Biography 26.4 (2003) 769-771
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Writing the life of a modern saint, especially one who seems peevish and demanding, poses exceptional challenges for the biographer. Rudolph Bell and Cristina Mazzoni confront these challenges head-on in telling the life story of the young Italian girl Gemma Galgani, the first person who lived in the twentieth century to be made a saint. The authors skillfully navigate the boundaries distinguishing biography from hagiography, especially when analyzing the dossier promoting Gemma's contentious canonization after she died of tuberculosis in 1903, at the age of twenty-five. In evaluating descriptions of Gemma's ecstasies recorded by sympathetic observers, the volume tackles important issues of source bias and historical veracity, which loom especially large when trying to make scholarly sense of the ineffable.
The authors' toughest challenge, however, is Gemma herself. In her last years, Gemma received special signs of spiritual grace in the form of stigmata and mystical visions. While these imprints of holiness formed the very stuff of medieval sainthood, in a modern age they more readily evoked medicalized notions of hysteria. Gemma's contemporaries wondered openly whether she was a saint, hysteric, or faker, or perhaps was simply mad. Complicating the picture were Gemma's manipulative tendencies, which made her seem less than saintly to some observers. Moreover, her sanctity failed to inspire intense, widespread devotion outside the small circle of Passionate priests who promoted her cause. How might we understand such an unlikely, unheralded saint, one whose very self seems conflicted and anachronistic? Even more pointedly, why is Gemma's life worth knowing about?
To address these biographical challenges, the authors devise a "transdisciplinary strategy" (xv) that allows them to draw on their respective expertise as historian and literary scholar in separate, individually authored essays. The resulting volume thus is more a collective than a collaborative endeavor, intriguing in its organization but lacking in structural power. Bell, a historian who has written extensively on aspects of sanctity from medieval to modern times, takes primary responsibility for establishing the context of Gemma's life and eventual canonization in May 1940. In the first chapter, he lays out the bitter conflicts between church and state that directed the birth of Italy as a nation-state in the late nineteenth century. Bell sketches the tensions wracking urban and rural elites in Lucca, the Tuscan town where Gemma grew up within a conventionally pious household of declining fortunes. Because Bell focuses on key episodes in Gemma's spiritual formation, such as her response to a life-threatening illness at age twenty, this [End Page 769] chapter gives us only a thin, disjointed historical backdrop whose abrupt shifts in chronology leave important gaps in our understanding.
Following this introductory chapter, the authors present Gemma in her own words. The "Lily of Lucca," as Gemma was later called, reluctantly obeyed her confessor's command to write a confessional autobiography covering her life until 1899, as well as a personal diary penned in summer 1900. Bell and Mazzoni render a real scholarly service by translating into English for the first time the complete Autobiography and Diary, along with select original letters and transcribed ecstasies written in summer 1902, which collectively form Part One of the volume. These are difficult texts to translate and interpret, given their unique blend of conventional religious tropes, unexpected petulance, and enraptured imagery. By showcasing each text in a separate chapter prefaced by an illuminating essay from Bell, the authors allow us to see clearly the arc of Gemma's spiritual maturation.
One of the most striking features of these autobiographical writings is the way Gemma constructs oddly intimate, familial relationships with various celestial beings. She refers to the Virgin Mary as "Mom" and addresses her favorite confessor, the Passionate priest Father Germano, using the familiar Tuscan word for "Dad." She enjoys a...