“Florence…her undying Spirit broke the bounds of space and time, and lives to-day in the mind of Europe and of the world.”
-from The Builders of Florence, by James W. Brown (1907)
As the traveller winds his way through the city’s many squares and alleyways, letting his eyes rest on the stately villas once inhabited by the lords and ladies of Old Romance, he slowly crosses an invisible threshold. Suddenly, he finds himself in the middle of a necromantic conjuration. The ghosts of the past, visible in every artwork–from the grim-faced Dante peering down from his pedestal in the Piazza della Santa Croce, to the angelic frescoes of the Pitti Palace–lunge at his soul.
Their presence, like the deathly touch of an evoked shade, gives him vertigo. Eventually, as if gradually bursting in trompe l’oeil from the cerulean great beyond, the muses in all their glory descend from on high and overwhelm his senses. Caught up in this ecstasy, the traveller-turned-aesthete then grasps the psychic truth of Charles Godfrey Leland’s words: “All Florence is a charmingly haunted city.”
Tourists have held intercourse with spirits in this way for centuries, but there were times not so long ago, when Florence and its provinces were the font of real prophetic awakenings. These moments of seercraft, as in the days of King Saul, occurred in the midst of regional hostilities. Thus, the living waters of prophetism bubbled up in Florence whenever the polities of the Italian peninsula, which frequently succumbed to irruptions of mercenaries and despots, underwent violent mutations of state.
But in 1453, something happened which, in the minds of all Christendom, signified that the end was near. Constantinople, last bastion of the generations-old Roman Empire, was conquered by the young and headstrong Mehmet II, Sultan of the Ottomans. This historic event was a deluge of sorts that precipitated the citywide exodus of Byzantine scholars and churchmen. A few of these Greek-speaking refugees, such as the educator John Argyropoulos, settled in Florence and greatly influenced its intelligentsia.
Florentine culture, already molded by the works and literary discoveries of Petrarch, Poggio Bracciolini, and Lorenzo Valla, became increasingly urbane. Citizens began to see their beloved fatherland as an exception to the rule, a miracle of civilisation. To the humanist and statesman Leonardo Bruni, the “splendour” of Florence surpassed “all the cities of the world”. Bruni also bragged that Florence had inherited its power from Rome. “To you,” he told his Florentine paisans, “belongs by hereditary right the dominion of the entire world.”
Following the invention of the printing press, the city also gave birth to Italy’s first printed prophecies. Amplified by local cantastorie, who recited the oracles in piazzas across the city, these texts helped shape public opinion. Meanwhile, the Medici oligarchs who were funding Florence’s artistic renewal were also subtly garroting the city’s republicanism. Corruption flourished, and discontent–like stockpiles of gunpowder–grew to a point where it could be ignited by fiery tongued gospelers.
These preachers saw themselves as New Age Enochs, emissaries of the overworld sent to crush the giant-sized egos of their wicked peers. Inevitably, they went on to portray their city as an Italic Babylon. As such, it was full of–as Shakespeare’s Antipholus remarked of Epheseus–cozenage and “suchlike liberties of sin”. Yet in the hearts of its wise men, such as Bruni and the wizardly Marsilio Ficino, Florence was an Athens-style city-state, the apogee of intellect, industry, realpolitik, and art magic.
Prophetic manifestations, however, were not all isolated to Florence proper. In the Arno and Casentino valleys, among the rural satellite villages that once formed a part of ancient Etruria, inspired visionaries, such as David Lazzaretti (the self-described “messiah” of Arcidosso), experienced wondrous phenomena. Convinced that God himself was captaining his soul, he launched jeremiads against king, Church, and Country, inciting charismatic uprisings throughout the Tuscan campagna.
The genii locorum, those all-pervading spirits of the landscape, almost certainly had a hand in launching the careers of the prophets of new Etruria. In the eighteenth century, the German man of letters, Karl von Ense, wrote that Swabians tended to be more attuned to the paranormal because they lived in out-of-the-way hamlets, among ruined castles and chapels. Decay and impermanence surrounded them, and their “nerves” were shaped accordingly.
