

Introduction to Volume 5, Issue 1: The Sacred in Italy

The Persistence of the Sacred

Introduction to CIS 5.1.

The authors consider the role of the sacred in Italy from the Middle Ages to the present day, particularly in relation to religion (above all Catholicism) as well as to the currents of modern critical thought.

The Sacred

Rappresentazioni del sacro

This previously unpublished lecture was delivered at the 2009 Milanesiana festival (Milan, Italy). In it Professor Eco examines representations of the sacred in Italy and Europe between the Middle Ages and the present.

The Sacred and Popular Religion

Of Tears and Tarantulas: Folk Religiosity, de Martino’s Ethnology, and the Italian South

This paper discusses the Italian ethnographer Ernesto de Martino’s investigation of ritual crying in Southern Italy, bringing to the fore the role ethnology was called to play as a new twentieth-century discipline that emerged from the forced encounter between powerful “advanced” nations and societies “without history.”  Ethnology sought to analyze the impact of cultural norms on a world increasingly polarized between the inevitable march towards rational modernity and the appeal of a magical pre-modern time.  For de Martino, in particular, ethnological research on popular religiosity and ritual crying exposed the peculiarities of Italy’s uneven development in the post-war years and became a means through which to rethink the Italian South.

Of Blood Oranges and Golden Fruit: A Sacred Context for the “Rosarno Events”

This article explores the sacred aspects of the representation of oranges in texts leading up to the so-called "Rosarno events." Starting with the dual meaning of oranges in Vittorini's Conversazione in Sicilia, the article looks back to examine the connection of oranges with religious gardens, their supernatural powers in nineteenth-century folklore and literature, and their sacralization in contemporary commercials. These elements converge on the sacred attributes of oranges in the popular discourse about the African immigrant orange pickers' plight in Rosarno.

Raccontare Padre Pio e Giovanni Paolo II: agiografia e rotocalchi in Italia fra XX e XXI secolo

Negli ultimi decenni, i rotocalchi illustrati,  insieme alla televisione e agli altri mezzi di comunicazione di massa, hanno giocato un ruolo fondamentale nella costruzione dei profili di santità. Fin dal secondo dopoguerra le testate italiane più popolari hanno propagandato portenti e altri fenomeni paranormali con linguaggi disinvolti, accomunando santi e santoni, apparizioni mariane e presunte invasioni aliene, in un discorso composito volto a sovrapporre narrazioni curiose e intenti encomiastici. Il saggio prende in esame le narrazioni riguardanti Padre Pio e Giovanni Paolo II, sospese fra le esigenze della comunicazione vaticana e quelle di ampi settori dei media impegnati a catturare l’interesse del pubblico a ogni costo, talvolta incuranti di liturgie e prescrizioni. Nelle agiografie da rotocalco di questi due personaggi, spesso intrecciate e talvolta confluenti in un unico racconto, convivono messaggi talvolta contraddittori, testimoni di una religiosità variopinta, friabile, arbitraria, difficilmente descrivibile attraverso schemi unificanti.

Sicilian Mafia, Patron Saints, and Religious Processions:The Consistent Face of an Ever-Changing Criminal Organization

This article focuses on the religious dimension of the Sicilian mafia. The Sicilian mafia, known as Cosa Nostra, has consistently demonstrated the capacity to combine tradition with innovation. It adapts to changing circumstances, modifying its modus operandi accordingly, while maintaining seemingly consistent ‘moral’ codes, ritual practices and a strong reified collective identity. Religion, in particular, appears to be a central component of mafia identity. Instances of this apparently paradoxical phenomenon range from the altars frequently found in the hideouts of mafiosi, to the mafia's ambiguous relationship with clergymen, and to the religious symbols utilised during the ceremony of initiation. Applying theories of ritual and performance to the study of the mafia role in religious festivals, this article examines the effects of the role played by mafiosi in local religious festivals on their individual and collective identity, as well as on the social structure of the group as a whole. Specific attention will be dedicated to how —and whether—these practices have been affected by the recent significant successes in judicial investigations into the mafia, the hardening in the civil society's attitude toward organized crime syndicates, and the progressively firmer stand by the Church against the mafia. The data for analysis are derived from judicial papers, police reports and video footage, together with relevant secondary literature on the subject.

