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Jesuit Baroque Allegorical Dramaturgy

Under the guidance of Benedetto Palmio, the Jesuits appear as the dra- maturgs of Valcamonica’s execution, where the term “dramaturg” refers to an agent capable of organizing an event and guiding all spectators present toward a specific Truth that the event itself evoked, named, and legitimized.9 In this context, the Jesuits attempted to configure Valcamonica within the allegory of Christ’s sacrifice. Though different from Christ on the individual level, when placed within the allegorical frame of sin and redemption, Valcamonica transformed from wicked sinner into a portal of sorts, through which the multitude of sinners in the audience could find a path to Heaven. Through the act of execution/ sacrifice, Valcamonica’s death opened a space for each spectator to occupy. Whoever occupied that space would enter the fold of the Church, gain visibility within God’s line of sight and have access to the sacred. While obviously aligned with the Augustinian tradition that preceded them and dominated the theological, scholastic, and pedagogical landscapes of Medieval Europe, as well as the LaSallean tradition that would appear in the eighteenth century, the Jesuits distinguished themselves from other Christian orders through their capacity to organize mass spectacles such as this.

In their role as arrangers, composers, and facilitators of an allegorical event, the Venetian Jesuits played a role quite similar to that of comfortieri (comforters) who guided condemned criminals through their final hours on earth. As groups of lay ministers comprised of noble men of good standing in society, these comforters followed a specific script to ensure that the performance of public execution did not digress into mere entertainment. As Nicholas Terpstra writes:

The comforters were well aware of the theatrical dimension of executions generally and of their work in particular. But they saw drama in two dimensions—both the drama of the execution as public event, and also their own work with the prisoners as a scene in the eternal drama of salvation. [... ] Their counseling aimed to help prisoners imagine themselves in the role of martyred saints or of biblical characters like John the Baptist, a dramatic parallel highlighted when passion plays were staged on the same piazzas used for executions. (Terpstra, “Other Side” 5-6)

In the absence of consistent first-person accounts of executions such as that which unfolded in Piazza San Marco on November 10, 1561, the manuals directing these comforters provide an alternative ground-level perspective, as it were.

Scholars have renewed attention to these manuals, most recently by providing a new translation of both books belonging to The Comforters’ Manual used by Bologna’s comfortieri, known collectively as the Company of Death. Whereas Book 1, attributed to an Observant Augustinian, Cristoforo da Bologna, contained the theological grounding of the comforter’s charge, Book 2 relays a practical account of the comforter’s mission and, though deriving from an anonymous source, seems to come from extensive first-hand experience (Terpstra, “Editorial Notes” 185-186). Though the 62 chapters depict an arduous journey from prison cell to chopping block, the overall image presented by the books’ authors remains optimistic:

Everything rests in the prisoner’s own decision to accept his execution calmly. By doing this and by forgiving all those who have a hand in securing his death (his enemies or victims, the police and guards, the judge, the executioner) the prisoner can change his very identity. No longer a criminal, he is transformed into a martyr. And like the Good Thief crucified beside Jesus on Calvary, he can anticipate that in the instant after the axe falls or the rope tightens, he will be with Christ in paradise. (186)

The comforter, then, exists as a medium capable of facilitating the transition from sinner to martyr. Repentance drives the transformation, and that action must come from the condemned; the comforter, however, has the difficult task of keeping the condemned focused on the primary aim of the event. Without an honest confession, the transformation to martyr will falter and the everlasting life promised by the scripture will transpire in hell as opposed to the heavenly abode of Christ himself.

