The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

by Jacob Burckhardt

translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878

Part Six


Strength of the Old Faith

If, apart from all that concerns the priests and the monks, we - attempt to measure the strength of the old faith, it will be found great or small according to the light in which it is considered. We have spoken already of the need felt for the Sacraments as something indispensable. Let us now glance for a moment at the position of faith and worship in daily life. Both were determined partly by the habits of the people and partly by the policy and example of the rulers.

All that has to do with penitence and the attainment of salvation by means of good works was in much the one stage of development or corruption as in the North of Europe, both among the peasantry and among the poorer inhabitants of the cities. The instructed classes were sometimes influenced by the same motives. Those sides of popular Catholicism which had their origin in the old pagan ways of invoking, rewarding, and propitiating the gods have fixed themselves ineradicably in the consciousness of the people. The eighth eclogue of Battista Mantovano, which has already been quoted elsewhere, contains the prayer of a peasant to the Madonna, in which she is called upon as the special patroness of all rustic and agricultural interests. And what conceptions they were which the people formed of their protectress in heaven. What was in the mind of the Florentine woman who gave 'ex voto' a keg of wax to the Annunziata, because her lover, a monk, had gradually emptied a barrel of wine without her absent husband finding it out. Then, too, as still in our own days, different departments of human life were presided over by their respective patrons.

The attempt has often been made to explain a number of the commonest rites of the Catholic Church as remnants of pagan ceremonies, and no one doubts that many local and popular usages, which are associated with religious festivals, are forgotten fragments of the old pre-Christian faiths of Europe. In Italy, on the contrary, we find instances in which the affiliation of the new faith to the old seems consciously recognized. So, for example, the custom of setting out food for the dead four days before the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, that is to say, on February 18, the date of the ancient Feralia. Many other practices of this kind may then have prevailed and have since then been extirpated. Perhaps the paradox is only apparent if we say that the popular faith in Italy had a solid foundation just in proportion as it was pagan.

The extent to which this form of belief prevailed in the upper classes can to a certain point be shown in detail. It had, as we have said in speaking of the influence of the clergy, the power of custom and early impressions on its side. The love for ecclesiastical pomp and display helped to confirm it, and now and then there came one of those epidemics of revivalism, which few even among the scoffers and the sceptics were able to withstand.

But in questions of this kind it is perilous to grasp too hastily at absolute results. We might fancy, for example, that the feeling of educated men towards the relics of the saints would be a key by which some chambers of their religious consciousness might be opened. And in fact, some difference of degree may be demonstrable, though by no means as clearly as might be wished. The Government of Venice in the fifteenth century seems to have fully shared in the reverence felt throughout the rest of Europe for the remains of the bodies of the saints. Even strangers who lived in Venice found it well to adapt themselves to this superstition. If we can judge of scholarly Padua from the testimony of its topographer Michele Savonarola, things must have been much the same there. With a mixture of pride and pious awe, Michele tells us how in times of great danger the saints were heard to sigh at night along the streets of the city, how the hair and nails on the corpse of a holy nun in Santa Chiara kept continually growing, and how the same corpse. when any disaster was impending, used to make a noise and lift up the arms. When he sets to work to describe the chapel of St. Anthony in the Santo, the writer loses himself in ejaculations and fantastic dreams. In Milan the people at least showed a fanatical devotion to relics; and when once, in the year 1517, the monks of San Simpliciano were careless enough to expose six holy corpses during certain alterations of the high altar, which event was followed by heavy floods of rain, the people attributed the visitation to this sacrilege, and gave the monks a sound beating whenever they met them in the street. In other parts of Italy, and even in the case of the Popes themselves, the sincerity of this feeling is much more dubious, though here, too, a positive conclusion is hardly attainable. It is well known amid what general enthusiasm Pius II solemnly deposited the head of the Apostle Andrew, which had been brought from Greece, and then from San

Maura, in the Church of St. Peter (1462); but we gather from his own narrative that he only did it from a kind of shame, as so many princes were competing for the relic. It was not till afterwards that the idea struck him of making Rome the common refuge for all the remains of the saints which had been driven from their own churches. Under Sixtus IV, the population of the city was still more zealous in this cause than the Pope himself, and the magistracy (1483) complained bitterly that Sixtus had sent to Louis XI, the dying King of France, some specimens of the Lateran relics. A courageous voice was raised about thin time at Bologna, advising the sale of the skull of St. Dominic to the King of Spain, and the application of the money to some useful public object. But those who had the least reverence of all for the relics were the Florentines. Between the decision to honour their saint, St. Zanobi, with a new sarcophagus and the final execution of the project by Ghiberti, ten years elapsed (1432-42) and then it only happened by chance, because the master had executed a smaller order of the same kind with great skill (1428).

