Roman Brixia

Brescia is well known for its wealth of Roman remains due to the unique urban development of the town after the demise of the Roman Empire. The original nucleus of the settlement at the foot of the Cidneo hill became crown property under the Lombards in the 8th century and was largely occupied by a religious foundation. Medieval Brixia expanded to the west around watercourses that came in handy as Roman aqueducts and sewers went out of use.

 

Later the area became available again and a number of fine town houses were built on top of the Roman remains, with frequent use of spolia. The Roman street grid was largely respected: today's Piazza del Foro is the same shape and size as the Roman forum. At its north end, the creatively reconstructed Capitolium (open Tues–Sun 9–5.30,10.30–7 in summer; entry fee) with its three cellae, one each for Juno, Jupiter and Minerva, its podium and monumental steps, dominates the scene. All around the piazza, the Renaissance houses are known to have Roman remains in their cellars; the archaeological trail at Palazzo Martinengo on the west side of the square is an excellent introduction to the complex archaeology.

 

Recently a couple of new venues have been opened to the public. In the forum itself, one cella of the Republican Temple is now accessible. It had been known for some time that the Capitolium (1st century AD) was not built on virgin soil. Two earlier buildings had been identified. The Republican Temple (1st century BC) had been levelled and backfilled to make way for the new structure willed by the emperor Vespasian. In the process Rome took the decision to stamp out any localism. The four cellae of the Republican Temple (three for the Capitoline Triad, one for a local deity) were reduced to three for the Capitoline Triad only. The local deity was completely obliterated: its name is now not even known. Its cella, however, is the one that has survived best and is now open to the public. The statue of the deity may be missing from its podium at the far end but the loss is largely compensated for by vivid painted decoration (illustrated above) with sumptuous dadoes imitating fanciful breccia marble underscored by elegant drapery. The floor is the finest mosaic, stark white with a black band, made of minute tesserae. Fluted columns are either trompe l'oeil or brick covered in painted stucco. Higher up on the wall, the grave and the drain belong to the Lombards. Further up a 17th-century building (Casa Pallaveri) obtrudes on the area. It is this stratification that has preserved the cella while at the same time making its display a technical challenge.

 

At the south end of the forum, part of the Roman Basilica (the legal and commercial heart of the town), over time incorporated in a later building, can now be visited (Mon–Fri 9–12). The entrance is in Piazza Labus (whose name celebrates a local 19th-century antiquarian and epigrapher). You can see immediately how much the street level has risen: over three metres. From the short bridge you can admire in situ the outer flooring made of thin slabs of imported marble arranged in a geometric design with contrasting blue-grey and white panels. Inside, in what is now the cellar, and was originally the ground floor, the flooring is the same pattern but the colour scheme is reversed. All around are the finds connected with the excavation of the area showing its development from the 5th century BC, with Attic pottery possibly obtained via Etruscan connections, through to its incorporation into the Roman forum; later, after the basilica lost its marble cladding and its roof, squatters moved in while earth and refuse accumulated. Towards the end of the 1st millennium AD, part of the basilica was a burial ground. It was the incorporation of the surviving elements of the south façade of the basilica into the so-called Palazzo d'Ercole around the 17th century that preserved it for us. In spite of its name, though, the new building was hardly a palace, with poky rooms and a dearth of decorative elements except for the painted terracotta ceilings.

 

Skipping the Roman theatre east of the Capitolium (it was hopelessly spoliated by the building of a Renaissance palace on top of it, now in part demolished), you can end your tour at Portici X Giornate 51. Here, at the back of an optician's shop (Vigano'-Salmoiraghi), a substantial stretch of Roman urban road is accessible to the public. It is wide enough for two vehicles and the paving blocks are just enormous: you can't fail to be impressed. All you are missing is the din of the populace and the screeching of the waggon wheels.

by Paola Pugsley, author of Blue Guide Crete and e-guides to Turkey.

