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The virgin and the bear: religion, society and the Cold War in Italy.

I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart ... If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.

Message of Our Lady of Fatima, 1917 (1)

On 18 April 1948, after two decades of Fascist dictatorship, Italians went to the polls to elect the first parliament of the Republic inaugurated at the start of that year. The election was essentially a contest between the governing Christian Democrats, and the Popular Front, a coalition led by the Italian Communists and revolutionary Socialists. The election was not so much about "issues" as it was about "ideology," a clash between two competing visions of Italian society--a conservative, Catholic, capitalist Italy envisioned by Christian Democracy, versus a revolutionary, secular, socialist Italy envisioned by the Popular Front. The fundamental clash of visions left precious little room for any middle ground as Italy's revolutionary Left made a strong bid to seize power at the ballot box.

The Vatican made no secret of how the Church fathers expected the faithful to vote. Well over a year before the election, Pope Plus XII declared from the balcony of St. Peter's that the political decision Italians faced could be reduced to the following choice: "essere con Cristo o contro Cristo: e tutta la questione," to be either with Christ or against Christ. (2) For Italian voters, then, unlike voters in traditional democracies, the choice was not between political parties or philosophies, but between heaven and hell. That was the implication of Pius XII's admonition, and in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, the Pontiff's intervention was bound to influence the vote of many devout Italian Catholics.

The pope's declaration marked the start of a concerted, controversial, inventive campaign on the part of Italian Catholicism to reverse the seemingly inexorable trend toward Communist victory at the ballot box. At the behest of the highest authorities in Vatican City, the Church employed its capillary network of parishes and lay organizations and experimented with new forms of mass mobilization to defend Catholicism as a central institution in the temporal and spiritual life of Italy. And, yet, for all the seeming novelty of these efforts, in the end, it fell to a most ancient and sacred devotional figure, the Blessed Virgin Mary, to help Italian Catholics fight what they would say was the "good fight" for God and country against a foreign, menacing presence.

But clerical intervention of an organized, almost official sort--as with the grand Marian pilgrimages of 1947-48--is only one side of the equation, one dimension of Catholic responses to the political crisis created by the Popular Front's drive for power. For we still have to account for popular responses among the Catholic masses to the political events of the early Cold War. In such an atmosphere of public devotion promoted by the Marian pilgrimages, and given the deep-seated faith in Mary's exceptional powers to save individuals and communities from danger, popular mobilization around the image of Mary spawned a wave of apparitions and miraculous cures. The Virgin was everywhere to be seen in the weeks preceding the 1948 election. She appeared in the most unlikely places: high atop churches, in caves, and even, we shall see, several metres underground. Officially, the Church urged caution and restricted public veneration of the unsubstantiated apparitions of the pre-election period. Some apparitions were actually publicly dismissed by high-ranking clergy as something other than celestial just days before the April vote.

The compelling question for historians is not whether the apparitions were true or not--something that science can never fully disprove, and faith necessarily believes is possible; rather, for historians, the question is why did scores of Italians claim to experience apparitions and miracles in the weeks before the votes? Why did so many of those who did not see or hear or feel any supernatural sign, still believe the claims to be tree? How was it that even the mainstream national media, from newspapers to public radio, reported on the visions and miracles as fact, throwing caution and scepticism to the wind?

For many years, scholars have dismissed these questions as interesting, but ultimately historically inconsequential. Secular scholars and other commentators have usually dismissed popular devotion to apparitions as the product of a sincere but misguided adherence to a manipulative Church hierarchy, as the irrational reaction on the part of ignorant and impressionable Catholic masses. This was how Emile Zola and other secular critics characterized the intensity of popular devotion at Lourdes in the 19th century. In her compelling study of French Catholicism's most enduring marian shrine, the historian Ruth Harris observes that Zola's basic assumption about Lourdes has become a kind of template for historians of the nineteenth century. Where medievalists revel in accounts of supernatural phenomena, treasuring them as invaluable insights into the mentality of the so-called "early modern" world, historians of the modern era are rather "ill at ease with, if not actually repelled by," modern variants of the same supernatural phenomena. "The magical incantations of the peasant world," writes Harris, "the pious murmurings of female devotees of the Sacred Heart ... let alone miraculous cures, are usually seen as little more than superstitious remnants on the road to extinction." (3)

The critics of the Italian apparitions of the early Cold War have not strayed very far from this approach. (4) What follows below argues just the opposite--such phenomena of a seemingly inconsequential, irrational, trivial nature may actually permit, as Carlo Ginzburg puts it, "the comprehension of a deeper, otherwise unattainable reality." (5) Writing about the nineteenth century Italian art expert Giovanni Morelli who developed a new method to ascertain the authorship of paintings attributed to the old masters by paying close attention not to the most obvious characteristics of a subject of art, but to seemingly trivial details, such as earlobes, fingernails, fingers and toes--Ginzburg notes that even Freud accorded the morellian technique of studying marginal or trivial data a privileged position in psycho-analysis. Freud himself reasoned that psychoanalysis owed much to the morellian interpretative method, since psychology too was "accustomed to divine secret and concealed things from unconsidered or unnoticed details, from the rubbish heap, as it were, of our observations." (6)

It is not my intention to submit the Italian election of 1948 to psychoanalysis, even less to a careful examination, figuratively speaking, of earlobes, fingernails and other such "trifle" matters. Still, by examining the use that was made of sacred images and devotional practices of Italian Catholicism during the 1948 campaign, I want to draw the reader's attention to seemingly minor details in order to arrive at what Ginzburg describes as '% more profound, less obvious type of history." (7)

In so doing, I want to widen the notion of what is "political"; to weave together the broad political narrative of 1948 with the social and psychological dimensions that determined how the election was experienced at the grassroots; to understand how factors such as popular piety and gender, for instance, conditioned the conduct of the campaign, as well as its outcome. Like Ruth Harris, I want to employ a more "sympathetic approach," a different approach from that of so-called mainstream historians, to arrive at a deeper understanding of the Italian apparitions of the late 1940s. (8) In some respects, this approach is mote anthropology than history, in that it seeks to suspend preconceived notions of individual or collective behaviour, and so assess the apparitions on their own terms. Such an approach begins from the basic assumption that, whatever their scientific veracity or theological credibility, apparitions are genuine spiritual experiences for the faithful involved, either as participants or observers. In fact, a more "sympathetic" approach may bring us as close as we can come to being participant-observers of the events in question. This, in turn, can help us to render a more profound history both of the nature of the phenomena, and of the early Cold War in Italy.

