by Leonardo Rossi
“We [the cardinals of the Holy Office] declare that the Holiness of the Sister Maria Agnese Firrao has been simulated, fake, and the supernatural phenomena attributed to her are false and fraudulent invented, and therefore she is condemned to be secluded, as long as she lives, in prison under the strictest observance.”
According to the Inquisitor Fathers, this severe punishment of the superior of the Roman convent of Sant’Ambrogio della Massima, was meant to put an end to her reputation for holiness in the religious community and in the Roman diocese. However, they could not know that it was just the beginning. The ‘fictional’ aspect of the story inspired Hubert Wolf, a prominent German ecclesiastical historian, to write a book in which archival sources often mingle with fictional (noir) elements (The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal). Nevertheless, the exceptionality of the story not only fed sensationalism and interest in the spectacle, it also allows for reflections. How did charismatic women build their reputation for holiness? How did the Church try to suppress their cults? What was the impact of stigmata and mystical phenomena in late modern popular devotion.
The plot is as gripping as it is complex. Thus I am going to introduce some facts, places, and characters on the scene. The events took place in Rome at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The city, as most of Europe, was shocked by the Napoleonic wars and the following harsh restoration of the ancien régime. The ‘great story’ seemed far removed from the convent cells of St Antonio, in which the abbess Maria Rosa Firrao could for years act undisturbed without any kind of control. We can find only little biographical information about her safe for the records concerning the inquisitorial process. We do not know anything on her childhood. She entered the religious community at a very young age, reforming it according to the Franciscan rules when she became the superior, and came to be known as ‘Blessed Mother’ (for her mystical phenomena) or ‘Founder Mother’ (for her radical reforms of the convent’s rules). Drawing inspiration from the more radical Franciscan tradition, Maria Rosa offered herself as a sacrificial victim for the redemption of the societas Christi. In particular, she suffered for the liberation of popes from exile and the Church salvation in the years of Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy. Her ascetic life, inedia, and corporal mortification made her very famous. Ecstasies and stigmata were reported as well (probably before 1815) and turned the charismatic superior into a ‘living saint’. The fame of her prodigies quickly spread outside the walls of the convent in Roman ecclesiastical circles, reaching as far as the halls of the Holy Office. The inquisitor fathers conducted an investigation, which ended with the harsh sentence issued on 8 February 1816 (Feria V, in the Latin language of Vatican sources). Maria Rosa was condemned for the crime of ‘affettata santità’ (alleged holiness), that is for having simulated stigmata, ecstasies, and prophecies with the aim of creating a forbidden devotion. The punishment implied removal from Rome, life in isolation in a monastic prison in Gubbio, and the prohibition of communicating with the outside world.
For almost forty years there was no news about the scandal: the cult of Firrao seemed to have disappeared, just like her charismatic leadership, at least until July 1859. With the support of an important cardinal, princess Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen denounced the events that had happened in St Ambrogio when she was a novice there. The Holy Office was alerted immediately and the matter was addressed in an investigation and formal process. The princess testified that the fama sanctitatis of the foundress was still alive. Clergymen and sisters practiced devotional rituals in her honour: the ‘Blessed Mother’ was not dead to the community, but continued to lead it through letters and secret meetings. Relics, tissues soaked with her miraculous blood, and devotional images were used daily for the veneration of the ‘living saint’, who was worshipped with prayers and psalms written in her honour.
Hohenzollern decided to open a formal complaint against the convent after an attempt on her life. The noblewoman had discovered affairs, deceptions, and claims of supernatural phenomena by the vicar’s sister, Maria Luisa Ridolfi. In order to keep the secret, the vicar had tried to poison her opponent. The case of St Ambrogio alla Massima did not lack any elements for the plot of a noir novella. To the stigmatic blood of the foundress were added the sensations of murder, sex, relic trade, cases of hysteria and demonic possession that involved both religious (sisters and confessional fathers) and lay people. It is plausible that the facts were altered and exaggerated by the inquisitors during the investigative process to justify the gravity of the measures taken, but there are few doubts about the scandals that occurred in the convent cells. In the convent vicar Ridolfi had cleverly used the positive reputation of the prioress – despite her condemnation – to create her own profile of ‘living holiness’. She claimed to be her spiritual daughter, her mystical follower called to lead the community through her prophecies and appearances of the foundress. However, consulting the Vatican sources, we know that the relationship between Firrao and Ridolfi was not positive at all. Indeed, when Firrao was informed about the exceptional phenomena of the young sister, she proved criticism and suspicious on her.
