- Sacrilege and Redemption in Renaissance Florence: The Case of Antonio Rinaldeschi
In July 1501 Antonio Rinaldeschi, a Florentine descendant of a magnate family originally from Prato, spent an afternoon gambling in a tavern. Miffed at his losses, Rinaldeschi took out his frustration by hurling a handful of horse dung at a fresco of the Virgin Annunciate, known as the Madonna de' Ricci, which was located in a tabernacle alongside the church of Santa Maria degli Alberighi. A bit of the dung stuck to the picture, stark evidence of Rinaldeschi's crime of blasphemy. Rinaldeschi fled to a Franciscan convent in the countryside but was apprehended in a matter of days. A suicide attempt failed. He was brought back to Florence, interrogated by the Eight on Security, confessed, and was hanged from the windows of the Bargello the same night.
In 1998 William Connell and Giles Constable brought the case to the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 61, 53–92, where it attracted sufficient attention to justify updating, expansion, and republication as a discrete volume. The authors' three-chapter analysis is followed by presentation of written evidence, in the original and in translation, and visual evidence, both the surviving sullied fresco and a panel in the Stibbert Museum depicting the sequence of events in nine scenes (attributed by the authors to Filippo di Lorenzo Dolciati). The book's primary materials allow its classroom use, and the authors' studied consideration of the sources will serve as a fine example of historical scholarship for students.
Connell and Constable note that the panel painting turns the event into a struggle for Rinaldeschi's soul, won by angels who chase off the devils from the dangling body in the final frame. Antonio Rinaldeschi himself was "clearly a dubious character" (30) who had quarreled with his father, among other things. In the second chapter the reader will find a nice attempt to weigh the different offences Rinaldeschi's actions ranged against him: gambling (including other stories that parallel Rinaldeschi's), attempted suicide (usually treated sympathetically), and blasphemy and sacrilege, which seem to be the reason for the execution.
For those raised with and enjoying cherished freedoms of expression, the fact that Rinaldeschi's exasperated act of "free speech" was unhesitatingly branded as blasphemy and merited capital punishment can seem alarming. But in a world that has seen riots in outrage over novels and cartoons, notably in relation to Islamic beliefs, the episode in Florence in 1501 is also a salutary historical exercise. Connell and Constable decline to place the case in the context of Protestant iconoclasm, [End Page 853] which lay in the future. However, they do delve into the immediate Florentine context of Savonarolan-inspired iconoclasm. They argue that precisely at the moment Rinaldeschi chose to exercise his fastball — only three years after the prophet's death, with a shaky republic facing a dangerous adversary in Cesare Borgia — there was a resurgence of Savonarolan sentiment with the popolari led by Piero Soderini. Certainly, as they point out, concern to control streets and street corners was challenged by Rinaldeschi's foolish outburst. Savonarolan adherents served on the board assembled to protect the image defiled by Rinaldeschi. "Yet it would be a mistake," they warn, "to read the devotion to the Madonna de' Ricci as a phenomenon that was simply Savonarolan" (60). Weeping, sweating, bleeding images were common enough at the time, and they became the object of popular devotions. Immediately after the incident, the Madonna de' Ricci drew offerings. Tales of miracles arose. Soon an oratory enclosed the fresco, thus embodying ecclesiastical control. The authors also take note of the role of the Eight in the case, which thrust aside the jurisdiction of the foreign judge, the Podestà. The diminished importance of this figure was such that the very next year the office was abolished in favor of a new professionally staffed Ruota for civil cases, with criminal...