The Marian apparitions that spread across Italy in the weeks leading up to the April 1948 election tell us much about the ways in which cultural, social, even psychological factors determined and conditioned how ordinary Italians, their political leaders, as well as foreign policymakers acted in the heady climate of 1947-1948. The wave of apparitions on the eve of the 1948 election reflected both an individual and collective search for meaning, order and protection on the part of ordinary Italians who worried about the implications for the faith and for the country of the Popular Front's bid for power. This was evidence of the extent to which the cult of Mary had moved from fighting secularization--the bete noire of the Church in the 19th century--to fighting the spread of Soviet Communism.

That the Madonna was effective in the campaign to defeat Communism in 1948, to the extent this was the case, tells us something about the way in which Italian Catholics defined, articulated and defended their interests and that of their faith in the face of danger, real or perceived. The nature of the 1948 campaign and its outcome, for one, can best be explained in terms of Italy's unique position as the seat of the universal Roman Church, and by the age-old intersection between the civic and the religious in daily life and in official public discourse. Inconsequential and irrational though they may seem, I argue that the apparitions and miracles of the pre-election period were but a recent manifestation of the deep-seated tendencies and tensions of Italy's uneasy history as seat of two institutions, one temporal, and the other religious.

For centuries, Italians had turned to the Virgin Mary in times of individual or collective trouble to ask for salvation or deliverance. For centuries, Italians had been building churches, both immense and ornate sanctuaries, and tiny rural stone chapels that bore the name of the mother of Jesus. For centuries, Italian artists, from the geniuses of the Renaissance to anonymous and mediocre village artists and artisans had poured their artistic energy into rendering homage to the Virgin Mary. In towns and cities throughout the country, street-side frescoes, mosaics and tiny niches bearing the image of some Marian entity abounded. Borrowing from the historian Mario Isnenghi, I consider this intersection of political and religious symbols and discourse a constant in Italian history. As Isnenghi observes, the religious manifestations of the 1948 campaign, "comes from far back." (9)

The prospect of a Marxist victory at the polls in April 1948 and the rise to power of an atheistic, anti-clerical government in Rome; the spectre of civil unrest or insurrectionary violence; or even the faint but frightening prospect of armed military invasion from behind the Iron Curtain; these were real threats to Italian Catholics in 1948. They did not need to hear it from the Church fathers to understand that Italy would be a very different place should the Communists seize power at the dawn of the republican era. And so, like bread rioters or the crowds that flocked to apparition sites in the nineteenth century, Italian Catholics took to the streets and piazzas of their towns and villages, brandishing the symbols and practices of popular religiosity. The moving statues, the weeping icons, the throngs of devotees who crowded around Marian statues or venerated her at one of the many apparition sires, chanting, singing, reciting the rosary en masse--these were to Italian Catholics in 1948 what Garibaldi, Gramsci, the hammer and sickle and the Internationale were to the Popular Front: tools with which to fight the good fight, for God and country.

Until recently, historians of modern Europe have dismissed apparitions as an illegitimate field of historical analysis believing, as Zola did, that apparitions belong to the realm of superstition and irrationality, not scholarly enquiry. Many scholars prefer to consider the phenomena of apparitions and miracles as merely the product of individual and at times collective delusion, deserving of our derision, not serious study. (10) To the extent scholars have paid attention to apparitions, we have seen, it has been to document and usually denounce the apparitions and their official promotion as evidence of the Catholic hierarchy's efforts to cultivate a direct relationship with the masses, and thereby preserve and promote Church power and influence in an increasingly secular age.

Other scholars who bother with the subject of apparitions seek refuge in the illusory explanatory certitude offered by Freud and psychoanalysis. Trying to account for the greater propensity of Italian Catholics to experience Marian apparitions, Michael Carroll reduces apparition experiences to a basic human need for parental protection from imminent danger. "The adult seeks protection from current danger," observes Carroll, "from a god or gods modeled upon ... parental memories." And so, the argument goes, it is an easy step for the mind to take, from seeking protection in the memory of one's own mother, to seeking protection from the mother of all mothers; from the quintessential maternal figure, Mary, the Mother of God. (11)

In recent years, however, historians have paid closer attention to popular culture, especially non-religious manifestations of popular culture, such as working-class movements. This emphasis on non-religious popular culture is understandable, writes historian David Blackbourn, "only if one accepts that this was a predominantly secular age." Writing on apparitions in 19th century Germany, Blackbourn flatly dismisses the assumption that the modern era has been a largely secular age, and the same could be said about the 20th century. Despite creeping secularization over the past two centuries or so, the fact remains that, even in so-called "secular" Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries, most people professed one form of Christian faith or another. Indeed, Blackbourn carries his reasoning a step further--he considers the behaviour of apparition crowds as a "window on forms of collective Catholic action," that merit the attention of historians as much as, say, the collective action of working-class movements. In a 19th century world defined by secularization and the emergence of modern nation-states, the Virgin Mary proved a potent weapon for Catholics in their straggle against both secularization and the hostility of the nascent nation-states of Europe to Church temporal power and influence. "The pilgrimage badges, Marian hymns and miraculous spring-waters of the apparition crowds," Blackbourn argues, "were a rival set of emblems," to the flags, anthems and monuments of the modern nation-state. (12)

