Chapter 6 Ventriloquizing Birgitta: The Saint’s Prophetic Voice During the Italian Wars

In: The Legacy of Birgitta of Sweden
Jessica Goethals
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Anna Wainwright
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The church of Santa Maria della Pace in Rome near Piazza Navona, home to Bramante’s famous cloister, is perhaps best known for its glorious frescoes by Raphael, which depict the four sibyls receiving word from angels of the coming of Christ (Fig. 6.1). The frescoes, long noted for their innovation and similarity to those by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, are splayed above the Chigi chapel and were commissioned by the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi in c. 1514.1 In them, the sibyls of Cumae, Persia, Phrygia, and Tibur are each visited by angels heralding the birth of Christ. Renaissance sibyls such as these and Michelangelo’s helped cement the longstanding importance of pagan visionaries to the Christian prophetic tradition, reminding pilgrims to the Eternal City that before Christ was born, women prophets under the dominion of the Roman Empire foretold the arrival of a messiah under Roman Caesar.

Figure 6.1
Figure 6.1

Raphael Sanzio, The Four Sibyls, c. 1514. Chigi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Pace, Rome

Adam Eastland Art + Architecture / Alamy Stock Photo
Figure 6.2
Figure 6.2

Baldassarre Peruzzi, Virgin and Child Flanked by St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Birgitta of Sweden, and Cardinal Ferdinando Ponzetti, c. 1516. Ponzetti Chapel, Church of Santa Maria della Pace, Rome

Vito Arcomano / Alamy Stock Photo

Directly across the nave from Raphael’s sibyls, in the Ponzetti chapel, is an altarpiece depicting the Virgin and Child, flanked by St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Birgitta of Sweden (Fig. 6.2). The handiwork of the Sienese artist Baldassare Peruzzi (1481–1536), the altarpiece was commissioned in roughly 1516, two years after work began on the frescoes by Raphael. The chapel’s commissioner was the influential Cardinal Ferdinando Ponzetti (1444–1527), a Florentine by birth who had served as the personal doctor of Innocent VIII (1432–1492). In the altarpiece, Ponzetti himself appears next to Birgitta. Birgitta, clad in her trademark white wimple or bianche bende of widowhood, looks reverently at the Virgin, one hand at her chest; her other hand is extended in a protective gesture over the cardinal’s arm, as he too gazes up at the Virgin and Child.2

Peruzzi’s is a notable, seemingly unusual depiction of Saint Birgitta. The chapel itself is named for her; Ponzetti’s sister was Brigida, which became a somewhat common name for the girls of Florentine families in the Renaissance due to the saint’s popularity in the city.3 Given Birgitta’s frequent and well-documented visions of the Virgin and Christ Child, it is not surprising that she is depicted gazing in rapture at the pair; more interesting is the choice of Birgitta in this chapel directly across from Raphael’s spectacular sibyls. While Chigi and his artist chose to focus on ancient visionaries, Ponzetti and Peruzzi instead place a woman prophet of the recent Christian era at the center of the action – and conspicuously across from her pagan counterparts. Little over a century separated Birgitta’s death from when she was painted into the chapel. Despite the fact that she was a relatively “new” saint, the extent of her influence was already well evidenced in contemporary art, literature, and the popular imagination. Ponzetti’s choice of Birgitta for his chapel is an acknowledgment of her influence and authority as a prophet engaged in the politics of reform, whose visions sought a return of the Church to Rome following the disastrous rupture of the Church during the Avignon Papacy (1309–1377).4 In the midst of the Italian Wars, a Florentine cardinal, building his family chapel in Rome, may have viewed her as the ideal representative of Christian prophecy to sit across from Raphael’s sibyls, as a woman warning of danger but heralding a possible future peace.5 The chapel’s patron himself would not survive the upheaval of his time: with the misfortune to find himself in Rome in 1527, Ponzetti was captured by invading soldiers during the Sack and succumbed to his injuries in September of that year, a broken man, his fortune dismantled. He was buried beneath the altar of his chapel in Santa Maria della Pace, forever immortalized as a pious cardinal under the protection of Saint Birgitta.6

This chapter considers the ways in which Birgitta of Sweden’s prophetic identity and voice were appropriated during the long half century of the Italian Wars (1494–1559), especially in Florentine and Tuscan texts that bore her name. The saint’s authority as a visionary and prophet had already been hotly litigated by her own confessors and by the leading theologians of the late Middle Ages. Following her 1391 canonization, we see a full century of debate by figures of authority over whether her visions should be taken as true prophecy or dismissed wholesale before her papal re-legitimization in 1484. As the Italian Wars progressed, and literary output on the subject flourished up and down the peninsula, Birgitta’s long-established identity as a woman prophet – a Christian sibyl – was deployed as a voice of warning for the certain destruction that would befall towns and cities saturated in discord. Indeed, Birgitta’s particularly gendered voice fit neatly into the larger way gender was appropriated in a variety of texts focused on the Italian Wars, chiming with longstanding literary notions of the city, or nation, as a woman destroyed by invading hordes. In this piece, we argue that despite her status as a foreign saint whose words had been the subject of deep suspicion, in the bloodiest years of the Italian Wars Birgitta had an outsized role in the prophetic material circulating across Italy, especially in the towns and cities of Tuscany. As a result, her reputation as a prophet broadened to include an enduring connection to the tumult of the period. By the time the Florentine Ponzetti commissioned his chapel in Rome across from that of the Sienese Chigi, “Santa Brigida” possessed a particular authority in Tuscany on political disaster and ruin. Her prophetic profile would only grow following the Sack of Rome in which Ponzetti died and during the crises in Tuscany that came in the wake of the 1529–30 Siege of Florence. We conclude by tracing her legacy in the years after the Italian Wars, demonstrating that her prophetic weight remained imaginatively tied to that long period of unrest, her authority reshaped and repurposed to fit the later Counter-Reformation context. Through the prism of sacred relics, commentators reconnected Birgitta’s fatidic role during the Italian Wars to her Revelations in both historical tomes and her biography, securing the identification of her voice as one that had uniquely spoken to the political, military, and social woes of the era.

Birgitta’s Authority as Political Prophet

Birgitta as political prophet was not a new idea at the start of the Italian Wars, but it bears thinking about why she made sense as a choice for those who referenced and ventriloquized her during this period. The saint’s prophetic profile was carefully established during her canonization process in the late 14th century and had already been tested against the slings and arrows of theologians suspicious of female visionaries at the Council of Constance (1414–1418), especially the Parisian scholar Jean Gerson.7 This was due first to her impassioned litigation in favor of the return to Rome of the papacy from its Babylonian captivity in Avignon, her primary focus from her arrival in Italy to her death over twenty years later, and a central idea in many of her revelations to take place in Italy.8 In Rev. IV: 138, for example, Birgitta recounts a vision in which the Queen of Heaven complains that Pope Urban V disregarded her instructions “to go back to Rome and Italy for no other purpose than to carry out mercy and justice, strengthen the Catholic faith, reestablish the peace, and, in this way, renew the Holy Church.”9 The saint’s allies and promoters in Rome felt keenly the unconventional nature of her Revelations and self-positioning as a visionary who waded boldly into matters political, and sought to affirm her as an authority, specifically, on the relationship between earthly politics and the supremacy of God as King. It is significant that the most famous defense of her visions, the Epistola solitarii ad reges (The Hermit’s Letter to Kings) by her confessor Alfonso of Jaén, written sometime in the mid-1370s, serves as prologue for Book VIII of the Revelations. It is the most political book of her visions, the spiritual princely mirror Liber celestis imperatoris ad reges (The Heavenly Emperor’s Book to Kings).10 The revelations contained therein focus above all on what lay at the heart of Birgitta’s political philosophy: how earthly princes should rule to ensure harmony and peace in the global Christian community. The broader message of unity also reflects Birgitta’s desire for a return of the papacy from Avignon, and her vision of the Church Militant as a single, seamless piece of cloth that cannot be divided.11 A persistent thread in her revelations is that of coming apocalypse: the world is in a moment of great trouble and risks descending into complete catastrophe if the right actions are not taken by those in power.

