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Prophecy - Renaissance

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The diarist Marino Sanudo the Younger, in an entry for 30 May 1509, recounted the prophecies of Piero Nani, a Venetian patrician and a brother of the Order of Charity. Nani warned the patricians that Venice would lose all of its dominance because of sin, and the flagellation would last twelve years. He had a great supply of prophecies that predicted hunger and famine. Sanudo reports that Nani then remarked: "The people at present pay much attention to prophecies and go into the Church of San Marco, seeing the prophecies in mosaic which the Abbot Joachim made." In the Basilica of San Marco two unnamed figures in mosaics, designated only as sancti, were studied for their presumed messianic connotations. Under one figure were the words, no longer visible, "Fiet unum ovile, et unus Pastor." The figure, clothed pontificalmente in brown and carrying a bishop's staff, was believed to represent the angelic pope, according to Francesco Sansovino (1521–1586), the author of Venetia città nobilissima. Also influenced by the expectation of the angelic pope and "one sheepfold," Sansovino wrote a prophetic poem, still in manuscript, entitled A principi Christiani, in which he describes the evils of his day. After many troubles are endured, there will be a renovation of the church.

Francesco Sansovino has not been generally associated with prophecy, and prophecy has not usually been considered an important aspect of Renaissance thought after 1530. Research during the 1990s, however, demonstrated that prophecy was a continuing tradition throughout the sixteenth century, especially in Italy. The sack of Rome in 1527 by the forces of the Holy Roman Empire spawned prophets, and "inspired preaching" continued in spite of restrictions imposed by the Lateran Council and the Roman Inquisition after 1542. There were numerous preachers throughout Italy, and none more famous than Fra Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498). Giovanni Nesi, one of the disciples of Marsilio Ficino, followed Savonarola's call for a renovatio mundi and glorified him as a prophet in the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus. Savonarola, however, denied any relation between the prophet and his prophecy, since prophecy was a gift from God, and humans had no power of prophecy without divine infusion. His prophetic preaching expressed his unfaltering belief in the necessity of reform on all levels of society and especially in the church, and his audiences were spellbound by his sermons, which often lasted for many hours.

Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo declared in his inaugural address to the Fifth Lateran Council of 1512 that he had preached for twenty years about the times prophesied in the Apocalypse. The strength of his convictions about prophetic preaching is all the more significant since the Lateran Council in 1517 prohibited "free and inspired preaching" and prophesying about the last days. One of the most influential books circulating in Italy during this period was the Mirabilis liber (1524; Wondrous book), a compilation of many prophecies from various ages that contained predictions about the reform of the church and the conversion of the enemies of Christianity. In the second decade of the sixteenth century, Father Zaccaria Ferreri wrote a devotional tract entitled De reformatione ecclesiae and sent it to Pope Adrian VI. On the title page Father Ferreri includes the prophetic question "Are you the one who will come, or are we awaiting another?" The question reminds the pope that he should become the angelic pope who would reform the Ecclesia militans.

In European literature of the sixteenth century, visions of the Antichrist and the universal judgment were commonplace. In 1525, in the two nights preceding Pentecost, the painter Albrecht Dürer dreamed that the end of the world had arrived with a dire flood that encompassed the world; even the sky was obscured by a huge column of water. The dream made such an impression that next morning he painted his vision in water-colors and annotated various aspects of the dream in the margins.

Many prophets were women who proclaimed the need to practice works of charity and to aid in the reformation of the church. The messages of female prophets differed very little from their male counterparts. Francesco Zorzi (1466–1540), a Venetian friar and the author of De harmonia mundi and the Problemata, among other famous works, was deeply influenced by a mystical woman, Chiara Bugni, whose ecstasies, according to Zorzi, had revealed to her the mysterious secrets of divine will and endowed her with prophetic knowledge. Her renown in the monastery of San Sepolcro was so great that she was elected superior of the monastery. She accepted this responsibility only after God had revealed to her a "remarkable sign." Her fame was enhanced by Zorzi's confidence in her profound spirituality, which seemed to prepare the way for the ecstasies that engulfed her. Zorzi's belief in an angelic pope who would reform the church may have been influenced by Chiara Bugni. There are many accounts of the miracles, ecstasies, and visions that were attributed her.

Another important prophetess of Venice was called simply the Venetian Virgin because she did not choose to recall the name of her family. She said to the great French humanist Guillaume Postel that "no one knows from whence I am." The great sanctity of her life and her unceasing works of charity so inspired Postel when he first met her that he called her the Mother of the World. Her given name was Giovanna, and Postel said she was given this name more from divine will than from the will of her parents. The name Giovanna is the feminine form of Giovanni (John), who heralded the coming of the Messiah. Postel wrote often of her many miracles and her prophecies. She experienced a miraculous change in her person when she experienced the presence of Christ descending into her. She prophesied that the reformation of the world would begin in Venice; the Turks would soon be converted and would be the best Christians in the world; all who had faith in God and love for all would be blessed by Christ; ultimately all sinners would be restored as if the first parents had never sinned; and human nature would be led to such perfection that all men would be as Christ except for his divinity. The life and prophecies of the Venetian Virgin influenced Postel to the extent that they became for him a foundation for the restitution of humankind and for a universal monarchy under the rule of God. After his encounter with the Venetian Virgin, Postel proclaimed himself the Virgin's "little son," who would endeavor to set in motion the restitution of all things she foretold.

Postel was not the only humanist who turned to prophecy. Indeed, many humanists followed the same course, becoming reformers within or outside the Roman Church. Anabaptists following Jakob Hutter listened for the voice of prophecy that would proclaim the next installation of God's kingdom on earth. Erasmus wrote in 1526 in one of his Colloquia that the "Antichrist is awaited." The wars among Christian princes, popular uprisings, the collapse of Christian unity, and the threat of the Turks made it appear that the last days were at hand.

A French humanist who called himself Dionisio Gallo arrived in Venice on the feast of Pentecost in 1566. He was rector of the College of Lisieux until he experienced a mystical anointment by the Virgin Mary, who told him that he had been chosen by God to summon the princes to help him, God's servant and messenger, reform the church, society, and the universities. He was unsuccessful in gaining the help of the king of France, Charles IX, whose advisors claimed that the prophet was mad. Sometime in 1565 he left France for Italy, where he visited Duke Cosimo de' Medici of Florence. He composed a long work on prophecy while in the duke's household, as well as a work in which he laid out the program for the reformation of the church that the Virgin had given to him. He spent time in Ferrara as the guest of Francesco d'Este, marquis de Masse, and Duke Alfonso II, to whom he read his Legatio, the title that he gave to his program of prophetic reform. When he arrived in Venice, he lived in the home of a Venetian magistrate and was befriended by a Venetian patrician. Preaching for three days in the court of the Palazzo Ducale before his incarceration for preaching without a license, Dionisio urged the Venetians to assume the responsibilities bestowed upon them by God. He urged all three princes and the doge and Senate of Venice to aid him in his grand enterprise to help reform the church, since the pope and cardinals seemed unable or unwilling to accomplish this task, though it was ordained by divine decree. Dionisio remained in prison in Venice for about eighteen months and was finally released and put on a boat headed for Ferrara. Dionisio's prophetic message and his choice of "sacred space" in the ducal palace revealed his clear understanding of the connection between prophecy and politics in the sixteenth century.


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Marion Leathers Kuntz

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