The appeal to the Virgin Mary for protection in a time of perceived crisis and uncertainty was by no means novel to popular Catholicism, in Italy or elsewhere. Indeed, since at least the twelfth century, western Christian tradition considered Mary to possess a special ability and inclination to protect those who were loyal to her and showed their loyalty through prayer and patronage of religious sites. (13) This faith in the Virgin's exceptional intercessionary powers in troubled times has historically found its greatest expression in Marian apparitions. This explains, in part, why Marian apparitions have traditionally been most diffuse and attracted the most widespread appeal in times of political and social tumult. In southern Europe especially, apparitions and weeping or moving statues, were most acute and pronounced during times of crisis, war or disease. (14) Over the centuries, religious figures--statues and icons--often wept during times of crisis. In seventeenth century Spain, for example, bleeding and weeping religious icons were in vogue during moments of acute regional or national trouble. Similar movements and Marian apparitions were witnessed in Italy, in particular in the area of the Papal States, at the time of Napoleon's incursions in the 1790s. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the first great wave of Marian apparitions in the modern era came just after the French Revolution. Many more apparitions were reported in the latter half of the nineteenth century, to coincide with the political turmoil caused by the emergence of new states in Italy and Germany. The wars for Italian Unification in the nineteenth century spawned yet another wave of Marian apparitions and moving statues. Among the more notable was the report of a moving statue in Soriano (Calabria) in 1870, at the time the armies of Victor Emanuel invaded the Papal States, and a similar case was witnessed in Rome in 1871. (15)

In the twentieth century, Communism replaced anticlerical liberalism, secularization and nation building as the principle cause of political and social unrest. (16) Not for nothing was the early Cold War era the most intense period of Marian apparitions in modern history. The years 1947, 1948 and 1954 stand out in particular both for the number of Marian apparitions and for their widespread popular appeal, especially in southern Europe. In all, between 1947 and 1954, there were some 112 Marian apparitions reported, an average of 14 per year. (17)

Italy was a prominent apparition country in the early Cold War era. Tellingly, the year 1948 stands out for the number of Italian Marian apparitions reported. In fact, so widespread were these reports in the weeks before the election, that one student of the period refers to the phenomenon as a veritable miracle boom." (18)

Doubtless, the most celebrated of the 1948 apparitions was at Assisi, the tranquil Umbrian town in central Italy, birthplace of Saint Francis, Italy's patron saint. On 10 February, a woman reported seeing a statue of the Virgin Mary, perched high above the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, move her head and chest. According to the seer, whose name was never divulged to the public, it was as if the Virgin was breathing heavily, as if she were sighing. (19) Expectedly, word of the vision spread quickly through town, and before long people began arriving at the church from neighbouring towns and villages. The next day, a local radio station announced, without a hint of caution or scepticism, that the Madonna had moved her head from side to side, and sighed heavily "as if She were in deep pain." (20) The vision of a Madonna that visibly suffered, was sad or wept, was presumed to represent celestial displeasure at the course of events on earth. Within days, a stream of faithful devotees and the merely curious began arriving at Assisi from as far away as Rome and the Marche region several hundred kilometres east of Assisi.

Almost immediately, one person's claim to have seen a celestial sign was transformed into a mass phenomenon as many of those who came to see what the fuss was about soon claimed that they too saw the Virgin move. The power of suggestion was so strong that it promoted a kind of chain-reaction of visions: when one person cried out, "She breathes!" another responded in agreement, "She breathes, her chest, her chest!" Yet another person suggested that the statue was actually moving its lips and opening its hands as if to salute the throng of onlookers below. (21) One man spent seven days with his eyes transfixed on the statue without seeing it move when suddenly, on the seventh day, he saw the Virgin move. "Now," he told an incredulous reporter from the Communist daily l'Unita, "I see Her move at once. In fact, I see her now. I don't even have to try. All I do is raise my eyes." (22)

To be sure, there was a fair share of skeptics at Assisi, but the skeptical and the non-believers spoke their mind at considerable personal risk. One young man, for instance, dared to voice his doubts while standing in front of Santa Maria deli Angeli, an act of temerity for which, as Il Messagero reported, "he literally risked being lynched." In the end, only the intervention of an anonymous third party saved the man from harm at the hands of the impassioned crowd. (23) So great was the resolve of the believers to suppress all scepticism, that in the early days of the visions the crowds even refused to let an expert from the nearby University of Perugia conduct the analysis of the statue as ordered by ecclesiastic officials. The believers, most of who could not and would not claim to have actually seen the statue atop the church move, resented those who admitted aloud what many of them were probably thinking. One individual, frustrated at not having seen the statue move as he expected asked, "Oh, why doesn't She ever move her leg?" A young girl next to him, bothered by this hint of doubt, quipped angrily "Why don't you go and tell her so yourself?" (24)

While a small chorus of voices expressed doubt about the celestial nature of the Assisi phenomenon, many others enthusiastically reported that the Madonna of Santa Maria degli Angeli had actually cured them of illness. (25) Arguably the most compelling case was that of Filide Gori, a 48 year-old woman who was taken to Assisi by her doctor, Francesco Lomi, to venerate the moving Madonna. According to Lomi's testimony, Gori suffered from various problems, which made it difficult for her to stand on her own. For some three years, Gori was treated exhaustively with standard medical treatments, but to no avail; hence the desperate decision to go to Santa Maria degli Angeli and pray for the impossible. The trip to Assisi was taxing, and Gori required several injections of camphor to ease the pain and discomfort. Having venerated the statue atop the church, Lomi recalled, Gori went back to the car where, according to Lomi, "praying fervently, she noticed a change in her condition." Gori proceeded to get out of the car on her own, "smiling". According to her doctor's testimony, the disease that had ravaged Gori's body for years had disappeared completely. (26)

These were but a few of the more celebrated miracles attributed directly to the Madonna of Santa Maria degli Angeli in 1948. But elsewhere in the country, similar reports of miracle cures and apparitions made their way into the local and national press. Apparitions were reported in Rome, Gimigliano, Marta, Ponsacco, Frascati, Lucca, Liceta, Nocera Superiore and elsewhere, from north to south, both before and after the April election. (27) In Montopoli Sabina (Lazio), near Rome, the brothers Fulvio and Oreste Antonini, blind since birth, regained their sight while praying at a grotto in the village of San Giovannone, at the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared in a series of dreams to Annunziata Gentili, a 43 year-old peasant woman. (28)

As early as December 1947, Gentili began to see the Virgin Mary in her dreams. In these dreams, Gentili could make out an image of the Madonna on the walls of the grotto of San Giovannone, where she lived. As Gentili described it, the image had a sad expression and was covered in rivulets of water, and surrounded by small rocks and patches of wild grass. In the first dream, Mary asked Gentili to go and look for her. "The water is deep," Mary said, "and in those days, they spoke in Latin!" In the second dream, the Virgin appeared dressed in black, with a pained look on her face. Again, she exhorted Gentili to go and find her "before it is too late." Here, again, was the similar motif of the suffering Madonna with the 'pained' expression and clad in black as if in mourning. In the third dream, the Virgin's tone was more urgent, even desperate. "Hurry," she implored, "before extraordinary events occur. The water is deep and I have been sleeping here for centuries!"

