Jesuit Pastoral Theatre: The Case of Father Pietro Leon da Valcamonica
Seeping into the fibers of what appear to be three sheets of school instructional paper, and tucked away at the very end of the “Z” section of an alphabetized catalogue of churches in Venice, one finds ink that preserves the final words of a priest condemned to public execution in Piazza San Marco on 10 November 1561. There, in the Cicogna Codex of the Biblioteca di Museo Civico Correr, a blotchy and at times indecipherable text relays the intriguing monologue of Father Pietro Leon da Valcamonica to posterity, a monologue that culminates with a third- person description of the priest’s gruesome exit:
[A]nd he turned to the Executioner, and kissed him, and placing his head on his knee he said to the people he advises us to pray, and to him was given the Axe 8 times [... his head] wouldn’t come off until finally it was cut off with a knife [... ] and then it was placed outside under the loft[ed area of the scaffold], where it was burned, and like that it was the end of his life, and as has been said, his sins were overcome. (Cicogna)1
Once the rector of the Convertite (The House of the Converted, aka Santa Maria Maddalena) on the Venetian island of Giudecca (or “Zuecca” in the Venetian dialect), Valcamonica worked his way to the scaffold by prostituting and sexually molesting the young women he was assigned to protect. One of many such houses in sixteenth-century Venice, S. Maria Maddalena existed to protect women, some just girls, whose financial circumstances had driven them to prostitution. Though supposedly © The Author(s) 2017
W. Daddario, Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy,
Performance Philosophy, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49523-1_4
converted from their unholy profession by the shepherds at the head of such houses, the charges of Valcamonica had been violently led astray. Some sources suggest that the priest went as far as to drown the children born from his sexual assaults (Ruggiero 53).2 The Consiglio dei Dieci (Council of Ten), Venice’s most powerful branch of government at the time, found him guilty of these crimes and sent Valcamonica to the scaffold erected between the two now iconic columns outside the Palazzo Ducale (The Doge’s Palace) where the priest gave up his soul in what would have been an uncommonly violent execution event for the Republic known throughout Europe as the Serenissima (the Most Serene).
This historical, embodied event that researchers now access through a quasi-illegible, textual artifact slowly comes into focus once the document from the Cicogna Codex enters into conversation with an assemblage of other historical sources and phenomena, including Giovanni Botero’s theories on il ragion di stato (the Reason of State), Michel Foucault’s historiography of pastoral power, the Bologna Comforter’s Manual that instructed lay ministers on how to guide condemned criminals through their final moments on earth, and, perhaps most importantly, the presence in Venice of the newly nominated Society of Jesus. Situated in a public square that resonated with the sounds of civic and religious theatrical events throughout the calendar year, which itself sat within the heart of a city known for its nearly incessant private performance events and much chronicled Carnevale entertainments, Valcamonica’s execution, interpreted through historico-philosophical analysis, reveals a large-scale social performance staged with incredibly high stakes. What begins as a textual index of a historical event becomes a script, which, analyzed in tandem with the bodies speaking and directing its language, projects a faint image of this performance upon which contemporary audiences can reflect.
In other words, though the word execution conveys the gist of the beheading to contemporary readers, this chapter proposes that a more nuanced understanding of the event, as well as of the conditions that made the event possible, comes into view by reading Valcamonica’s execution as an elaborate performance staged for specific political and spiritual purposes. The route leading to the historical perspective from which one can glimpse this performance begins with a consideration of the e/affects that such an execution might have produced. The e/affects change when one considers the event from different points of view. For example, Venetian legislators understood Valcamonica’s burnt corpse in an entirely different way than did the Jesuit spiritual advisers who were beginning to work their way into the hearts and minds of those legislators. Taking the archived remains of the priest’s final words as a starting point, then, this chapter will first zoom out to offer a wide-angle perspective on the mechanism of corporal punishment and then zoom in to expose this bloody event not just as a performance but also as a specific kind of baroque pastoral theatre.
Whereas the previous two chapters mapped the allegorical language embedded in the baroque pastoral landscapes of Italian gardens and Colonna’s and Tasso’s texts, on the one hand, and Beolco’s askew and aslant Pastoral, on the other hand, this chapter develops a new picture of the pastoral shepherd’s tale and provides a manifestation of what Egginton calls the major baroque strategy. In the Piazza San Marco on November 10, 1561, the shepherd in this pastoral tale was not a fictional character but a flesh-and-blood leader of the Christian flock. The drama of the Jesuit pastoral theatre actually revolved around the tale of two shepherds, one who had led the flock astray through sin and one who would harness the downfall of such sins to reveal the path toward forgiveness and eternal life. From the perspective of the Venetian Jesuits, these two identities at times coexisted within the body of one shepherd, Valcamonica himself, whose villainous actions, framed through a particular philosophy of love and forgiveness, transfigure him into a martyr. But before schematizing the mechanics of that drama and explicating the paradoxical role of the shepherd in this Jesuit pastoral theatre, I would like to approach Valcamonica’s demise from the point of view of the Venetian government. Such a perspective offers historical contextualization, which doubles as a survey of the political environment of the Republic in the late sixteenth- century.