Recording Miracles in Renaissance Italy
By Mary Laven
Past and Present, Vol. 230, Suppl.11:1 (2016)
Introduction: If you take the train from Naples around the northern rim of Mount Vesuvius, you will arrive at Madonna dell’Arco, on the edge of the town of Sant’Anastasia. The station takes its name from the large and rather grandiose whitewashed sanctuary that dominates the neighbourhood. With its generic belfry and copper-green cupola, the church building, begun in 1593 and much extended in the twentieth century, is nothing to write home about architecturally. But its bulky presence is a good starting point for thinking about the concrete means by which communities seek to record miraculous events.
According to tradition, on Easter Monday 1450 a local lad was playing the ball game pall-mall with his friends when — in a fit of irritation — he threw the ball at a painting of the Madonna that had been placed within an arch (hence ‘Madonna dell’Arco’). This act of sacrilege ignited a trio of miracles: firstly, the Virgin’s face bled and secondly, the boy found himself rooted to the ground and unable to flee. The third miracle related to the punishment of the boy. When news reached the Count of Sarno, who held judicial authority over the region, he reacted quickly by condemning the accused to be hanged from the lime tree next to the Madonna.
Two hours later, following the death of the intemperate youth, the tree dramatically withered — an event that was perceived as lending sacred force to the secular justice of the hanging. These were the first of thousands of miracles that subsequently occurred thanks to the intervention of the Madonna dell’Arco and which, to this day, are documented in a variety of media at the church and adjacent study centre.