In the same way, some Tuscan seers were likely influenced by the georgic and sylvan scenes of their own backyards. Indeed, as early as the sixteenth century, the Neapolitan anecdotist Alexander ab Alexandro (also known as Alessandro Alessandri) recalled how the wilderness around Arezzo was full of “inaccessible” forests and dales which bore no traces of human habitation. Here, where “solitude itself was terrifying”, Alexandro’s friends had seen a spine-tingling prodigy. Strange, hooded humanoids had suddenly appeared out of the darkness and howled at them in an inhuman tongue. “At which sight,” wrote Alexandro, “they were taken aback with fear,” and fled to the nearest country inn.
The present issue of Godfrey’s Almanack recounts and re-examines the manifold journeys and messages of those caul-born who, for better or worse, used their powers of supernormal perception to affect the lives of their fellow Tuscans. Leaping between City and Township, between Legend and Fact; between doomsayers, mages, and revolutionaries; we show the kaleidoscopic spirit of prophecy as it once was–and perhaps–as it will be again.
Girolamo Savonarola: the Prophet-King of Florence
Born in Ferrara to a wealthy family, Girolamo Savonarola came to Florence in 1491. Like a supermassive star, he exerted a hidden force on every luminary in his new galaxy. Gifted with an electrifying personality, a golden mouth, a subtle mind, and an intense, fulminous hate for clerical luxuriance, the friar rapidly became a leading light to all Florence and a scourge of the sinister forces which threatened its destruction. Machiavelli feared and revered him, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola adored him; even the demons–so it was believed–viewed him with awe. As the French envoy Philip de Comines put it: “Never had a preacher so great an influence over a city.” In many ways, the people saw him as a breath of fresh air, a stormy reformer who would sweep away the filth of the Church and tear down the notoriously depraved Borgian pontiff, Alexander VI.
Alexander was infamous for his excesses, and as God’s formal representative on Earth, he was an easy target. Yet contemporary reports suggest that a number of prelates and mid- to lower-level ecclesiastics in Savonarola’s time either were complicit in or willfully perpetrated unspeakable evils. For example, in his De reformandis moribus oratio (1520), Gianfrancesco Pico (nephew of Giovanni Pico of Kabbalah-fame) claimed that the Catholic Church maintained a system of sexual abuse.
“In our time,” he wrote, “the priests break into the sacred Houses…women are brought in to quench their lusts, and boys that are abused against nature, are lent and given to them by their Parents, and these boys subsequently are made into priests.” Attacking the hypocrisy of the Church, Machiavelli also reasoned that its “overthrow or punishment” was long overdue.”Those people who are nearest to the Roman Church, the head of our religion, have least religion,” he wrote in his Discourses on Livy.
Against this backdrop of religious depravity, Savonarola mobilised his fellow Dominicans at the friary of San Marco and launched what was effectively a reactionary propaganda campaign designed to purge Florence of its sins. Travelling from church to church, and sometimes attended by armed bodyguards, he preached of war, pestilence, and destruction by fire and water. Keenly aware of the power of the printed word, he also took pains to get his message out through the press, publishing his sermons with detailed images to further imprint his zeal in his minds of his congregation.
For years, Savonarola spoke about an impending invasion; a “New Cyrus”, he proclaimed, would chasten and redeem Italy by the sword. In 1494, his prophecies came true. Charles VIII, the ambitious King of France, swept through the Italian provinces like a hurricane, but left Florence unmolested. Savonarola capitalised on the apparent miracle, and for a time, like Moses of Old, he assumed the office of lawgiver. Savonarola’s glorious revolution unfolded like a dictator’s dream. Book burnings, clamp-downs on speech, and restrictions on dress and intimacy all formed part of the new regime, and the Piagnoni–the friar’s fervent disciples–made sure Florentines got with the programme.
But Savonarola was just a man, not a god, and unlike the battle-worn chieftains of the ancient Levant, he lacked soldiers. After narrowly avoiding a public trial by fire by cannily employing tricks that would make any politician worth his salt swell with pride, Savonarola was forcibly seized by municipal forces in the San Marco. The Borgia pope, long the target of the friar’s aspersions, soon got his revenge. After a soul-enervating trial, the once indomitable regent of Florence was burned at the stake, and his ashes — the last physical remains of his revolutionary struggle — were cast like fish feed into the Arno. It was an annihilation reminiscent of the words of the Roman poet Claudian:
“Put not now your trust in prosperity; learn that the gods are inconstant and heaven untrustworthy. That hand which sought to wield a sceptre, which a humbled nobility stooped so often to kiss, now torn from its wretched trunk and left long unburied begs after death a baneful alms.”
