The Franciscan Preaching Tradition and Its Sixteenth-Century Legacy: The Case of Cornelio Musso

By Norman, Corrie | The Catholic Historical Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

The Franciscan Preaching Tradition and Its Sixteenth-Century Legacy: The Case of Cornelio Musso


Norman, Corrie, The Catholic Historical Review


Recent scholarship on the changes that took place in early modern preaching has cited a number of Franciscans who were instrumental in the return to classical rhetorical models including Lorenzo Traversagni in the fifteenth century, Luca Baglione in the sixteenth, and Francesco Panigarola at the turn of the seventeenth. But it is their Humanism that has been emphasized while their affiliation with the Franciscan Order, one of the great preaching orders, has been treated as background detail. Although McGinness and O'Malley have noted that the Franciscan Rule is quoted in several important preaching documents of the period and even served as a shorthand formula in the primarily classicallyinspired post-Tridentine sacred rhetorics, the contributions of the Franciscan Order to early modern preaching remain largely unexamined.1 The case of the Conventual Franciscan Cornelio Musso highlights continuity with the values of the medieval Franciscan preaching tradition and the need for a closer look at its significance for sixteenth-century preaching.

Musso (1511-1574) was a man of many talents and roles. He was a prodigious scholar, a churchman of distinguished service in the courts of Paul III and Pius IV, and a bishop who both helped to define Tridentine ideals and strove to put them into practice.2 But Musso was known mostly in his own day as a preacher, as his five volumes of Italian sermons attest.3 He was chosen to preach the inaugural sermon at the Council of Trent and was a preacher of choice for the annual Lenten cycles of several Italian cities. Musso's Italian sermons were reported to have "effected miracles" in the hearts of the crowds that thronged to hear him. Many of the same sermons, translated into Latin, were enjoyed at papal court.4

To connoisseurs of sacred rhetoric, Cornelio Musso was a"humanist" preacher: a "modern Demosthenes," the "Chrysostom of Italy."5 In 1554, at the midpoint of Musso's career, the Paduan humanist Bernardino Tomitano wrote a short treatise praising Musso's preaching. For Tomitano, Musso was "a Michelangelo of words" whose vivid adaptation of classical style for contemporary audiences accounted for his appeal. A generation after Musso's death, Federigo Borromeo described him as the first to return to a "noble" style of preaching.7 What Tomitano, Borromeo, and like minds saw in Musso mirrored their own interests in the revival of sacred rhetoric based on classical and patristic models. In replying to Tomitano's praise, Musso admitted to having "striven. . . to raise myself from the common style of our time following. . . in the footsteps of the most eloquent Latin and Greek fathers."8

When he initiated the discussion about preaching, however, it was not to classical sources that Musso appealed, nor even the Church Fathers. Rather, he looked to more immediate family, to the heritage of his Franciscan brotherhood. Further, the issues on which he concentrated were the same concerns that had been expressed by Franciscan preachers since the inception of the Order. He shared the humanist tastes of his times; yet traditional Franciscan values provided the foundation for his preaching ministry.

There is much that is Franciscan" about Musso the preacher and his preaching. Franciscan doctrinal themes and spirituality permeate Musso's sermons. His biographer cast his life story in the mold of Franciscan hagiography, even describing Musso's death much as Bonaventure had described Francis'.9 Musso's itinerary reveals his primary self-identity as a Franciscan Lenten preacher, even after he became a bishop. His biographer claimed that Musso preached Lent in the cities continually" for twenty-four years.10

But when I say that Cornelio Musso's ideas about preaching reflect his Franciscan heritage, I refer specifically to a cluster of elements found in the Rule of Francis. They include (1) a high estimate of the "authority" of preaching, (2) the powerfully affective "utility" of preaching, (3) the necessity for preachers to preach in both "works and words," and (4) an understanding of the Christian message as essentially moralpenitential.

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