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Open access to ‘Political Freedom’ collection

02/09/2016 in British Isles, Eastern Europe, Germany, Italian Peninsula, Media, officeholding and local government, Parish Research Today, The Alpine Territories

Front Cover Pic WebThe full text of the essay collection Politische Freiheit und republikanische Kultur im alten Europa (Vitznau, 2015) is now accessible online. Published last year to mark the bicentenary of the (temporary) restoration of the Swiss parish republic of Gersau in 1814, the volume includes studies of political freedom in Austrian, Swiss, German and Italian communities, thematic surveys of republican thought and constitutional conflict alongside two contributions in English: Ann Hughes on ‘Gender and Republicanism’ and Marc Lerner on ‘William Tell – The Material Culture of a Freedom Myth’. If you’d rather have a hardcopy, just drop me a line!


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.

Ermatingen – Europe’s Biconfessionality Champion

05/31/2015 in drink and sociability, Parish Research Today, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories, theology and church doctrine

Few parish churches can be more ‘remarkable’ than St Albin at Ermatingen in the Thurgau region of north-eastern Switzerland. Originally ruled by the abbot of Reichenau in southernmost Germany, the area became subject to the Swiss cantons in 1460. The latter acted as overlords with high jurisdiction, but the lower rights remained in the abbey’s hands (before they passed to the Diocese of Konstanz in 1540). Substantially rebuilt in the 1480-90s (main picture), the church boasts a fourteenth-century St Catherine chapel and a commanding view over the Untersee lake.

Ansicht v Hauptstr (Bausubstanz 1490)

In 1524, the newly appointed parson Alexius Bertschin introduced evangelical ideas into the community, whose majority soon converted to the new faith. This met with the severe disapproval of the Swiss governor at Frauenfeld, causing the parson to flee to nearby Konstanz (where the Reformation was also – briefly – successful, until Charles V forced its re-Catholicization). Yet after Bern had turned Zwinglian, Bertschin could return as an evangelical preacher in 1529 and two years later the Second Peace of Kappel (following Europe’s first religious civil wars) allowed parishes in the Swiss condominiums – including Thurgau – to practise two religions at the same time! Confessional minorities were granted protection, prompting some Catholic families to settle at Ermatingen. When the parish’s morrow mass benefice became vacant in 1536, the Abbot of Reichenau ensured that it would go to a follower of the old religion, making the new incumbent Hans Hopp effectively the first parson of the Catholic congregation. From that point until – startingly – today, St Albinius has been a Simultankirche, a church in which two confessional groups worship side-by-side. The situation fostered plenty of conflicts (the Catholics demarcated ‘their’ choir with a rail, the Protestants responded by hanging a curtain in front of it), but also co-operation on practical issues like fabric maintenance and eventually mutual acceptance. The most notable testimony to this co-existence is the early eighteenth-century font, which contains a Catholic (nearside on the left picture) and a Protestant basin!

Taufstein early 18 m kath (vorne) + evang (hinten) TeilAnzeigen Kath + Evang Kirchgde

Today, the church notice board is still divided into two confessional sections (right), the list of parish incumbents is arranged in parallel columns and the timing of services remains staggered: in odd months, evangelical worship starts at 9 am, with the Catholics meeting at 10.30; in even months, the order is reversed. When I visited on a sunny May Sunday, the sexton kindly removed the cover from the font and explained its peculiar design almost in passing, if clearly with some pride. During the mass, seven young women were confirmed by a Catholic canon, followed by a drinks reception outside the church and family meals at the nearby Eagle, an early modern inn first documented in 1590 and serving excellent Müller Thurgau white wine from local vineyards. Some places just seem to have it all.

Information courtesy of the church guide, community website and a little field work; pics: BK; for the wider context see R. Head, ‘Fragmented dominion, fragmented Churches: The institutionalization of the Landfrieden in the Thurgau 1531-1610’, in: Archive for Reformation History 96 (2005), 117-144.