Alfonso reinforces her message of unity and Christian community in the Epistola, and works to justify Birgitta’s political visions by identifying her as a prophet in a long and hallowed tradition. He identifies her as “a bright star” who has emerged in “these modern times so darkened by dense clouds,” chosen by God alongside the long genealogy of prophets from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as the sibyls who foretold Jesus’ arrival – the first time that she is aligned with the sibyls we see in Raphael’s frescoes in Santa Maria della Pace.12 His Epistola does double-duty: he defends Birgitta against those who may doubt the authenticity of her visions, while pointing specifically to God’s consistent choice of women as earthly ambassadors for his word: “[Naysayers] … forget that almighty God in the Old Testament as well as in the New chose the weak things of the world, of both the female and male sex, to show forth his might and put the wise to shame.” He points to Judith, Esther, and Deborah of the Old Testament, the widow Anna of Phanuel from the New, and, notably, the Tiburtine and Erythraean Sibyls as forerunners for Birgitta.13

Despite Alfonso’s pointed elevation of Birgitta to the level of earlier sibyls and visionaries, however, there remained a debate at the highest echelons of church power about her visionary authority throughout the 15th century. In particular, the Revelations themselves, though the visions of a canonized saint, continued to be questioned as inaccurate and unorthodox.14 Reinforcing Gerson’s notorious attack on Birgitta’s message at the Council of Constance, in 1436 Cardinal Louis d’Allemand of Arles ruled at the Council of Basel that while Birgitta was a saint, her Revelations were still suspect and could not be read as doctrinal as her followers had long claimed. Furthermore, her visions would have to be corrected by church authorities “well versed in scripture.”15 In other words, male clerics and scholars would rework the prophetic visions of a woman who had already been legitimated through her canonization half a century earlier.

This carefully legislated discrediting of Birgitta’s words served a dual function: it effectively removed the Revelations from its already shaky place in the church canon, and it allowed the Church to accept Birgitta’s sainthood without worrying about the incorporation of her apocalyptic message of unity – especially for French clerics in the years of the Great Schism. And yet Birgitta’s message persisted, and her texts circulated, even with some clerical approval, such as Juan de Torquemada’s 15th-century defense of Birgitta that largely discredited Allemand’s earlier ruling.16 It was not, however, until 1484 that the prohibition was officially overruled, when the Italian pope Sixtus IV (1414–1484) officially renounced a century’s worth of churchmen in Paris, Rome, and Constance chipping away at the legitimacy of Birgitta’s visions, and Birgitta’s Revelations were again fully legitimated.17

The date of this official change is crucial for our understanding of Birgitta’s reputation at the end of the 15th century and the start of the Italian Wars. Held in contempt by French clerics, her steadfast insistence in the Revelations that Rome, and thus Italy, was the rightful center of the Christian world was a decidedly welcome message as the peninsula was being violently cleaved apart, as was her belief in the need for a restoration of the plague- and violence-ridden Eternal City. That her texts had once again been given the all-clear by the (Italian) pope would have strengthened their profile as worthy of use and contemplation. It also strengthened Birgitta’s appeal as a mouthpiece for other political prophecies. As we will demonstrate, as the Revelations themselves were welcomed back into the fold, Birgitta’s name also began to be attached to the verse prophecies addressing the violence and discord of the Italian Wars.

The complex prophetic profile that was developed earlier for Birgitta by her champions, and the way she was debated by male clerics of the Church across the various theological debates of the 14th century, offer us a clearer understanding of what she represented at the beginning of the Italian Wars. The political thrust of her own writings – her urging for unity among Christian princes, her insistence on the return of the papacy to Rome from Avignon, and her frank criticisms of individual leaders – were certainly part of why she was such a hotly-debated figure, and her reaffirmation by Sixtus was a great boon to her image. The very concerns to which she had devoted her attention more than a century earlier were still plaguing Italian politics, albeit in a slightly different form. That she became a player in popular works outside of Italy, most notably the German Johannes Lichtenberger’s 1488 Pronosticatio, certainly reinforced her authority, as did its later translation into Italian.

Two other features of the saint’s personal identity as a political prophet bear mentioning at this juncture: Birgitta’s status as a foreigner, and as a widow. While she lived the last twenty-three years of her life in Rome, and is believed to have spoken good Italian, she nevertheless remained a foreign entity, a northern “principessa” who came from a distant land to spread the revelations she claimed to have received from Heaven.18 This status as an outsider was compounded by the prominence of her widowed state: it was shortly after her husband’s death that she received her calling vision.19 As several scholars have noted, Birgitta’s authority as a prophet was tied closely to her identity as a widow, and she capitalized on the long history of the widowed voice speaking out in times of political strife.20 The widow’s as the voice par excellence that speaks to political destruction – which, as we will see, was a strong motif in texts distributed during the Italian Wars – can be traced to the widowed city of Jerusalem in Lamentations, who mourns the destruction of her people by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, and its long history in political discourse to follow. It is no surprise that it was also a voice that found particular resonance during the Italian Wars, in which the peninsula was witness to destruction from north to south by foreigners and Italians alike, and in which longstanding Italian literary references to Italy herself as a destroyed woman seemed especially apt. We thus see, by the time of the Italian Wars, a Birgitta who could be identified as a political voice as well as a prophet; as a foreign woman with the authority to comment on the political situation in Italy; and as a widow who was part of the longstanding tradition of widows who spoke out in moments of political crisis.

Textual Responses to the Italian Wars

For the decades between 1494 and 1559, the Italian peninsula repeatedly served as the theater of war as France, Spain, and its own various city-states jockeyed for territory and power.21 Notably, the invasion of the peninsula by Charles VIII of France that began these conflicts was itself already cloaked in apocalyptic expectation, as the king’s advisors encouraged him to see himself reflected in a new adaptation of the so-called “Second Charlemagne” prophecy, a text that anticipated the crowning of a righteous Last Emperor who would deliver his kingdom back to God in Jerusalem – but only after “destroy[ing] and burn[ing] both Rome and Florence along the way.”22 The ease and speed with which the king’s armies swept through Italy, arriving in Naples (to which the king claimed dynastic rights), seemed to many to confirm these predictions. Included among these was the preacher Savonarola, whose identification of the threat posed to Florence by the French armies outside the city’s gates as a divine scourge against Florentine immorality and corruption, particularly under the Medici (the current representative of which, Piero de’ Medici, capitulated to the French before going into exile), solidified his authority and contributed to the ushering in of the Florentine Republic.23

A complicated tapestry of leagues and continually realigning loyalties, declarations of peace and reignition of war, condottieri and mercenary armies, defined the years that followed. Most vividly memorable were the era’s bloody sieges and invasions, such as the Battle of Agnadello (1509), the Battle of Pavia (1525), and especially the symbolic climax of the wars, the 1527 Sack of Rome, in which the Spanish and German troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–58) broke through the walls of the supposedly Eternal City and for over nine months subjected Rome and its bodies, both sacred and profane, to murder, torture, rape, and destruction to a degree remarkable even during this era of warfare.24 Given Birgitta’s (and her prophecies’) close ties to Florence and Tuscany, of particular relevance is also the Siege of Florence (1529–30), when the Medici (recently expelled from the city in the wake of the Sack of Rome, thanks in part to the weakness of the beleaguered Medici pope, Clement VII) employed the help of Charles V to disperse the republicans and reinstate themselves. As one scholar has noted, “these conflicts provoked Renaissance commentators … to respond with language of unprecedented magnitude.”25

Contemporaries found diverse means of grappling with the grisly facts of these wars beyond just oral accounts and eyewitness letters. These sources ranged from poemi bellici, on the one hand, which narrated actual clashes between military heroes in often exhilarating ottava rima,26 to far more despondent lamenti storici on the other. These historical laments interpreted the wars in terms of abandoned, violated, and ransacked cities and states – social-political spaces poetically animated through apostrophe to cry out against their own destruction. Situated within the long tradition of depicting Italy as a victimized woman (one readily recalls Dante’s serva Italia, the wounds suffered by Petrarch’s Italia mia, and the image campaign of Cola di Rienzo of the Church and Italy as despondent and neglected women), these laments typically speak with the personified voice of an anguished woman.27 This use of feminized apostrophe distinguishes the Italian historical lament from other European examples in which the poet himself typically speaks.28 The crying city-woman became an expression of political sentiment in Italy as well as of historical fact. A 1509 Lamento de’ venetiani, for instance, opens with a “disconsolate” Venice crying out in pain that “France and Spain and the emperor / have completely desolated me!”29 Among Pietro Aretino’s various written responses to the Sack, to give another example, is the lament Italia afflitta, nuda e miseranda (originally attributed to Francesco Guicciardini) in which a despoiled Italy calls out for the French king Francis I to intervene through arms to save her peninsula from the German violence and domestic betrayals that have left “my body burdened by its many wounds.”30 Readers of such works were thus accustomed to male-authored texts that decried political-military failures through ventriloquized women’s voices, suggesting that as the wars continued to ravage the Italian peninsula, recognizable female figures long associated with politicized speech – such as Birgitta – also would have been especially appealing and readily interpretable as mouthpieces by which to circulate both ominous warnings and criticisms.