Any attempt to graft Valcamonica’s unique position onto the scenarios outlined in the Bolognese Comforter’s Manual would fail, since his paradoxical position as criminal and confessor falls outside the imagined situations outlined in the manuals’ two books. At the same time, Valcamonica’s deviations from the Bolognese scenarios do in fact shed light on the pastoral maneuvering that I have proposed in this chapter so far. In Chapter 12 of Book 1, for example, “Which deals with the ways and the conditions of confession,” the author avers that a complete confession requires five steps. First, it must be complete; nothing can be left out. Second, the condemned must feel ashamed. Third, the confession “should be made with sorrow, contrition, and repentance of all your sins.” Fourth, the penitent must not “excuse your sins yourself. Instead you must denounce them and show them, and not only your sins, but even sinful circumstance.” Fifth, the confession “should be yours and not another’s. That is, you must confess your sins and not someone else’s, and this David teaches us when he says, ‘I readied myself to confess all my sins to God’ [cf. Ps. 32:5]. Take note that he did not say ‘the sins of my neighbor,’ but rather ‘my sins’” (Bolognese Comforters 207-209). While Valcamonica seems to follow the second and third prescriptions, he stops short of confessing the details of all of his sins. Moreover, his grand rhetorical maneuver of acknowledging and then pardoning the sins of his spectators and his accusers constitutes a breech of the fourth and fifth steps. Either Valcamonica has failed to come clean, even at his final moment, or his split identity as criminal and priest provided him with a kind of dispensation. Presented to the Venetian crowd as the shepherd willing to sacrifice himself for all and each of his sheep, Valcamonica may have had a different script to follow then that outlined by the Bolognese Company of Death.

This thought leads to the intriguing possibility that the Venetian branch of the Company of Jesus understood Valcamonica’s execution in a different way than the Bolognese Company of Death understood their scaffold scenes. Given the ability of the Jesuits to motivate the Venetian governors to pass sentence on Valcamonica, their desire to lead all present in the Piazza onto the Pathway to God, and their belief in the power of confession, I argue that Jesuit dramaturgy did indeed fulfill the role of comforter. Their primary charge, however, was not Valcamonica himself but, rather, the hearts and minds of all present in the piazza. The lay ministers of the Bolognese Company devoted themselves to the easing of the condemned, but the Jesuits focused instead on the guidance of the entire flock.

The dramaturgy at work, then, was one of carving out a viewpoint from which the spectators could begin to see the path to God. The Bolognese Manual provides an asymmetrical model for understanding the situation and I turn to it once again in order to understand this particular idea. In Book 2, Chapter 27, “The manner you must have when he who has to die kneels down,” the anonymous author paints a picture of the comforter upon the scaffold: “When you are at the block and he who has to die kneels down to put his head on it, you kneel down as well, using your right knee and keeping the tavoletta in such a way that he always has his eye on it, that is, so he always sees it” (274). And then again, a few lines later: “make sure that you never move the tavoletta under his face until the mallet is close to the chopping block. And make sure that you pull the tablet away at the same time as the blow, so that he who has to die does not notice” (275). There, on the scaffold, the comforter holds a painted scene of Christ upon the cross directly in front of the gaze of the condemned. Indeed, this picture, the tavoletta, a kind of inspirational image into which the man about to die can transport himself as he prepares to transform from sinner to martyr, provides not just an on-the-ground perspective of execution scenes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but also a firmer understanding of the Jesuit dramaturgical act.

Kathleen Falvey explains that, “For the one being comforted, the tavoletta became at once an object of intense devotional concentration and a kind of ritually reflecting mirror in which he was urged to see himself strengthened, consoled, and ultimately transformed” (Falvey 19). The visual field of the tavoletta constituted a parallel plain of existence that accompanied the earthly realm but remained distinct from it, acting as a promise to the man about to die that his final destination will bring him peace. Situating these scenes of death within their historical moment, Falvey also demonstrates that the scene of death itself functioned as an extension to or perhaps an analogue of the popular passion plays of late fifteenth-century towns such as Bologna and Ferrara. In this scene, however, the condemned played the role of Christ and the comforter, again acting as medium, worked to guarantee the authenticity of the condemned man’s performance through his many acts of support, such as holding the tavoletta before the man’s face.10

In Piazza San Marco, however, the Jesuits were not on hand to position the tavoletta in front of Valcamonica. Instead, they transformed Valcamonica into a tavoletta and placed the scene of his sacrifice in front of the eyes of the spectators who had come to watch him die. From the actions taken immediately by Benedetto Palmio after hearing about the misdeeds in the Convertite to the consecration of other houses like the Zitelle, from the conversations with Venetian legislators capable of handing down a death sentence to the moment when Valcamonica’s beheaded corpse was reduced to ash, the Jesuits, as organizers of the event and arrangers of the look, constructed an elaborate allegorical dramaturgy that would have lasting impact on the souls of Venetians.

