Professor Paul Diffley

title.none: Luongo, Saintlly Politics (Professor Paul Diffley)

identifier.other: baj9928.0806.002 08.06.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Professor Paul Diffley, University of Exeter,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Luongo, F. Thomas. The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. 233. $39.95 978-0-8012-4395-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.06.02

Luongo, F. Thomas. The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. 233. $39.95 978-0-8012-4395-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Professor Paul Diffley
University of Exeter

The aim of Professor Luongo's study is to "return Catherine to her history, showing her emerging sanctity as bound to the social and political tensions of a particular moment, a process more complex than the terms of her historical reputation" (3). Professor Luongo reacts against two trends: first, the hagiographical tradition established early on by Catherine's spiritual guide and confessor Raymond of Capua; and secondly, recent work on models of female sanctity in the late Middle Ages as developed by Caroline Walker Bynum and others. Instead, this study emphasizes the interesting ways in which Catherine crossed traditional boundaries, moving beyond the limitations of female sanctity into the realm of male politics and history. The principal instrument of such "mobility" was the Catherinian letter (there are 382 letters in all); and it makes excellent sense for Professor Luongo to concentrate his attention on the letters as well as on Raymond of Capua's hagiography (the so-called Legenda maior), the contemporary account of her life and work up to 1374 (I miracoli di Caterina), and other archival material gleaned by Professor Luongo mainly in Siena.

After a substantial introduction, the study follows a broadly chronological pattern. Chapter 1 ("Catherine's Vocational Years: Wordliness and Female Sanctity") examines her early life up to her entry into the third-order Dominican Mantellate in 1364-65. Here new light is shed on her family background, her relationship with her parents, and the nature of her early calling. Chapter 2 ("Catherine Enters Tuscan Politics: Networks and Letter Writing") looks at the beginning of her public career under the supervision of Raymond of Capua, and it shows well how, through her use of the epistolary form, Catherine maintained a network of influence well beyond the confines of her gender, social class, and geographic location. Chapter 3 ("Niccolò di Toldo and the Erotics of Political Engagement') analyses the famous letter to Raymond of Capua in which Catherine describes in ecstatic terms the succour she gave to a young man (possibly guilty of a political crime) before and during his public execution. Chapter 4 ("Catherine's Sienese famiglia: Pious Networks and Political Identities"), perhaps the most satisfactory chapter, brings together much research to build up an intriguing picture of Catherine's chosen family of followers. The final chapter ("Prophetic Politics: Catherine in the War of Eight Saints") follows Catherine's political activities in her final years from 1375 to her death in 1380. The Conclusion draws together the main threads. There is some overlap of material, particularly in the Introduction and Chapter 5, and there are times (towards the end of Chapter 2 for instance) when the chronology and dates are hard to follow.

More importantly, the study raises several problems of methodology. One such problem is attributable to the use of Raymond of Capua's highly stylized biography as a target of criticism. Clearly, Raymond concentrated on Catherine's female sanctity at the expense of her political and historical activities; but is it still necessary, more than 500 years on, to provide a rebuttal of Raymond's hagiographical work? A reading of the biographical article on Catherine in the Dizionario biografico degli Italiani (1979) is enough to show that no one still relies--nor have they for some time relied--on Raymond of Capua for a realistic and balanced portrait of Catherine; and a certain amount of work has been done on Catherine's relationship to the political and historical realities of her times. The question today is not so much whether Catherine was political, but rather what kind of a political animal was she? She has been accused (though not by all critics) of naivety and inefficacy in her political missions; and it would have been good to have more critical and historical evaluation of her achievement in her dealings with the Papacy, the Crusade movement, and Tuscan politics. With this I also note the absence from the bibliography and notes of the following relevant works on Catherine as a political figure: P. Brezzi, "L'azione politica di S. Caterina da Siena nella storia del suo tempo," in Inquadramenti storici, Quaderni Cateriniani IX (Rome, 1975), pp. 7-29; N. M. Denis-Boulet, La Carrière Politique de Sainte Catherine de Sienne (Paris, 1939); E. Jourdan, "Sainte Catherine de Sienne--homme d'état?" Revue des études italiennes, 3 (1938), pp. 93-114; P. Misciatelli, "Caterina Benincasa: l'attività politica," in Mistici senesi (Siena, 1913), pp. 132-61.