These tribulations could not but cast an apocalyptically-tinged shadow, as many turned to known prophecies to make sense of current events. In other instances, there circulated new vaticinia ex eventu: so-called prophecies written after the very events they purported to describe.31 Typically works in vernacular verse that were disseminated in cheap prints as well as recited in piazzas by cantastorie (much like the poemi bellici), these prophecies were in high demand precisely during the Italian Wars, becoming “a homogenous and consistent literary current” that drew audiences ranging from the studied humanist to the curious passerby.32 In addition to numerous anonymous examples, many were apocryphal works that circulated under the name of a coterie of preferred saints, of which Birgitta was one. Ottavia Niccoli notes that Florence was an early and important center for prophetic prints: “Tuscany during the years when Savonarola was preaching and veneration of St. Bridget was well entrenched must have provided a particularly receptive market for this sort of publication.”33

Indeed, Birgitta increasingly became a recognizable shorthand for prophecy of political disaster and ruin from the 1490s onward. Niccoli memorably begins her study of popular prophecy with the example of the Modenese notary and chronicler Tommaso Lancellotti who, in the days immediately following the Sack of Rome, recorded being shown a copy of a prophecy attributed to Birgitta that “tells of the death in Rome, of the circumstances said to presently befall the pope, who is to find himself persecuted as he presently is by foreigners.”34 For Lancellotti, who consulted a variety of similar texts during these years, current affairs directly bridged medieval prophecy to his ‘present’.

Popular investment in the elucidative power of Birgitta prophecies is highlighted not only by such instances of historical reading practices but also their percolation into the wells of literary example, including satire. For example, in the 1536 Ragionamenti of Aretino (a writer especially prone to allusions to the wars and the Sack of Rome in particular35) the final dialogue features a Midwife who describes her various methods of influence as a procuress. Among her examples is having once filled nuns’ ears with gossip and current events in order to distract them as she arranged an erotic encounter between a member of their convent and an outside lover. To these other women she provided assorted local tidbits (pregnancies, rendezvous, marital woes) and political-military news (“I told them what people thought of Milan, and who would become Duke; I told them which faction, the imperial or the French, the Pope supported”), as well as explications of the “inner meaning of the prophecies of Saint Bridget and Fra Giacopone da Pietrapana.”36 Aretino thus satirizes the seeming ubiquity of the fatidic works attributed to the historical saint and the weight they received in these years as both entertaining and explanatory through the juxtaposition of Birgitta with salacious rumors, current affairs, and the supposed oeuvre of a fictionalized monk.

These apocryphal texts were not always viewed with Aretino’s same satirical eye, particularly by the authoritative bodies at which they might be seen as taking aim. Marino Sanuto recorded in 1509, for instance, that among the various persons detained in Venice for motives ranging from illicit arms possession and suspicion of espionage to slander, there was one man “who was selling prophecies by Saint Birgitta on the mainland [who was seized] since they contained many scandalous statements.”37 After being subjected to the strappado, the peddler of these texts ceased to sell them again.

We know, then, that prophecies attributed to Saint Birgitta were circulating and being discussed throughout the peninsula, and in rather different contexts than that with which scholars of the saint are most familiar. Indeed, in a well-placed bit of irony, Birgitta’s authority as a visionary during this period was almost entirely divorced from the Revelations themselves, and instead included two main texts which, when examined closely, do not even purport to be by her at all. In the following section, we examine the evolving textual history of these “Brigida” prophecies.

The Italian Verse Prophecies of Birgitta

As Brian Richardson expertly outlines in his contribution to the present volume, prophecies attributed to Birgitta had a long history reaching back into the first decades of the Quattrocento and perhaps even the late Trecento.38 Many, though by no means all, of these manuscripts originated in Tuscany. Such was the case of a Profetia di sancta Brigida, a terza rima frottola with the incipit Destati o fier leone al mio gran grido; the explicit of an early copy claims that the text was “translated into vernacular verse by Iacopo [del Pecora] da Montepulciano while he was imprisoned in Florence” between 1390 and 1407 for plotting against the city.39 This poem would go on to become the most frequently copied example of the apocryphal prophecies through the Cinquecento, seeing at least 36 manuscript versions, including a transcription by Suor Cleofe of the Birgittine monastery Santa Maria del Paradiso in Florence following an Italian translation of the Revelations in a volume dating to 1495, four months after the French armies of Charles VIII arrived at the city’s gates.40 Just a decade after the saint’s visions were ultimately legitimated by the church, Birgitta’s Revelations themselves thus became an agent of legitimation for vernacular prophecy. That the now-canonical, Latin writings of a saint translated into Italian were followed by a vernacular apocryphal prophecy bearing her name in a fine manuscript by the Birgittine Florentine nun, produced at a Birgittine convent, suggests a fluidity in the Renaissance understanding of Birgitta’s authorial identity and voice. This vernacular prophecy proved equally popular in print, with editions produced in Rome, Venice, Siena, and especially Florence. This includes some incunabula – as Niccoli observes, prophecies of this sort were among publishers’ early favorites; she points to a 1479 Prophezia di sancta Brigida (presumably the Destati o fier leone) listed in the registers of San Iacopo di Ripoli printers shortly after they opened, and we may also consider a 1486 printing which claims a new author (“per me maestro Francescho Fiorentino”).41 Known printings of the prophecy ramped up in the last decade of the Quattrocento and through the first four decades of the Cinquecento, with the last known example dating to Siena in 1536.

The aforementioned fluidity in the way the Destati o fier leone prophecy was used, particularly during the Italian Wars, is made more strongly apparent by a close reading of the prophecy itself, as well as its variants. After its initial call for Florence (the “fierce lion”) to awaken to the speaker’s “gran grido” (fierce cry), the poem breaks down the terrible events that will befall it if these words are not heeded.42 Importantly, the speaker of this prophecy is not Birgitta herself, but an anonymous voice who is urgently crying out a warning to the Tuscan city. This is revealed only toward the end of the prophecy, when the narrator warns that if his words seem too obscure (“se troppo il mio parlar paresse obscuro” [lns. 259–60, emphasis is our own]), then the listeners/readers should consult the works of Saint Birgitta herself, “tanta / copia di virtù Brigida sancta” (261–62). In other words, we do not have to take the narrator himself at his word, for he is backed up by the more established authority of the Swedish saint, who earlier warned in her canonical writings about the ills that would befall a city divided. Indeed, this prophecy might be considered less a ventriloquization per se than a kind of “name dropping,” using Birgitta’s broad appeal and established voice as a prophet who warned of discord and carnage in order to bolster the claims of this rather local prophecy.

The text employs a language that will be familiar to the reader of prophetic verse. The warning is dire, and only occasionally specific: if the “great cry” of the prophet is not heeded, there will be “grave periglio” (grave danger) which will lead to a bloody end thanks, importantly, not to external factors, but to internal discord. “Comincerà nel core”: it will begin in the heart of Florence itself, from a deep-rooted anger that can no longer be contained. Using the common imagery of a ship to describe a threatened state or power, the prophecy suggests that this “rabbia” will lead to the destruction of the vessel that is Florence, with its sails, helm, and tackling all torn asunder.43 The city’s destruction is imagined through a diverse array of imaginative visual descriptions: we are warned of serpents, of plague, of blood, of several different Tuscan cities being destroyed, of the unbridled horse of Apocalypse. He speaks of his predictions occurring in a new century (“secol nuovo”) but cannot be more precise (“ben ch’io non dica il mese”); a city will be sacked (“d’un sacho vien barba malegna”). As is common in such writings, after terrible tragedy a new leader will arise, in a “nuovo tempo” (new time) and a “mondo nuovo” (new world) that comes after the disaster that is sure to befall the “gran puttana” of Tuscany. The narrator equates the internal strife against which he warns with too loose a way of dealing with the outside world. Tuscany, and Florence especially, has allowed in too much outside influence, which has led to a dangerous disharmony at the local level (a complaint that would likely have seemed particularly relevant after Piero de’ Medici allowed the armies of Charles VIII up to the gates of the city unimpeded).

