Deferring to a later chapter a consideration of the faith of the people and the morals of the clergy, let us note two contrasting features of Christian life in fourteenth-century Italy: the Inquisition and the saints. Fairness requires us to remember that the great majority of Christians then believed that the Church had been instituted, and that her basic doctrines had been laid down, by the Son of God; hence—whatever might be the faults of her human personnel—any active movement to overthrow her was rebellion against divine authority as well as treason against the secular state of which the Church was the upholding moral arm. Only with this thought in mind can we understand the ferocity with which Church and laity joined in suppressing the heresy preached (c. 1303) by Dolcino of Novara and his comely sister Margherita.
Like Joachim of Flora, Dolcino divided history into periods, of which the third, from Pope Sylvester I (314–35) to 1280, saw the gradual corruption of the Church through worldly wealth; since Sylvester (said Dolcino) all the popes except Celestine V had been unfaithful to Christ; Benedict, Francis, and Dominic had nobly tried to win the Church back from Mammon to God, but had failed; and the papacy had now, under Boniface VIII and Clement V, become the harlot of the Apocalypse. Dolcino made himself the head of a new fraternity, the “Apostolic Brethren of Parma,” who rejected the authority of the popes, and inherited a medley of doctrines from the Patarines, the Waldenses, and the Spiritual Franciscans. They professed absolute chastity, but each man among them lived with a woman whom he called his sister. Clement V ordered the Inquisition to examine them; they refused to appear before the tribunal; instead they armed themselves, and took up positions at the foot of the Piedmontese Alps. The inquisitors led an army against them; bloody battles were fought; the Brethren retreated into mountain passes, where they were blockaded and starved; they ate rats, dogs, hares, grass; at last their mountain stronghold was stormed, a thousand fell fighting, thousands were burned to death (1304). When Margherita was led to the stake she was still so beautiful, despite emaciation, that men of rank offered her marriage if she would abjure her heresies; she refused, and was slowly consumed. Dolcino and an associate, Longino, were reserved for special treatment. They were mounted on a cart and were paraded through Vercelli; during this procession their flesh was torn from them bit by bit with hot pincers; their limbs and genitals were wrenched from their bodies; finally they were allowed to die.26
It is pleasant to turn from such barbarism to the continuing efficacy of Christianity in inspiring men and women to saintliness. The same century that saw the tribulations and corruptions of Avignon produced missionaries like Giovanni da Monte Corvino and Oderic of Pordenone, who tried to convert the Hindus and Chinese; but the Chinese, says a Franciscan chronicler, clung to the “error that any man could be saved in his own sect.”27 Unwittingly these missionaries contributed less to religion than to the science of geography.
St. Catherine of Siena was born, lived, and died in a modest room still shown to visitors. From that foot of earth she helped to move the papacy, and to revive in the people of Italy a piety that has survived Rinascita and Risorgimento alike. At fifteen she joined the Order of Penance of St. Dominic; this was a “tertiary” organization, composed not of monks or nuns, but of men and women living a secular life, yet dedicating themselves as much as possible to works of religion and charity. Catherine dwelt with her parents, but she made her room almost an anchoritic cell. lost herself in prayer and mystical contemplation, and hardly left her home except to go to church. Her parents were disturbed by her preoccupation with religion, and feared for her health. They laid upon her the heaviest drudgery of the household, which she performed without complaint. “I make a little corner apart in my heart for Jesus,” she said,28 and maintained a childlike serenity. All the joy, doubt, and ecstasy that other girls might derive from “profane” love Catherine sought and found in devotion to Christ. In the growing intensity of these solitary meditations she thought and spoke of Christ as her heavenly lover, she exchanged hearts with Him, saw herself, in vision, married to Him; and like St. Francis she thought so long about the five wounds of the Crucified that it seemed to her that she felt them in her own hands and feet and side. All temptations of the flesh she rejected as the wiles of Satan to withdraw her from her one engrossing love.
After three years of almost solitary piety she felt that she could safely venture into the life of the city. As she had devoted her womanhood to Christ, so she devoted her maternal tenderness to the sick and needy of Siena; she stayed to the last moment with the victims of plague, and stood in spiritual consolation beside condemned criminals until the hour of their execution.29 When her parents died and left her a modest patrimony, she distributed it among the poor. Though she was disfigured by smallpox, her face was a blessing to all who saw her. Young men at her word abandoned their wonted blasphemies, and older men heard with melting skepticism her simple and trusting philosophy. All the evils of human life, she thought, were the result of human wickedness; but all the sins of mankind would be swallowed up and lost in the ocean of God’s love; and all the ills of the world would be cured if men could be persuaded to practise Christian love. Many believed her; Montepulciano sent for her to come and reconcile its feuding families; Pisa and Lucca sought her counsel; Florence invited her to join an embassy to Avignon. Gradually she was drawn into the world.