The Sacred and the Saints

The Fleshy Heart of Jesus

This essay examines the rise of the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in the eighteenth century and the debates that this devotion stirred within Catholicism concerning its iconographical representations. While images of the fleshy, anatomical heart of Jesus were perceived by the Jansenists as obscene and an ultimate Disrobing of Christ, the devotion, progressively sanitized in its representations, brought Christ to the center of Catholic devotional life again, and helped to move the much-criticized cult of the saints to the margins. While examining how the ultimate defining image of Christianity was so fiercely opposed and debated, I explore the thorny issue of the role of images in Catholicism.

Rethinking Savoldo's Magdalenes: A "Muddle of Maries"?

The luminously veiled women in Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo’s four Magdalene paintings have consistently been identified by scholars as Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning, yet these physically and emotionally self-contained figures are atypical of representations of the saint in the early Cinquecento, when she is most often seen as an exuberant observer of Christ’s Resurrection in scenes of the Noli me tangere or as a worldly penitent in half-length. A reconsideration of the four Magdalene images alongside contemporary imagery and a myriad of early Christian, Byzantine, and Italian accounts of the Passion, instead suggest that Savoldo, in these paintings, adds a new, more complex response to a millennium-old discussion about the respective roles of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. At the expense of iconic clarity, the painter whom Vasari described as “capriccioso e sofistico” appears to have created a multivalent image to accommodate both the conflicting accounts present in written sacred and hagiographic texts and to the intellectual appeal of the aporetic in the sixteenth century.

Specters of Saint Francis: Agamben's The Highest Poverty and the State of Digital Culture

This essay reflects on Giorgio Agamben's The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life (2013) with particular attention to the Italian philosopher's detailed analysis of the question of the open, free sharing of goods, or "simple use," as the ultimate point of contention between the Franciscan movement and the Roman Catholic Church.  The essay refutes Agamben's contention that such a practice is unthinkable in contemporary society.  Indeed, in the digital domain, the question of the open sharing of goods such as information or network bandwidth has resurfaced with renewed urgency.  Yet it is highly doubtful whether the Internet represents the genuine triumph of simple use.  Through examples such as the indictment of Aaron Swartz for downloading scholarly articles from the JSTOR database, the ascendancy of Coursera as a corporate publisher of online educational content via a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) model, and the current debate surrounding network neutrality, the essay debates the extent to which the Franciscan idea of simplex usus remains a problematic spectral presence.

“Emotional Rescue”: Heroic Chastity and Devotional Practice in Iacopo Sannazaro’s De partu Virginis

While Iacopo Sannazaro (1458–1530) is mostly known for his Arcadia (1504), his Christian epic De partu Virginis (1526) was widely read by his contemporaries,  prompting them to label him as "another Virgil." This essay examines Sannazaro's portrayal of Mary in the De Partu. Many of Sannazaro's contemporaries took issue with the fact that the moment of Annunciation was likened by the poet to a young girl fearing rape by pirates. Closer examination of other Christian epics in the period, however, along with contemporary preaching traditions and the visual arts, demonstrates that Sannazaro’s portrayal was not as heterodox as it initially appears. Indeed, when seen in this context, Sannazaro’s Mary emerges as a bolder and more independent figure than she was in previous literary and visual depictions.

The Sacred and the Visual Arts

All: Maurizio Cattelan's Infernal Comedy

In the winter of 2011-12, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum held a retrospective of the work of Italian artist and provocateur Maurizio Cattelan.  Instead of the usual chronological display, all 128 Cattelan works were suspended from cables in the central rotunda of the museum in what appeared to some viewers as so many salamis hanging in a shop or marionettes in an abandoned theater. This essay argues that the retrospective, declared by the artist to be his last, instead constituted an intentionally staged, tragi-comic Last Judgment. Cattelan has long been concerned with the themes of failure, guilt, loss, and death. Working with appropriated popular cultural images and arterfacts, he addresses themes including the resurgence of fascism, xenophobia, greed, and the abuse of power, through often shocking collisions of opposing terms.  As installed in the Guggenheim, Cattelan's works took on a new site-specific set of meanings and references, provoking an encounter with death and an uncanny afterlife.  Viewers were invited to see the works within a new optic, one that draws on the iconography of the Last Judgment to critique attitudes of complacency and indifference.