The Spirit-Writing of Gino Fanciullacci
Much like Quattrocento and Cinquecento Florence, the Florence of the Victorian age was all aglow with luminous spirits, both fleshly and ghostly. It was a time when, to paraphrase Leon Favre, then Consul General of France, most so-called “learned” persons were “Spiritists”. As an international hub and refuge for well-to-do artistic, scientific, and literary types, Florence inevitably became the perfect vector for those with interests in the nightside of nature. “There is not a house in which the subject has not been discussed,” said one contemporary writer.
To better explore the borderlands of mind and matter, select individuals, such as Elizabeth Browning, Anthony Trollope, and Isa Blagden teamed up with local aristocrats and either set up or joined cliques and formal associations in Florence proper and Fiesole. Their séances–like the cloistered workings of medieval monastics–were conducted in picturesque, Gothic gloom, often in a patron’s ancestral manor. These occult labours were not fruitless. Apparitions did make their presence known, sometimes with bravura performances on a nearby piano.
As the spiritualists continued to witness anomalous manifestations, their faith became contagious. A climate of frenzied conviction dominated (influenced, no doubt by the Italian residency of the Scottish medium Daniel Dunglas Home), and word soon spread of their secret transactions with discarnate entities.
Into this milieu stepped a seventeen-year-old named Gino Fanciullacci. Described by a correspondent to The Spiritualist Newspaper as a tall, “handsome young fellow” with “very scanty education”, Fanciullacci worked as an assistant to Auguste Riblet, a wealthy French art dealer based on Borgognissanti street, a stroll away from Savanarola’s former headquarters at San Marco. Fanciullacci’s correspondence indicates that he also maintained links with an antiquary who worked on 22 via Serragli in Florence’s “evangelical district”.
Home to a thriving American evangelical Christian community, the neighbourhood boasted a Waldensian seminary (described by one observer as a “school of the Prophets”) and printing press. As the Waldensian’s main publishing outfit, The Claudian Press produced numerous tracts and pamphlets on theological topics. It’s possible that Fanciullacci, who sometimes listed the Serragli address as his own, was influenced by his Waldensian compatriots. Indeed, their missionary activities–by most accounts–were difficult to ignore.
In 1880 Fanciullacci brought out a Dantesque epic poem entitled Pellegrinaggio nei Cielo (“Pilgrimage in the Heavens”). An instant hit, it was roundly lauded by members of the Florentine spiritual community, but their excitement grew tenfold when the young author revealed that it had been dictated to him “by a spirit”.
“No one ever thought him capable of writing poetry,” wrote one reviewer, “and how he could possibly have written these hundred cantos is a riddle and a phenomenon worthy of investigation.” Nonetheless the same critic went on to say that Fanciullacci’s ability to produce physical phenomena would “do good to the cause”.
Everyone seemed to agree. Writing in a February 1886 issue of Medium and Daybreak, Giovanni Damiani, a Sicilian-born paranormal researcher, called Fanciullacci “principal” among Florence’s “very good mediums”. Likewise, in an August 1881 article in the The Spiritualist, Chiaro Chiari, a colleague of Fanciullacci, admitted that he was “immeasurably” superior to all the city’s mediums. Fanciullacci, he claimed, had also communicated with Boccaccio, Lucretius and Confucius. Chiari stressed that the medium’s main shtick was his ability invoke musically inclined presences:
“In Gino Fanciullacci’s house, in which we hold our sittings, there is a piano, a large horizontal one, and for several evenings this said piano, being locked up, has given out sometimes on the ivory keys, but oftener on the chords themselves, pieces of music generally of a religious character; or imitated storms with wind and thunder like a crescendo; or formed a concert as of numerous bells with notes now acute, now bass, and all with such precision and perfection that it appears to us impossible for even our very best musicians to reproduce. It is the more remarkable to hear such masterly touches, when we consider that the piano is shut up hermetically, and that the harmony is produced in a direct manner through the chords within.”
