Dung and the Madonna: A Powerful Mixture in Renaissance Florence

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At the Italian Cultural Institute in New York: The “Case” of Antonio Rinaldeschi

Remember the impassioned controversy that broke out when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani condemned the Brooklyn Museum for displaying a painting by Chris Offili in which the Virgin Mary was decorated with dung? A new book by two distinguished historians about an episode of dung-throwing in Renaissance Florence—and the religious devotion that ensued--serves as a reminder of the unpredictable ways in which popular religious feeling finds expression.

Today a new book, Sacrilege and Redemption in Renaissance Florence, by William J. Connell and Giles Constable, captures the essence of the Renaissance’s controversial spirituality through the case of a Florentine nobleman.

Florence, summer of 1501: a gambler named Antonio Rinaldeschi was arrested and hanged after throwing horse dung at a painting above a church door of the Virgin Mary. His punishment was severe, even for the times, and the three crimes with which he was formally charged, gambling, blasphemy and attempted suicide, did not normally warrant the death penalty.

The authors show how the political and religious context of Renaissance Florence in the wake of the execution of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola resulted in Rinaldeschi’s unusual death sentence. With the help of newly-discovered contemporary documents they show how, with help from Savonarola’s followers, the episode came to be appreciated as “miraculous,” leading to the establishment of a new religious devotion in the heart of the city.

Elegantly written and handsomely illustrated, Sacrilege and Redemption in Renaissance Florence unveils a series of discovered textual and visual sources—some presented for the first time--concerning this striking episode. Particularly startling is a depiction of the episode in nine scenes on a panel now in the Stibbert Museum in Florence. The scenes were painted by a contemporary Florentine artist now for the first time identified as the painter Filippo Dolciati. The study should also be seen in the context of art historian Jack Wassermann’s recent theory about Michelangelo and the damage done to his last Pieta` (the great artist never meant to destroy his masterpiece, knowing he would be accused of blasphemy).

With its minute reconstruction of the particulars of a curious episode that absorbed the attention of the entire city, Sacrilege and Redemption brings to life in an unprecedented way the Florence of Machiavelli, Savonarola, Leonardo and Michelangelo and its religious background.

The book will be presented to the public on Monday, November 21, 2005 – at 6 PM. at the Italian Cultural Institute, 686 Park Avenue, New York.    R.S.V.P. Renata Sperandio (212) 879 4242 ext. 323. Press contact Daniela Puglielli (908) 212 7846.

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Daniela Puglielli
908 212 7846
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