The urgency of the Virgin's plea convinced Gentili to let her neighbours know about her dreams, and that the Madonna was asking to be found. The townsfolk wasted no time in organizing a search for what everyone assumed was a Marian statue or chapel of some sort. No one was quite sure what to look for. The digging began at the spot that corresponded to the directions Gentili received in her dream. This was on 8 December 1947, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The following evening, Mary appeared yet again to Gentili in a dream saying, "I am here. Proceed!" The night of 9 January, Gentili told of having dreamed Mary a fifth time. "You have found me," the Madonna had told her, "but you must dig a bit deeper." The very next morning, the dig was halted: Gentili's directions had yielded an object that appeared at first nothing more than a block of stone. The object was just that: a stone carving, eroded by water, but with a discernible figure of a woman holding something in her arms. For Gentili and the devout people of the area, there was little doubt but that the image was of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Despite the remarkable discovery, Gentili continued to see the Virgin in her dreams, and the good people of San Giovannone and the surrounding area continued to dig in search of some other, even more spectacular celestial sign buried deep beneath the ground. All the while, pilgrims arrived in ever-greater numbers to stand before the grotto of San Giovannone and venerate the Virgin who, they believed, had come to earth to be with them in such a literal way. (29)

Similar stories of apparitions and other supernatural signs captured the attention of even the national media in the weeks leading up to the April vote. In early April, for example, Vittoria Casotti, a mother of four, reported seeing an image of Our Lady of Lourdes weeping at Borgo a Mozzano. (30) In the town of San Angelo dei Lombardi, near Naples, a farmer dreamt of a statue that was buried somewhere on the land he worked every day. As at San Giovannone, a dig was organized and a statue of the Virgin Mary thought to be from the early 14th century was discovered. As always, word of the unlikely discovery spread quickly, and attracted a steady flow of pilgrims and curious onlookers from surrounding areas. (31) By far the strangest report of a celestial sign came from Maria Gobbi of Ancona, on the Adriatic coast. Gobbi reported seeing a cross appear at the bottom of a basin where she kept olives to ferment. The cross was approximately 20 centimetres in height, and 1.5 centimetres wide and appeared to be crowned with the Holy Eucharist. Despite the unlikely location of the image, dozens of nearby residents flocked to the Gobbi home to catch a glimpse, and a respectable national newspaper such as Il Messaggero thought the incident newsworthy. (32)

Predictably, the Left denounced these stories as, at best, a case of collective hallucination, at worst, the deliberate machinations of the clergy to influence the outcome of the pending national election. The Church had masterfully orchestrated the Assisi visions, indeed all the visions and miracles reported in the weeks before voting day, the Left reasoned, in order to frighten Catholics into voting en masse against the Popular Front. (33)

In reality, it was impossible to substantiate the claim that the Church had deliberately orchestrated visions and miracles for electoral purposes. There were a few isolated reports, albeit from questionable sources like the extreme wing of the Communist party, which told fantastic tales of priests who had reported seeing the Virgin Mary in a vision. In one such vision, the Virgin reportedly urged the faithful through the local priest to vote for the Christian Democrats or face excommunication. In another instance, a local priest told the wife of a well-known Communist activist that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him in a dream and foretold the death of the couple's young daughter if her husband insisted on voting for the Popular Front. (34)

But reports such as these were relatively few, and serious ecclesiastic authorities sought to distance themselves from such improbable tales of celestial intervention in the election campaign. In reality, the Church reacted with its usual reserve and even outright scepticism to the "wind of miracles" which blew over the peninsula in the weeks leading up to the 1948 vote. (35) As early as the summer of 1947, in fact, powerful members of the Italian Church, such as the Cardinal Della Costa, Archbishop of Venice, warned that there were too many miracles going around, most of which could easily be explained as natural not supernatural phenomena. (36) What is more, was it not the case, the Catholic press persuasively argued in defense against the charge of electoral manipulation, that the Church had seized the initiative in declaring the celebrated Assisi vision an optical illusion? To say nothing of the case of the "sweating" Madonna in San Felice, near Bologna, in February 1948. In that instance, it was in early April, just days before the election, that the local priest publicly expressed doubts about the supernatural quality of the liquid emitted by the icon of the Virgin Mary. The likely explanation, the priest reasoned, was humidity. (37)

In the case of the most celebrated and controversial vision at Assisi, the Bishop of the diocese--the ecclesiastic authority of first recourse in these matters--promptly ordered the standard scientific examination of the statue atop the church to ascertain whether the reported movements had any substance to them. Mindful of the need to protect its credibility, the Church pronounced its negative judgement weeks before the scientific findings of the team of experts from the University of Perugia were published. Sensitive to the charge of electoral manipulation, the Bishop of the diocese declared just one month after the first movements of the statue were reported that the visions were nothing more than an optical illusion. When the scientific results were made public, they merely confirmed what the Church had been saying almost from the start. (38)

The cautious response of the Church to the 1948 wave of visions and miracles was consistent with the centuries-old prudence and reserve with which the ecclesiastic order has approached the question of the supernatural. At heart, this prudence reflects the somber admission that visions and miracles may very well be either a hoax, innocent illusion, the result of psychological illness or even, as the Church would have it, "pre-natural interventions", which is to say the work of the devil. (39) The official promotion of an apparition site that was subsequently proved to be something other than of a supernatural nature would not only embarrass Church officials, but also seriously undermine the theological credibility of Church doctrine.