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Pittura ideista: The Spiritual in Divisionist Painting

The Divisionists were a loosely associated group of late nineteenth-century painters intent on creating a distinctly Italian avant-garde. They strove to override current anxieties about backwardness and cultural fragmentation in the recently established, but disconnected, Italian kingdom with a mission underpinned by modernist and nationalist aspirations. Although most of the movements’ members aligned themselves with the political left and were anticlerical, almost all produced canvases with religious or mystical overtones, sometimes undertaking to paint specifically holy subjects. The sources for the majority of these images lay in medieval and Renaissance art. This confluence of a Positivist painting technique (for Divisionism drew on scientific theories of chromatics and optics) and radical politics with anti-materialist and sacred themes, and modern art with historical prototypes, albeit paradoxical, was not an altogether surprising phenomenon in the 1890s, the decade when Symbolist art and revivalist trends thrived and spiritualism and science overlapped. Focusing on their sacred works, this essay explores the cultural context within which the Divisionists pursued spirituality and expressed metaphysical and transcendent ideas. It also demonstrates how the Divisionists negotiated the polarities of tradition and progress present in the post-Unification era and recognized that once they reinterpreted and recast their antecedents’ religious art and Catholic narratives with an empirical painting method and modernist strategies, they could forge new icons of spirituality and respond to nationalist exigencies.

Image as Relic: Bodily Vision and the Reconstitution of Viewer/Image Relationships at the Sacro Monte di Varallo

This essay addresses issues of vision and the role of the material image in devotional practice at the Sacro Monte di Varallo, a fifteenth-century Italian pilgrimage site built by Franciscans to simulate the experience of visiting the Holy Land through mimetically recreated sacred places.  Beginning in the early sixteenth century, the small chapels that marked the Sacro Monte’s recreated the sacred sites were filled with life-size tableaux representing episodes from the life of Christ.  Visitors could interact physically with the tableaux until the mid-sixteenth century when architect Galeazzo Alessi designed glass partitions, or vetriate, to separate the viewers from the figures.  The following paper discusses the impact of the vetriate on the nature of viewer/image relationships at the Sacro Monte.  Previously, scholars have viewed the vetriate only as disciplining instruments of the Counter-Reformation, designed to prevent viewers from wrongly venerating the material image by restricting physical access to the tableaux.  Through an analysis the Libro dei Misteri (1565-1569), the book in which Alessi recorded his plans for the Sacro Monte, I argue that in fact the vetriate created an ambivalent relationship between the viewer and the material image by disciplining the viewer’s physical relationship with the tableaux while simultaneously enshrining the images in a manner similar to a reliquary.  I approach the vetriate as frames that not only influence the viewer’s bodily relationship to the tableaux but also his or her mode of engaging with the image.  I argue that the vetriate, by virtue of their construction and decoration, would have signaled to the viewer the importance, even preciousness, of the tableaux.  The mimetic qualities of the Sacro Monte as well as contemporaneous literature that addresses reliquaries and the partitioning of ecclesiastical space, support the argument that the vetriate enhanced rather than diminished the material importance of the tableaux and their role as relic-like links between the viewer and the life of Christ.




Contemporary Perspectives on the Sacred in Pasolini’s La ricotta

This paper explores the representation of the sacred in Pasolini's controversial 1962 film, La ricotta, including a careful examination of the historical and intellectual contexts of the sacred in Pasolini's art and thought. I contend that Pasolini's positions, which were so pertinent in the 1960s, still have relevance today.