Fear of such a disaster striking the city of Florence, which is so clearly gendered as feminine, is worth considering in the context of why Birgitta might have been linked to such a prophecy, and how that connects to the way gender was deployed in vernacular works around the Italian Wars more broadly. One dire prediction of the prophecy on which it is worth resting a moment: the ominous warning for the women of the city. “… li tuoi ostelli,” we are cautioned, “saran pieni di donne scapigliate / con vedove velate” (your houses will be filled with disheveled women and veiled widows [40–42]). The image of women as the ultimate victims of urban invasion is common, the reference to “ostelli” reminiscent of Dante’s “di dolore ostello” (Purg. VI.76). The particularly evocative phrase “donne scapigliate” also comes from Dante, appearing twice in quick succession in Vita nuova 23.44 It further recalls the role of women as designated mourners stretching back to ancient Greece, wailing while pulling at their hair in performative despair on the streets. This kind of public, feminine mourning was generally viewed with deep anxiety; in 13th- and 14th-century Italy laws were enacted to keep women from acting out this traditional practice in public.45 The “donne scapigliate” of the Birgittine prophecy are an easily legible symbol of urban Italian mourning, a prominent motif in 1390s Italy when the prophecy was most likely first drafted. In Destati o fier leone the “donne scapigliate” are paired with “vedove velate.” These mourning women remind readers of a city in which the norms and social codes meant to protect citizens from civic chaos have been removed, the flood gates opened. We return to the gendered destruction of Florence at the end of the prophecy, when we see the city herself as a woman ruined. Just a few lines before the narrator brings in Birgitta as an outside authority to support his message, he prophesies that Florence will be made a whore along with the rest of Tuscany (“la gran puttana con tutta altra Thoscana”). A few lines after he references Birgitta, we see that the abject destruction of Florence is already in motion: the city is great with a child who will be born and bring chaos, “e già cresciuto il ventre,” while Florence sleeps feverishly. We thus see the famous refrain that Italy is not “donna di provincie, ma di bordello” suggested in Dante’s Purgatorio here localized to the Florentine level. Destati o fier leone warns of a Florence that is an amalgam of widow, whore, and pregnant woman: vulnerable emotionally, sexually, and physically, and with the ominous arrival of a new and threatening presence in her belly if the narrator’s words, linked to the earlier writings of Saint Birgitta, are not carefully heeded.

Among the variety of other apocryphal prophetic works in both vernacular and Latin that circulated in this period, there was a particular interest in Birgitta in Siena which translated into additional prophetic material. Worthy of note is a 1530 Sienese manuscript containing a Profezia sopra la città di Siena e di Firenze (Ora mi volgho alla città del monte, which its transcriber claims to be a 1350 document found in the small Tuscan town of San Quirico outside Siena) and another separate Profezia attributed to Birgitta (Svegliati Lupa ormai, e co’ bei gigli d’oro).46 In part of the former, a section which purports to prophesize Florence’s future troubles is also nearly identical to another Sienese product, “a supplement regarding Florence” in a 1536 printed edition of Destati o fier leone.47 The supplement largely repackages the manuscript material as a coda to the oft-printed Destati. Additions like these were frequently made to pre-existing works in order to more closely tie them to ongoing political-military events, in this case perhaps to further legitimate Siena’s place in the pro-imperial camp as a city that in the prophecy will watch Florentine’s demise but not suffer the same fate. The narrator closely follows the long-established style of the piece; the addition contains conventional language of coming disaster in vague terms, with a grave opening warning reinforcing the warning of discord in the main body of the prophecy. Florence is identified as a “lion without teeth,” an impotent and curtailed beast, incapable of defending herself against foreign invasion. This Sienese addendum in print to the most famous and circulated of the prophecies is indicative of the malleability of the texts themselves, which can be massaged and changed to suit the setting and audience of various cities, as well as the prophecy’s active afterlife in the first half of the 16th century.48

While Destati o fier leone enjoyed an especially long and prevalent manuscript history, its visibility in print was shared by another poem that also circulated under the label “Profezia di Santa Brigida.” The relationship of this 104-octave text, Ave Iesu Christo figliol di Maria, to the saint was a late development.49 In its early manuscript forms, it went unattributed or circulated under the names of other prophetic figures such as Joachim of Fiore. It was not until around 1493 – on the eve of the Italian Wars and not long after the 1484 papal restoration of Birgitta’s legitimacy – that the poem was claimed for the saint.50 This print edition, as well as the following one in c.1500, are attributed to a Venetian cantimbanco, Antonio Farina, whose name also appears on the only manuscript version to ascribe the prophecy to Birgitta, likely a transcription from one of the published editions.51 Four known additional printings, through c.1525, similarly claim this earlier anonymous prophecy for Birgitta, adding to her prophetic oeuvre.

The poem begins with a supplication to Christ (visually echoed by a small woodcut of a saint kneeling before the crucifixion) to “teach me / to speak with fierce speech (parlar atroce), / so that everyone will understand my words” since “great torment awaits the world / and little time is left until the end.”52 While the earlier manuscripts declared that the events described would begin in ’61 (of which century is conveniently left unstated), print editions updated this to the 90s; rather than prove outdated, this terminus post quem would increase in apparent relevance as the Italian Wars begun in 1494 continued to roil on. The prophecy largely concerns the consequences of a “Roman” schism; it is ironic that a prophecy espousing a pro-Avignon papacy perspective should, over time, be associated with Birgitta. The first known version (c.1411) was lengthened shortly thereafter and its political position reversed; subsequent iterations were based on this revised version.53 As noted above, a handful of octaves were added early on to the first manuscript edition in order to alter the prophetic-political alignment, from imperial to Francophile, creating a second version that serves as the basis of the later print editions. But the published prophecy is similarly not a mere transcription of that revamped version.54 The printed text exhibits a number of additions and emendations. For instance, the initial assertion that havoc will be due especially to one city, that “the great snake will sleep with the flower” (el gran serpente dormirà col fiore), is here transformed to a serpent who shall sleep “with the lion” (il gran serpe dormirà con il Leone, V); the leveled criticism is translated from Florence to Venice, the city where most editions of the poem were published and where authorities punished the cantimbanco for peddling Birgitta prophecies. Alongside other changes that revamp the work for a new thematic and geographic focus, most notably an additional octave was tacked on to the end, a narratorial insertion that introduces a Birgittine framework to the preceding passages:

I won’t write anything further
Lest it become tedious for the reader.
What I have said is of grave importance,
And if someone should dislike this dictation,
Forgive me, for I speak it with a pure mind.
The things of which I tell will come to pass,
As St. Birgitta had it from the Holy Spirit,
So more or less it shall be.55

Rather than merely having the prophecy reattributed to her, Birgitta is newly brought to bear through this insertion as an authority whose visionary experience validates the poem’s prophetic contents. Moreover, this allusion to the saint’s voice as ventriloquized or appropriated, rather than engaged in direct speech, cannot but recall its comparable role in the Destati poem. The wide circulation of the latter in print and manuscript by the time Birgitta’s name was pinned to this particular prophecy makes it quite possible that the earlier work served as its model. In both instances, Birgitta’s name shields against the objections of the imagined reader: that the work is too enigmatic, in the Destati case, or too taxing, in the Ave Iesu Christo. But while in that textual predecessor the particularity of Birgitta’s prognostic voice, simultaneously imminent and at a step removed, is introduced midway through the text, for the reader of the Ave Iesu Christo (promised a Birgitta prophecy from the pamphlet title), this revelation is saved until the end. And yet at the same time this narrator claims greater authority than did his peer: this work is, he claims, a dictation (dittato). The saint who was commanded by Christ to transcribe the Revelations she received here dictates them to her new narrator of the 1490s and beyond.

Like so many of the prophecies circulating in these years that offered a hodge-podge of malleable political-military allusions alongside jarring images of pain and suffering, there is much in this poem that readers of the late Quattrocento and Cinquecento could identify with current affairs. The parlar atroce sought in the first octave contrasts with the narrator’s next request that the text be illuminated with bel stile (fine style) so that the coming tribulations are clear. This poem, in other words, should be both terrifying and persuasive. The apocalyptic tenor of the work is foregrounded, both in explicit allusions to the Book of the Apocalypse (VII) and the arrival of the Antichrist (XXXIXXXIII) and to expectations for the eventual arrival of a Universal Monarch who will usher in a final era of peace before setting down his crown in Jerusalem (LIILIII). Before that blessed era can arrive, however, evil will first run free, manifesting in endless war, famine, and especially bloodshed: there will be “a great butchering of human flesh,” Rome will become a cemetery when its citizens will be “diced up like apples,” and others will have “tongues and eyes cut out.”56

Like the Destati prophecy, this grim narrative begins in Florence and Tuscany; portions of it may be borrowed from other sources, as indicated by the inclusion of an octave on Siena (beginning “The she-wolf will lose her double tale, / her sweet milk will run sour” [XVII]) that appears unattributed in the contemporaneous 1530 Sienese manuscript of medieval prophecies described above and that has elsewhere been attributed to Giovacchino Piccolomini.57 It then radiates out to a wider Italian peninsula that can anticipate her destruction at the hands of a German ruler, and to France, Hungary, and Spain. The horrors of these years come with the promise of a future peace on par with that under Octavian, but 100 octaves of destruction are hardly calmed by the mere two promising future tranquility. And as is the case in the Destati poem, and so many lamenti and prophecies of the period, the Italians’ social-military and salvific fates are figured through a gendered body politic: although in her current state Italy is both a whore (Italia putta, XXX) and long a widow (tanto tempo è stata vedovella, VI), a future lord may “have beautiful Italy” (forse … avrà bella Italia, VI).

