A knife in the Vatican

by Leonardo Rossi



Those who spent months or even years doing research in the Vatican archives know that they can be witnesses to ‘unusual’ facts. Among the thousands of preserved documents, you read the condemnations of the works of the most brilliant minds of the past such as Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Émile Zola. Grab a coffee for 40 cents alongside the Holy Office court. Study in grotesquely frescoed rooms and in buildings designed by architects such as Michelangelo Buonarroti and Giuliano da Sangallo. Open a dossier, find a blood-soaked linen fabric inside, and hear the concern of an expert colleague in endemic diseases who explains how certain viruses can survive over the centuries. Arrive early enough on St Peter’s Square on Wednesday morning, in order to avoid the stream of faithful attending the papal audience will hinder your journey to your ‘office’. Proud of these collection of experiences and anecdotes that come in handy as folkloristic notes at post-conference dinners, a few days ago I came across an object that I never thought I would find in the Vatican archives: a knife.



St Peter’s Basilica in the 19th century


Daniel Ponziani, a research assistant and expert of the Holy Office’s sources, had informed me of the presence of some ‘objects’ within the file I was studying: the survey “On the visionary Angelica Darocca, known as the Saint of Radein”. His suggestion to pay attention and discretion actually sounded like an open invitation. I had to open that envelope and check the content as soon as possible. My impatience was rooted not only in the curiosity for the specific object but above all in the need to know who the Tyrolean woman was that lived over a century ago between Italy and Austria. For almost four years I have been working on the Italian stigmatics of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. In order to gather information about ninety-four cases reported, I have spent over a year of research in the archives. Never, however, had I heard about Darocca. A few weeks ago, Kristof Smeyers told me about an interesting article that was published in the St James’s Gazette on 8 August 1889, entitled ‘Stigmata or Imposture?’. It skilfully outlines the life of a certain Veronica Danova, a peasant from the Italian Tyrol but German-speaking, unmarried, who has been bedridden for four years without receiving any nourishment other than the sacred Eucharist. Speaking with Merlijn Gabel about the case, I discovered that another woman, in the same village and in the same period, was famous in the Austrian South-Tyrol nicknamed the ‘Saint of Radein’, that is Angelica Darocca. The valuable information of colleagues allowed me to conduct more specific researches. The Tyrol was in the 1830s-40s one of the most important hotspots in Europe for the mystical phenomenon of stigmatization, with dozens of stigmatics reported (over a hundred according to some chronicles not supported by historical sources). Examining this late nineteenth-century case, might allow us to better understand the phenomenon and its impact in the longue durée perspective.

The first investigation I did was on a media level. Comparing articles in British, Austrian and Italian newspapers, I could see that Veronica Danova and Angelica Darocca were probably nothing but the same person. The St James’s Gazette reported the news from previous articles published in Italian and German, and perhaps the writer confused the name of the stigmatic with an eyewitness (Veronica Danova). The Civiltà Cattolica, an authoritative Jesuit journal and official spokesman of the Holy See, dedicated several pages to the Tyrolean case in November 1891. The news that most caught my attention was the opening of a diocesan investigation led by the Tridentine Curia and above all the negative judgment made by the cardinals of the Holy Office. As mentioned, in months of research within the Vatican archives I had never come across her name. Searching among stigmatics, visionaries, aspirant and false saints of the contemporary age filed in the Cartularium of the former Roman Inquisition, the name Darocca never came up. There could be two explanations: either was a more unique than rare case or I had missed her, amazed by the grotesques and shining polychrome marbles.

Once again Dr Ponziani provided me with a very valuable aid, as well as reassurance on my previous researches: I could not have come across the case because it is not listed in the digital catalogue. Compared to all the other funds of the archive, the one entitled ‘Diversorum’ has not yet been indexed and the file of my interest is stored in it. It consists of about two hundred recto/verso sheets, notes taken by notaries of the Roman Congregation during the inquisitor meetings, testimonies and letters from religious men and witnesses, petitions written by the charismatic woman in Italian, German, and Latin. As stated at the beginning, however, my attention focused mainly on a small knife of about five centimetres. Why was it among the trial papers? What was its use? What is the reason to confiscate and keep it?