Arte sacra futurista: Fillia Between Conformity and Subversion

Futurism and religion are not often associated and the problematic topic of the Arte sacra futurista has been mostly dismissed as an aberration and/or seen as a sign of the movement’s embrace of fascism, ultimately leading to the movements’ decline. Fillia (pseudonym of Luigi Colombo) was one of the futurist artists who produced paintings on religious themes. This article argues that Fillia used futurist sacred art not in support of Benito Mussolini and fascism, but instead as a means of symbolic protest "from within” the regime. Fillia’s religious paintings are idiosyncratic, complex, and ultimately much more than the traditional religious images they seem to be. Through a close reading of Fillia’s religious paintings from 1931-1933, analyzed in the context of his written works from 1923-1933, the article demonstrates how his iconography and compositional style question and challenge aspects of fascism, and its attempts to establish itself as a lay religion of the state.

The Sacred and Politics

The Council and the "Papal Prince": Trent Seen by the Italian Reformers

By examining the papers and the marginalia of Giacomo Castelvetro, this article sheds new light on the controversies regarding the Council of Trent which erupted in the late Renaissance among the Italian reformers. Along with reconstructing Castelvetro's dialogue with the 'eretici italiani', the article also provides new evidence concerning his connections with Paolo Sarpi and the 'Anglo-Venetian seventeenth century'.


A Spanish Canonist in Rome: Notes on the Career of Francisco Peña

This essay presents three vignettes illustrating the relationships between the Spanish canonist Francisco Peña and three of the Popes he served during his long Roman career: Sixtus V, Clement VIII, and Paul V. Examining the motives that brought these figures into conflict with one another, as well as the common goals that led them to collaborate, allows us to understand from a unique perspective the complexity of the power dynamics within the Roman Curia in relationship to the Spanish Crown. More generally, the study of the difficult relationships between Peña and the Popes can become a means to unpack, or at least to begin to appreciate, the multiple and multiform identities of post-Reformation Rome, at once the heir of its ancient imperial past and a distinctively modern experiment in intellectual hegemony, the capital of the Papal state and the center of a transnational and spiritual empire of souls, the See of Peter’s successors and the theater of the world.

Percorsi del sacro e del politico nell’Italia di prima età moderna: lo stato pontificio e il pastorato cattolico post-tridentino

Nelle sue opere Paolo Prodi ha indagato il costante conflitto tra Stati e Chiese per conquistare il monopolio nel modellamento dell’uomo moderno. Questo conflitto ha come esito la separazione mai definitiva e sempre mutevole tra diritto positivo e sfera della coscienza, tra pubblico e privato, in un processo storico in cui lo Stato moderno tende a sacralizzarsi nella misura in cui eredita le funzioni della Chiesa con un processo di osmosi. Partendo proprio dalle proposte prodiane, in questo contributo vorrei mettere in evidenza come nel caso dello Stato della Chiesa non solamente la separazione tra potere spirituale e potere temporale non si compie mai del tutto, ma questi due poteri trovano una sintesi peculiare nell’esercizio della funzione pastorale. Il sovrano pontefice, infatti, è anche “pastore” e la Chiesa, oltre ad esercitare l’autorità spirituale e il governo temporale, esercita un magistero pastorale che opera secondo economie di governo delle anime e dei corpi che le sono proprie. La disciplina dei sudditi e dei credenti, in altri termini, si affianca e s’intreccia alla cura del gregge. Nella prima parte del contributo ci si soffermerà sull’analisi prodiana del sovrano pontefice per ricostruire i tratti specifici del consolidamento istituzionale e dottrinale dello stato della chiesa tra Quattro e Seicento. Nella seconda parte si metterà in evidenza il ruolo svolto in questo processo da una civil conversazione cattolica intesa come modello di una “forma del vivere” cattolica . Nella terza parte si discutono i tratti della pastorale cattolica. Se il sovrano-pontefice rappresenta la modalità specificamente cattolica di intendere la sovranità politica ed esprime una sacralità “concentrata”, perché espressa nella gerarchia ecclesiastica e particolarmente nella figura del papa, la centralità che assume tra cinque e seicento la dimensione “pastorale” dell’impegno cattolico rappresenta la capacità della Chiesa, più che dello stato pontificio, di innervare il quotidiano dei fedeli attraverso la devozione, la preghiera, la confessione, le liturgie e le feste. Questa dimensione pastorale consente una presa sui corpi attraverso la forma della legge o i precetti della dottrina, e sulle anime per mezzo di una disciplina volontaria all’obbedienza e alla carità. Attraverso di essa il sacro si diffonde e pluralizza in una molteplicità di luoghi e di momenti che “riempiono” la vita del credente e lo vincolano alla ecclesia attraverso percorsi di adesione volontaria. L’Italia di prima età moderna costituirebbe, pertanto, un laboratorio particolarissimo in Europa nel quale la disciplina ecclesiastica e il controllo dottrinale esercitati dalla Chiesa si integrano con un governo pastorale disseminato e capillare.