There is another Factor, just as important, which has tempered the Church's attitude towards the supernatural over the centuries. Apparitions, the Church has long realized, challenged not merely the authority but the very purpose of the clergy, by establishing a direct, immediate rapport between the Virgin Mary and the so-called 'ordinary folk'--usually peasants, children, women--who have claimed to see her. "The authority of the parish priest in the confessional and even the solemnity of his celebration of the Mass before the local altar," observes the historian Jaroslav Pelikan, "seemed to pale into insignificance when compared with the dramatic appeal of a personal appearance by none less than the Mother of God." (40) And so, while the Church has rightly seen in such apparitions a potent ally to defend its interest and promote its doctrine, it has also understood the need to direct public veneration in such a way as to bolster the Church's authority, not undermine it. In the end, none of the apparitions and miracles reported on the eve of the election received the Church's official stamp of approval, though a few cases are still undecided. (41)

It is clear, therefore, that the "wind of miracles" and the apparitions which swept through Italy on the eve of the 1948 election were not deliberately orchestrated by the Church to influence the outcome of the vote, save for a few instances of over-exuberance on the part of some parish priests. That the visions and miracles were the product of something other than overt clerical manipulation can also be seen in the fact that apparitions had begun well before 1948, and many more visions were reported after the April election than in the weeks and months preceding it. (42) This is not to say, however, that the apparitions of 1948 can be easily dismissed as inconsequential, as the product of individual and at times collective delusion. Nor is this to suggest that the supernatural happenings on the eve of the vote did not have a political content or purpose. The compelling question, therefore, is why did so many people claim to see or have been cured by the Virgin Mary? Why did so many of those who did not see or hear or feel any sort of supernatural sign in 1948, still believe the claims to be true? How was it that even the mainstream national media, from newspapers to public radio, reported on the visions and miracles as fact, throwing caution and skepticism out the window? To borrow from William Christian, what was it in the 1948 visions that spoke to the historical moment of the 1948 election campaign? (43)

For many Italian Catholics, and indeed much of the western world, the notion that the Vatican might soon find itself in the heart of a country governed by Stalin's close friend Palmiro Togliatti and the other Marxist leaders was simply unthinkable. It is true that a Communist victory in Italy in the 1948 election would have represented, as the papal historian Andrea Riccardi observes, "a hard blow for the central government of the Church, from both a concrete and symbolic point of view." (44) From a symbolic point of view, the advance of Communism into devoutly Catholic countries such as Poland and Croatia was bad enough, but the mere thought, however implausible, of the Red Army at the gates of the Eternal City was enough to send chills down the spine of any Catholic. At a concrete level, a Marxist victory at the polls in Italy threatened to spell the end of the centuries-long influence the Church enjoyed in the daily life of Italians. The unified Italian State may have destroyed, nominally, the temporal power of the papacy, but it had allowed the Church to maintain its role in such critical areas of Italian society as the schools and hospitals.

It is also the case that Italian Catholics faced the postwar era with a renewed sense of unity, purpose and direction. This was due in no small measure to the cadre of lay Catholics, individuals with organizational and leadership abilities acquired through involvement in unions, political parties or other Catholic civic associations before and during Fascism. (45) Indeed, as Victoria De Grazia observes, Catholic civic organizations "thrived" under Fascism, riding the crest of popular reaction--among the urban middle and working classes especially--against both liberalism and modernity that underlay the rise of Fascism itself. The richness of Catholic civic culture in the 1920s and 1930s, De Grazia writes, reflected a "catholicization" of Italian life after decades of progressive secularization following Unification.

When papal Rome fell into secular hands in 1870, Catholics went on the offensive. They did so, however, by appearing to do just the opposite. After losing its temporal power, the Holy See ordered Catholics to abstain from Italian political life--and that meant foregoing the right to vote, to hold office and even civil service jobs, as a way of denying the legitimacy of the newly unified Italian state. Indeed, after Unification, Catholics turned inward, refusing to take part in the social, cultural and economic life of the secular Italian state. Many Catholics refused to send their children to non-Catholic state schools, for instance, and they snubbed recreational and cultural organizations that were not exclusively of, by and for Catholics. Catholics turned inward even in areas--the economy and the workplace--where religion seemed to have no place at all. Catholics established their own savings banks and cooperatives, for instance, and confessional unions were established in many factories to keep Catholic workers from falling into the hands of socialist organizers and trade unions. Guiding this Catholic impulse to stick with their own in the decades after 1870 was what the historian Arturo Carlo Jemolo called a "cult of organization" that anticipated by several decades the mass-based politics of the twentieth century; and this in an age before the major Italian political parties had given much thought to the need to organize the masses, let alone to the most effective means of doing so. (46) "By the 1920s," Victoria De Grazia writes, "Catholic associations were thus well-armed to launch a veritable counter-reformation." (47)

The end of the Second World War and the spread of Soviet Communism westward after 1945 tested the ability of Catholic associations to effectively articulate and defend the interests of the faith and, by extension, the country; this, at the start of a new era in domestic and international affairs. The apparitions of the early Cold War thus offer us a window on at least three defining features of religion, society and politics in postwar Italy. First, the apparitions can be viewed as a microcosm of popular Catholicism in the modern era, with its enduring beliefs--modernity notwithstanding--about supernatural beings and their powers to intercede before God on behalf of the faithful. Second, the apparitions are a window on the interaction between "official" Catholicism and "popular" religion, on the internal dynamic of Italian Catholicism, in the midst of massive social, cultural and political change, at home and abroad. Third, the apparitions serve as a window on collective Catholic responses to two simultaneous processes: the changes to domestic and international politics wrought by the start of the Cold War; and the institutional and cultural evolution of Italy's post-Fascist, democratic Republic. Whereas in the 19th century, the state-building process took place largely in opposition to the Church, in particular in opposition to the continued temporal power of the papacy, Italy's postwar reality reflected what De Grazia refers to above as the "Catholicization," of Italian society in the decades after Unification. Far from being outside the process of rebuilding and democratizing post-Fascist Italy, much less opposed to it, the Church used its influence on the ruling Christian Democrats and its direct control of Catholic lay associations, to defend the space it had carved for itself in the decades after Unification destroyed, ostensibly, the temporal power of the papacy.