The new Museo degli Innocenti

The long-awaited new museum of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Piazza Santissima Annunziata in Florence finally opened last month. Its most famous works of art, the enamelled terracotta medallions which Andrea della Robbia added in 1487 to Brunelleschi's portico in the piazza, are currently exhibited at eye level since their restoration. The babies in swaddling clothes in roundels about a metre in diameter are wonderfully made, all ten of them with outstretched arms but each with highly individual expressions. The swaddling bands of the boys are unravelled. This is a unique chance to see these masterpieces close up, as it is planned to return them to their original positions outside.

 

The museum space has been expanded into the basement of the building where the history of this remarkable Institute is clearly recorded (also with the help of video installations). Opened in 1445, it was the first foundling hospital in Europe, where destitute mothers could take their babies (leaving them at a special window under the portico, without being seen) The babies were then given out to wet-nurses, and when weaned could return to live here. The orphanage was recognised in later centuries as one of the most up-to-date institutions of its kind. One of the most touching parts of the museum is a room where cupboards have been installed with 140 little drawers which you can open one by one to see the identification tags left with the babies by their mothers in the hope that one day they would be able to be reunited with them. These anonymous 'messages' take the form of jewels, keepsakes, notes, pieces of cloth, rosary beads, coral, etc., and all of them were carefully preserved in the Archive of the Institute under the name of the child given to him or her when they entered the Innocenti.

 

On the ground floor is the exquisite 15th-century oblong cloister (derived from designs by Brunelleschi) next to the larger cloister decorated in the following century. The works of art are still exhibited in the long gallery once used as a day nursery on an upper floor. The masterpieces here are Luca della Robbia's white enamelled terracotta Madonna and Child and Domenico Ghirlandaio's painting of the Adoration of the Magi, which includes two of the "Innocenti" foundlings in the foreground. There is access to the roof terrace, once used for drying laundry and subsequently for the nurses and children to take the air, and now a delightful café. All the new stairs and constructions in the museum are in good taste (except perhaps for the golden entrance and exit in the Piazza).

 

Since the reopening of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo last year, the reopening of this museum is a significant event, demonstrating that Florence is now at the forefront of museum design.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence

13.07.2016
18:10

Wine guide wins prize

"Hungarian wine" by Rob Smyth has been awarded a special commendation in the OIV's prestigious prize for the best wine book published in the last year.

The OIV - l'Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin - is a Paris-based "a scientific and technical" intergovernmental body.

Hungarian wine: a tasting trip to the New Old World is a widely-appreciated approachable and comprehensive introduction to the wines and vines of Hungary.  The special commendation was issued in the OIV's category "Wines and Territories".

Jesters at the Court of the Medici

Front view of Bronzino's double portrait of the Medici court dwarf Baccio di Bartolo (1552).

A delightful small exhibition at Palazzo Pitti in Florence (until 11th September) of genre paintings and portraits from the mid-16th century to the early 18th illustrates the protagonists of the comic, sometimes bizarre side of court life in Florence in those years, which was otherwise locked away from public view. Visitors are asked to be prepared to see the ironic humour in the works displayed. The new director of the Gallerie degli Uffizi (which now includes all the museums in Palazzo Pitti), Eike Schmidt, plans this as one of a series of exhibitions of works from the gallery’s important deposits (which include some 1,200 paintings) that will give curators a welcome opportunity to study them and restore them. Schmidt gave due credit to the late Marco Chiarini, for many years director of the Galleria Palatina, for having planned the exhibition (the lovely small catalogue is dedicated to his memory). Schmidt also invited the President of the Italian association dedicated to those affected with achondroplasia (the condition which causes dwarfism) to speak at the opening and he gave a moving account of how 'diversity' can be equated with value.