Perhaps through being tricked by a cunning Neapolitan abbess (1352), who sent them a spurious arm of the patroness of the Cathedral, Santa Reparata, made of wood and plaster, they began to get tired of relics. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that their aesthetic sense turned them away in disgust from dismembered corpses and mouldy clothes. Or perhaps their feeling was rather due to that sense of glory which thought Dante and Petrarch worthier of a splendid grave than all the twelve apostles put together. It is probable that throughout Italy, apart from Venice and from Rome, the condition of which latter city was exceptional, the worship of relics had long been giving way to the adoration of the Madonna, at all events to a greater extent than elsewhere in Europe; and in this fact lies indirect evidence of an early development of the aesthetic sense.

It may be questioned whether in the North, where the vastest cathedrals are clearly all dedicated to Our Lady, and where an extensive branch of Latin and indigenous poetry sang the praises of the Mother of God, a greater devotion to her was impossible. In Italy, however, the number of miraculous pictures of the Virgin was far greater, and the part they played in the daily life of the people much more important. Every town of any size contained a quantity of them, from the ancient, or ostensibly ancient, paintings by St. Luke, down to the works of contemporaries, who not seldom lived to see the miracles wrought by their own handiwork. The work of art was in these cases by no means as harmless as Battista Mantovano thinks; sometimes it suddenly acquired a magical virtue. The popular craving for the miraculous, especially strong in women, may have been fully satisfied by these pictures, and for this reason the relics been less regarded. It cannot be said with certainty how far the respect for genuine relics suffered from the ridicule which the novelist aimed at the spurious. The attitude of the educated classes in Italy towards Mariolatry, or the worship of the Virgin, is more clearly recognizable than towards the worship of images. One cannot but be struck with the fact that in Italian literature Dante's 'Paradise' is the last poem in honour of the Virgin, while among the people hymns in her praise have been constantly produced down to our own day. The names of Sannazaro and Sabellico and other writers of Latin poems prove little on the other side, since the object with which they wrote was chiefly literary. The poems written in Italian in the fifteenth and at the beginning of the sixteenth centuries, in which we meet with genuine religious feeling, such as the hymns of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and the sonnets of Vittoria Colonna and of Michelangelo might have been just as well composed by Protestants. Besides the lyrical expression of faith in God, we chiefly notice in them the sense of sin, the consciousness of deliverance through the death of Christ, the longing for a better world. The intercessiOn of the Mother of God is only mentioned by the way. The same phenomenon is repeated in the classical literature of the French at the time of Louis XIV. Not till the time of the Counter-Reformation did Mariolatry reappear in the higher Italian poetry. Meanwhile the visual arts had certainly done their utmost to glorify the Madonna. It may be added that the worship of the saints among the educated classes often took an essentially pagan form.

We might thus critically examine the various sides of Italian Catholicism at this period, and so establish with a certain degree of probability the attitude of the instructed classes towards popular faith. Yet an absolute and positive result cannot be reached. We meet with contrasts hard to explain. While architects, painters, and sculptors were working with restless activity in and for the churches, we hear at the beginning of the sixteenth century the bitterest complaints of the neglect of public worship and of these churches themselves.

It is well known how Luther was scandalized by the irreverence with which the priests in Rome said Mass. And at the same time the feasts of the Church were celebrated with a taste and magnificence of which Northern countries had no conception. It looks as if this most imaginative of nations was easily tempted to neglect everyday things, and as easily captivated by anything extraordinary.

It is to this excess of imagination that we must attribute the epidemic of religious revivals upon which we shall again say a few words. They must be clearly distinguished from the excitement called forth by the great preachers. They were rather due to general public calamities, or to the dread of such.