Flipping through the sources, we can briefly summarize the story. Angelica Darocca (or Darroca) was born on 24 March 1856 in Radein (diocese of Trent), from an Italian father and a German mother (probably German speaker, not necessary German citizen). Her adolescence was marked by the premature death of her parents, a restless pilgrimage from a relative’s house to another in the Austrian Tyrol (this is why she did not speak Italian) and an unknown and apparently incurable disease. When she was about to die, a Marian miracle happened. The night before the feast of the Annunciation (1874), Angelica suddenly regained her health thanks to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. In gratitude for the miracle received she practised a life of prayers and renunciations. She chastised her body with chains and cilices, ate little to nothing, performed novenas and religious songs. Her efforts were rewarded with visions, ecstasies, divine conversations. The Lord entrusted her with the task of converting pagans, baptizing infants, assisting the sick people, in Italy and abroad through the gifts of bilocation and polyglossia. In 1883 Angelica received her most important mystical grace: the five wounds of Christ’s Passion.

Catherine of Siena_compassion

St Catherine’s stigmata (Ruusbroec Library, Antwerp ©)


Her stigmatized body similar to that of dozens of other European cases we had studied, attracted the attention of the clergy, local people, diocesan and civil authorities and its fame even reached Australia (the news was reported on several newspapers between September and October 1889). From 1883 to 1891, in the summer periods when the roads to the small mountain village could be travelled, about three hundred people flocked every day to see with their own eyes the Darocca wonders. From preserved sources we know that the prince-bishop of Trent did not appreciate her fama sanctitatis at all and tried several times to subject her to a diocesan investigation. Her bilocation always allowed her to bypass danger. This plot happened on Saturday 24 May 1891 as well. The bishop had ordered the religious of the monastery of the Holy Cross of Merano to go to Radein, persuade Angelica and take her with them to lead an isolated life. In their care, so he believed, it would be possible to carry out the investigation and silence the dangerous rumours. Once again, however, Darocca was miraculously carried away by the angels. She appeared in Rome and, after waiting for more than ten masses in St Peter’s Basilica, received hospitality from the sisters of the same order of Merano. Fulgenzio, the director of the monastery and Capuchins general, alerted the cardinal commissioner of the Holy Office, asking how they should deal with her. Angelica’s choice was not a wise strategy, for several reasons.

The dossier is composed by long depositions offered by the friar Fulgenzio, the abbess of the monastery and other sisters, witnesses of religious authorities such as the bishops of Trent and Brixien, the confession of her feigned sanctity and, above all, an envelope containing the famous knife. After a few interrogatory sections, Darocca confessed the fiction of her divine gifts. As the nuns had discovered, at night she used to secretly eat, she stole alms from the church, claimed ecstasies and visions and crated stigmata in her flesh with that small blade. Even her bilocation was the result of a plot. Not the angels had miraculously transported her to Rome, but a more classic train journey (paid for with the money taken from her brothers). From the sources emerges a woman with a confused personality, eager to deceive the spectators but at the same time herself deceived by her fervent imagination. Angelica recurrently requested the spiritual director and parish priest to be left alone, removed from the media clamour and the attention of the faithful and curious. She was not sure of herself, of the voices she heard and the visions she saw. She considered herself a poor patient. Other times, she claimed a special and direct relationship with the divine, declaring she had received a delicate mission to perform in Catholic society. The clergymen close to her did not only fail to remedy her illusions but fed her ambition. Over the years, supported by churchmen and faithful devotees, she had built the public image of a religious charismatic celebrity.

In 1891-92 her story was investigated by the Holy Office. After she apologized for her mistakes committed and retracted every possible heterodox position, the trial did not reach a sentence but ended with some pragmatic solutions. Darocca was to be imprisoned in a Clarisse monastery in Rome; the bishops of Trent, Brixen, and Innsbruck were to annunce the news of the fiction of her sanctity; and her reputation was to fall into a damnatio memoriae. Actually, in the current state of research, things seem to have gone differently. After being imprisoned in the monastery, through the complicity of some clerics, Angelica managed to escape and temporarily return to Radein. From the Tyrol she sent numerous letters to the Pope and Holy Office in which she claimed the invalidity of her depositions: she had been forced to perjure herself. From that date on, the woman lived in a state of perpetual escape, from one village to another, avoiding the controls of the diocesan authority by counting on a structured network of faithful. Compared to the dozens of cases reported in the Tyrol a few decades earlier, Darocca was not an imitative model for other potential stigmatics in the region. Tyrol was not for the second time one of the most important hotspots of stigmata in Europe.

What remains of this daring woman, ‘true’, ‘false’ or feigned saint-to-be, is just a small pocket knife with which she – at least according to certain admissions – pierced her body to emulate Christ’s passion. The Vatican archives are not the archives fictionalized by Dan Brown, but a much more complex and fascinating reality and I have a new story to tell my colleagues at the next conference.

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