18.10.18, Field/Knox, Visions of Sainthood in Medieval Rome

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Katherine L. Jansen

The Medieval Review 18.10.18

Field, Larry F., trans, and Lezlie S. Knox and Sean L. Field, eds. . Visions of Sainthood in Medieval Rome: The Lives of Margherita Colonna by Giovanni Colonna and Stefania. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017. pp. 217. ISBN: 978-0-268-10202-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Katherine Jansen
Catholic University of America

Margherita Colonna, scion of the noble and influential Colonna family, died in the odor of sanctity in 1280. Though a number of her contemporaries, including two of her powerful brothers--one a Senator of Rome, another a cardinal--believed fervently in her holiness, Margherita was never officially enrolled in the calendar of saints in this period, but not because her cased lacked merit. Rather, by the late thirteenth century, official recognition of sainthood depended on a well-financed and orchestrated cause for canonization, championed by those with influence at the papal court. Ultimately, Margherita's cause for canonization never got off the ground because her family's political fortunes deteriorated rather dramatically during the relatively short but tempestuous pontificate of Boniface VIII, who was elevated to the holy see in 1294.

Only a decade or so earlier, however, the two Colonna brothers had begun to produce evidence of their sister's sanctity for a possible canonization bid, which, had it succeeded, would have burnished the family tree with the gilded glamor of sanctity. Toward this end, beginning around 1281, Senator Giovanni Colonna wrote a life of Margherita, informed by Cardinal Giacomo Colonna's fond recollections of his sister, which has come to be known as Vita I. Vita II, a supplement to Vita I, at least half of which is comprised of miracle accounts and visions attributed to the holy woman, was written by one Stefania, an intimate of Margherita, likely one of her early companions and subsequently possibly an abbess of San Silvestro in Capite, the monastery in Rome where Margherita's followers were eventually relocated after her death.

These two interlocking vitae, freshly and fluidly translated by Larry Field, and expertly annotated by Lezlie Knox and Sean Field, comprise the core of Visions of Sainthood in Medieval Rome. The volume also includes some bonus material in the form of papal bulls pertaining to the monastery of San Silvestro in Capite and Mariano of Florence's sixteenth-century account of the translation of Margherita's relics from Palestrina to Rome. All the texts are illuminated by an exemplary introduction that situates them in their manifold contexts: codicological, religious, gendered, hagiographical, and political (with regard to late medieval Rome), to name the most prominent of them.

An examination of the codicological context reveals that there is only one extant manuscript of the texts and it happens to contain both vitae. Now in the Biblioteca Casanatense, it was most likely copied at the Franciscan convent of San Silvestro in Capite in the fourteenth century. Following Livarius Oliger, who edited and published the manuscript in 1935, Knox and Field posit that Giovanni Colonna began the first vita in early 1281, soon after Margherita's death. Stefania's vita followed shortly thereafter. The interconnected texts were completed before 1292. That there is only one known manuscript suggests that Margherita's cult had not gained much purchase outside of her family and immediate followers in the years following her death.

Like so many other women of central Italy in the later medieval period, Margherita seems to have been improvising an uncloistered religious life based on the apostolic precepts of charity and poverty. The vitae of Margherita Colonna are important textual witnesses that demonstrate that Roman women were active participants in this widespread religious movement of lay people living apostolic lives of service. And like so many powerful males of the period, Margherita's brothers seem to have been made profoundly anxious at the prospect of their sister taking part in this "semi-religious" life. They appear to have tried and failed first to place her in the convent of Santa Chiara in Assisi; when that option did not materialize, they tried to found a monastery in Rome where she could live according to a rule and within the confinement of a walled cloister. Fortunately for Margherita, who had already forcibly rejected the marriage imperative of the lineage, both of these options came to naught. Instead, after cutting her hair to signify her purpose (and throwing it down a latrine for emphasis), she lived much of her life outside the city on her family's estates in Palestrina, surrounded by a few like-minded women, including Stefania, who dedicated themselves to works of charity. Although both lives represent Margherita as a visionary and ascetic, her life as a humble penitent and practitioner of the active life of charity is an equally important leitmotif woven throughout the two vitae.

In their analysis of the texts, Knox and Field find that the two authors used the hagiographical genre quite differently, though no doubt toward the same end: to serve as the centerpiece for an eventual cause for canonization. Whereas Giovanni's vita is intent on recounting Margherita's holiness as manifested by her visionary activity, Stefania's vita, on the other hand, is quite different in its scope. Though she imagines it as a supplement to Giovanni's text, it is more of a complete miracle catalogue that serves first of all to cement Margarita's reputation as a miracle-worker, but no less importantly spotlights her charitable activities.

One of the editors' most significant discoveries sheds light on Stefania's compositional technique. It turns out that Stefania was not shy about borrowing lengthy passages of other texts and importing them verbatim into her vita. These texts include most notably the canonization bulls of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Thus Stefania's vita not only argues the case for canonization but, as the editors wryly note, by using canonization bulls, it also deftly makes an attempt at "precanonizing" the saint (29).

Finally, Knox and Field do a particularly fine job of contextualizing the texts in the complicated political milieu of medieval Rome, the home to a number of competitive baronial lineages, the Colonna prominent among them. For students this is a particularly important piece of the puzzle for--as the editors make clear--the ambitions of the Colonna family, its political fortunes, and its relationship with successive popes impacted Margherita throughout her life and well beyond. It was particularly interesting to learn from the accompanying papal bulls that Boniface VIII's war on the Colonna reached all the way down to San Silvestro in Capite. After replacing Giacomo Colonna as protector of the convent, Boniface also removed Giovanna Colonna (Giovanni's daughter) as abbess, excommunicated the community, and withdrew many of its privileges (financial and otherwise), leaving it in precarious and straightened circumstances. Boniface's successor Benedict XI quickly reversed the sanctions against the Roman convent, returning it to its former position in society. It would be fascinating to know if any other later medieval evidence survives to show the Colonna renewing their efforts to open a case for the canonization of their saint under a more hospitable pope.

The Colonna quarrels with the papacy, of course, are now consigned to history. Indeed, Oddone Colonna ascended the papal throne as Martin V in 1417; Margherita herself was subsequently beatified in 1847; and the Colonna family continues to thrive even today, residing in the Palazzo Colonna atop the Quirinal Hill in Rome. Like most noble Roman families they serve the papacy, albeit in a ceremonial position. The current pontiff, however, is famously indifferent to the ceremonial aspects of the papal court; his priorities for the Church lie elsewhere. Like Margherita, who was a follower of Saint Francis, Pope Francis is concerned with alleviating the sufferings of the poor. Perhaps for this reason we may yet see the official canonization of a Colonna saint, one who models these ancient concerns for today's world.


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