Il sacro come strumento politico: le elezioni del 1948, la Democrazia Cristiana e i manifesti elettorali

During the 1948 electoral campaign in Italy, the Christian Democratic Party (DC) used sacred symbolism as a way to win the majority of the votes. With the help of the Catholic Church and Catholic associations, the Christian Democrats employed a number of sacred devices (ceremonies, processions, traditional devotions) to conquer the Italian popular conscience, which was still tied to emotional and irrational religious beliefs and practices. Political posters provide one of the clearest examples of this successful strategy.

The Sacred and Literature

Antonio Barolini fra radicamento ed espatrio

This essay meditates on the poet Antonio Barolini’s movement “between two worlds” — Italy and America, yet also the sacred and the secular, as well as poetry and prose. For Valesio, Barolini teaches us to dwell in this liminal space with a certain lightness that he brings to bear on what is, increasingly, a dominant aspect of human experience.

"Divine Women" and the Poetry of Alda Merini

This essay examines the contradictory qualities of the divine throughout the works of Alda Merini. Contrary to claims that her work is uneven, ‘emotional,’ or lacking a theological acuity, I show that her exploration of the divine is original both in terms of concept and of poetics. Specifically, I propose first that Merini understands the divine as a chiasmus, whereby the embodied human is ‘ravished’ by God, but God too is ‘ravished’ by human flesh; second, I show that Merini experiences a uniquely feminine and modern version of the mystical ‘dark night’; finally, I discuss her double strategy for renewing poetic metaphor, whereby the flight into suggestive language typical of modern poetry is undercut by returns to the literal. I conclude that Merini’s poetry is a provocative clash between the immediacy and presentness of prayer, and the ironic vocation of modern poetry.

Donne al cospetto dell'angelo: il sacro come epifania del fantastico in Paola Masino, Elsa Morante e Rossana Ombres

This paper starts with a discussion of the female fantastic in order to investigate the presence and the function of the sacred in some fantastic works of fiction by Paola Masino, Elsa Morante and Rossana Ombres. These three women writers have different backgrounds, cultural references, and poetics, but practice the systematic reuse of symbols, images and vocabulary of the Jewish-Christian tradition, comparing them with a female subject. The sacred, in fact, as a word of ambivalent meaning referring to the sphere of the “absolutely other," approaches in many respects the Freudian concept of the uncanny and can be seen as the founding moment or the moving cause of the fantastic.

The reutilization of themes, images, and narrative patterns coming from the realm of the sacred allows women writers of the twentieth-century fantastic genre to be at the same time inside and outside the canon: namely, to overthrow the nineteenth-century tradition by identifying the uncanny not only with the destruction of the self but also with a moment of liberation, and at the same time to preserve the disturbing, potentially destructive and always dangerous nature of that liberation. The essay focuses in particular on how Paola Masino looks at the implacable deity of the Old Testament, in relation to the female figures that the writer features in their dual representational role of purity and abjection; on Morante’s short stories of the Thirties, where the Gospel and the rites of the Catholic liturgy bring out  deep impulses in young women in the transition from childhood to adulthood; and on Rossana Ombres’s Serenata, in which the theme of the Annunciation opens a space for the elaboration of childhood trauma and the exploration of the individual and collective repressed content.

