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08/07/2015 in archeology and architecture, art and imagery, genealogy and family history, households and the domestic environment, Italian Peninsula, landscapes and pilgrimage, Mediterranean, Other, Parish Research Today, Parish sources, preservation and memory, Projects, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories, towns and urban environment

When I visit the numerous churches and chapels in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland located south of the Alps, I am always struck by their extraordinary artistic and historical richness. One explanation is the flourishing of devotions and religious art which characterised most Catholic countries after the Council of Trent. This is certainly true especially in the Italian area, to whose cultural sphere the Ticino belonged (even though it fell under Swiss political control in the sixteenth century), but there are other reasons. In fact, a crucial further factor needs to be considered: migration. On the one hand, over the centuries, thousands of people associated with the building trades left their homes in the Lake Lugano region to practice their skills as architects, masons, master builders, stucco workers, stonecutters, sculptors and painters abroad. This phenomenon was generally seasonal and whilst staying in their villages, the artisans helped to build or embellish churches and chapels. On the other hand, many migrants associated with other professions donated substantial parts of their earnings to devotional and charitable purposes.

The migrants’ faith and generosity are still visible in many churches and chapels of these territories, particularly in the Pedemonte region, the Centovalli and in the villages surrounding the town of Locarno. Inhabitants of these places had migrated to different Italian cities – especially Livorno, Florence and Rome – for centuries. Exclusively men, they worked as porters (facchini), coachmen (vetturini), chimney sweeps and food-sellers (rosticcieri), to mention just a few professions. In Livorno and Florence they were even able to obtain the monopoly of the porterage trade.

The following pictures shall help to illustrate the impact of migration as it is still tangible today. (Click the thumbnails to enlarge the images.)

§ Figures 1, 2 and 3 – Chapel of S. Rocco (St Roch, 17th century) in the parish church of S. Maria Assunta (Assumption) in Tegna (Terre di Pedemonte, bailiwick and pieve of Locarno)

On the balustrade of many chapels, and in one case even on a confessional box, we can often find the inscription “B.D.L”, an acronym which means “Benefattori di Livorno” (“Benefactors of Livorno”). The migrants active in Livorno gathered in groups and used to collect money for their parishes and brotherhoods.

§ Figures 4, 5, 6 and 7 – Chapel in Verscio (1740) (Terre di Pedemonte, bailiwick and pieve of Locarno); and Our Lady of Montenero in Livorno (14th century)

References to migration and urban experiences also appear in specific devotions. In many churches of this region, even in small chapels deep in the forests, dozen of paintings depicting the Virgin of Montenero can still be found. Here we can see the original painting at Livorno and a very ‘rustic” copy in Verscio. The shrine of Our Lady of Grace of Montenero is located on a hill overlooking Livorno. The Madonna di Montenero, nowadays patron saint of Tuscany, was already widely venerated in seventeenth and eighteen-century century Livorno. In the chapel in Verscio, under the picture of the Virgin Mary and two further saints, we can see details of the port of Livorno (lighthouse and ships).

§ Figures 8, 9 and 10 – Parish church of S. Michele (St Michael) in Palagnedra (bailiwick and pieve of Locarno), Virgin of the Annunciation in Palagnedra (Lorenzo Cresci, altar piece, 1602) and Virgin of the Annunciation in Florence (fresco, 14th century)

A similarly imported devotion concerns the Virgin of the Annunciation of Florence. A copy of the famous and miraculous painting kept in the basilica of the Annunciation in Florence (fig. 8) can still been admired in the parish church of Palagnedra (fig. 9 and 10), a village in the Centovalli, also in the bailiwick of Locarno. This work of art was commissioned by migrants resident in Florence, as recorded in the inscription under the painting.

These are two very good examples of religious and devotional transfers. Further evidence can be found in rural brotherhoods, where migrants followed customs and devotions they had come across in major cities.


Adamoli Davide, Fratelli per l’eternità. Storia delle confraternite nei baliaggi sudalpini in epoca moderna, PhD presented at the Université de Fribourg and the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano, April 2014 (forthcoming).

Beard Geoffrey, Stucco and Decorative Plasterwork in Europe, London, Thames & Hudson, 1983.

Damiani Cabrini Laura, Seicento ritrovato: presenze pittoriche “italiane” nella Lombardia svizzera fra Cinquecento e Seicento, Milano, Skira, 1996.