Feastday economies

07/21/2014 in Parish Research Today, Parish sources, ritual, devotion and religious change, The Alpine Territories


While working on records of the former Bishopric of Constance (now kept in the archives of the German Archdiocese of Freiburg), I found a petition by the parish republic of Gersau (address page pictured). Sent to the vicar general in 1779, the mayor and council voiced concerns about the large number of Catholic feasts and mounting difficulties to keep them observed. With the backing of the regional dean, no fewer than 26 saints’ days were identified for downgrading (among which the Visitation of Our Lady). The bishop played ball, approving the request, but urging his ‘Catholic flock’ to diligently attend mass on all remaining feasts and to ‘abstain from all vanities, damaging idleness, suspicious gatherings, dancing, gaming, excessive drinking, swearing … as well as any other insults to the Almighty’. Gersau was in good company, following the lead of the neighbouring Canton of Lucerne, which had secured a similar privilege, and rather ahead of Enlightened monarchs like Joseph II, who started to curb religious duties for economic reasons at about the same time.

Travel note from the parish of Mareta (South Tyrol)

05/02/2014 in art and imagery, landscapes and pilgrimage, Parish Research Today, The Alpine Territories

It’s been a day of travel. Trains, buses, a bit of hitchhiking and as always at the end, in piedi. But the journey was worth it. My destination was the miners’ church of Sankt Magdalena in the Val Ridanna. It’s is a daughter house of the parish church of Mareta, not far as the crow flies but a lot more once you ascend the sides of the valley on the snaking road. A pit stop at a nearby maso procured the key and the custodian, Caterina, who would do the needful with the alarm – important artworks afoot! Sankt Magdalena lies in the foothills of the Snow Mountain, which bears rich seams of ore. The miners did so well in the 15th century that they reputedly shod their boots with silver nails! They also funded the rebuilding of an earlier church, retaining the dedication to the Magdalen. Two large scale altarpiece, combining painted scenes and sculpted figures were commissioned from leading artists working in nearby Vipiteno/Sterzing. Both were destined for the high altar. Mattheis Störbel’s work of 1509 remains in situ, while Hans Harder’s earlier opus is now in the nave (pics below). To study these works in person was a real privilege, especially after the journey. It was a real connection of landscape, art and devotion, as well as the financial underpinnings of such endeavours. The architecture of the church was simple but well executed. In all, a lasting testimony to the men who laboured in the mountains and the saint who watched over them.

IMG_0438 IMG_0457IMG_0443IMG_0456


CFP – Renaissance Society of America, Berlin 2015

04/28/2014 in art and imagery, Events, Italian Peninsula, landscapes and pilgrimage, Mediterranean, Parish Research Today, The Alpine Territories

‘Artistic Exchange in Unexpected Quarters’: Art, travel and geography during the Renaissance

 RSA Annual Meeting, Berlin, March 26 – 28, 2015

Deadline May 30, 2014

By popular account, Pieter Brueghel the Elder swallowed up the mountains and the rocks when journeying through the Alps, and spat them out again in his work once home. Dürer and Patinir immortalised the landscape in portable media, while for other artists and workshops, Alpine patrons and churches offered gainful employment and with that, diffusion of style and motif.  Such was the power of this geography for artistic creativity. Studies of exchange typically privilege urban contexts or determine influence through the polarities of north and south, east and west but little is made of the transitional zones in between or those at the so-called margins. What potentials did they offer for artistic exchange? Did it lead to unusual artworks, hybrid idioms or iconographies? Was there resistance or revival of local traditions?

It is nearly 20 years since Claire Farago asked whether “the categories into which our discipline [art history] is currently subdivided are really well-suited to analysing questions of intercultural exchange.” Reframing the Renaissance anticipated the global turn, bringing together studies of old and new worlds in an effort to rethink traditional categories and boundaries. More worlds than ever are opening up to Renaissance scholarship. This planned series of sessions borrows its title from Aby Warburg’s 1905 essay as a framework for new research on artistic exchange and diffusion (papers on sites, artworks, approaches are all welcome) in transitional zones across Italy, Europe and wider worlds, 1300-1650.

Please send your title, abstract (150 words max), and keywords, with C.V. to Joanne Anderson by May 30 at:



Republic revived

02/03/2014 in Media, officeholding and local government, Parish Research Today, Projects, The Alpine Territories