This underscores a basic point: popular responses to the cult of the Madonna in Cold War Italy, to borrow from David Blackbourn, carried a "political logic" of their own. What Blackbourn says about the behavior of apparition crowds or even bread rioters in the 19th century seems applicable to the apparition crowds in Italy in 1948--far from being manipulated by Church officials or simply delusional mobs, Marian devotees "acted with an eye to logistic practicality and the symbolic importance of public space." (48) Put another way, Marian devotees were sending a political message, as much as a religious one.

Popular devotion at the Assisi visions or at many of the other apparitions and miracles reported on the eve of the 1948 vote was neither the product of individual or collective delusion, nor the deliberate invention of the Church fathers for electoral purposes. More to the point, the wave of apparitions and movements in Italy on the eve of the 1948 vote, one might argue, reflected an individual and collective search for meaning, order and protection on the part of ordinary Italians who feared the fate that awaited them should the Popular Front win the April election. The anxiety created by the rise of Communism and the possibility of a Left victory at the polls in April help to explain why so many people in every comer of Italy reported seeing visions. Just as important, it helps to explain why so many who did not see the Virgin appear or a statue move or an icon cry in 1948, still believed in the divine nature of the phenomena. One journalist put it well when he described the 1948 wave of apparitions and movements as "this need for the supernatural, this thirst for God, the God of which some would like to deprive the most Christian, the most Catholic, the most sensitive nation, the Italian people." (49)

Marian apparitions and other supernatural events, we have seen, have long been associated with political, social or economic upheaval. Modernity and secularization notwithstanding, the association between Marian apparitions and war and political turmoil continued unabated in the twentieth century as well. The anthropologist William Christian has documented the case of Marian apparitions to several people in the Basque town of Ezkioga over a period of several months in 1931. The Basque visions and other seemingly supernatural events, like moving crucifixes, Christian observes, reflect how "individual seers respond to general anxieties with what they say were God's instructions." But, adds Christian, however sincerely the seers believed what they saw and heard, the broader significance ascribed to the celestial signs "were as much a consensual product of the desires of the followers and the wider society as of the leaders, the prophets or the saints." (50)

Put another way, the visions at Ezkioga were a response to a clear and immediate political threat to the religious and social fabric, as well as the political autonomy, of rural, Catholic, Basque society. The secular Second Spanish Republic, inaugurated in April 1931 following the collapse of General Miguel Primo de Rivera's seven-year military dictatorship, launched a campaign of secularization throughout Spain, challenging the authority of the Church. The new republican order went so far as the order the removal of all crucifixes from classrooms, hospitals and other public offices. The Second Republic of 1931 was, as Christian puts it, "totally outside the lines of authority that ran from God to bishop to priest to male head of household, with ancillary lines for civil and industrial authorities." (51) The overt political attack against the heart of Basque customs and traditions coincided with the inexorable secularization of a once devoutly Catholic region, a process that was in turn the product of profound social and economic changes in the region and the nation as a whole. The fall of the monarchy, for one, shook Spanish society to its core and, writes Christian, "opened the door to changes in relations between women and men, workers and employees, laity and priests, and children and parents." (52) Urbanization, the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy meant greater mobility and rural depopulation which, in turn, meant greater sexual freedom, especially for women, and declining church attendance--all of which challenged the old order of rural dwellers in the Basque country. In short, the Catholics of northern Spain, the Basques in particular, looked around and saw their unified, ordered world collapsing under what they saw as an external enemy, the government in Madrid. It was this perception of attack from without, Christian concludes, which determined to some extent "the way Basque Catholics tapped, defined, and interpreted the new devotional powers" spawned by the apparitions at Ezkioga. (53)

The significance of the marian visions in Cold War Italy, in other words, lay not in whether they were true or not--not even the Church demanded that Catholics believe in the literal truth of apparitions which received ecclesiastic approval--but in the fact that they had occurred at all. More important is the fact that the apparition stories were listened to and widely believed, and reported to a national and an international audience. Even those Catholics who doubted the veracity of the visions still considered the phenomenon a legitimate response on the part of those who feared for the fate of the Church should Communists seize power in, as many described it, the most Catholic country in the world. As II Gazzettino di Venezia put it, the real miracle at work in Italy on the eve of the 1948 election was the frequency and consistency of the seeming miracles, spawned, it was argued, by popular desire for Divine protection from temporal events beyond their control. The Italian people, the Gazzettino said, could not live without the "spiritual food" represented by Faith. And when the source of this cibo spirituale was threatened, when the people found it wanting, as in 1948, the Gazzettino concluded, they moved to provide it themselves. (54)

Put another way, the miracle boom of 1948 in which the apparitions of Mary figured so prominently was to Italians what Lourdes had been to French Catholics in the mid-19th century, or what the apparitions at Marpingen, Germany had been to German Catholics in the 1870s, or what the Ezkioga visions of 1931 had been to the Catholics of northern Spain--a form of collective action against hostile elements that threatened to undermine the fundamental bases of local and national religious authority. (55) True, the 1948 visions occurred in very different circumstances than other celebrated apparitions of the modern-era. In Italy, for one, Catholics were the overwhelming majority of voters and a Catholic party was in power and had been since the end of the war. What is more, the Church enjoyed a preponderant influence in the daily lives of Italians, literally from the cradle to the grave. While this had been so for dose to two thousand years, this did not diminish the genuine fear among Catholics that the Church was gravely threatened by the prospect of Communists and Socialists coming to power, through legal or illegal means in April 1948. This threat was no less real to Italian Catholics in 1948 than, say, the threat of secularization and anticlericalism that haunted Catholics elsewhere in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. And, like Catholics in a different time and place, Italian Catholics in 1948 defended their faith and its institutions in the best way they knew how by summoning the Virgin Mary to lead them in a struggle they believed they could not afford to lose.