Gambi Lucio (ed.), “Col bastone e la bisaccia per le strade d’Europa: migrazioni stagionali di mestiere nell’arco alpino nei secoli XVI-XVIII: atti di un seminario di studi tenutosi a Bellinzona l’8 e il 9 settembre 1988”, in Bollettino storico della Svizzera italiana, vol. 103, fasc. I-IV, gennaio-dicembre 1991.

Muchembled Robert (ed.), Cultural exchange in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006-2007.

Orelli Chiara, “Migrazione e mestiere: alcuni percorsi di integrazione nelle città lombarde e toscane di “migranti” dalla Svizzera italiana (secoli XVI-XVIII)”, in Meriggi Marco, Pastore Alessandro (ed.), Le regole dei mestieri e delle professioni, secoli XV-XIX, Milano, Franco Angeli, 2001.

Rüsch Elfi, I monumenti d’arte e di storia del Canton Ticino IV, Distretto di Locarno IV (La Verzasca, il Pedemonte, le Centovalli e l’Onsernone, Berna, Società di storia dell’arte in Svizzera SSAS, 2013.

Reformed churches on the move

08/17/2014 in archeology and architecture, British Isles, Other, Parish Research Today

Cape Town Slave Lodge, Slave Auction Tree Spin St and Groote Kerk

Greenock nr Glasgow Old West Kirk 1591 moved 1926 (Laird John Shaw crest + staircase)The remarkable mobility of Calvinism has long been noted by religious historians. Soon after its emergence in Geneva, the new confession attracted followers not only in numerous neighbouring territories, but also other Continents. The roots of the Groote Kerk in Cape Town (left) reach back to the establishment of a Dutch staging and supply post at the south-western tip of Africa by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. Conditions here were very different from its European home base. Immediately adjacent to the former churchyard was the slave lodge (the white building to the left of the church, where the East India Company VOC kept hundreds of unfree labourers under lock and key), while individual slaves were auctioned on a spot under the trees in the foreground.

A very different kind of mobility, however, marks the story of the Old West Kirk at Greenock near Glasgow (pic on the right). When the local inhabitants petitioned laird John Shaw for permission to have their own place of worship, one of Scotland’s first post-Reformation churches was built here in 1591. In the 1920s, however, the expansion of a nearby shipyard led to its dismantling and stone-by-stone reconstruction a short distance away on today’s Esplanade. The image shows Shaw’s personal staircase and family crest on the side wall.

Catholic Parishes in Early Modern Palestine

04/18/2014 in Blogs, Other, Parish Research Today

In her post published in December, Michal Bauwens reminded us about the variety of early modern parishes. Following this suggestion, I would like to draw attention to the Latin parishes in the Middle East and especially to those created by the Franciscans in early modern Palestine. The foundation and the development of these parishes was strictly linked to the missionary activity pursued by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy land and to the diffusion of Catholicism in the area.

The spread of the Reformation in Europe with the loss of territories in the north, forced the Catholic Church to find allies in the east, with an increasing effort to reunify the eastern churches with Rome. In the 1620s, missionaries from different religious orders arrived in the Syro- Palestinian region. In Palestine however, the missionary activity was mainly pursued by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. Since the 13th century the Custody had been charged with guarding and maintaining the holy sites and with hosting pilgrims. Even though the first conversion to be recorded by the monks dates back to 1555, it is only in the 1620s that the evangelization among the Eastern Christians became one of the most important activities of the Franciscans. In the same decades the monks’ efforts in this direction were further encouraged by the foundation of De Propaganda Fide, the Roman congregation in charge of missionary activity worldwide. Despite Propaganda complaints, the Franciscans’ missionary activity resulted in the passage to the Latin rite for many followers of the Eastern Churches and lead to the formation of local parishes under the control of the monks (among which: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Ayn Karim, Jaffa).

Franciscan parishes in early modern Palestine had many characteristic features which distinguished them not only from the parishes located in Europe, but also from those located in other missionary territories. As in all the lands where there was not an established church hierarchy, in the Syro-Palestinian region Propaganda Fide was vested with full power and authority over missionary. When compared with other parishes established in missionary territory, Franciscan parishes in the Holy Land presented some particular features which resulted from the privileges that Propaganda granted to the Custody. When an apostolic vicariate was established in Aleppo (19th century), it had a limited jurisdiction over the parishes under the control of the Franciscans. The parish priests, for example, were named by the Custody of the Holy Land and the vicariate could not remove them. Furthermore the vicar did not have the right to conduct canonical visitations in these parishes.