 

The exhibition occupies a suite of rooms on the landing known as the Andito degli Angiolini, below the entrance to the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, and has excellent labelling together with some delightful quotes from the literature of the times, including Castiglione and Bernardo Ricci ('......everyone needs happiness and laughter'). It takes up just five well-arranged small rooms. The importance of comedy and laughter to the Medici is illustrated by the official court painter, Suttermans’s portrait of the court jester. There are also portraits of six jolly members of the ducal household in the servants' hall after a hunt; as well as a remarkable painting of two elderly peasant women, one holding a duck and one a basket of eggs, accompanied by a black page with a pearl earring (the label records that the names of all three of these people are known to us since they frequently appear in Ferdinando II's account books). Other well-known painters of the time whose works are included in the exhibition include Anton Domenico Gabbiani (a portrait of four Medici servants), Cesare Dandini (a young shepherd with a hornpipe) and Niccolò Cassano (two court jesters from Prince Ferdinando's inner circle dressed as huntsmen). But the most important painting is Bronzino’s well-known portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici's favourite dwarf, Baccio di Bartolo (ironically nicknamed after the giant Morgante), painted on both sides so seen both from front and back, and which includes extraordinary botanical details.

 

The exhibition also includes paintings by lesser-known masters such as Faustino Bocchi, who was at work in the late 17th century (a delightful, playful painting of dwarves bathing beneath huge passion flowers; and a queen riding a cat cheered on by a crowd of dwarves). There are also paintings by unknown artists, of which one of the most memorable is the portrait from the first half of the 17th century of a player of the ball game known as pallottola: the protagonist is shown dressed in magnificent breeches as he tosses the ball beneath his leg. Although not strictly related to the theme, the superb painting by Joseph Heintz the Younger entitled Orpheus in the Underworld has been included as it was owned by the Medici and shows the astonished young hero standing in a magical setting with creatures all around him in a performance which, as the label suggests, is reminiscent of a modern-day musical.

 

The exhibition extends into the Boboli Gardens, where the sculpture of the nude Morgante riding a tortoise is one of Florence's most famous statues (it is by Valerio Cioli and dates from around 1564; his statue of another dwarf, Pietro Barbino, made around the same time, can be seen in the Kaffeehaus, which has been opened specially for the exhibition). They are just some of the many statues of peasants, players and jocose figures which adorn the beautiful gardens behind Palazzo Pitti.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence.

02.06.2016
17:16

Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics

Photo by Hadley Kincade

Rising steep and craggy over Budapest from the west bank of the Danube is Gellért Hill, the best vantage point in the city. If you want to test the panorama photo function on your smartphone, this is the place to come. The Habsburgs were well aware of its commanding position too: after the suppression of the 1848 Hungarian revolution they built a citadel here, from which gun shafts pointed across the river into Pest to remind a rebellious population who was in charge. The Hungarians called it the Budapest Bastille and universally loathed it. Today its influence is benign. It is beloved by locals and tourists alike for its fine views.

 

Others besides the Habsburgs have been mindful of the hill’s supreme location. “It is here,” wrote the Panoráma Guide to Budapest in 1969, “at the southeastern corner of the old citadel, that Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strobl’s beautiful 29-metre-high Liberation Monument was erected in 1947. In the centre stands a female figure, a symbol of freedom, holding aloft the palm of victory and peace. Her silhouette can be seen from almost every corner of the city. Over the course of time this graceful sculpture has blossomed into a symbol. Small-scale copies of it can be found in offices and public buildings throughout the land.”

 

It’s all still true except for the name. The statue is now the Freedom Statue, evoking Liberty instead of “Liberation”, because the liberation in question was that of Hungary by the Soviets, the Allied troops who beat back the Germans and freed the city from Nazi rule in 1945 but brought a different tyranny in its stead. The Russian marshal Kliment Vorosilov was placed in charge of consolidating Communist control of Hungary and it was he who chose the sculptor, Kisfaludi Strobl (1884–1975), an artist known for statue groups composed of grandiose, monumental figures. Twenty years previously he had produced a memorial to the fallen of World War One for the city of Nyíregyháza, its central figure a muscular youth beating down a many-headed dragon with his bare fists. Strobl used the motif again for the Soviet memorial, but relegated it to a supporting role, placing a heroic nude dealing a death blow to the Hydra to one side. It was a good decision to leave it at the side, because this kind of bombastic allegory rings so horribly hollow. The stock hero standing for whatever he is required to stand for, defeating a stock embodiment of evil which can be equally flexibly interpreted. Posterity has chosen to ignore the allegorical side sculptures. It has also removed the pair of Soviet soldiers who flanked the Freedom statue and picked off the grateful inscription to the Soviet fallen. The statue is now dedicated to the memory of all who have given their lives for the independence, freedom and prosperity of Hungary. The central figure of the slender young woman reaching for the sky from her victor’s podium has remained constant, though, and her silhouette is as iconic as ever.