Bote der Urschweiz Front Page 3 02 14 CROPPED

Having planned the bicentenary ‘Gersau 2014’ celebrations for over two years, it was heartening to see the parish church of St Marcellus – site of the historic assembly which restored the independent republic on 2 February 1814 – packed solid for the commemorative Landsgemeinde exactly 200 years later (see the picture gallery on the project homepage). Following the Candlemas service (which included the blessing of St Blasius, protector against a range of diseases, administered to each parishioner) and an outdoor reception by the District Council (lubricated by a specially commissioned ‘Republic Wine’), the sounds of drummers – not to speak of a cannon salute – summoned the audience back inside. What director Roger Bürgler had prepared surprised everyone: Schiffmeister Balz, Gersau’s mythical resistance hero (impersonated by actor Stefan Camenzind, pictured above on the cover of today’s Bote der Urschweiz newspaper), emerged to challenge the congregation to think not just about the past, but also the future. One-by-one, he asked speakers to present their different takes on ‘freedom’: the district mayor, a Swiss MP, a refugee from military dictatorship in Turkey, a historian (who happened to be yours truly), a village jester and delegates from fellow peasant republics Dithmarschen and Gochsheim. In-between, on a giant screen, we saw video clips of Gersau’s dramatic landscape and appeals from current schoolchildren, punctuated by live performances from musicians, singers and – yes – a yodeling duet. Following a colourful procession, proceedings continued in the afternoon with a sold-out banquet, a couple of historical lectures and a full entertainment programme in the school hall. Judging from the media echo (cf. the  podcast report of Swiss National Radio SRF), the day was a great success and succeeded in getting people to engage with the aims of ‘Gersau 2014′.

Launch of the ‘Gersau 2014′ celebrations

12/14/2013 in Events, Parish Research Today, Projects, The Alpine Territories

My current research on parish republics has led to a close engagement with the rural community of Gersau on Lake Lucerne. For over 400 years, this remarkable micro-state ran its own political and ecclesiastical affairs, complemented by a defensive alliance with the Forest Cantons (a new local history has just been published). Following their military invasion of 1798, French revolutionary troops turned the loosely structured Swiss Confederation into a centralized puppet state and Gersau lost its independence. However, as soon as Napoleon was defeated and the political future up for negotiation, the communal assembly of 2 February 1814 decided to restore the ‘free land’ of Gersau. This was a romantic gesture, entirely at odds with the European trend towards large nation states, and it lasted a mere three years, after which the Swiss Diet decreed integration into the neighbouring Canton of Schwyz.

Logo Gersau 2014 Web Cropped

To mark the bi-centenary of this temporary restoration, and to take stock of where Gersau stands today (given comparable pressures towards European integration and globalization), I have teamed up with the local authorities to plan ‘Gersau 1814/2014 – Shaping History’, a year of commemorative and celebratory events. After extensive preparations, the full programme has just been published. From my point of view, the highlights include a ‘imaginative re-interpretation’ of the historic assembly in the parish church (attended by the current mayors of two other once ‘free’ communes: Dithmarschen and Gochsheim) and an international conference on the relationship between territorial size/resources and the extent of ‘freedom’ in pre-modern republics (with an associated public panel debate in the school hall on 22 March 2014); but there are also guided walks to historic sites, communal pilgrimages, informal discussion evenings, a ‘future workshop’, concerts and even a specially minted republican currency (the Gersauer Gulden) for use in all shops and restaurants. A dedicated website provides further information and regular updates. Alongside, I hope to offer some contextualization through articles in regional magazines (the Y-Mag of Schwyz) as well as specialized journals (a comparative examination of the political cultures of Gersau and the parish confederation of Dithmarschen on the North Sea coast is due to appear in the Zeitschrift für historische Forschung 2/2014). It promises to be an exciting year for the people of Gersau and their guests.

BOhisto – Bolzano-Bozen’s History Online

06/24/2013 in Italian Peninsula, officeholding and local government, Parish sources, The Alpine Territories, towns and urban environment

Title Documents

Visit the wonderful new research resource BOhisto – Bozen-Bolzano’s History Online. “Some dozens of the old Minutes of the Municipal council of Bozen-Bolzano are freely available to you. The manuscripts digitised up to now span from 1470 to the late 17th century and shed light on the administration, the economy and the townspeople´s life of one of the main urban centres of Tyrol, situated on the most important transalpine route between Germany and Italy. The rich database offered by the archival data is an unique playground to further explore the urban history of a central European area.”

Searchable in Italian, German and English

Ancient Parish Duties

01/13/2013 in British Isles, Secular law and regulation, The Alpine Territories

Recent verdicts reveal Interesting contrasts in attitudes to legal tradition: while English Law Lords ruled that a lay rector remained liable for chancel repairs at Aston Cantlow in Warwickshire in 2003, a court in the Swiss canton of Glarus has just cleared a farmer of the obligation to maintain a church light at Näfels which his predecessors had supported since the fourteenth century.