Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy. – Review

Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy. – Review – book reviews

Rudolph M. Bell

By Michael P. Carroll (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. xiii plus 275pp. $39.95).

Notwithstanding a humble introduction, wherein the author claims the good service of bringing lesser known and untranslated Italian research to light, a closer look suggests that familiarity with recent Italian scholarship only marginally accounts for Carroll’s most important conclusions.

Veiled Threats proceeds directly from his 1992 book, Madonnas that Maim. Both titles aptly herald explorations into the ambiguous relations between pious Italians and their wonder-working statuary. Madonnas with child, especially if they are lodged in some infrequently visited rural roadside tabernacle or hidden by a black veil, yearn for adoration. They bleed, cry, radiate light, and move their eyes so that astounded onlookers will venerate them and spread the word. The faithful who come to see and who believe are rewarded with earthly favors while those who mock or who behave disrespectfully are blinded, paralyzed, or killed.

Readers with mind-sets ready for applications of psychological theory to whole nations of people will find much to consider. In his earlier work, Carroll used Melanie Klein’s theory that infants splinter the image of the bad breast during the paranoid-schizoid position to explain Italian devotions to madonnas and saints. “Do I really mean to imply that a defense mechanism used (if Klein is correct) during the first six months of life can affect the structure of religious belief among adults? Yes, I do.” (p. 148) In Veiled Threats, Kleinian theory disappears, replaced by reports from historians Christiane Klapisch-Zuber (1985) and James B. Ross (1974), both unmentioned in Madonnas that Maim, that the “vast majority of middle- and upper-class children in Florence were being handed over to balie, or wet nurses, within a few days of birth.” (p. 238) Richard Trexler’s work on a few hundred foundlings (1973) is then exploded to add masses of poor infants to the horde of deprived babies, a geographic leap of faith turns Florence into Italy, and a chronological stretch translates the 1400’s into five centuries since the Reformation, all in support of the following conclusion.

In summary, then, we know that the practice of sending urban infants to rural wet nurses was widespread for most of the modern period and involved infants from all levels of urban society. In addition, there are several reasons for believing that this practice gave rise to frustrating oral erotic experiences, both for the infants turned over to balie and for the infants born to balie. This means that the widespread use of balie could have contributed significantly to a fixation at the oral stage, which under the hypothesis being offered here gave rise to a cognitive predisposition toward incorporation and merging that seems to underlie popular Catholicism in Italy. (p. 242)

Pious Italians act upon their repressed infantile frustrations by trading veneration for favors – with madonnas, saints, and just about any collection of old bones and skulls. Even their screaming and falling to the ground as they approach a sacred object are re-enactments of childhood tantrums. (How millions of non-believing Italians cope with their psychological needs is never discussed.) This form of genuine popular Catholicism flourishes because the Magisterium, beginning with the Council of Trent and continuing until today, is willing to overlook any heresy so long as it makes money, or at least does not lose money, and threatens no schism. The people lead and the leaders follow, even among Protestants. Maybe John Calvin adopted iconoclasm because the crowds loved to smash statues, not the other way around. And if you’re looking for a lively essay topic for that Western Civilization final exam, ask students to chew over this one: “[The] poor, exploited balie of Italy may have exerted as much of an influence on the outcome of the Reformation in Italy, and the shape of popular Catholicism in Italy, as Luther, Calvin, the Italian evangelicals, and De Rosa’s reforming bishops together.” (p. 246)

Carroll’s wide-ranging opinions are always clear. He finds little of use in the work of microhistorians, field anthropologists who spend a long time in one place, and historians who read and cite caches of primary documents buried in archives and rare book rooms. Those he faults, sometimes quite disparagingly, include John Boswell, Carolyn Bynum, Gabriele De Rosa, Carlo Ginzburg, Jacques Le Goff, and Donald Weinstein. All these scholars work from top-down sources or explore deviancy while failing to appreciate the innovative centrality of genuinely popular religious practices. Carroll observes his true believers and wondrous objects during quick visits: an hour or so in the heat of August at a sanctuary in Palermo dedicated to beheaded souls or a day in Nocera Terinese on Holy Saturday to witness pairs of scourgers splatter their blood, vinegar, and wine all over the village. Citations of written documents often have a similarly fleeting and scattered quality about them.

Both visual and written evidence – of great interest despite the eclecticism – are then imaginatively presented in a narrative driven by old-fashioned anticlericalism of a kind that indeed may be special to Italy. Living in such close proximity to high prelates seems to breed cynical contempt for them. Carroll dedicates both Madonnas that Maim and Veiled Threats to the memory of Giordano Bruno, burned alive in Rome in 1600 by the Roman Inquisition as much for his tendentious disrespect for authority as for his actual doubts about madonnas and saints. “Martyrdom complex” crossed my mind more than once in trying to understand Carroll’s work.

Moreover, comparisons with Catholic practices elsewhere failed to convince me that the religious behavior in question is unique to Italy. That Italians like their madonnas seated con bambino while Mexicans and Bosnians venerate madonnas who stand alone, if true, or even if untrue, is a study to be written after careful research, not asserted from impressionistic anecdotal evidence. The very term “Italian” seems anachronistic when forced to cover areas as distinct as Calabria and Piedmont over five hundred years.

Big issues aside, there are lots of wonderful details here on forked-tongue bishops, pious believers, and avenging statues. Their reportage strikes me as accurate, and they are easily detached from both the book’s psychoanalytic theoretical framework and its iconoclasm.

Rudolph M. Bell Rutgers University

COPYRIGHT 1998 Carnegie Mellon University Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group