She was horrified by what she saw in Italy and France: Rome filthy and desolate; Italy divorcing itself from a Church that had deserted to France; a clergy whose worldly living had forfeited the respect of the laity; a France already half ruined with war. Confident in her divine mission, she denounced prelates and pontiffs to their faces, and told them that only a return to Rome and to decency could save the Church. Herself unable to write, she, a girl of twenty-six, dictated stern but loving letters, in her simple and melodious Italian, to popes, princes, and statesmen; and on almost every page appeared the prophetic word Riformazione.30 She failed with the statesmen, but she succeeded with the people. She rejoiced when Urban V came to Rome, mourned when he left, lived again when Gregory XI came; she gave good advice to Urban VI, but was shocked by his brutality; and when the Papal Schism tore Christendom in two she was among the first casualties of that incredible conflict. She had reduced her meals to a mere mouthful of food; she carried asceticism so far, said legend, that the consecrated wafer received by her in communion was her only nourishment. She lost all power to resist disease; the Schism broke her will to live; and two years after its outbreak she passed away, aged thirty-three (1380). To this day she is a force for good in the Italy that she loved only next to Christ and the Church.
In the year (1380) and city of her death St. Bernardino was born. The tradition of Catherine molded him; in the plague of 1400 he gave his days and nights to caring for the sick. Having joined the Franciscans, he set the example of obeying the strict rule of the Order. Many monks followed him; with these he founded (1405) the Observantine Franciscans, or Brethren of the Strict Observance; and before he died three hundred monastic communities had accepted his rule. The purity and nobility of his life gave an irresistible eloquence to his preaching. Even in Rome, whose population was more lawless than that of any other city in Europe, he drew criminals to confession, sinners to repentance, and habitual feudists to peace. Seventy years before Savonarola’s Burning of the Vanities in Florence, Bernardino persuaded Roman men and women to throw their playing cards, dice, lottery tickets, false hair, indecent pictures and books, even their musical instruments, into a giant funeral pyre on the Capitol (1424). Three days later a young woman accused of witchcraft was burned on the same square, and all Rome crowded to the spectacle.31 Saint Bernardino himself was “a most conscientious persecutor of heretics.”32
So the good and the evil, the beautiful and the horrible, mingled in the flux and chaos of the Christian life. The simple folk of Italy remained contentedly medieval, while the middle and upper classes, half drunk with the long-cellared wine of classic culture, moved forward with a noble ardor to create the Renaissance, and modern man.
Fig. 1—GIOTTO: Flight into Egypt; Arena Chapel, Padua PAGE 22
Fig. 2—SIMONE MARTINI: The Annunciation; Uffizi Gallery, Florence PAGE 35
Fig. 3—LORENZO GHIBERTI Doors of the Baptistery; Florence PAGE 91
Fig. 4—DONATELLO: Crucifixion, wood; Santa Croce, Florence PAGE 95
Fig. 5—DONATELLO: David, bronze; Bargello, Florence PAGE 93
Fig. 6—DONATELLO: Annunciation, sandstone; Santa Croce, Florence PAGE 95
Fig. 7—LUCA DELLA ROBBIA: Madonna and Child, terra cotta; relief over a portal of the Badia, Florence PAGE 97
Fig. 8—DONATELLO: Gattcmielata; Padua PAGE 94
Fig. 9—MASACCIO: The Tribute Money; Brancacci Chapel, Florence PAGE 100
Fig. 10—FRA ANGELICO: The Annunciation; San Marco, Florence PAGE 102
Fig. 11—FRA FILIPPO LIPPI: Virgin Adoring the Child; Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin PAGE 105
Fig. 12—ANDREA DEL VERROCHIO: The Baptism of Christ; Uffizi Gallery, Florence PAGE 131
Fig. 13—DOMENICO GHIRLANDAIO: Portrait of Count Sassetti(?) and Grandson; Louvre, Paris PAGE 130
Fig. 14—SANDRO BOTTICELLI: The Birth of Venus; Uffizi Gallery, Florence PAGE 137