A religion of things

16 March 2017 | by Laura Gascoigne


It seems a particular cruelty of fate that a country with such a rich cultural heritage as Italy should lie along not one, but two tectonic fault lines. When earthquakes strike, as they did across central Italy last year, the human tragedy is compounded by the loss to history.

Among the casualties of last October’s tremors in the Marche was the Franciscan convent of Santa Chiara in Camerino, where in the fifteenth century the mystic Camilla Battista da Varano experienced visions of the Madonna nursing the Christ Child. They came to her while cradling a life-sized polychromed wooden doll of the Infant Jesus called a bambinello, which after her death became an object of veneration. At the Epiphany, the locals still queue to kiss its feet.

The bambinello’s fame spread far and wide. A couple of years ago, a research team of three female academics from the University of   Cambridge investigating household piety in the Italian Renaissance arranged to borrow it for an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum. When news of the earthquake broke last year they feared the worst – until a photograph arrived from the Mother Superior showing the bambinello lying unscathed among the ruins of the convent chapel. The miraculous survivor now has pride of place at the entrance to the exhibition, “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy” (until 4 June).

Coinciding with the quincentenary of the Reformation, the Fitzwilliam’s show challenges the accepted view that Protestantism encouraged personal piety in the home, while Catholic piety was priest-ridden and practised in church. In the past, this stereotype was reinforced by the fact that the most obvious evidence of Italian Renaissance piety consists of altarpieces commissioned for churches. Until now, relics of personal piety as practised in the household – domestic artworks, devotional objects and books – have been below the academic radar.

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