La Bibbia Al Rogo: La Censura Ecclesiatica E I Volgarizzamenti Della Scrittura (1471-1605)

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La Bibbia al rogo. La censura ecclesiastica e i volgarizzamenti delta Scrittura (1471-1605). By Gigliola Fragnito. (Bologna: Il Mulino. 1997. Pp. 345. Lire 38.000.)

Italian bishops proclaimed 1997 the "year of the Bible" and enjoined their flocks to read the Scriptures with fervor. They expressed their unease at the fact that the Bible, although widely diffused in Italy, was probably among the least read books. Their proclamation followed Pope John Paul II's call to all Christians in his pastoral letter Tertio millennio adveniente to "turn with renewed interest to the Bible." The appearance of Professor Fragnito's book coincidentally with these efforts to deepen the knowledge of biblical texts among Catholics is nothing short of ironic. She tells a complex story which shows why and how this knowledge disappeared among the Italian people in the sixteenth century, never to return to the mainstream of their culture.

This book quite literally opens a new stage in scholarship. Professor Fragnito is one of the very few who were given permission to use the archives of the former Holy Office (or Inquisition), inaccessible to most scholars before its very recent opening celebrated on January 22, 1998. Her work is based on hitherto unknown material and brings an entirely new perspective on vexed and muchdebated questions.

In her opening chapter the author has assembled information showing the ready availability of vernacular Scriptures during the first half of the sixteenth century, whether editions of the Old and New Testaments, the Gospels, or the Epistles. The first printed Italian translation of the Bible by Nicolo Malerbi appeared in Venice in 1471, to be followed by other translations in many editions. A wealth of devotional works based on biblical texts like the Fioretti della Bibbia were printed as well. Italy was a country where reading the vernacular Bible was common and widespread among individuals, in families, confraternities, convents, and monasteries.

The increased interest in reading the Scriptures in the wake of the Reformation led ecclesiastical authorities to mistrust the owners of vernacular Bibles. Reading the word of God in one's own language became suspect or linked with heresy. The author points out that this was true not only in Italy, but that political authorities in England, France, or Spain made the same connection between reading the Bible and heresy. However, in Italy the enforcement of the prohibition lay not so much with the state as with the Inquisition, reorganized and made into an effective organ of the papacy in 1542.

The central part of the book is devoted to a discussion of the various Indexes from that of Paul IV in 1559 to the Clementine Index of 1596, and their provisions regulating the printing and/or reading of vernacular Bibles. Using the newly accessible documentation with exemplary expertise, the author shows the profound differences which existed during these years at the highest levels of the Church concerning the reading of the word of God by the common people. Popes, masters of the Sacred Palace, the Congregations of the Index and of the Inquisition, cardinals and bishops disagreed among themselves. The Index of 1559 flatly forbade both reading and printing the Bible, putting control over enforcement into the hands of inquisitors. However, the Tridentine Index of 1564, drawn up by a commission of more sympathetic bishops, mitigated these prohibitions. Soon afterward, in 1567, the last vernacular Bible until 1773 was printed in Italy.

With the establishment of the Congregation of the Index in 1571 a new office entered the picture. One of the most surprising aspects of this book is its presentation of the ongoing conflict between this new congregation and the Inquisition. The latter defended its turf, aimed at control over all literary and religious works, and wanted to nullify the role of bishops in the censorship of books. The former, while generally not more lenient, was sensitive to encroachments of its jurisdiction by the Inquisition and more ready to co-operate with bishops. …