 

Budapest is one of the candidate cities hoping to host the 2024 summer Olympics. The Freedom Statue is its logo.

Annabel Barber

The Roman Forum Reconstructed

The Western Forum, with the Curia, Arch of Septimius Severus, Temple of Saturn and Tabularium.

Book review of Gilbert J. Gorski and James E. Packer, The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

 

It needed quite a lot of collaboration between kind friends before I could own a copy of this book. It is a lavishly detailed and illustrated study of the western end of the Roman Forum throughout its history, and is understandably pricey. One of the authors, James Packer, is a professor of Classics and an authority on the Forum of Trajan that adjoins the original Forum. He has excavated here and on the site of the Theatre of Pompey. His collaborator, Gilbert Gorski, is an architect who specialises in illustrating reconstructions. Between them they have produced a truly magnificent volume.

The area of the Forum they have chosen for their intensive study includes the Tabularium on the eastern slope of the Capitoline Hill, which still looks down on the valley with its original lower storey acting as a foundation for later medieval buildings. The furthest building to the east is the circular temple of the Vestal Virgins. On either side of the Via Sacra which runs through the Forum are two grand basilicas, the Basilica Julia on the south side below the Palatine and the Basilica Aemilia which is next to the Curia or Senate House. The Curia stands largely intact in the form in which it was rebuilt by Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century AD. This area encloses several temples, three triumphal arches, of which that of Septimius Severus (dedicated AD 202–3) is the most imposing today, and the rostra or speaking platforms.

 

Before discussing each building in detail, Gorski and Packer provide an architectural history of the Forum. From the start there are extensive reconstructions, notably, in the first chapter, vistas of the ensemble in its heyday. Panoramic fold-outs add to the luxury of the volume. This chapter covers the building types, techniques and materials from the reconstruction of the Forum by Augustus with an overview of his most important commissions. What is lacking is coverage of his other major projects outside this designated area, notably the Temple of Mars Ultor to the north. The authors can only give this a brief mention and so the wider study of Augustus’ vast building programme—82 temples in all are said to have been restored by him after the neglect of the late Republic—is inevitably limited.

 

Yet a broader history of imperial Rome is not the purpose of the book which benefits enormously from a focus that charts the evolution of a specific space over the centuries. The second chapter surveys the later reconstructions and restoration of the Forum until the end of the Empire. There were new buildings, such as the Temple to Antoninus and Faustina, begun by the emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 141 after the death of Faustina his wife, and complete by 150. Fire was a continual hazard. Often this gave scope for new building but by the time the Basilica Aemilia was completely destroyed during Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410, there was little incentive, or resources, to rebuild it. The city government closed off the ruins from sight with a brick wall, part of which still stands. Melted coins from the fire can still be seen in the basilica pavement. It was, surprisingly, the Ostrogoth Theodoric, then ruling from Ravenna, who restored some of the decaying buildings in the late 5th century. The statue of the Eastern emperor, Phocas, set up in 608 on an earlier column, is the last recorded monument of the ancient Forum.