As for his own thoughts on the efficacy of his vatic powers, Fanciullacci in 1889 told a correspondent of Light that during his séances he and his sister had produced the “most beautiful phenomena”. He wrote: “Spirits played every sort of instrument, especially the pianoforte, upon which we have heard veritable concerts carried on by invisible hands.”
But Fanciullacci was not in it just for the siddhis–the signs and wonders so treasured by ordinary experimentalists. Rather, he professed that the “philosophy” of Spiritism gave him the “force to combat” his grief. Critical of the sectarianism and belligerency of both the Catholic and Evangelical churches, the poet also believed that his religion represented true universalism.
“Spiritism is able to give that which no religion has been able to give up to this day;” he explained, “it has no repentance of divinity, no oppression, no condemnation for eternity.” Echoing the sentiment of the Renaissance-era Dominican philosopher, Giordano Bruno, he continued:
“It teaches love, the solidarity of all the souls that live under the empire of the suns, solemn accord of creation, unity in the infinity of forms, progress in the eternal journey, truth in knowledge acquired. Every star is a dwelling·place in which live souls, in the infinite desert of space, whither we shall go to fulfil the mysterious designs of the unknown God.”
Not much is known of Fanciullacci’s later life, but Riblet, his patron, employer, and book distributor, continued to expand his fortune by selling rare artworks in and outside Italy. Whereas Fanciullacci faded into obscurity, Riblet (who no doubt turned a profit from his assistant’s upper-class and globe-trotting admirers) left behind an extensive estate. The
Palazzo Riblet, a hotel located on Via della Scala, is one of the businessman’s last remaining properties.
Tarot Magic of the Sibyls
Leland, who ascribed his versatile career to the early intervention of a Dutch cunning woman, fancied himself as a true witch-finder, and in Florence he supposedly befriended genuine magicians–persons who belonged to a “sisterhood of sorcery”. One of these individuals, a certain Margherita, told Leland about a strange divinatory ritual practised by two sibyls who lived near the Church of Santa Croce “in the ancient time”.
According to his informant, the duo would conduct their client into a room veiled with dark chords and illuminated by a burning brazier. The witches then took up packs up tarocchi cards, “on which were figures of goblins, dragons, and other monsters, and therewith formed a circle” around their customer. Following this, they raised their black wands, threw a mysterious powder on the fire, and conjured “the Great Setlano”. After the ceremony, the women cast the contents of the brazier into a nearby river and tossed salt over their shoulders to banish the “evil” of their workings. Whether the answer to the querent’s enquiry came in a dream or through some other sign or dispensation, Margherita did not say.
The Adepts of Fiesole
Tradition has it that the smiling uplands of Etruscan Fiesole were once home to a Scholomance of sorts, a college for augurs-in-training. Augurs were the sacred forecasters of the classical world; no major undertaking, whether military, political, or social, was green-lighted without their counsel. On the hallowed grounds of this lofty town, which overlooks Florence from the north, students were educated in, to quote Elizabeth Kerr Coulson, the “science of divination, by which the lawgivers and conquerors of the world had ruled”. In other words, they–by interpreting atmospheric phenomena like lightning strikes and flocks of birds–learned how to scry through nature.
As the ages passed, augury became a forgotten art. Nevertheless, soothsaying practices persisted among the Fiesolans; folk magic flourished, and in day-to-day life women became its primary votaries. “When I was a little boy,” wrote Angelo Poliziano, one of the celebrated poets of Renaissance Florence, “my grandmother used to tell me about the witches in the neighbouring wood, who eat up naughty children.” These witches, the poet was convinced, still gathered at a well near his villa.
Suchlike enchantresses were reportedly still active across Tuscany in Leland’s time. “Two police women on their nightly beat,” related Leland’s friend and fellow scholar, James Wood Brown in his book Florence, past and present (1911), “passed the gate of a cemetery and heard suspicious sounds.” What followed was like a scene out of a Francisco de Goya painting.
According to Brown, the officers stepped through the portal and “found a pair of old women at work by a new-made grave, burying what, on examination, proved to be a lemon skin stuffed with human hair.” The hair was apparently “that of the victim, who, his enemies hoped, would waste as the fruit decayed, and whom the buried dead would draw to death”.
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