Birgitta also frequently appeared within a prophetic chorus. At times this meant appending other figures to the works attributed to her. In its print forms, the Ave Iesu Christo never appears alone. Often it headlined a core set of prophetic works when published as Prophetia di Santa Brigida con alcune altre profetie. The two other works that accompany it, the verse Al vol la mia fantasia and prose Prophetia de Santo Severo, echo its updated chronology (the late Quattrocento), its broad thrust (coming tribulations to be followed by renewed peace), and its ready and appealing parallels to the events of the age: famine, plague, and unparalleled wars between the Italian States, France, and Germany.58 Taken together, these continuities are mutually reinforcing and thereby lend credence to the Birgittine “dictation.”

Figure 6.3
Figure 6.3

Ptolemy, Aristotle, the Sibyl, Birgitta, and Reinhart, from Johannes Lichtenberger, Pronosticatio, woodcut, 1492

RB 104561, The Huntington Library, San Marino CA, 104561

In other instances, Birgitta was situated within an ensemble of prophetic authorities. In a late 15th-century manuscript, for instance, the Destati o fier leone poem appears alongside a variety of other prophetic materials, including a similar poem “drawn from the prophecies of the prophet Daniel, Saint John the Evangelist in the Apocalypse, and Saint Birgitta,” among others, while she is praised as a “savia” (sage) apocalyptic commentator in the Prophetia Caroli Imperatoris con altre prophetie di diversi santi huomini. 59 Birgitta also appeared among the numerous saints and prophets listed as sources in the Imminente flagello de Italia (c.1515–1520). More prominently, she featured in the panorama of saints and prophetic figures in German astrologer Johannes Lichtenberger’s 1488 Pronosticatio, including in a woodcut placing her in the company of Ptolemy, Aristotle, the Sibyl, and “Brother Reinhart” (Fig. 6.3). Lichtenberger introduces his volume by stating that there are three means by which man may know future things: through life experience, astrology, and divine revelation. Of the various figures he could select to represent the latter category, he states, he especially points to the ancient Sibyl, who “infallibly predicted many things to the Romans,” and to Birgitta. Taken in this way as representative of revelation – the Sibyl’s near-modern equivalent not merely for her oracular gift but surely also for its Roman focus – Birgitta specifically brings to the mosaic of prophetic tidbits compiled from varied sources a prediction ascribed to her Revelations that “under a great eagle [ie, Germany] the church will be crushed.”60 Lichtenberger’s “astrological best seller” enjoyed over a dozen Italian editions during the same period of the Italian Wars, surely in part because the publisher of the first translation, in c.1490–92, had added onto the cover page a promise that the prophecy described events dating until 1567, (a dating that subsequent editions would replicate), a period that he could not have predicted would map squarely onto these years of war, and because its jumble of dire social-military predictions could readily be ‘confirmed’ by recent events.61 This seems especially the case for Birgitta’s chapter, which even in the 1488 original dates the tribulations facing the church to 1496 and “for many years to come.” The increasingly urban quality of this prediction is underscored by changes in the accompanying woodcuts: while Lichtenberger’s first printing shows the saint in a field, a book – plainly intended to be the Revelations – in hand, in later versions a city sits behind her, creating the impression that she is reading to it its coming woes (Fig. 6.4). These included the anticipation that Peter (that is, the pope) would have to flee the Eternal City, a prediction that surely would have caught the eye of readers endeavoring to make sense of the 1527 Sack of Rome and Clement VII’s escape for Orvieto.

Figure 6.4
Figure 6.4

Detail from Johannes Lichtenberger, Pronosticatione ouero judicio vulgare (Venice: 1511), sig. Biv r. Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale. With permission of the Ministero della Cultura / Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Further reproductions are not permitted.

As Richardson also notes, in Italian translations of the Pronosticatio Birgitta eventually even overtook the volume’s subtitle Pronosticatione […] lo quale expone, et dechiara prima alcune prophetie de sancta Brigida e dela Sybilla, et de molti altri sancti homini, e de molti sapienti astrologhi. Select portions of the Pronosticatio were later extracted in the Profetie cavate d’uno opuscolo stampato già trentanni passati il quale si chiama pronosticatione vera et più non udita (c.1530). Lichtenberger goes unnamed, but the pamphlet’s subtitle explains that the compiler has extracted from his volume “those things that seem to be occurring at the present, such that anyone can satisfy his appetite about this topic without having to buy the book,” that is, its seemingly actualized predictions leading up to the Sack of Rome.62 A prophetic cheat sheet to help the curious decode the preternatural meaning behind current events, the Profetie begins first and directly with Birgitta, with her message on the German presence in Rome clearly seen as the most salient and verified prediction in the wake of the Sack. The other extracts lend support to this interpretation of Birgitta’s eagle, such as Cyril’s prediction that, to renew the Church, God will allow a schism caused by the vacancy of the papacy at the hands of the emperor despite the Romans’ and Italians’ attempts to resist him. Through the process of distilling what he saw as the most pertinent portions of Lichtenberger’s Pronosticatio, the Italian compiler put Birgitta front and center.

In the same period, Birgitta also received top titular billing in Flagellum et renovatio mundi, prophetia di santa Brigida & molti altri santi homini.63 While this prophecy “of Saint Birgitta and many other holy men” seems to again place her at the forefront, her relationship to this slim c.1530 volume is more nuanced. Aside from the title (one likely intended to help catch the eye of potential readers by now familiar with the saint’s poetic legacy), Birgitta goes unnamed throughout the poem itself; she is subsumed into the chorus of saints and prophets through whom God announced the coming scourge: “Since the whole world rebels against God, / With his providence He decided / To renew it after a great scourge; / He proclaimed it through the mouths of his saints, / Of which I have read more than thirty true […]” – most notably “the righteous and immaculate” Savonarola, to whom the narrator makes repeated reference.64 But if Birgitta’s name does not appear, her apocryphal Ave Iesu Christo does. Several passages of the other poem are here replicated (with slight tweaks), from predictions in one octave of screams of pain and blood-red rivers to the anticipation of the Octavian-like peace in another.65 The message of the Flagellum et renovatio mundi – political-military devastation, largely but not exclusively in Italy, out of which will emerge a universal monarch – makes for a natural incorporation of the pseudo-Birgitta prophecy. However, this poem also reflects mounting concerns about the Ottoman threat from the East. A later 1537 version adds several octaves that build upon preexisting allusions to the catastrophic Sack of Rome in order to make explicit comparisons with an even more dire torment at the hands of the Turks: “Then all of the Turks […] will enter Rome / and with their scimitars will lob off the locks / of the cardinals and bishops, / And they’ll bring more ruin than did the Germans.”66 Aside from a one-line allusion to a “great Turk” to come, the “original” pseudo-Birgitta poem makes no reference to the Ottomans;67 what is more, this later version removes entirely the only full octave borrowed from the Ave Iesu Christo, about suffering in Florence. In other words, by 1537 Birgitta still headlined a prophetic poem that had by then taken a step away from the themes central to the original apocryphal texts, fair indication that her name continued to hold a certain interpretive currency that could be applied to the wider crises facing both the Church and the Italian peninsula.

In short, while a pantheon of figures contributed to the prophetic- apocalyptic tenor of these years, Birgitta often rose to the forefront. These works conjoin to form prophetic choruses with common thematic refrains, and contributed to the continued visibility and, by implication, applicability of Birgitta.

Violence, Relics, and Birgitta’s Legacy

Birgitta’s perceived relationship to the Italian Wars would remain stable over time. A textual episode from a century later demonstrates not only the durability of these associations (particularly regarding the Sack of Rome, which held continued symbolic importance into the Counter-Reformation) but also a curious investment in reading them not through the apocryphal prophecies, as was the case before, but through her Revelations themselves. Birgitta was made to foresee the Sack and its spiritual reverberations more directly. At several moments in his 1630 Memorie sacre delle sette chiese di Roma, the Oratorian priest Giovanni Severano, who was involved with the late 16th-/early 17th-century archaeological study of Rome’s Christian history, alludes to the violence perpetrated against sacred spaces and objects during the Sack. In the section devoted to the Sancta Sanctorum, he notes that a full rendering of its relics would be impossible to undertake, both because of their sheer quantity and because of the number of them that were lost or stolen during the Sack. Following this acknowledgement, however, he offers something of a counterexample, a relic lost but recovered: Jesus’s foreskin, found in the small town of Calcata just a few miles outside of Rome:

In the year 1527, it was brought [to Calcata] by a soldier who had stolen it during the aforementioned Sack of Rome. The soldier, having been seized by the populace of that castle and locked inside a cellar, hid it there. He later disclosed its location when he was taken sick to the Hospital of Santo Spirito in Rome, as testified by [Francisco de] Toledo in [his commentary on the Gospel of] S. Luke, since the Lord did not want such an important relic to go without being honored and venerated; the Blessed Virgin had suffered with St. Birgitta over the meager honor it had once received, as we see in one of her Revelations.68

