Italy Research Trip, Pt. 1

Hello everyone. I thought now would be the right time to pen my next blog post, considering I am two weeks in to my research trip in Italy. I arrived in Sulmona, Italy, on the 27th of May, where I am renting an apartment for a little while, before setting off for Pescara for another week. Sulmona is a small city in the middle of the Peligna Valley in the densely mountainous, but sparsely populated, region of Abruzzo. Abruzzo is an obvious choice for the purposes of my thesis, because it exemplifies the phrase “off the beaten path.” Although the region was not entirely cut off from outside influences (the road to Bari and the Holy Land overlapped with Abruzzo’s easternmost border on the Adriatic coast), this highly, indeed most mountainous region in Italy outside of the Alps, remained in many ways relatively “untouched” throughout time. There is still, for instance, strong devotion to S. Domenico of Sora (d. 1031), whose cult features clear links with pre-Roman telluric cults, particularly that of the goddess Angitia, strongly associated by the central Italic tribes with snakes. Thus, every first of May the town of Cocullo, located less than twenty kilometres to the west of Sulmona, celebrates the feast of S. Domenico, in which a statue of the saint is ceremoniously paraded around town to the delight of the faithful; with one difference: Domenico’s statue is completely covered in live snakes during the event, which slither continuously around the statue’s head and upper torso, contributing further to the heightened hypnotic atmosphere of the feast.

The region of Abruzzo then, was certainly what I had most in mind when coming up with the topic for my thesis. Upon arrival in Sulmona, I admittedly got off to a slow start. This was my first time ever seriously entering an archive for research, and it was quite daunting. I began at the Archivio di Stato dell’Aquila (Sezione di Sulmona), where some kind archivists found for me a whole bunch of pertinent secondary source material, which I ended up simply snapping photos of for later use. I did not get to consult any medieval primary sources at the Archivio di Stato, simply because they didn’t have any – a sad realization that I was very quickly made aware of. That said, I was able to access a published version of the (extant) entirety of Sulmona’s municipal statutes in the sixteenth century, which are now all photographed and ready for my consultation. A cursory glance reveals a lot to be said about food and drink legislation (this is Italy, after all), and very little to do with religion. Nonetheless, I look forward to going through these in detail and hopefully finding something relating to a saint’s cult, say for example, legislation regarding the lighting of candles at shrines.

In terms of secondary sources, the archivists provided me with quite a few works on S. Peter of Morrone (d. 1296), the hermit saint turned pope, turned prisoner, whose reputation as the last pope to resign until Benedict XVI has overshadowed the saint’s popularity as a worker of miracles in the Peligna Valley. Peter of Morrone, the archivists explained, is the logical point of departure for an inquiry such as mine. The extant documentation surrounding not only his life, but his post-mortem cult, is one of the richest for the later medieval period in Abruzzo. There exists, in particular, a process of canonization from the year 1306, still preserved in Sulmona’s Archivio Capitolare della Cattedrale di S. Panfilo. Unlike most saints, Peter of Morrone was one of only hundreds in the Middle Ages to be the subject of official investigation aimed at declaring or not declaring, the sanctity of an individual on behalf of the Church of Rome. In order to arrive at a conclusion, local people needed to be interviewed, and it is this process that fills the majority of the pages of the document. “What kinds of miracles has Peter worked in your life?” The people of the Peligna Valley answered and their responses (albeit mediated through the clerical scribes) were recorded.

1306 canonization process of Peter of Morrone (d. 1296).

If you look closely, you can see the name of a witness on the left page, where the next entry begins (a certain Jacobus de Pacentro). Pacentro is a small village in the mountains near Sulmona, where roughly six hundred years after the creation of this document, three of my own grandparents would be born and raised in the early twentieth century.

 I look forward to going through this document in detail at a later time. It will shed valuable light on aspects of the Abruzzese “culture of sanctity”, by highlighting the ways that both clerics (through the questions asked) and lay people (through the answers provided) understood and experienced the cult of saints. It will also be an indicator of the extent to which Peter’s cult made its way into the towns and villages of the Peligna area, as each witness is named and their place of origin noted by the scribe. Perhaps here there is even the possibility to do some mapping. More on that in future.

I have also, thus far, had the opportunity to see some beautiful works of medieval art. This first group comes from the Museo Diocesano di Arte Sacra, which I visited one day when the diocesan archives were closed.

A fourteenth-century statue of S. Catherine of Alexandria (d. according to legend, early fourth century) from Pescocostanzo, Abruzzo.
Fifteenth-century statue of S. Blaise (d. 316) from Campo di Giove, Abruzzo.
Fifteenth-century Madonna and Child from Campo di Giove, Abruzzo.
Fifteenth-century Crucifix from Sulmona, Abruzzo.
1501 depiction of SS. John the Evangelist, Paul, Peter, and John the Baptist from Scanno, Abruzzo.

The one thing that stood out to me here regards the look of the works themselves. In particular, while observing the statue of S. Blaise and the Crucifix, I was struck by something curious. If you are standing in front of one of these two art pieces and you begin to lose focus, suddenly you may find yourself abruptly brought back to attention because you “glimpsed” the statues in slight movement. I noticed this a few times, at first unexpectedly, and then after while purposely testing it out. I believe it has to do with the fact that these statues are built in a way that suggests movement and thus, to the unsuspecting spectator, can give the illusion of real movement, if only for less than a second. In the case of the Crucifix, Christ’s eyes are left slightly open, giving the impression that they are in fact in the process of closing. The mouth too, is open, prompting us to imagine the sounds that would have come out of Christ’s mouth in his final moments. Thus, the fifteenth-century Crucifix “shows” Christ’s death as it actually happened. Indeed, Christ on the cross is neither alive nor dead, but permanently cast in a state of liminality, between life and death. It is not far-fetched, I believe, to suggest that this dynamic no doubt may have led medieval people to “see” the statue in motion, to see the death taking place, especially during a time of heightened religious fervour or spiritual ecstasy, perhaps the kind of Margery Kempe (d. after 1438). In addition, S. Blaise’s statue, which, like the Crucifix, is fifteenth-century, also clearly gives the impression of movement with the saint’s outstretched arms. This realization made me immediately think about Caroline Walker Bynum’s book Christian Materiality (2011), which discusses transformation miracles in the later Middle Ages, one of which was the ability of artwork to “come alive”. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if Bynum could have drawn more attention to the art works themselves and their inherent ability (or not) to give the illusion of movement. This is certainly what I have noticed in the two fifteenth-century works of art just mentioned, and it is something that could be paired with Bynum’s thorough attention to late medieval notions of matter and transformation.

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