Professor Luongo does, however, bring together in one volume an impressive quantity of secondary sources and material. But it is a little frustrating that there is no systematic definition and discussion of the terms of the book's subject. Thus, while the terms "spiritual" and "political" tend to appear as antithetical in the Introduction and early chapters, in Chapter 4 (125) we come across what should have appeared right at the start, namely a definition of terms: "There is abundant reason to question the categorical distinction between religious identity and political commitment in general" and "The distinction between the 'spiritual' and the 'political' was at least problematic, if not meaningless." Inevitably, this welcome problematization of the terms of the debate, coming as it does late on, tends to undermine what has gone before. Equally, it might have been more enlightening at the outset to set the terms "spiritual" and "political" in the context of the medieval debate on Church and Empire. As it is, Professor Luongo's verve and energy in the quest for insights into the "real" Catherine may lead to unjustifiable claims. For example, in his reading of the Niccolò di Toldo letter in Chapter 3, amongst much that is thought-provoking and convincing, the interpretation of the episode as a sexual-cum-political ecstasy for Catherine may seem farfetched. This is the case in Professor Luono's suggestion that "given medieval medical understanding of semen as blood, the mixing of Catherine's and Niccolò's blood might be read as a description of sexual intercourse" (p. 99, n. 26), and in his eccentric translation of "Io voglio!" as "I want it!" (p. 100), spoken by Catherine as she catches Niccolò's head from the scaffold. Here "Io voglio!" simply means "I will" (it cannot mean "I want it!") and is uttered by Catherine in acquiescence to God's will as the repentant sinner dies. The further insistence on the role of male and female genital imagery in Professor Luongo's reading of the episode goes beyond what the letter of the text can bear; and the attempt to suggest Catherine's dependence on the text of the Stimulus amoris by the pseudo-St Bonaventure seems on the evidence unconvincing (though that evidence fully support Caffarini's dependence on it).

A further problem arises for the reader of this book over the text and translation of Catherine's letters and the Miracoli. Professor Luongo makes liberal use of these works, quoting many passages in Italian (in the footnotes) and in English translation (in the body of the text). In the absence of a critical edition of the letters, he wisely opts for the most recent Italian edition (that by Antonio Volpato, on CDROM, published in 2002) and provides his own translations (see pp. 12-13). However, on examination, Professor Luongo's Italian texts differ in many small details from Volpato's. Altogether there are more than ninety such discrepancies spread across the study: for instance, the book's first quotation (2) contains 13 errors (including the omission of the phrase "a loro"), the quotation on p. 87 contains 11 errors, and the quotations on p. 97 contain 7 errors, and so on. Though numerous, these are however minor blemishes, as are the moments of imprecision in the translations.

More serious are misunderstandings in the translation. Space permits a selection of examples from the letters. The first comes at the beginning of the study. When Catherine states that she will pray and weep "quanto Dio mi darà la grazia" she means not "that much more grace God will give me" (1) but as long as God gives me grace. When she writes that she persuaded Niccolò di Toldo to take communion, which she discovered he had not taken "mai pi," she means that he had never taken it rather than that he had not taken it "in some time" (99). On the same page, she writes of Niccolò to Raymond of Capua as "colui che vi sapete," meaning not "one whom you know" (99), but him you know about. In her warning to the Sienese signori that "tutte l'altre cose pare che Dio sostenga pi che la ingiuria gli scandali e le infamie che sono poste a' suoi servi" she means it seems that God tolerates everything except injury, scandal and infamy perpetrated on his servant, but Professor Luongo's version misses the force of the construction pare che, the use of the subjunctive, and the function in the sentence of ingiuria: "for all other things make it clear that God feels more deeply when scandals and infamy are lodged against his servants" (184). "Pigliare dispiacere" means take offence and not "take it out on [someone]" (188); "fuste partito" means you had departed and not "he had departed" (192; the use of the Voi form here might in fact be interpreted as an interesting Freudian slip on Catherine's part), and the conjunction "ché" (used in modern editions, including Volpato's) always means for or since: thus, "ché grande vergogna e vituperio è" means for it is a great shame and injury and not the exclamatory "What a shame and disgrace it is" (87; cf., for the same mistake, pp. 56, 84, 162, 164). Another problem arises with Catherine's use of the subjunctive mood: her wish that "la verità sia quella ache mi scusi" (meaning may the truth be what excuses me) is made altogether into a more arrogant thought on Catherine's part in Professor Luongo's version "The truth is what will excuse me" (188). Similarly, there are passages from the Miracoli where the Italian is a problem. I give one example. In front of Catherine's house in Siena there appear on a cart "due malfattori che s'andavano attanigliando le loro carni" which Professor Luongo glosses as two condemned men who "were tortured by having their flesh cut with pincers" (116) while in fact the scene is of two wrongdoers who were tearing into each other's flesh.

Inevitably, these problems of transcription and translation lessen the force of this study. In addition to faulty transcriptions from the Italian texts, there are more than a dozen misprints and a fair number of inaccurate references (the quotation from Karen Scott on page 12, n. 21 should refer to pp. 107-108 (not p. 113); the reference to the Miracoli on p. 27, n. 7 should not refer to chapter 14 while the reference to the same work on p. 44, n. 53 should be to chapter 14 and not to chapter 16, etc.). The title of Jean de Roquetaillarde's work as published in Switzerland in 1994 is Secretorum eventuum; and Celso Cittadini (1553-1627) was not an eighteenth-century Sienese archivist (32) but a notable Sienese philologist of the Renaissance.