At the death of Firrao, in 1855, Maria Luisa saw her path cleared from obstacles. Her power grew both within the convent and outside its walls. Sex, lies, and terror were the glue with which she managed to bind her sisters in an ambiguous relationship of amorous feelings and unconditional devotion. Several clergymen came into contact with her and supported the divine nature of her graces, spreading her fama sanctitatis in Rome. Faithful and curious people entered the convent, eager to know her, to listen to her prophecies, and to ask for graces and prayers. Ridolfi boasted therapeutic and thaumaturgical powers in the treatments of diseases and in exorcisms. Among the most famous patients there was ‘the American’, a 36-year-old Tyrolean or German doctor, married and with children, who decided to abandon everything to live in accordance to the indications of the ‘living saint’. However, though she had many followers, opposing voices were heard as well. When Hohenzollern denounced the events and the inquisitor friars entered the convent, it was not difficult for them to gather compromising testimonies and evidence against the vicar. The trial led to the condemnation of Ridolfi to eighteen years of isolation, for numerous crimes such as ‘fake sanctity’, spreading improper and previously forbidden worship (of Firrao), violence, sexual and financial fraud. The suspected deaths of three sisters were not imputed to her.
Reviewing the mentioned book by Wolf, Anne Jacobson Schutte points out that perhaps, given the wide audience to which the author refers, the work displays imprecisions, inaccuracies, and sometimes an excessive tendency to sensationalism. Without a doubt, the case of St Ambrogio was indeed sensational. Still, despite the extraordinary nature of the facts, the dark nuances and the fictional elements, it offers the historian many insights. First of all, it tells us something about the way in which the Church and Inquisition in the nineteenth century reacted to mystical phenomena and charismatic women. In fact, the trials show how Firrao and Ridolfi, in a society attempting to separate religious and civil power, were condemned in the late modern age for a religious crime (alleged holiness) that was at least three centuries old. The Holy See, despite the looming political and diplomatic problems of the period (in 1870 Rome was conquered by the Kingdom of Italy, thus ending the millennial history of the States of the Church), was particularly focused on popular devotion. Trial records also inform us about the elements necessary for the construction of the reputation of sanctity, thus what people and faithful perceived as supernatural and worthy of worship. In the case of Firrao her ‘proof’ convinced the religious community to believe in her. The stigmata impressed on her flesh, the blood spilling out, her ecstasies, and miracles performed were seen by the faithful as the evidence of her divine election. Ridolfi, in addition to prophecies and healing abilities, was able to routinize the founder’s charisma, using her positive reputation in building up her own career as a charismatic leader. Both protagonists show how the cliché of a woman as a weak and passive follower of fathers confessor was a prejudicial construction based on the alleged superiority of the male clergy and authority of office. In fact, not only were they able to build up their charismatic leadership, they also influenced and utilized clergymen, friars, and eminent theologians for their plans. Beyond their actions, they showed educated (both knew how to write) and as possessing the skills necessary to maintain control over the convent and the community.
In both cases, despite the official measures taken by the Holy Office, the solution was reached only with the death of the feigned saints. Firrao was removed from Rome and isolated in a monastic cell in Gubbio. However, as indicated, from 1816 to 1855 she continued to direct the convent through letters. In the case of Ridoldi, she was cleared of the crime of murder. The Holy Office, on the one hand, had no authority over criminal offences; on the other hand, it feared that the capital condemnation under which she could be condemned would make her a ‘martyr’ for her faithful and create an international scandal. For these reasons the inquisitor fathers selected a milder sentence, 18 years of isolation. However, Maria Luisa’s behavior complicated the situation. She was considered dangerous in all the institutions in which she was imprisoned. There she either continued to show her graces, thus creating new supporters, or she disturbed the religious community by attacking and threatening the members. She was locked up in several monasteries, but also in psychiatric institutions and in her paternal home. No one was willing to host her, not even her father and sisters, even though the Holy Office payed the fee for her detention. In September 1870, while she was temporarily housed in the a monastery, Savoy troops conquered Rome. Maria Luisa once again showed her wiliness and declared herself a political prisoner of the Church. This accusation led to a civil trial. The Holy Office had to refund the woman for her monastic dowry and for the damages of the abuses suffered. Pius IX had formally declared himself a political prisoner of the invading state, recognizing its power as illegitimate. The Church, however, could not ignore the civil trial that involved the congregation of the Holy Office and Ridolfi. A default judgment would have sparked suspicion about the truth of woman’s accusations in public opinion, and therefore a further scandal for the Holy See.
Is it possible to talk about losers and or winners in this trial? Probably not. On the one hand the two ‘living saints’ did not achieve their purpose, that is to build up a lasting reputation of sanctity, as after their death they fell into the oblivion of the damnatio memoriae. On the other hand, the Vatican proved inept to face and stop the charismatic leadership of these women, who were able to obtain an extraordinary popular devotion. At the end of the nineteenth century the Holy Office seemed to claim, at least theoretically, greater authority and severity in investigating and condemning phenomena of mysticism. At the same time, the number of cases reported increased significantly, so much so that the Roman curia spoke of a ‘new mystical invasion’. What influence the cases of Firrao and Ridolfi exercised in this double evolution has not yet been investigated in historical research, but their cases inform us about much more than scandals and sensationalism.
- Archive of the Congregation for the Doctine of the Faith, ACDF, 50 B 6 a, Causa c. le monache e direttori del moanstero di S Ambrogio in Roma dette Riformate del terz’ordine di S Francesco;
- Wolf, Hubert (2015). The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio: the True Story of a Convent in Scandal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.