Beheading the Son: Muhammad and Bertran de Born in Inferno 28

In recent years, partly because of the current political resonance of the relationship between Islam and the West, significant attention has been paid to the disturbing portrait of the prophet Muhammad in Inferno 28 and, more broadly, to the issue of Dante and Islam. In this essay I analyze Dante’s depiction of Muhammad in relation to its theological framework, arguing that the Muslims’ rejection of the dogma of the Trinity, which constitutes the central source of doctrinal dissension between Islam and Christianity, allows us to establish a link between Muhammad and Bertran de Born, the other main character in the gallery of sowers of discord presented in Inferno 28. As both sinners severed the tie between father and son, the former breached the principle upon which the unity of the Church is founded, whereas the latter violated the norm that undergirds the dynastic legitimacy of a kingdom. In contrast with Bertran’s and Muhammad’s language of division, Dante conceives his work as a vessel for peace and reconciliation between secular and spiritual authorities.

From Kohelet/Ecclesiastes to Montedidio: The Rest of the Story

Erri De Luca's literal translation and interpretation of the Book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet reveals unique characteristics that shed light on this unusual author's opus in general and on the 2001 novel Montedidio in particular. The concept of "hevel" and its translation as "spreco" (waste) morphs in the pages of Montedidio into a discourse on the nature of writing and on language. The city of Naples, like Jerusalem "a city of blood", becomes a sacred vessel of sorts, which at its shattering on New Year's Eve gives birth to the book Montedidio as a leftover for the reader to use lest it should turn into "spreco." The writing of Montedidio is developed along horizontal and vertical coordinates at the intersection of which the novel takes shape. Its reading is informed mostly by Walter Benjamin, including the notion of "pure language." De Luca's voice can best be heard among those that conditioned what Yuri Slezkine called "the Jewish century."

Leon Battista Alberti e la parodia sacra: la predica di Ecatonfilea

Ecatonfilea di Leon Battista Alberti può essere interpretata come una predica parodica. Il contributo si concentra soprattutto sugli aspetti formali della ripresa parodica del sacro nell’Ecantonfilea, senza approfondire la (eventuale) presenza della parodia sacra in altre opere albertiane. Dopo un analisi dei rapporti che il testo intrattiene con le altre opere amatorie di Alberti e con il modello di riferimento omiletico (la forma del sermone, la presenza/assenza di exempla e di auctoritates, le tecniche retoriche) viene valutata la funzione di Ecatonfilea in quanto parodia del sermone all’interno del sistema delle opere erotiche albertiane, per concludere con alcune osservazioni sul significato della parodia sacra in relazione alla concezione della religione e dell’amore femminile in Alberti. Intrepretare Ecatonfilea come ripresa parodica di un genere sacro permette di spiegarne alcuni tratti formali come l’impianto precettistico, lo sviluppo delle parti in cui è diviso il testo, il ruolo delle allusioni e delle fonti, l’imitazione dell’oralità, l’inserzione degli inserti autobiografici in funzione di exemplum più che di racconto psicologico. Con l’uso della parodia, inoltre, si vede come Alberti riesca a muoversi nel sistema dei generi a sua disposizione caricandoli di nuove funzioni: la ripresa della forma del sermone si unisce alla voce femminile per trattare il tema erotico in modi diversi, ma non indipendenti, rispetto a quelli tentati nelle altre opere amatorie; la parodia introduce un elemento di distanziamento ironico che si riflette sulla lettura complessiva del monologo, che deve essere interpretato non in modo univoco, ma ricordando che i piani del serio e del comico si sovrappongono e che Ecatonfilea non è una figura a cui prestare ciecamente fiducia.

The Gods Which Are Not: Religious Boundaries and Exchange in Boccaccio’s Il Filocolo


The medieval tales of Floire and Blancheflore have long been seen as representing the permeable borders of the medieval Mediterranean, particularly between Islam and Christianity.  Despite this prevalent critical view, Boccaccio’s Filocolo, the fullest treatment of the tale in a medieval Italian vernacular, has principally been studied in relation to the author’s borrowings from Roman authors and to his later works. This essay traces the instabilities in the rhetoric of representation that govern Boccaccio’s idealized Mediterranean space, arguing that Boccaccio’s romanzo is governed by a Christianized periodization represented in the process of conversion.  Yet by utilizing the Roman pantheon as agents in the plot, this program of conversion instead reproduces the ambivalence of the sacred—at once both holy and unclean. Rather than presenting a world that is ever moving toward Christian homogeneity, Boccaccio reproduces rather than negates the instability of borders in the medieval Mediterranean.