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The Fear of Hell: Images of Damnation and Salvation in Early Modern Europe.

"We need to realize once and for all that we have entered a post-infernal age, with all the problems that this change will certainly bring. . . . Dreams, nightmares, ravings from agrarian cultures, harmless folklore rubbish, the cumbersome relics of incomprehensible cults of grain and seed, liturgical daydreams of rude worshippers of the bread and wine (of the kind in which a powerful God makes a hidden offering of himself), hallucinatory and short lived parousia and traumatic epiphanies, the dreams of the sick and fairytale novels all seem to have survived only in the Third World of undernourished visionaries." (vii)

It is that lost world which is the focus of Piero Camporesi's book; a world where Hell was a vivid fear and where the same "cruel" God who so threatened humanity was also a savior who allowed himself to be cannibalized as the Eucharist with miraculous results. Hell and the Eucharist are the poles of this extended essay. But its true focus lies in the list, quoted above, of things supposedly surviving now only in the minds of "undernourished visionaries"; in fact, that list nicely evokes the tone and substance of this work.

Perhaps the easiest comment to make on this book, and on Camporesi's work in general, is that many will find it difficult to take seriously. He is often styled in Italy an essayist and that is an understatement; it might be more accurate to label him a baroque mind filled with flights of fantasy, poetry, humor and the grotesque; an inveterate redactor of strange, vivid and troubling texts; and a writer driven by a veritable lust for the outrageous, evocative, and frequently impenetrable turn of long phrases. As a historian writing a review of Camporesi one feels rather like Scrooge commenting on Christmas: a decidedly cluttered and bizarre festival in this case, but one that perhaps should not be dismissed with a too easy, "Bah, humbug."

For all the "humbug" this book is filled also with suggestive ideas and with texts that often burn right through more traditional visions of the early modern period. In the first section on Hell, Camporesi builds a startlingly black picture of how the perception of Hell changed across the period largely in response to a fairly familiar list of religious, cultural, and social changes. But there is very little that is familiar in the visceral world of Hell he evokes, and, even allowing for the hyperbole and playing rather fast and loose with sources, the essay forces one to think and offers many possibilities for more serious study. The same is even more true for the second part of the book which focuses on the Eucharist and the "magical rites" which evolved around it within the Church and beyond. Here, more recent work has shown that many of Camporesi's intuitions have profound roots in early modern culture that have not received the attention warranted. And again a careful reading will be repaid with a plethora of interesting ideas.

This may be, then, "history that is fun to think," but it also requires a critical reading or the joke will be on the reader. In fact it is interesting to consider briefly the different way that Camporesi builds his "history." A look at the notes reveals that virtually every chapter has as its focus one work from the period under discussion, usually an evocative one written by a seldom read author. There is little effort to contextualize these authors or their texts; rather they are quoted extensively and not as much paraphrased as given an exegesis. That exegesis can be penetratingly accurate, poetically free, or merely outrageous. Tellingly, however, both the texts and the exegesis build in a repetitive way, giving Camporesi's prose a considerable emotional impact. In fact, recently a student suggested perceptively that the real goal of Camporesi's prose is to make the reader feel what he is writing about rather than think critically about it.

The emotional impact of the prose also can be seen as stemming from the way in which the text is laden (or perhaps overburdened would be more accurate) with adjectives, gerundives, extraneous evaluations, and allusions. Rather like a musician Camporesi is highly reliant upon rhythmic refrain/lists that build as in the opening passage of this review. Moreover, Camporesi repeats and rephrases these lists themselves through a chapter, creating a kind of beat that carries the emotional thrust of the essay, behind the commentary and texts that make up the main line of his formal analysis. As a result this book requires a different reading style: those who enjoy its music may find it history that is fun to hear; those who read it critically will find it at once frustrating and rich with implication; and understandably there will be those who will refuse to take it seriously - I have a suspicion that Camporesi may be one of the latter.

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Author:Ruggiero, Guido
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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