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  • Proibito capire: La Chiesa e il volgare nella prima età moderna
  • Anne Jacobson Schutte
Proibito capire: La Chiesa e il volgare nella prima età moderna. By Gigliola Fragnito. [Saggi, 640.] (Bologna: Società Editrice il Mulino. 2005. Pp. 325. €23,00 paperback.)

In this tough-minded book, Gigliola Fragnito revisits the subject addressed in her well-known monograph La Bibbia al rogo (1997): the post-Tridentine Church's successful campaign to ban the Bible in the Italian vernacular. During the intervening eight years, the landscape of sources available for studying this and many other facets of the Counter-Reformation has altered dramatically. The opening in early 1998 of the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of [End Page 286] the Faith has enabled scholars to explore what remains of the Congregation of the Holy Office's holdings, as well as the relatively complete archives of the Congregation of the Index and the Inquisition of Siena. They have produced an avalanche of publications that promise to transform our understanding of the framing of policy in Rome and efforts to implement it across the Italian peninsula and beyond—a topic highly relevant to assessments of the Church's impact on Italian society over the long term. Naturally, most of this work is in Italian. Its transformative potential will be realized only if more historians master that "minority" language and at least some Italian historians' publications are issued in translation.

While conducting research for her 1997 book, Fragnito was given extraordinary access to a few documents of the Congregation of the Index (established in 1572). In this one, she has been able to use the full range of extant materials produced by that body and its elder sister, the Congregation of the Holy Office (founded in 1542), two groups of which are especially important. Minutes of the congregations' meetings reveal what problems the cardinal-members dealt with and how they resolved them. The minutes also yield abundant evidence buttressing a contention enunciated before 1998 by Fragnito and Massimo Firpo: that from the mid-sixteenth century on, the Congregation of the Holy Office managed to impose its intransigent agenda not only on the Congregation of the Index but also on successive popes. Correspondence between members of the two congregations and inquisitors and bishops throughout Italy illuminates the extent—enormous in some instances, more limited in others—to which the center was able to implement its vision of "orthodoxy," shaped mainly by the Inquisition, on the periphery. In addition, it provides some taste of ordinary lay Christians' reactions to the Church's initiative.

Proibito capire is not merely a revised version of La Bibbia al rogo. Fragnito documents much more fully the prohibition (fully in place by 1605) of vernacular Holy Scripture in every conceivable form: editions of the entire text, one or the other Testament, a single chapter, groups of Psalms; versified versions; lectionaries containing the pericopes for every day of the liturgical year (except editions containing the Dominican Remigio Nannini's commentary). She considers many other genres of vernacular religious publication condemned by the Roman authorities to confiscation and burning. These include historical and dramatic treatments of Biblical material, lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary, such classics of spirituality as The Imitation of Christ, litanies, collections of prayers, and works of controversy designed to confute both Protestant and Jewish "errors."

This censorial campaign, Fragnito persuasively argues, resulted from a conscious decision taken in Rome to deprive Italians in all social classes of direct access to the primary sources of their faith in the vernacular, and thereby to render them completely dependent on clerical intermediaries (many of them ill prepared to preach and teach). Its immediate and long-term cultural and political consequences were drastic. For centuries, practically the only vernacular [End Page 287] religious text that lay people and nuns were allowed to read, study in school, and commit to memory was the catechism. By no coincidence, when political unification came about in 1871, only 10% of those living in the new Kingdom of Italy possessed an essential requisite for citizenship: ability to read the national language.

Anne Jacobson Schutte
University of Virginia


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pp. 286-288
Launched on MUSE
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