In the Middle Ages all Europe was from time to time flooded by these great tides, which carried away whole peoples in their waves. The Crusades and the Flagellant revival are instances. Italy took part in both of these movements. The first great companies of flagellants appeared, immediately after the fall of Ezzelino and his house, in the neighbourhood of the same Perugia which has been already spoken of as the headquarters of the revivalist preachers. Then followed the flagellants of 1310 and 1334, and then the great pilgrimage without encouraging in the year 1349, which Corio has recorded. It is not impossible that the Jubilees were founded partly in order to regulate and render harmless this sinister passion for vagabondage which seized on the whole populations at times of religious excitement. The great sanctuaries of Italy, such as Loreto and others, had meantime become famous, and no doubt diverted a certain part of this enthusiasm.

But terrible crises had still at a much later time the power to reawaken the glow of mediaeval penitence, and the conscience - stricken people, often still further appalled by signs and wonders, sought to move the pity of Heaven by wailings and scourgings. So it was at Bologna when the plague came in 1457, and so in 1496 at a time of internal discord at Siena) to mention two only out of countless instances. No more moving scene can be imagined than that which we read of at Milan in 1529) when famine, plague, and war conspired with Spanish extortion to reduce the city to the lowest depths of despair. It chanced that the monk who had the ear of the people, Fra Tomasso Nieto, was himself a Spaniard. The Host was borne along in a novel fashion, amid barefooted crowds of old and young. It was placed on a decorated bier, which rested on the shoulders of four priests in linen garments--an imitation of the Ark of the Covenant which the children of Israel once carried round the walls of Jericho. Thus did the afflicted people of Milan remind their ancient God of His old covenant with man; and when the procession again entered the cathedral, and it seemed as if the vast building must fall in with the agonized cry of 'Misericordia!', many who stood there may have believed that the Almighty would indeed subvert the laws of nature and of history, and send a miraculous deliverance.

There was one government in Italy, that of Duke Ercole I of Ferrara, which assumed the direction of public feeling, and compelled the popular revivals to move in regular channels. At the time when Savonarola was powerful in Florence, and the movement which he began spread far and wide among the population of Central Italy, the people of Ferrara voluntarily entered on a general fast (at the beginning of 1496). A Lazarist announced from the pulpit the approach of a season of war and famine such as the world had never seen; but the Madonna had assured some pious people that these evils might be avoided by fasting. Upon this, the court itself had no choice but to fast, but it took the conduct of the public devotions into its own hands. On Easter Day, the 3rd of April, a proclamation on morals and religion was published, forbidding blasphemy, prohibiting games, sodomy, concubinage, the letting of houses to prostitutes or panders, and the opening of all shops on feast days, excepting those of the bakers and greengrocers. The Jews and Moors, who had taken refuge from the Spaniards at Ferrara, were now again compelled to wear the yellow O upon the breast. Contraveners were threatened, not only with the punishments already provided by law, but also 'with such severer penalties as the Duke might think good to inflict.' After this, the Duke and the court went several days in succession to hear sermons in church, and on the 10th of April all the Jews in Ferrara were compelled to do the same. On the 3rd of May, the director of police, Zampante, sent the crier to announce that whoever had given money to the police-officers in order not to be denounced as a blasphemer, might, if he came forward, have it back with a further indemnification. These wicked officers, he said, had extorted as much as two or three ducats from innocent persons by threatening to lodge an information against them. They had then mutually informed against one another, and so had all found their way into prison. But as the money had been paid precisely in order not to have to do with Zampante, it is probable that his proclamation induced few people to come forward. In the year 1500, after the fall of Lodovico il Moro, when a similar outbreak of popular feeling took place, Ercole ordered a series of nine processions, in which there were 4,000 children dressed in white, bearing the standard of Jesus. He himself rode on horseback, as he could not walk without difficulty. An edict was afterwards published of the same kind as that of 1496. It is well known how many churches and monasteries were built by this ruler. He even sent for a live saint, the Suor Colomba, shortly before he married his son Alfonso to Lucrezia Borgia (1502). A special messenger fetched the saint with fifteen other nuns from Viterbo, and the Duke himself conducted her on her arrival at Ferrara into a convent prepared for her reception. We shall probably do him no injustice if we attribute all these measures very largely to political calculation. To the conception of government formed by the House of Este, this employment of religion for the ends of statecraft belongs by a kind of logical necessity.