From Pastoral Power to Pastoral Theatre

Perhaps now the theatrical dimension of Valcamonica's final words will spring off the page. Uttered upon the scaffold, and emanating from the body of a man whose violent actions cast him as the protagonist in a pastoral performance event, the final words of Valcamonica reveal the full psychagogical force of Jesuit dramaturgy. After recounting his life and deeds prior to arriving in Venice, much in the way that one would look back over his or her life during a general confession with a priest, Valcamonica brought his audience's attention to the present moment: [1]

life, and in the resignation to death, and I stop hoping [insofar as] I now am certain, and in this way I confess most honestly in order to rediscover the true body and blood of Jesus Christ, so that this morning I make way for salvation of my soul, and so I confess the truth, in order to partake in the infinity of Your Mercy, and in death I voluntarily bear my sins, forgive my grave errors, and reveal Paradise to me. (Cicogna)

While difficult to navigate, the condemned priest’s disjunctive syllogism uttered on the scaffold ultimately resolved into one masterful rhetorical maneuver.

Valcamonica, after confessing his sins, suggested that the only thing worse than his actions was the feigned ignorance of those same actions by others in the community. His suggestion that members of society knew but remained silent about the sexual misconduct behind the Convertite’s walls turned the framework of the confession around to cast the audience as the very sinners in need of confession, thus positioning Valcamonica in the role of priest ready to hear and absolve their sins. After that reversal, Valcamonica embodied the position of sinner and confessor, just as he, within the complexities of pastoral power, embodied both shepherd and sacrificial lamb. By making confession and guiding his sheep to confession at the same time, Valcamonica believed he could secure a place in heaven, that “Paradise” to which he sought to send his soul.

This performance of pastoral power constitutes a specific type of pastoral theatre, one in which a priest must play the role of shepherd. The allegorical splendor displayed in Tasso’s L’Aminta appears in this performance, though distorted, within the spectacle of Valcamonica’s execution. The distortion occurs through a shifting in perspective created by the Jesuit mission of pastoral care. In the pastoral theatre unfolding in Piazza San Marco on 10 November 1561, Valcamonica plays a character similar to Elpino, there to alert the gathered audience that only through death can he (and they) find the love of God. Unlike Tasso’s Elpino who, having read the signs of the world, possesses this knowledge of Death’s relation to Love, Valcamonica has to enact the leap of faith himself in order to model the behavior that the audience should follow. He knows what must be done to save his soul and the souls of his flock and he must put that knowledge into practice by enacting the sacrificial performance. Through his actions, Valcamonica becomes the link between the realms of the sacred and the profane. He is the limen, the threshold that leads from the finite to the infinite.

The notion oflove within the Jesuit catechism consists of a split similar to the Love operating in Tasso’s play. With the former, love is a state one can obtain by moving from desolation to consolation; with the latter, Love is the obverse of Death and can only be reached through an experience with death. Jesuit love finds its best articulation in Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.8 In that work, Loyola defines consolation as an interior movement aroused in the soul that appears only once the soul is inflamed with the love of God. He adds:

It is likewise consolation when one sheds tears that move to the love of God, whether it be because of sorrow for sins, or because of the sufferings of Christ our Lord, or for any other reason that is immediately directed to the praise and service of God. Finally, I call consolation every increase of faith, hope, and love, and all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly and to the salvation of one’s soul by filling it with peace and quiet in Christ our Lord. (de Loyola 142)

Loyola defines desolation as a “darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want oflove.” The presence of desolation signifies that “[t]he soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord” (143).

Consolation is an invitation and attraction into Christ, whereas desolation is a state of separation that leaves the soul outside of Christ’s love. Desolation may not appear at first to fit as part of Christ’s love. Yet, under the heading of “Reasons why we suffer desolation,” Loyola explains that desolation exists because:

God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord. (144)

With this insight, desolation becomes a necessary tool for finding one’s way into the fold. It is akin to the Lowest Pitch in the L’Aminta that portends exactly the reverse, the highest high. Desolation should raise one’s awareness of the fact that one requires a guide, and that guide is the shepherd.

Once on the scaffold, Valcamonica repents and admits that desolation has led him astray: “I confess sincerely that in the three years while I gave the sainted Eucharist, that I administered it unworthily. It pleases God that the intervention of these wise sirs makes me recognize my great errors and leads me to this pass [...].” This act of repentance propels the priest’s soul out of desolation and toward the consolation of God, which he will obtain fully once he encounters death. The body of Valcamonica in this situation becomes the screen on which the spectators in the Piazza can read their own interior states. Like the landscape in Tasso’s play, Valcamonica enters into a hermeneutic relationship with all who view him. As the priest inferred in his final speech, everyone present in the Piazza had sinned in some way. Each person could acknowledge that fact by seeing Valcamonica as an external expression of his or her own sins, and then take a cue from Valcamonica as to how he or she might find absolution. The priest’s final words were intended to help the viewers of the spectacle to know themselves more fully and to step onto the path to God.

Valcamonica became the locus of convergence in which the sacred met the profane. His crimes against the young maidens of the Convertite may have been evil, but through the act of self-sacrifice the evil became a generative space in which the character of the good shepherd could appear and lead the stray sheep back into the fold. By recognizing the Jesuits as the dramaturgs or “poets” who composed this entire scene, the execution begins to appear as a psychagogical demonstration of how the lowliest of sinners might pass through the world of the profane into the realm of the sacred. Valcamonica would make the transition first by atoning for his sins and relinquishing his life for the edification of the spectators. After him, however, each spectator, if he or she had been able to read the priest’s body and take the appropriate cues, could take Valcamonica’s place. By doing that, each individual could transition from the torpor of desolation into the stimulating embrace of God’s consolation.

This entire performance becomes a distorted partner of the type of pastoral theatre epitomized in L’Aminta. From the perspective of the Jesuits, Tasso’s play would have offered a false representation of the world, false because of its reliance on pagan deities. As a corrective, the execution served to assert a monotheistic order in lieu of the pantheon of gods inherited from classical mythology. To do this, however, the execution had to draw upon an allegorical dramaturgy very similar to that which operated in L’Aminta and through which the finite and profane world of sin and death became affixed to the sacred world of infinite life and the love of God. The communicating doorway that linked the two worlds was the shepherd, Valcamonica, who, like Elpino, was positioned as the guide to the spiritual dimension of the terrestrial realm. Unlike Elpino, however, who merely possessed the knowledge of Death’s relation to Love, Valcamonica had to demonstrate his knowledge in order to call forth the spectators to repeat the action, to repent for their sins, and to step onto the pathway connecting this world to the next.

  • [1] was placed as the governor [rector] at the Monastery of the Convertite,in which I committed many errors and sins with a great city-widescandal, the city in which all of you were born, and it is in this respect,because we are all subject to this fragility, that it is also the seeing andknowing that major errors are being committed by others, like those thatI was making [... ] well, it seems to me that my errors are very muchinferior to those [... ] so I confess sincerely that in the three years whileI gave the sainted Eucharist that I administered it unworthily. It pleasesGod that the intervention of these wise sirs makes me recognize my greaterrors and leads me to this pass [... ] however, my blessed public, Iexhort all of you to make this blessed confession sincerely, and purely so thatwe can all reconcile ourselves with our master God, and to make thisconfession frequently for the health of our souls; so, I believe in eternal
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