- La Vita e i Sermoni di Chiara Bugni Clarissa Veneziana (1471–1514) Edited by Reinhold C. Mueller and Gabriella Zarri
In this wonderful volume, Reinhold Mueller and Gabriella Zarri have provided carefully edited documents detailing the life and actions of the famous Franciscan beata Chiara Bugni, plus a set of studies about her life, her teachings, and her bio-hagiographers. The contents of the volume have deep roots, as the key primary document—the Vita of Bugni by the Observant friar Francesco Zorzi (1466–1540)—was edited in 1990 by Stefania Cavalli, then under the guidance of Zarri and others. Soon after, a small team began analyzing not just various versions of the Vita but also Bugni’s “sermons” and another life of Chiara composed by an anonymous fellow nun. All these texts are included in the Libro della beata Chiara, a manuscript composed between 1562 and 1563 that appears in the present volume. The team also investigated the physical, religious, and intellectual context in which Chiara lived and then shared findings at a conference organized by Zarri in 2008.
To describe the primary texts as “fascinating” would be an understatement. Every historian interested in female devotional experience in the early modern period will want a copy of this book. Whereas the primary documents may provide a heroic and idealized portrait of Bugni, they simultaneously supply a good deal more. They are a window into devotional traditions of the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth century, and the lengths to which contemporary spiritual authors would go in maintaining them. We learn more than just the story of Chiara’s conversion to a religious life of self-imposed austerity and strict penance, predictably after hearing a sermon that inspired her. We hear also about the fabulous prodigies [End Page 603] demonstrated over the course of her convent life, her visions, her oozing stigmata, her subsistence on the Eucharist, and her mystical marriage with Christ, following the typology of spiritual heroism identified in predecessors (like St. Catherine of Siena), contemporaries (like Camilla Battista da Varano), and successors (like Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi). In addition, Zorzi revealed something of his own commitments to Marian devotion and of his determination to spread the fame of Chiara and of her monastery of San Sepolchro in Venice.
Some might find the droplets of blood from her stigmata the key to fascination with Chiara. Once preserved on a linen handkerchief, after all, they apparently possessed the power to heal demoniacs, plus those suffering with headaches, toothaches, and even herpes. Others may be more impressed with the content and significance of the exhortations she apparently delivered as abbess at San Sepolchro. Chiara’s subjects included charity, patience, humility, obedience, and preparation for a holy death. All are studded with scriptural quotations; and in some, she took on the voice of Jesus himself, exhorting them to “love one another as I have loved you”(p. 247). These exhortations constitute further reason to expand the list of late-medieval and early-modern women considered in possession of valuable teachings and to recognize that some contemporary males highly prized that value.
Essays by members of the analytical team precede the primary texts, and they are excellent. There are pieces on the Vita and its construction by Simone Rauch, on the Latin version of that composition by Giacomo Della Pietà, on the church and convent of San Sepolchro by Matteo Ceriana, plus a prosopographical contribution covering the persons named in the Vita by Mueller. Zarri’s thirty-nine-page essay in the front matter, on Chiara and Zorzi, is an added bonus. This fine volume, which will surely provoke much discussion, deserves a wide readership.