That “later” (poi) in Severano’s description of the relic’s recovery does some heavy lifting, as it gestures towards an immediacy that in reality took thirty years; the location of the foreskin was disclosed in 1557 or 1559. The allusion to Birgitta’s Revelations (specified to Rev. VI: 112 in the margin notes) heightens the spiritual significance of the theft and the restoration. In Birgitta’s revelation it is the Virgin Mary, rather than the thieving soldier, who reveals to Birgitta how the (true) holy prepuce came to be preserved during the era of persecutions, buried underground until its location (in Rome) could be safely revealed by an angel – the fleshy manifestation of Birgitta’s emphasis on the Eternal City as the center of faith. The vision concludes with Mary calling upon Birgitta’s contemporaries to revere a relic overlooked but that evidences Christ’s continued physical presence on earth: “O Rome, O Rome, if you only knew, you would surely rejoice, and if you only knew how to weep, you would weep ceaselessly, for you have a treasure that is most dear to me and you do not treat it with reverence.”69 The revelation, which Birgitta would have had in Rome during the 1350s, perhaps in situ, lent important validation to a relic whose authenticity was at times debated.70 Severano’s text invites the reader to detect suggestive parallels between Birgitta’s revelation and the events of 1527: the concealment and disclosure, and the reignition of devotion. In such a reading, the sacrilegious act is both predicted and providential.

Severano’s account revises the earlier 1625 revised edition of Ottavio Panciroli’s I tesori nascosti nell’alma città di Roma, which also describes the soldier’s plunder – here he takes a small metal chest containing a variety of relics, of which the holy prepuce was one – and associates the renewed attention it received afterward with Birgitta, paraphrasing from the same chapter of the Revelations on the ancient fate of the prepuce to which Severano points. Panciroli tells a different, somewhat more pedestrian, story of the relic’s modern journey than does Severano: after the soldier filched it, the foreskin ended up in the possession of the Anguillara family, who kept it in their lands at Calcata.71 Severano’s later account (a version of which the town still tells today) thus removes reference to all other impacted relics, provides a more thrilling story, and implicitly collapses the chronology of events in order to both heighten the drama and further stress the connection between Birgitta and the relic she had seen and venerated firsthand. While the prepuce is not returned to Rome after its rediscovery, this account does draw the perpetrator back to the scene of his crime and strengthen the relationship between the relic and the Eternal City from which Birgitta originally publicized its importance. Panciroli proffers the same conclusion that Severano would echo: the theft was a divinely sanctioned act, one that historically fulfilled Birgitta’s exhortation that this holy treasure be honored.

Both Panciroli and, later, Severano point us directly to their source text, Spanish Jesuit Francisco de Toledo’s Commentarii in Sacrosanctum Jesu Christi D.N. Evangelium Secundum Lucam, published in 1600 in both Rome and Venice. This initial account of the foreskin’s adventures is a much longer and, arguably, engaging narrative: here Maddalena Strozzi discovers the little relic chest but is preternaturally hindered from opening it as a result of her blemished soul; only the pure young Lucrezia Orsini is able to unfasten it, after which the relic is identified and returned to the Sancta Sanctorum.72 Birgitta is nowhere to be found in this early and Spanish-authored account, even in the subsequent commentary that establishes the prepuce’s spiritual value. It appears, then, that despite their acknowledged reliance on Toledo’s volume, the subsequent Italian writers substituted out the story of Maddalena and Lucrezia altogether and replaced it with the providential framework suggested by Birgitta’s Revelations.

At the end of the 17th century, the story of the stolen prepuce would get folded into Birgitta’s own biography. Guglielmo Burlamacchi revisited the episode as the sensational conclusion to a chapter on the manner in which the saint used the Jubilee year in Rome to tend to the health of the city’s souls and demonstrate her “scorching zeal.”73 As Burlamacchi would have it, Birgitta was intent on restoring public devotion to “that bit of flesh cut from the baby Jesus” for which the citizens of Rome had so little regard.74 Following a more extensive summary of Rev. VI: 112, Burlamacchi’s version of Cinquecento events fuses the accounts of Panciroli and Severano, albeit leaning towards the latter: “This most sacred relic is today found in Calcata, the territory of the Anguillara family twenty miles from Rome, where it was miraculously discovered in October 1557, after it had been hidden many years prior by a soldier who had sacrilegiously stolen it during the Sack of Rome.”75 Explicitly highlighting the sacrilege and the miracle to which his predecessors had only hinted, Burlamacchi’s account complements the overall prophetic slant of his vita.76

In short, at the distance of a century and more from the Sack, Birgitta continued to provide a fatidic lens with which to (re)interpret the event and the destruction it inflicted on Rome – but now with recourse not to the apocryphal prophecies but instead to the Revelations themselves. In this later, Counter-Reformation context, in the case of Italian-authored accounts, Birgitta’s discourse with the Virgin notably provided a redeeming rereading of the tragedy, where the violence waged against sacred spaces and objects had, in the case of the holy prepuce, the humanly unintended but divinely planned function of confirming the importance of Catholic relics.


This explicit transformation of the Revelations into the stuff of Italian Wars prophecy capped off nearly two centuries of apocalyptic expectations that intertwined the peninsula’s tumultuous politico-military woes with Birgitta’s voice. The apocryphal Birgitta of this period speaks to a world in which the grim predictions of her Revelations might seem to have already taken place to contemporaries grappling with the aftershock. A new, Christian sibyl, as highlighted by her placement in the Ponzetti Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace, during her lifetime she had examined Italy and the Roman Church from the vantage points of a foreigner and a holy widow. Already circulating in Quattrocento manuscripts, the first apocryphal prophecies offered dire warnings that were copied, discussed, updated, transformed, and paired with other works of a comparable tone at a pace that spiked in the period of the 1494 French invasion and that held steady for decades to come. Other previous prophecies were newly ascribed to Birgitta, to disseminate under her the auspices of her supposed authorship from that point forward. Her name was also blazoned across the cover pages of prophetic pamphlets, a clear marketing tool to assure curious would-be readers of their vatic authenticity and veracity, even when the saint’s role in the volume was actually marginal at best. Often placed within a chorus of Christian clairvoyants, Birgitta was regularly at the prophetic forefront, ventriloquized to warn of grisly violence, political catastrophe, and moral scourge, but also to promise a future peace and an eventual restoration of a true Catholic unity. It is thus fitting that a firsthand witness and victim of the Sack, Cardinal Ferdinando Ponzetti, should be buried under the altar in which Birgitta is pictured laying a protective hand across his arm.


We are grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions on this piece, and extend our warm thanks to Virginia Cox, Unn Falkeid, and Marco Faini for their dynamic and productive comments as well.


See Michael Hirst, “The Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria della Pace,” in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 24 (1961): 161–85, especially 164–65.


By Birgitta’s day, the bianche bende had become an important cultural signifier for widowhood, perhaps seen most famously in Nino Visconti’s angry description of his widow Beatrice d’Este in Dante’s Purgatorio VIII.74. Birgitta is depicted almost universally in this way.


Baptismal registries for the city of Florence in the early years of the 16th century demonstrate an especially high number of Brigidas being baptized. A search of baptismal records for the year 1513, for example, demonstrates that the name Brigida appears at least once on nearly every page of the registry, eclipsed seemingly only by the common names Caterina, Lucretia, and Magdalena. See Registri battesimali, Registro 227, c. 6r, records from July 19, 1513–August 3, 1513.


On Birgitta’s litigation for the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome, see especially Unn Falkeid, The Avignon Papacy Contested: An Intellectual History from Dante to Catherine of Siena (Cambridge, MA: 2017).


While many sibyls foresaw tribulations and destruction for Rome, not all also predicted such an era of coming peace; the Sibylline Oracles are one such case. Our thanks to Kelly Shannon-Henderson for this observation.


On Ponzetti’s fortunes, see especially Isabella Ianuzzi, “Ponzetti, Ferdinando” in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, 84 (2015);


For an important and provocative new reading of Gerson’s view of Birgitta, see Anna Fredriksson, “Challenging and Championing St. Birgitta’s Revelations at the Councils of Constance and Basel,” in A Companion to Birgitta of Sweden and her Legacy in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Maria Oen (Leiden: 2019), 103–31. See also Claire L. Sahlin, Birgitta of Sweden and the Voice of Prophecy (London: 2001), especially 136–69.


See especially Falkeid, The Avignon Papacy Contested, and Sahlin, Birgitta of Sweden and the Voice of Prophecy, especially 109–136.


Rev. IV: 138.12, in The Revelations of Birgitta of Sweden, trans. Denis Searby, with an introduction and notes by Bridget Morris, 4 vols. (Oxford: 2006–15), Vol. 2, 249. In the same revelation, she also warns that if Urban returns to Avignon instead, “within a short time he shall be struck with a blow that will knock his teeth out.”