If the Italian apparitions of the early Cold War were neither instances of collective delusion on the part of ignorant and impressionable masses, nor wilful manipulations of a shrewd Church hierarchy, then what were they? As stated at the outset, the important question for historians is not whether the apparitions were true or not, since that is something that we can never fully disprove, yet which the believer necessarily believes is always possible, though not probable. Why, then, is the story of the apparitions worth telling? And if the story is worth telling, then what, precisely, does it show us about religion and society in Cold War Italy?

First, the story of the apparitions is worth telling because they happened at all. The mere fact that hundreds, even thousands of people from all segments of society, flocked to the sight of an alleged miracle or apparition in an age that knew the radio, air travel and the atom bomb suggests that our comfortable divisions between the "modern" and "pre-modern" world--the former rational, secular, scientific, the latter irrational, confessional, supersitious--can no longer hold. Whatever our assumptions about the meaning and consequences of "modernity," the fact remains that popular Catholicism in the modern era clung to its traditional beliefs about supernatural beings and their powers to intercede before God on behalf of his people. That Italian Catholics did so with such fervor, emotion, imagination, and with a clear political logic, compels us to rethink commonplace assumptions about peasant belief and popular engagement in the political life of the secular Italian state. Whatever one might think of them, the beliefs and practices of popular Catholicism demonstrated an enduring vitality and universality, and Italian Catholics manifested a steely resolve to bring these resources to bear in the political debate over the future of Italy's nascent Republic.

At the same time, the Italian apparitions of the late 1940s suggest that modern Catholicism was not a reactionary monolith trumpeting what has been described as the "triumphalism of the Counter Reformation," characteristic of Pius XII's papacy. (56) However much critics at the time, or commentators since, have wanted to explain away the apparitions as either collective hallucination or, more likely, the product of deliberate machinations of the Church hierarchy to influence the outcome of the crucial 1948 election, the cautious, even skeptical, reaction of "official" Catholicism to the apparitions refutes facile accusations that Church leaders purposefully exploited popular piety for political ends. By the same token, one can discern in the continued appeal of miraculous phenomena among ordinary Catholics, evidence of the resilience and enduring relevance of popular devotion in the lives of modern men and women, to say nothing of the stubborn independence of popular piety and its somewhat contestual relationship with the "official" Church.

Finally, the Italian apparitions of the early Cold War speak to the enduring relevance of modern Catholicism in the life of the modern secular state and in the arena of international politics. As we saw above, in the 19th century, the state-building process in Italy came about largely in opposition to the Church, in particular in opposition to the enduring temporal power of the pope. But things had changed by the start of the Cold War. Italy's postwar reality reflected what has been referred to as the "Catholicization" of Italian society in the decades after Unification. Far from being outside the process of rebuilding Italy after Fascism, much less opposing it, as had been the case decades earlier, Italian Catholicism made its voice heard, loud and clear, as Italy's baby Republic was baptised into a Cold War world.

In the end, then, the Italian apparitions of the late 1940s serve as a window on Italian history in the 20th century. The mingling of religious with civic traditions during the 1948 campaign is evidence of the degree to which Catholic culture in Italy had become inextricably engaged in and committed to democratic politics. (57) The integration of Catholic culture into the civic life of the country had been a long time in coming. Whether this was a good development or a negative one is ultimately a matter of opinion. One thing is clear, though: the integration of Catholics into the civic life of the country--something that had not happened in the decades after Unification--undoubtedly made for a healthier, sturdier, more representative democratic polity. Catholics were, after all, an overwhelming majority in Italian society, and their exclusion from the civic life of the nation-state rendered the post-Unification parliamentary system weak and narrowly-based, and, therefore, that much more vulnerable to the rising tide of Fascism. Hence, the moving statues, the weeping icons, the throngs of devotees crowding around Marian statues--these were to Italian Catholics in 1948 truly the tools with which to fight the good fight, for God and country.


(1.) The message from Our Lady of Fatima to the three peasant children Lucia, Giacinta and Francesco in Portugal, 1917. The message was kept secret until 1941 when Lucia, the sole surviving of the three seers, divulged the secret in one of her four memoirs of the apparitions. See Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, Encountering Mary: From La Salette to Medjugorje (Princeton, NJ, 1991), pp. 198-206.

(2.) Quoted by Angelo Ventrone, La Cittadinanza Repubblicana: Forma-Partito e Identita Nazionale alle origini della Democrazia Italiana, 1943-1948 (Bologna, 1996), p. 267.

(3.) Ruth Harris, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age (London, 1999), p. 12.

(4.) Carlo Ginzburg, "Folklore, magia e religione," in Storia d'Italia: I caratteri originali vol. 2, Ruggiero Romano and Corrado Vivanti eds. (Turin, 1989), pp. 603-76, especially pp. 672-73.

(5.) Carlo Ginzburg, Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm," in his Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, trans. John and Anne C. Tedeschi (Baltimore and London, 1989), p. 101.

(6.) Sigmund Freud, "The Moses of Michelangelo," in his Collected Papers (New York, 1959) 4: 270-71, quoted by Ginzburg, "Clues," p. 99.

(7.) Ginzburg, The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes on a late-Twentieth-Century Miscarriage of Justice, trans. Anthony Shugaar (London and New York, 1999), p. 15.

(8.) Harris, Lourdes, p. 13.

(9.) Mario Isnenghi, "Alle origini del 18 aprile: miti, riti, mass media," Rivista di Storia Contemporanea (April 1977), pp. 209-10.

(10.) See, for example, Michael P. Carroll, The Cult of the Virgin Mary. Psychological Origins (Princeton, 1986), and his Madonnas that Maim: Popular Catholicism in Italy since the Fifteenth Century (Baltimore and London, 1992). Cf. George H. Tavard, The Thousand Faces of the Virign Mary (Collegeville, Minn., 1996), Chapter 10.

(11.) Carroll, Madonnas that Maim, p. 52, 148-149.

(12.) Blackbourn, Marpingen, p. 27.

(13.) Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, Encountering Mary, p. 6.

(14.) A. Apolito, 'Dice che hanno visto la Madonna': Un caso di apparizioni in Campania (Bologna, 1990), p. 16.

