Book Review: The Pulpit and the Press in Reformation in Italy

By Worcester, Thomas | Church History, September 2014 | Go to article overview

Book Review: The Pulpit and the Press in Reformation in Italy


Worcester, Thomas, Church History


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The Pulpit and the Press in Reformation in Italy . By Emily Michelson . I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press , 2013. 262 pp. $39.95 cloth.

Book Reviews and Notes

An older historiography stressed the prominent role of the printing press and of the pulpit in the Protestant Reformation; by implication or by explicit assertion, sixteenth-century Catholicism was portrayed as at least relatively impoverished in its experience and appreciation of preaching and of print. Focusing on vernacular Italian preaching that was published between the mid- and late 1500s, this book argues that preaching was "central to Italian communal and religious life" (53), and that printing presses in sixteenth-century Italy were very busy indeed in publishing both volumes of sermons and books on how to preach, works that were often re-printed many times, thus demonstrating that a major market existed for such materials. With the help of some well-designed graphs (29-31), the author shows that after approximately 1540 there was a major increase in the number of sermons printed, an increase that did not abate until the end of the century.

Emily Michelson alludes a number of times to two types of preaching that were well-developed in Italy before the Reformation: popular vernacular preaching by itinerant preachers, often friars, such as Bernardino of Siena, and learned pulpit oratory delivered in Latin to smaller, elite audiences. Popular preaching was not short on drama, as the preachers "might hold their noses, feign playing a trumpet, assume a fetal position, wear dramatic costumes or remove parts of their clothes, sing, spit, groan or cry" (24). Michelson shows how the sixteenth-century orators she has studied, such as Franciscan friar Francesco Panigarola (1548-1594), ridiculed such sensational antics in the pulpit, and emphasized instead a carefully measured tone and moderate gestures. With sermons that lasted an hour or two or longer, Panigarola's feats were verbal, as he cited a wide range of authorities, used alliteration and metaphor effectively, in order to exhort and inspire his audiences. He was "perhaps the greatest Italian preacher of the Baroque period" (144).

From the 1540s, a concern with rooting out "heresy" or preventing it by teaching Catholic doctrine animated many preachers. Denouncing heresy as an especially virulent form of pride, the worst of the seven deadly sins, indeed the root of sin, pulpit orators sought to promote the humility that accepted Catholic teaching as handed down over the centuries. The author identifies a Conventual Franciscan, Cornelio Musso (1511-1574), as the best known Italian preacher of the mid-century, a friar who was also a bishop and who emphasized doctrine, indeed a kind of catechism, in his own preaching. Musso was among the bishops at the Council of Trent. Michelson argues that the influence of Trent on preaching was multi-faceted and variable, and did not mean a uniform style or content of preaching was henceforth prescribed or followed. …

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