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Romans lending their ears

20 September 2013

Jonathan Boardman learns that Italy hung on preachers' words

The Pulpit and the Press in Reformation Italy
Emily Michelson
Harvard University Press £29.95
Church Times Bookshop £26.95  (Use code CT449 )

IN OUR age of saturation entertainment, it can seem unlikely that for many societies of previous centuries the sermon provided the principal source of diversion. Emily Michelson's meticulous study of the experience of Italian preaching through a consideration of sermon collections published there during the 16th century could hardly be called a thrilling read, and yet it establishes its arguments with force and a notable elegance of expression.

Her decision to use the term "Reformation Italy" is itself part of the argument, since one of her assertions is that, in the context of both traditionally well-established itinerant mendicant preaching and the growing number of sermons delivered by secular priests in parishes, "Reformation issues" were at the front of the preacher's mind.The Conventual Franciscan Cornelio Musso and reform-minded bishops such as Marcello Cervini (later and briefly Pope Marcellus II) represent the types respectively.

The subject that Michelson identifies as the preoccupation of both these types of sermon is the degree to which better scriptural instruction of the laity amplifies or lessens the likelihood that Reformation ideas take hold. For all of these preachers, "Reformation" was more than just alive and well in Italy throughout the period in which the Council of Trent ground its slow course, but was poised to explode and dominate - thus questioning our received perceptions, formed by hindsight, of 16th-century Italy as a bastion of Catholic conformity. The growth in popularity of the printed sermon demonstrated by Michelson's statistical analysis of print-runs and diffusion of texts illustrates a parallel importance for printing in the Counter-Reformation as in more developed and purely reformed contexts.

This is a highly literary study. Even if the well-produced illustrations of title pages provide occasional relief from the author's focus on the texts themselves, we know that she is not an art historian - her reference to a woodcut showing "a pietà " of "the dead Christ in the arms of a pope" evidences her ignorance of contemporary conventional representations of God the Father. That aside, she is extremely alert to the aesthetic impact of the books that contained these sermon collections, and she successfully communicates it. This is more than a worthy book: it is Michelson's heartfelt tribute to a neglected literary tradition.

The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints', Rome.

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