(15.) W. Christian, "Religious Apparitions and the Cold War," p. 257. See also David Blackbourn's Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century Germany (New York, 1993), pp. 19-27.

(16.) Blackbourn, Marpingen, pp. 20-22.

(17.) As William Christian observes, there were approximately four times as many visions per year in the 1947-54 period as in all the years from 1930 to 1975. After 1954, the number of apparitions in southern Europe declined, though they maintained a regularity not apparent before the Second World War. See Christian, "Religious Apparitions and the Cold War," pp. 24142.

(18.) Giuseppe De Lutiis, L'industria del Santino (Florence, 1973), pp. 37-48.

(19.) "La Madonna degli Angeli meta di continui pellegrinaggi," Il Messaggero, 13 February 1948.

(20.) Giuseppe De Lutiis, L'industriadel Santina, p. 48.

(21.) See Il Messaggero, 13 February 1948; Gerardo Guerrieri, "Il caffettiere 'miracolato' ha incassato mezzo milione: si muove o non si muove la Madonna di Assisi?" L'Unita, 24 February 1948.

(22.) Guerrieri, "Il caffettiere 'miracolato'."

(23.) Il Messaggero, 13 February 1948.

(24.) Guerrieri, "Il caffettiere 'miracolato'."

(25.) Vittorio Di Giacomo, "Movimento di Fede attorno alia Madonna," L'Osservatore Romana della Domenica, 25 April 1948.

(26.) Ibid.

(27.) An informal list of the 1948 apparitions with brief details is provided in Carlo Falconi's "La sete del prodigioso e le suggestioni soprannaturali." Sicily, too, witnessed what one observer called a "wind of miracles" on the eve of the election. See the writer Leonardo Sciascia's Le parrocchie di Regalpetra, pp. 94-95, quoted by Christian, "Religious Apparitions," pp. 248-49.

(28.) "Due bimbi ciechi miracolati dalla Madonna dell'Acqua a Montoboli;" "Visioni o allucinazioni?" both in L'Osservatore Romano della Domenica, 10 February 1948, and 22 February 1948.

(29.) Corrado Calvo, "Un'altare nella cava," Il Messaggero, 22 January 1948.

(30.) "'La Madonna piange' ha esclamato la folla," in La Nazione, 6 April 1948.

(31.) "Una Madonna apparsa in sogno rinvenuta scavando un podere," Il Messaggero, 30 March 1948.

(32.) "Strana apparizione di una croce ad Ancona," Il Messaggero, 2 April 1948.

(33.) See "ha Madonna di Assisi non si e affatto apparsa;" "Passato il 18 Aprile a che, servono piu i miracoli?" in Avanti!, 21 July 1948, and "Gli anticlericali e le 'apparizioni, Rabarbaro, 27 June 1948; La grotra dei miracoli chiusa dal Vicariato, Il Paese, 20 July 1948.

(34.) "Il 'pianto del parrocco' scomuniche e ricatti armi democristiane nella campagna elettorale," L' Unita, 27 April 1948. See also the Archives of the Italian Communist Party at the Gramsci Institute, Rome, hereafter APC, FDP, MF 186 (here MF 186, 0936-55). The series FDP, MF 186 contains all the material related to the Popular Front of 1948, and to the election itself.

(35.) For a brief overview of the Church's official approach to apparitions and miracles, with specific reference to the 1947-48 period, see A. Oddone, "Apparizioni e visioni," in La Civilta Cattolica 2 (1948): 364-75. Not everyone believed the sincerity of the Church's public disavowal of the apparitions. Consider, for instance, the skeptical perspective of the Catholic writer and eye-witness to the events, Carlo Falconi in his "La sete del prodigioso."

(36.) "Troppi miracoli in giro," Rabarbaro, 20 July 1947.

(37.) "Gli anticlericali e le 'apparizioni'," Rabarbaro.

(38.) See, for instance, Guerrieri, "Il caffettiere 'miracolato"'; See also "Il miracolo elettorale," Rabarbaro, 14 March 1948; "La Madonna di Assisi non si e affatto mossa," L'Unita, 4 March 1948.

(39.) "Gli anticlericali e le 'apparizioni'; A. Oddone, "Criteri per discemere le vere visioni e apparizioni soprannaturali."

(40.) Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries, p. 184.

(41.) For a brief discussion of the official treatment of apparitions by the Church, beginning with Benedict XIV's treatise De servorum dei beatificatione, see Zimdars-Swartz, Encountering Mary, p. 9.

(42.) On the post-election apparitions, see, fur instance, "La Vergine appare ad una bimba di Frascan, Il Messaggero, 22 May 1948 Una ragazza invasata salvata da S. Rita da Cascia," Il Messaggero, 26 May 1948.

(43.) Christian, "Religious Apparitions and the Cold War," p. 252.

(44.) Riccardi, Potere del Papa, p. 90.

(45.) Piercostante Righini, "I Comitati Civici nelle prospettive dei loro dirigenti," Cronache Sociali, 15 July 1948, p. 56.

(46.) Arturo Carlo Jemolo, Chiesa e Stato in Italia: Ddla Uni Ficazione agli anni settanta (Turin, 1977), pp. 53-54.

(47.) Victoria De Grazia, How Fascism Ruled Women. Italy, 1922-1945 (Berkeley, 1992), pp. 243-244.

(48.) Blackbourn, Marpingen, p. 27.

(49.) "Miracoli," Il Gazzettino di Venezia, 10 March 1948.

(50.) William Christian Jr., Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1996), p. 40.

(51.) Ibid., pp. 38-39.

(52.) Ibid., p. 14.

(53.) Ibid., p. 39.

(54.) "Miracoli," Il Gazzettino di Venezia, 10 March 1948.

(55.) Blackbourn, Marpingen, p. 27.

(56.) Tavard, Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary, p. 198.

(57.) Cf. my From Facism to Democracy: Culture and Politics in the Italian Election of 1948 (Toronto, 2003).

Robert A. Ventresca

King's College, University of Western Ontario

Department of History

266 Epworth Avenue

London, Ontario

N6A 2M3

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