 

The bulk of the volume examines each of the major buildings one by one. So there is a description of the site and its previous buildings before the new commission. In some cases texts or even inscriptions survive that honour the patron and the background to the decision to build. So Augustus celebrates the return of the standards captured by the Parthians with a small triumphal arch. His successor, Tiberius, uses the spoils of campaigns in Pannonia and Dalmatia to rebuild the Temple of Concord and grace it with Greek statuary. The temple is later used by the senators as an alternative meeting place to the Curia. The Portico of the Dei Consentes (honouring in its origins the gods of Olympus) was developed as a series of shops faced by the columned portico itself by a succession of emperors from Titus through to Hadrian in the 2nd century.

 

Overall the book is a triumph of digital reconstruction. Not least of its glories is the imaginative use of illustrations, coins that show the original buildings, fragments of the cornices or paving, earlier depictions of the ruins before they had vanished still further. Photographs show the interior of the Curia when it was the Baroque church of Sant’Adriano and a page displaying the various marbles gives a hint of the vanished opulence of the interiors. So generous are the illustrations that there is even room for alternative reconstructions; what kind of roof did the Temple of the Vestal Virgins have and did the Basilica Julia have a second-storey terrace or not? The final chapter concentrates on how visitors over the centuries would have seen the Forum as they entered it.

 

After all the bright, shining—and perhaps rather clinical— reconstructions, the end has to come. There is a final view from the late 6th century that shows the buildings still standing but the bronze chariots and horses from the triumphal arches have vanished. Grass is growing in their place and the pavements too are full of weeds. This melancholy scene is suitably backed by a thunderous sky.

 

Much survived into the Middle Ages with some buildings used as strongholds by one aristocratic faction or other. However the mass of stone or marble was too tempting for the popes. So Poggio Bracciolini records the Temple of Saturn in 1402 as ‘almost intact with fine marble work’. By the time he visited Rome again in 1447 ‘the Romans’ had taken the cella and part of the portico of the temple to the lime kiln, detached the columns and demolished the rest. Houses then filled the site as the rest of the Forum gradually silted up.

 

The frontispiece shows the view of the Forum from an opulently marbled pavilion in the Domus Tiberiana on the Palatine Hill. Two toga-ed Romans stand together scrutinising plans of what lies before them. They turn out to be our authors and who can deny that their intensive study and knowledge of the buildings entitle them to be honorary Roman citizens. Few of their forebears would have known as much about the centre of their city as they do. The have produced a sumptuous and informative book which I will treasure.

 

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.

Bernini's Beloved

With the new edition of the Blue Guide to Rome just off to press, it is time to catch up on new books to accompany it. I recently reviewed Richard Bosworth’s excellent Whispering City, Rome and its Histories for this site and now there are two more studies that have received widespread attention. Both are set in Rome at a time when it was ruled directly by the popes, both are the result of meticulous, even inspired, research in the archives and both focus on strong women. Yet what different women they are!

 

Costanza Piccolomini is perhaps best known as the mistress of Bernini, her face slashed on the orders of the enraged architect when he discovered she was also sleeping with his brother. She is the subject of one of his most striking busts, a wonderful work and explored here from every angle (it is now in the Bargello museum in Florence.) After the rupture with Bernini, Costanza was thought to have vanished from the record, but by assiduously ferreting through archives of every kind, McPhee revives the later life of a courageous and successful woman.

 

In contrast, there are the manipulations of Maria Luisa, a nun who made herself madre vicaria of the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome (the building was in the Piazza Mattei by the lovely Fontana delle Tartarughe). There is not much to redeem Maria Luisa as she uses her feigned spiritual prestige to seduce her fellow nuns and even to murder those who oppose her. It is only thanks to an opportune misplacing of the once-secret Inquisition files that the scandal can be told at all.

