The Medieval Review 12.09.07

Nocentini, Silvia. Verdiana da castelfiorentino: Contesto storico, tradizione agiografica e iconografia. Toscana sacra. Florence: SISMEL Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2011. Pp. x, 176. 95 EUR. ISBN 978-88-8450-411-1. . .

Reviewed by:

Mary Doyno
Princeton University
mdoyno@Princeton.EDU

In this third volume of the Toscana Sacra series, Silvia Nocentini brings together three excellent essays and an extensive documentary appendix dedicated to exploring the emergence and growth of the cult of the thirteenth-century Tuscan holy woman Verdiana of Castelfiorentino (d. 1242). Identified by Anna Benvenuti (who contributes an essay here) in her ground breaking work on female sanctity in late medieval Italy, In castro poenitentiae, as one of the Tuscan "servant-saints," Verdiana was born to poor peasants within the Florentine contado and came around the age of 12 to the town of Castelfiorentino to work as a domestic servant. [1] After embarking on pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela and Rome, Verdiana returned to Castelfiorentino, where she spent the next 34 years living as a recluse in a cell attached to the church of St. Antony Abbot. A cult dedicated to Verdiana grew during her lifetime as both the Castelfiorentines and those stopping in the Tuscan town as they made their way down the Via Francigena could catch glimpses of this laywoman's penitential rigor through a small window in her cell. After her death, the discovery of two snakes who had lived with Verdiana in her cell and had helped increase her commitment to mortifying her flesh buttressed her penitential reputation and became a key part of her iconography.

In the first and most extensive essay, "Verdiana: la storia di un culto," Benvenuti begins by noting what hagiographic sources can (and cannot) tell us about Verdiana's early life. Extending her earlier work on the Tuscan "servant-saints," Benvenuti pieces together a portrait of Verdiana by comparing her vitae with the vitae of such other Tuscan holy women as Zita of Lucca (d. 1278), Giovanna of Signa (d. 1307), and Cristiana of Santa Croce (also known as Oringa Menabuoi, d. 1310). Each of these women left their peasant families at a young age to work as domestic servants in cities, where they found penitential callings. And like Verdiana, several of these women illustrated their dedication to delivering charity to the poor and needy of their cities by performing food multiplication miracles that made use of their masters' resources to feed their fellow city-dwellers. Moreover, several embarked on ambitious pilgrimages, either alone or in the company of other women, before returning to the city and living the rest of their lives as mulieres incarcerate, enclosed in cells attached to churches or city gates. [2] Benvenuti wonders about the extent to which the similarities in these women's spiritual programs and paths stand as evidence that their hagiographers were working to adhere to a particular model of female sanctity. Moreover, she pays particular attention to how each of these vitae use moments of rupture, when the women acted in ways that pushed against the confines of their sex and social status, to stake out the beginning of their spiritual journey and the first evidence of their saintly charisma.

After making comparisons between Verdiana's story and the stories of other thirteenth-century female Tuscan lay saints, Benvenuti pieces together the religious and political circumstances influencing the growth of Verdiana's cult from immediately after her death until well into the seventeenth century. As Benvenuti points out, like so many other contemporary patron saints did for their own towns, Verdiana served as a potent symbol in the Castelfiorentines' efforts to establish an independent political and religious identity in the context of the growing power of Florence.

In the second essay, "Il dossier agiografico di Verdiana da Castelfiorentino," Silvia Nocentini offers an immensely valuable survey of the hagiographic dossier dedicated to Verdiana. Noting that the hagiographic tradition for Verdiana began and had its most significant development in fourteenth and fifteenth century Florence, Nocentini writes that the arrival of the cult of Verdiana in Florence did not occur because she seemed to represent a new kind of sanctity or form of religious life but simply because her fellow Castelfiorentines had carried their interest in their patron with them to Florence. Moreover, as Nocentini adds, the spread of Verdiana's saintly reputation was also greatly aided by the growing flow of pilgrims who made their way through Castelfiorentino. Nocentini goes on to give extensive introductions to the five Verdiana vitae (Three Latin and two vernacular), composed between the mid-fourteenth century and the end of the fifteenth century, and ends with a detailed appendix outlining the major differences between the vitae.

In the final essay, "Una questione di 'habito' e di 'ordine': l'iconografica di Verdiana da Castelfiorentino," Raffaele Argenziano takes up the question of religious affiliation that surrounds the study of so many of the lay saints of late medieval Italy. Looking at a collection of 63 depictions (reproductions of which are included in the appendix) of Verdiana that begins with Ugolino di Nerio's c. 1320 panel portrait of the saint flanked by her serpent companions and ends with the 2010 panel painted by Silvio Zannelli for the Santuario di Santa Verdiana in Castelfiorentino, Argenziano documents the iconography used to depict Verdiana by focusing on the great variety of tertiary habits given to the saint (Vallumbrosan, Dominican, Franciscan, and Augustinian, to name a few). He concludes that because Verdiana has worn so many habits over the centuries, and thus, has been claimed by so many orders as one of their own, no one order has ever successfully appropriated her memory. As Argenziano points out, this serves as further evidence of the extent to which Verdiana's cult has remained circumscribed by its local context: Verdiana, Argenziano argues, is more a "country saint" than a "big-city patron."

In addition to these three rich essays, this study also provides an extensive appendix made up not only of reproductions of illustrations of Verdiana through the centuries but also of transcriptions of (in addition to valuable introductions to) the five vitae Nocentini presents in her dossier, and a manuscript stemma. Finally, there is a full bibliography and four indices.

Besides being a vital resource for the study of the development of Verdiana's cult, these three essays also serve as an effective reminder of how exploring the particular local dimensions of a saint's cult can help shed light on broader historical issues such as the transmission of hagiographic texts, the relationship between religious and political life, and the history of women and lay religious movements in the later Middle Ages. By offering scholars both the primary sources and critical apparatuses needed to write about this Tuscan laywoman's life and cult as well as the analytical frame to make sense of that documentary evidence, this study provides a model for studying local saints' cults and will be of interest to a wide ranging scholarly audience. Moreover, one can hope that such a collection of resources and analysis dedicated to one saint as this will serve as a model for the further study of the many other late medieval Italian laymen and laywomen who took up a penitential life and eventually earned cults celebrating them as new civic patrons. Such studies would be immensely valuable both in continuing to draw out the complex local dimensions of civic sanctity and in identifying that phenomenon's broader historical implications.

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Notes:

1. Anna Benvenuti Papi, In castro poenitentiae: Santità e società femminile nel'Italia medieval, Italia Sacra, vol. 45 (Rome: Herder, 1990).

2. I take the term mulieres incarcerate from André Vauchez, Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 195; Zita of Lucca did not live as a recluse but returned to work for the Fatinelli family in Lucca after her pilgrimages.