How is the execution infused by an allegorical dramaturgy as opposed to, say, a symbolic dramaturgy? In Walter Benjamin’s treatise on the Trauerspiel (Mourning Play), he describes allegory as the speculative side of the symbol, “adopted so as to provide the dark background against which the bright world of the symbol might stand out” (Benjamin, Tragic Drama 161). The symbol, he claims, finds its perfect application in the work and thought of the German Romantics who understand it as a static construct through which the “beautiful is supposed to merge with the divine in an unbroken whole” (160). The baroque allegory, by distinction, has a truth-content as well as a formal or aesthetic semblance, each of which has a subtle dialectical complexity that the Romantics evacuated in order to make room for the image of the Whole.

Benjamin’s analysis of the truth-content to the baroque allegory paves the way back to the present discussion of Jesuit dramaturgy. Within the truth-content:

[a]ny person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else. Within this possibility a destructive, but just verdict is passed on the profane world: it is characterized as a world in which the detail is of no great importance. But it will be unmistakably apparent [... ] that all of the things which are used to signify derive, from their very fact of pointing to something else, a power which makes them appear no longer commensurable with profane things, which raises them onto a higher plane, and which can, indeed, sanctify them. Considered in allegorical terms, then, the profane world is both elevated and devalued. (175)

First of all, this definition allows for the possibility that Valcamonica’s death “can mean absolutely anything else,” that is, it could indeed be the act that reveals the path to consolation. Second, in that scenario, Valcamonica stands in for the intricacies of the life-practice required to transition from desolation to consolation. As allegorical object, Valcamonica becomes the crystallized distillation of the process of repentance. By standing in as the exemplary penitent, Valcamonica is no longer commensurable with profane things; that is, he begins the metamorphosis, the transition from earth to heaven. The execution sanctifies him, but this act does not erase his bad deeds; rather, it points out the disparity between sacred and profane. That a priest could become so desolate reveals that no one is safe from sin, but, by extension, no sin is so great that a person cannot turn around his or her life. The truth-content of the allegory encapsulated both the processes required on the part of the profane and desolate individual to become holy and attain consolation as well as the promise of redemption and forgiveness offered to those who successfully make the transition. The dramaturgical structure of the execution presents Valcamonica, the shepherd, as the embodiment of that truth.

The formal or aesthetic correlate to the dialectic of the allegorical truth- content is the dialectic of convention and expression. As Benjamin explains, “The allegory of the seventeenth century is not convention of expression, but expression of convention. At the same time, expression of authority, which is secret in accordance with the dignity of its origin, but public in accordance with the extent of its validity” (175). Shifting one’s gaze back to Piazza San Marco, the authority of which Benjamin speaks is that of the Jesuits who stand in for Christ on earth. This is the meaning of their name, The Society of Jesus. They do not usurp Christ’s power, but, like Valcamonica once positioned upon the scaffold, they work to embody it. They speak on Christ’s behalf and they carry his cross. This was in fact the vision that came to Ignatius Loyola when, in 1537, Christ appeared to him while he was on his way to Rome. Loyola’s interpretation of the vision was that Christ wanted Ignatius to carry the cross for him; that is, to do God’s service on earth. Thus, the Jesuits were the servants enacting the wishes of Christ.