 

Costanza’s name was a grand one: the Piccolominis had produced popes and duchesses; but the impoverishment of her branch of the family meant that her name was all she had to cling to. She even had to be given a charitable dowry, a grant to keep young girls such as herself from a life on the streets. Yet her husband, Matteo Bonucelli, scultore, was a successful craftsman, a loyal member of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s team at St Peter’s and a restorer of antique sculpture. They married in 1632 when she was eighteen and he ten years older. McPhee uses birds-eye engravings of 17th-century Rome to show where they lived, and as her husband’s career prospered so did their homes. Their house, in today’s Vicolo Scanderbeg, close to the Trevi Fountain, boasted a grand doorway of travertine blocks, loggias overlooking a courtyard and a piano nobile more suggestive of a palace than an artisan’s home. Quite how Costanza managed her varied love life is unknown and one wonders whether Matteo acquiesced in the affair to please his formidable boss. Yet, quite apart from the scar left by the face-slashing, there was more for Costanza to suffer. She was hauled off by the papal police, the sbirri, as a donna dishonesta, and incarcerated in the Domus Pia, a home for ‘wayward’ women. Bernini was, apparently, fined 3,000 scudi, but then absolved by his patron, pope Urban VIII.

 

It is from the Domus Pia that we get the first evidence of Costanza’s spirit and accomplishments. She managed to compose a petition for her release addressed to the Governatore of Rome. It was written in her own hand—and it worked. She was released back into the care of her husband and they lived together for another fifteen years until his death in 1654 left her a widow at forty. Costanza could then have faded back into obscurity, but her husband’s flourishing business had left her many contacts and she was soon being addressed as Costanza scultora, buying and selling pictures to a clientèle that gathered around the new pope, Alexander VII. Costanza stayed on in the Vicolo Scanderbeg and descriptions show that its galleries and hallways were full of works of art on offer. Among her clients was the Duc de Richelieu, to whom she sold Poussin’s Plague of Ashdod for 1,000 scudi. It is now in the Louvre.

 

Moreover, she was not alone. A year after her husband’s death, Costanza gave birth to a daughter, Olimpia Caterina Piccolomini. The father is unknown but Costanza was especially close to the Abbé Domenico Salvetti, prefect of the Vatican Archives, and it was he who became guardian of the seven-year-old child when Costanza herself died in 1662. McPhee takes us on further and it is good to report that Olimpia herself flourished. She married twice, although she had no children, and was described as ‘Illustrissima’ at her own death in 1736, when the lengthy legal struggle over her inheritance provides McPhee with even more details of Costanza’s life.

 

This is a book that overflows with detail on life in Baroque Rome. McPhee takes excursions from the main text to talk about the best way of sewing up a scar (all too often a way of inflicting permanent humiliation) or the methods used to enforce the penitence of women. She discusses and follows through the fate of pictures and sculptures known to have belonged to Matteo and Costanza. Overall she provides a model of how the portrayal of a once-vanished life can be composed from meticulous work in the archives. The illustrations are particularly splendid.

 

The archives for the Inquisition inquiry into the goings-on in the convent Sant’Ambrogio were not as scattered as those of Costanza’s story but they had vanished as completely. They were found by chance by the German church historian Hubert Wolf in the Stanza Storica, a hall of the Archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in the Vatican. They took up six feet of shelf space but there was no logic to their placing and they did not seem any different from the mass of papers around them. Shelved there by mistake (or perhaps deliberately to conceal them), they showed that what sounded like an anti-clerical fantasy of misbehaving nuns was actually completely true.

 

The story begins with a German aristocrat, Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a widow who was accepted into the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in 1858. As a German of noble birth in an Italian community, she would always be an outsider, but within fifteen months she was clamouring to escape for very different reasons. There were secret rituals among the nuns from which she was excluded and she believed she was being poisoned. Luckily she had good connections and her cousin, who was in the circle of Pope Pius IX, managed to get her out and install her at his the estate, the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. Having collected her thoughts, she made a momentous decision: to write up a denunciation of the convent that she presented in person to the Roman Inquisition.

 

The convent had already had a troubled past. Its founder, Maria Agnese Firrao, had claimed to be a saint, the recipient of visions and miracles. There were many doubters, however, and her ‘false holiness’ had been formally condemned by the Inquisition in 1816. She had been removed to the seclusion of a convent in Gubbio where she had died in 1854. The convent in Rome, however, survived, but Katharina’s first accusation was that the nuns had continued to honour their founder as a saint. In other words they were defying the orders of the Holy Office. This required a full investigation.