On Birgitta’s political discourse and her place in 14th-century political rhetoric see Unn Falkeid, “The Political Discourse of Birgitta of Sweden,” in A Companion to Birgitta of Sweden, ed. Oen, 80–102.


On this see especially Mary Dzon, “Birgitta of Sweden and Christ’s Clothing,” in The Christ Child in Medieval Culture, ed. Mary Dzon and Theresa M. Kenney (Toronto: 2012), 117–144.


In The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, trans. Searby, Vol. 4, 16–17.


Ibid., 17. Birgitta herself focused less on her connection to the women prophets of the Bible than she did on the prophet par excellence, Moses. On this see especially Sahlin, Birgitta of Sweden and the Voice of Prophecy, 74.


See again Sahlin, Birgitta of Sweden and the Voice of Prophecy, especially 136–45.


Ibid., 222–23.


Ibid. See also Brian Richardson’s chapter in this volume.


See especially Torvald Magnusson Höjer, Studier i Vadstena Klosters och Birgittinordens historia intill midten af 1400-talet (Uppsala: 1905), 210–23.


That she stayed a foreigner in the eyes of her Italian hosts is made particularly clear by the legacy she left in Rome: the house in which she lived and died, once the property of her hostess Francesca Papazzurri, became an important embassy for Swedish Catholics after her canonization. After the Reformation, it was also a place of refuge for emigrants from the newly-Protestant Sweden.


On her calling vision, see especially Sahlin, Birgitta of Sweden and the Voice of Prophecy, 45.


On the use of the widow in the Roman context, see especially Cristelle Baskins, “Trecento Rome: The Poetics and Politics of Widowhood,” Widowhood and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe, ed. Allison Levy (Aldershot: 2003), 197–209. On Birgitta’s use of the widowed voice, see especially Falkeid, The Avignon Papacy Contested, particularly 121–45.


For a succinct historical overview, see Michael Mallett and Christine Shaw, The Italian Wars 1494–1559: War, State and Society in Early Modern Europe (New York: 2012).


Prophecy transcribed in translation in Bernard McGinn, Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages (New York: 1998 [2nd ed]), 250.


See David Abulafia, ed., The French Descent into Renaissance Italy, 1494–95: Antecedents and Effects (Aldershot: 1995); Lorenzo Polizzotto, The Elect Nation: The Savonarolan Movement in Florence 1494–1545 (Oxford: 1994); Donald Weinstein, Savonarola and Florence: Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance (Princeton, NJ: 1970).


For overviews of the Sack and its consequences, see Judith Hook, The Sack of Rome 1527, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke, UK: 2004); André Chastel, The Sack of Rome, 1527, trans. Beth Archer (Princeton, NJ: 1983).


John Gagné, “Counting the Dead: Traditions of Enumeration and the Italian Wars,” Renaissance Quarterly 67, no. 3 (2014): 791–840, 793.


For an overview, see Massimo Rospocher, “Songs of War: Historical and Literary Narratives of the “Horrendous Italian Wars” (1494–1559),” in Narrating War: Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher (Bologna: 2013), 79–97; and for a case study, with a brief comparison to Birgitta prophecies, see Jessica Goethals, “Performance, Print, and the Italian Wars: Poemetti Bellici and the Case of Eustachio Celebrino,” in Interactions between Orality and Writing in Early Modern Italian Culture, ed. Luca Degl’Innocenti, Brian Richardson, and Chiara Sbordoni (New York: 2016), 49–66.


A transhistorical overview of these themes is provided by Natalia Costa-Zalessow, “Italy as a Victim: A Historical Appraisal of a Literary Theme,” Italica 45, no. 2 (1968): 216–40. On Cola di Rienzo’s imagery, see, for instance, the chapter “Preparing for Apocalypse” in Ronald G. Musto, Apocalypse in Rome: Cola di Rienzo and the Politics of the New Age (Berkeley, Los Angeles: 2003), 104–29. See also Baskins, “Trecento Rome.”


Giorgio Varanini, ed., Lamenti storici pisani (Pisa: 1968), 15. Also see Vittorio Rossi, Storia letteraria d’Italia: Il Quattrocento (Milan: 1973), 238–39. Despite Varanini’s calls for more scholarly attention, studies on lamenti storici are still lacking.


“Franza e Spagna e Imperatore / m’àno tuta disolata!” Lamento de’ venetiani, in Antonio Medin and Ludovico Frati, eds., Lamenti storici dei secoli XIV, XV, e XVI, 3 vols. (Bologna: 1887–94), I:99.


“Il corpo mio è in tante piaghe oppresso”; Pietro Aretino, Scritti di Pietro Aretino nel Codice marciano It. XI 66 (= 6730), ed. Danilo Romei (Florence: 1987), 125–37.


See, for instance, Ottavia Niccoli, Prophecy and People in Renaissance Italy, trans. Lydia Cochrane (Princeton, NJ: 1990); Massimo Firpo, Il sacco di Roma del 1527 tra profezia, propaganda politica, e riforma religiosa (Cagliari: 1990); Marjorie Reeves, “A Note on Prophecy and the Sack of Rome (1527),” in Prophetic Rome in the High Renaissance Period (Oxford: 1992), 271–78.


Niccoli, Prophecy and People, 5–6.


Ibid., 8.


“che nara dela mortalità de Roma, del modo che al presente se dice essere fate del Papa che ha a essere perseguitato como è al presente de zente estranee.” Entry for 19 May, 1527, Tommasino Lancellotti, Cronaca Modenese, vol. 2, 12 vols. (Parma: 1862–84) 2:224; partially transcribed and discussed in Niccoli, Prophecy and People, 3.


See Nicola Catelli, “Pietro Aretino e il sacco di Roma (1526–1527),” Campi immaginabili 32–33 (2005): 22–45.


“gli spianava fino a le profezie di santa Brigida e di fra Giacopone da Pietrapana”; Pietro Aretino, Sei giornate, ed. Giovanni Aquilecchia (Bari: 1969), 318; Aretino’s Dialogues, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: 1971), 393. Also see the discussions of this passage in the essays in this volume by Brian Richardson (34–55) and Marco Faini (129–154).


“uno vendeva profetie di Santa Brizita per la terra, perché in quelle erano poste parole molto scandalose”; Marino Sanuto, I diarii, ed. N. Barozzi, vol. VIII (Venice: 1882), VIII:403.


In addition to Richardson’s chapter, see especially Michele Lodone, “Santa Brigida in Toscana. Volgarizzamenti e riscritture profetiche,” Rivista di storia della chiesa in Italia LXXIII, no. 1 (2019): 69–84, 79–84; as well as Domenico Pezzini, “The Italian Reception of Birgittine Writings,” in The Translation of the Works of St. Birgitta of Sweden into the Medieval European Vernaculars, ed. Bridget Morris and Veronica O’Mara (Turnhout: 2000), 186–212, 203–4.


“Finita la profetia di sancta Brigida la quale tratta di quello à da venire dal 1460 infino al 1470, ridotta in volgare in versi da Iacopo da Montepulciano mentre era nelle carcere del comune di Firenze.” P[ro]fetia di S[an]ta Brigida, BNCF II. IX. 125, fols. 132r–36v, at 136v. Lodone has located the poem in 36 manuscripts, dating primarily to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but with some additional examples through the seventeenth and eighteenth; Lodone, “Santa Brigida in Toscana,” 80–81.


Prophetia di S[an]ta Brigida, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (hereafter BNCF) Palatino 77, fols. 177v–80v.


Niccoli, Prophecy and People, 8; Prophetia di S. Brigida (Florence: c.1486), on which see The timing of this publication two years after Sixtus re-legitimized Birgitta’s writings may suggest that there was a new impetus to make claim to the saint.


Citations are to the edition Prophetia di Santa Brigida (Florence: 1529); we also consulted the c.1500 Roman edition.


In a noteworthy example from Birgitta’s day, Cola di Rienzo had the astounding image on the facade of the Senator’s Palace at the Campidoglio of a ship “foundering, without rudder or sail” on a perilously stormy sea, a widow as passenger, with the inscription “this is Rome.” See Falkeid, The Avignon Papacy Contested, 103–4.


Dante Alighieri, Vita nuova, ed. and trans. Dino Cervigni and Edward Vasta (Notre Dame: 1995).


See especially Sharon Strocchia, Death and Ritual in Renaissance Florence (Baltimore: 1992), 10–12.


Siena, Biblioteca degli Intronati MS 103 (A.III.28), fols. 66v–70v and 91v–92r, respectively. The manuscript (largely a collection of medieval chronicles, prophecies, and the like) contains an inscription from the compiler, Salimbene di Antonio Ormanni, that bears the date 8 July 1530. A 16th- or 17th-century version of the Ora mi volgho alla città del monte, here entitled Profetia di S.ta Brigida p[er] la città di Siena, is also available in MS 97 (A.III.22), fols. 184r–85r.


