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.

Fraud and Holiness: Scandals in the Convent

by Leonardo Rossi


La Monaca di Monza

Giuseppe Molteni (1847), The Nun of Monza


“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.

Convent St Ambrogio

Convent of St Ambrogio della Massima, Rome

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.


Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio: the True Story of a Convent in Scandal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

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.


‘Affettata santità’. When holiness becomes a crime

by Leonardo Rossi


Among more than 12,000 Catholic saints, blessed, venerable, and servants of God there are several that we could consider to be pretty bizarre (Martyrologium Romanum, 2004). Saints who live on columns in the desert, saints without skin or being ‘cooked’ on the grill, saints who speak to animals, saints who do not eat or sleep, saints experiencing hallucinations and altered states of consciousness. Nothing embarrassing or wrong in the eyes of the Church. According to Rome illness, whether physical or mental, and holiness are not incompatible. The Lord grants to all his creatures the possibility of sanctity; it is up to them, by practicing heroic virtues, to deserve a place on the Catholic Olympus.


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Our imagination

by Kristof Smeyers


Into the fog

When we travel into unchartered territory, we go prepared. We have a survival kit. It includes a compass that is built by literature, experience, and trawling through archive inventories. But it isn’t until we arrive in the unknown that we know whether the needle is indeed pointing north. If the past is a foreign land, but even if it’s not (and I’m not convinced that it is) we need to be able to rely on our compass. Armed with a survival kit of academically justifiable presumptions we arrive on site. And, as often as not, all compasses and roadmaps notwithstanding, we get lost.

To some degree this is a voluntary, even conscious decision; we are still professionals.

And no survival kit is ever complete. We are aware of this, there’s always something you forget to pack for a trip. This blogpost isn’t so much a warning—‘Be prepared for everything, kids!’—as it is a deconstruction of a historian’s toolkit. What to do when you’ve ventured deep into the fog, and you not only wonder how to get out but also how you got here in the first place? We have all read Hayden White, even if we do not reflect on it or feel uncomfortable about his writings. Maybe this blogpost is a warning, after all: be prepared to use your imagination.

Last October I travelled to Youghal, co. Cork in Ireland, with the generous funding of the Michael Williams Research Fund (Catholic Record Society), to track down the short, intense history of local stigmatics in 1843. I packed pencils, a scarf, sunglasses, notepads (some empty, some full of hopeful references to sources), contextual literature on Irish Catholic history and supernatural beliefs, adapters, itineraries, bus tickets, the material that referred in vague terms to the scandal of 1843. I did, however and much to my detriment, not pack candles. My kit was incomplete, then, but I was pretty confident I had the bare necessities to make this a success: the navigational tools were there. But they, too, often conjure up a world draped in fog, obfuscating more than they help reveal or drawing a map on which the contours of whole continents may be missing or plain wrong.

Sometimes, as in Youghal, the historian’s journey is like trying to find your way through a fog equipped with only a hairdryer.

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Virginity and mystical eroticism. Sexuality, stigmatics and the Church in the 19th-20th centuries

by Leonardo Rossi


G.L. Bernini, Transverberation of Saint Teresa (1647-52), Church of St Maria della Vittoria, Rome

At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and even more at the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Catholic Church not only attempted to control religious’ behavior, but envisaged a great moral reform in order to regulate all the aspects of the  societas Christi. The sexual dimension was one of the most crucial issues. While the Holy See assigned a higher degree of perfection to virginity and chastity, it did not intend to deny sexuality but rather to regulate lay unions in accordance with the sacred text. Sexual intercourse was only legitimized for procreation, as was written in Genesis (the controversial and erotic Song of Songs was conveniently forgotten). In the 19th century, the century of the ‘popularization’ and ‘feminization’ of religion, this moral trend appeared as lively as ever and took on a functional role in the re-Christianization of society. Chaste and obedient lay women, even more than the virgin nuns, were described as heroines of morality, and as a model of virtue or ‘conversion tools’ for husbands and children. The laymen, especially the women, responded to this reform in three ways: by rejecting (arousing the reproach of clergy and of their community), accepting (the most common choice, at least in appearance) or trying to sublimate the sexual instinct through a sensualization of the sacred (mystical experiences). In this short post I focus on the latter and study the relationship between Church, sexuality and mysticism through the cases of some representative Italian stigmatics.

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