 

The transcripts of the intrusive and persistent  interviews that followed gradually reveal the full scale of a far wider scandal. It centred on a beautiful nun, Maria Luisa, who had manipulated herself into the positions of novice mistress as well as vicaress, the deputy to the abbess, by the age of 24. Messages of support from the Virgin Mary were taken on trust by the credulous electors and Maria Luisa went on to use these to encourage sexual intimacy with her novices as a form of initiation. Whenever doubters protested, the direct commands of the Mother of God to Maria Luisa were used to overcome their hesitations. There were even letters from the Virgin Mary, always written in bad French, to back up the vicaress’ demands.

 

At a time when a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment was leading to a renewed emphasis on the reality of miracles, it was easy for Maria Luisa to attract into her bed the confessor to the convent, the Jesuit Joseph Kleutgen, who ten years before had written a scholarly book on the importance of miracles. All too readily he accepted that she needed special protection of a physical kind that allowed him to disregard the clausura, the sealing off of the nuns, and spend the night in Maria Luisa’s cell.

 

Then there were the attempts to poison other nuns, not just the German Katharina but those who saw through Maria Luisa and recognised what was going on. There were probably three deaths that could be attributed to her, all involving the symptoms of poisoning. The letters from the Virgin Mary foretold the deaths of nuns who had offended the Mother of God by their sins of pride.

 

As Maria Luisa’s guilt was revealed and condemned by the interrogators, the Inquisition did everything it could to keep the scandal secret. The supervision of the convent by its confessors had failed completely but this could hardly be admitted. The convent was closed down, ostensibly on the grounds of the misplaced veneration of its foundress. Maria Luisa was sent to a penitential cell and gradually disintegrated into mental breakdown. The confessors who had been so easily deceived by her were reprimanded and virtually nothing but vague rumour remained. The story was forgotten until Wolf’s opportune discovery, and as a result the frankness and scope of the confessions come all the more as a shock.

 

Although The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio will be read by many for its salacious details, it tackles fascinating questions of religious experience. The campaign to restore the miraculous into the centre of Catholic life had made it imperative to evaluate the visions that isolated nuns (or, in the case of Lourdes, the young girl Bernadette) claimed to have experienced. In Maria Luisa’s case the stories were fabricated, but all too readily believed, thus allowing her to achieve spiritual power over others. Who dares to challenge the Virgin Mary, especially when she write letters? Even to this day the Church finds it impossible to deal with her many appearances and the impassioned messages of despair over the troubled world that she passes on to favoured members of the faithful.

 

Wolf does not forget that he is a serious church historian and The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio is also an analysis of the workings of the Inquisition within the papal government. Once it took on a denunciation, its methods were rigorous but fair and it was persistent questioning that led to the breakdown and confessions of the participants in the scandal. The punishments were mild—after all, Maria Luisa was guilty of three cold-blooded deaths by poisoning—but it was the overall demands of secrecy that conditioned much of the outcome. If there had not been an aristocrat with influential connections at hand, the goings-on might never have been exposed. In the hot-air atmosphere of papal Rome in the 1850s, when power struggles and intrigue permeated the government of the Church and city, who knows what was going on elsewhere? We can only await more lucky finds in the archives.

 

Sarah McPhee, Bernini’s Beloved, A Portrait of Costanza Piccolomini (Yale University Press, 2012); Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio, The True Story of a Convent Scandal, English translation by Ruth Martin (Oxford University Press, 2015). Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and contributor to the forthcoming new edition of Blue Guide Rome (spring, 2016).

15.01.2016
09:41

Blue Guide Paris on Amazon

We're not 100% sure the folks in Amazon Fashion have read the new Blue Guide Paris from cover to cover ... but they clearly know a good-looking guide book when they see one:

(blueguides.com/paris)


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