La prophetia di sancta Brigida: con una agionta sopra di Fiorenza (Siena: 1536). The corresponding section of the earlier manuscript prophecy begins “Ora vi voglio parlar,” and stretches from 68v–70v.


This most popular of the prophecies also inspired a political sonnet addressed to the city of Florence found in manuscript in BNCF Magl. 727, fols. 94r–95r, with the incipit Destati, fier lion, che sta’ tu a fare?


Lodone, “Santa Brigida in Toscana,” 80, 83–84.


Profetia de Santa Brigida, con alcune altre profetie (Venice: c.1493). We were able to compare this edition to the c.1525 one published by F. Bindoni, also in Venice.


Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, 1737, fols. 54r–57v; discussed in Lodone, “Santa Brigida in Toscana,” 83.


“che me insegni la via / ch’io possa dir con parlar atroce, / ch’ognun intenda la parola mia, / che al peccare non sia sì feroce, / però che ’l mondo aspetta gran tormento, / poco tempo gli è al finimento” (octave I; unnumbered pages in both consulted editions).


Roberto Rusconi, L’attesa della fine: Crisi della società, profezia ed apocalisse in Italia al tempo del grande scisma d’Occidente (1378–1417) (Rome: 1979), 159–60; and Lodone, “Santa Brigida in Toscana,” 83. Rusconi hypothesizes that the original date likely refers to the 1370 election of Gregory XI, who ended the Avignon Papacy in 1377.


Lodone, “Santa Brigida in Toscana,” 8, traces the movement from first and second editions to the print version but does not discuss the latter’s many textual variations.


“Più non me intendo de fare scrittura / accio il lettore non sia attediato / cio ch’io ho ditto è di grande altura / se alcuno non piace questo ditato / perdonami che lo dico con mente pura / cio che dico verà incontrato / si come s. Brigida per spirito santo / cosi converrà che sia tanto o quanto” (LIV).


“gran macel di carne humana ” (XXXI; also see XXX and L); “seran tagliati a pezi come poma” (XXXIV); “cavata la lingua e un ochio” (XLVIII).


“La Lupa perderà la doppia coda / il dolce latte gli tornarà amara”; A.III.28, c.71v.


On these works, see Niccoli, Prophecy and People, 8–10; Niccoli, “Profezie in piazza. Note sul profetismo popolare nell’Italia del primo Cinquecento,” Quaderni storici 14. 41 (1979): 500–39, 505 and 535–36; Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy, 218; Rusconi, L’attesa della fine, 147–48; and, by the same author, “‘Ex Quodam Antiquissimo Libello’. La tradizione manoscritta delle profezie nell’Italia tardomedioevale: Dalle collezioni profetiche alle prime edizioni di stampa,” in The Uses and Abuses of Eschatology in the Middle Ages, ed. Werner Verbeke, Daniel Verhelst, and Andries Welkenhuysen (Leuven: 1988), 451–52.


Florence, Biblioteca Riccardiana 1258, fols. 58v–65v (Destati o fier leone at fols. 54v–58v); Prophetia Caroli imperatoris con altre prophetie de diversi santi huomini ([Venice: 1500–1525].


“Inde Brigida libro Revelationum Sub aquila grandi […] conculcabitur ecclesia et vastabitur” (Johannes Lictenberger, Pronosticatio [Strasburg: 1488], sig. Bii v); “Unde sa[n]cta Brigida nel libro de le sue revelatio[n]e dice Le giesia de dio serà co[n]culcata sotto l’aquila gra[n]de” (Pronosticatione overo judicio vulgare, raro e più non udito, lo quale expone, et dechiara prima alcune prophetie de sancta Brigida e dela Sybilla, et de molti altri sancti homini, e de molti sapienti astrologhi [Venice: 1511], sig. Biv r). This is one of several Quattrocento Latin “Brigittine oracles” discussed by Reeves, The Influence of Prophecy, 338–40.


Giancarlo Petrella, La ‘Pronosticatio’ di Johannes Lichtenberger: Un testo profetico nell’Italia del Rinascimento (Udine: 2010), 133. Others replicated this dating.


“ho tratto for a q[ue]lle cose le qual par che occorra al p[re]sente acio che ognun senza comprar el libro possi saciar l’apetito suo circa a q[ue]sta materia”; Profetie cavate d’uno opuscolo stampato già trentanni passati il quale si chiama pronosticatione vera et più non udita (n.p., c.1530). Also see Niccoli, Prophecy and People, 176–77.


Flagellvm et renouatio mundi. Prophetia di santa Brigida & molti altri santi homini, cioe Ioachim Abbate, Bonauentura, Richardo, Guido de Parisio, Seuero, Anselmo, Vicenzo, Cuglielmo, Lattantio, Bernardino, Tomasuzzo, Hieremia, Sophonia, Amos, Ezechiel Propheta, (Venice?: 1530?). The New York Public Library holds what appears to be the earliest copy, possibly datable to 1530 but in which the date (likely that of purchase or other acquisition) September 27, 1542 had been inscribed; the NYPL hypothesizes that the volume may have been printed in Venice, but the references to Savonarola, to the Guelphs and Ghibellines, as well as a heavy Florentine focus also suggest that city as a possible provenance.


“Essendo il mondo a Dio tutto ribello / Dio con sua providentia ha terminato / de rinovarlo dapo [sic] un gran flagello / per bocca de suoi santi l’ha anuntiato / leto n’ho più de trenta vero”; “Savonarola il giusto immaculato”; Flagellvm et renouatio mundi (c.1530), i v.


“olditi … cridi ad alta voce”; “sia il fiume la sua acqua vermiglia”; “… pace et unione / [like that of] Ottaviano”; ibid., ii v, iv v.


“Tutti li esserciti Turcheschi / con superbia e sdegno entraranno in Roma / e troncaranno a cardinali e veschi / con sue simitarre la bella chioma, / più mal faranno che non fer Todeschi”; Flagellvm et renouatio mundi. Prophetia di santa Brigida & molti altri santi homini, cioe Ioachim Abbate, Bonauentura, Richardo, Guido de Parisio, Seuero, Anselmo, Vicenzo, Guglielmo, Lattantio, Bernardino, Tomasuzzo, la beata Osanna, Hieremia, Sophonia, Amos, Ezechiel Propheta (n.p.: 1537), Aii v.


“un gran turcho […] serà signore [of Hungary]” (XXVI).


“… dove l’anno 1527 fu portato da un soldato, che l’haveva rubato nel detto Sacco di Roma; il quale soldato essendo stato preso dal popolo di quel castello, e rinchiuso in una cantina, ivi lo nascose; e lo rivelò poi, essendo venuto infermo nell’Hospidale di S. Spirito di Roma, come testifica il Toledo sopra S. Luca. Non havendo voluto il Singore, che resti senza esser honorata e venerata così gran reliquia; del poco honore della quale se ne dolse già la B. Vergine con S. Brigida, come habbiamo in una sua Rivelatione.” Giovanni Severano, Memorie sacre delle sette chiese di Roma (Rome: 1630), 575.


Rev. VI: 112.4: “O Roma, o Roma, si scires, gauderes vtique, ymmo si scires flere, fleres incessanter, quia habes thesaurum michi carissimum et non honoras illum.” In The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, trans. Searby, Vol. 3, 175.


On the relic’s cult, including its relationship to saints including Catherine of Siena and Agnes Blannebkin, see Robert P. Palazzo, “The Veneration of the Sacred Foreskin(s) of Baby Jesus – A Documented Analysis,” in Multicultural Europe and Cultural Exchange, ed. James P. Helfers (Turnhout: 2010), 155–76.


Ottavio Panciroli, I tesori nascosti nell’alma città di Roma (Rome: 1625 [1st ed. 1600]), 147–48.


Francisco de Toledo, Commentarii in Sacrosanctum Jesu Christi D.N. Evangelium Secundum Lucam (Venice: 1600), 250–53.


“cocentissimo zelo”; Guglielmo Burlamacchi, Vita della serafica madre e gloriosissima vedova S. Brigida di Svetia principessa ii Nericia (Naples: 1692), 164.


“quella particella di carne, che fu tagliata al Bambino Giesù nella circoncisione.” Ibid., Vita, 170–71.


“Conservasi adesso questa sacrosanta reliquia in Calcata Terra de i Signori dell’Anguillara lontana da Roma 20 miglia, dove fu miracolosamente scoperta il 1557 nel mese di Ottobre, essendovi stata nascosta molti anni avanti da un suoldato, che l’aveva nel saccheggiamento di Roma sacrilegamente rapita.” Ibid.


See Richardson’s essay in this volume pp. 34–55.

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