Jesuit authority was secret insofar as the Society concealed the true authority of Christ. Here there is a trace of pantheism and the mythical allegories of classical Greece. In those myths, no one person could see Zeus’s power in all its glory; that person would be obliterated. Thus, Zeus appeared in myths in the form of swans, stags, and other figures. This tradition continued in Judaism when God appeared in objects like the burning bush, and then Christianity subsumed this very tradition into is own history. The few people to whom God exposed himself directly, one of whom was Ignatius Loyola, became a conduit capable of transmitting God’s messages to others. Via the instructions of Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits comported themselves as Christ’s emissaries on earth. They were the proprietors of Christ’s secret dignity, which remained concealed in heaven. At the same time, however, this secret that the Jesuits kept was entirely public. It was out there for all to see. It was a secret that was necessarily visible: this is the formal antinomy of the allegory. Instead of the Venetian crowd gaining a straight line of sight into God’s grace, they receive proof of its secret authority in the full visibility of Valcamonica, rendered through a highly theatrical performance for which Palmio acted as dramaturg.

Baroque allegory harnesses the kinetic momentum of an event’s unfolding in time while also crystallizing the entire lineage of, in this case, sacrifices modeled on that of Christ’s martyrdom into one flashpoint:

The mythical instant [Nu] becomes the ‘now’ [Jetzt] of contemporary actuality; the symbolic becomes distorted into the allegorical. The eternal is separated from the events of the story of salvation, and what is left is a living image open to all kinds of revision by the interpretative artist. (183)

The mythic instant, Nu, is that infinite instant during which Christ died on the cross. In the execution, the Nu became the Jetzt of Valcamonica’s sacrifice. Valcamonica transformed from an isolated symbol of the shepherd into an allegory of all of God’s shepherds who had ever made a significant sacrifice. He transformed from a static object into an event. From the Deleuzian perspective, Valcamonica’s status as allegorical object broke free of its temporal (and symbolic) mold to become “a temporal modulation that implie[d] as much the beginnings of a continuous variation of matter as a continuous development of form” (Deleuze, The Fold


This temporal modulation was a dramatic metamorphosis, the function of which was to create a unifying point of view for all the spectators in the piazza to inhabit. “A point of view” in this instance, to quote Deleuze, “is not what varies with the subject [... ] it is, to the contrary, the condition in which an eventual subject apprehends a variation (metamorphosis), or: something = x (anamorphosis)” (20). For the Jesuits, all Venetians gathered to watch the execution were “eventual subjects” within the Kingdom of God. The metamorphosis unfolding in front of those spectators’ eyes was the transition of Valcamonica-as-criminal into the shepherd as envisioned within the schema of pastoral power and staged within the framework of this particular (and peculiar) form of pastoral theatre. Once converted, the shepherd became the threshold linking the domains of the profane and the sacred.

Within the composition of the allegory as a whole, Valcamonica was the “x” that marked the spot of God’s presence on earth, as in Deleuze’s baroque formula “something = x (anamorphosis).” This formula inserts an important distinction in the perception of the event from the ground level in the piazza. Though the spectators were numerous, the allegorical frame of the event did not allow each spectator to perceive Valcamonica from his or her own perspective. The metamorphosis of Valcamonica “[was] not a variation of the truth according to the subject, but the condition in which the truth of a variation appear[ed] to the subject” (20). In other words, through the act of execution/sacrifice, Valcamonica’s death opened a space for each spectator to occupy. Whoever occupied that space would enter the fold of the Church, gain visibility within God’s line of sight and have access to the sacred.

Thus, the execution does not rely on symbolic representation to persuade the multitude to return to the flock. Rather, the execution forwarded the “living image” of Valcamonica (Christ-like, but revised by the Jesuits who were the interpretive artists) as a portal or threshold through which the multitude must pass if they desired to move from the profane to the sacred. The fundamental difference between a symbolic and an allegorical dramaturgy is the movement inherent in the object around and through which the allegory is constructed. The symbol points to movement whereas the allegory is movement itself crystallized into a dialectical image. In terms of this execution, the movement appears on two levels. It appears on a formal level in the body of Valcamonica who, upon the scaffold, becomes penitent and transforms his subjectivity from that of a sinner to that of a purified member of God’s flock. On the level of truth- content, the spectators perceiving this transformation of Valcamonica’s subjectivity perceive a path that, should they follow it, will lead to their own conversion. After Valcamonica’s body is converted to ash, the space left behind, the “x,” awaits the next individual to inhabit it.

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