25 May 2009

The Last of Zenobia's Line?

Happy St. Zenobius Day!

Today the city of Florence celebrates one of its patron saints, St Zenobius (ca. 337-424/429), supposedly the founding father of the Florentine church, with lots of miracles to his name.

Zenobius? Zenobia?

What has he to do with our Palmyran Queen?

First things first. Here's what you need to know about Zenobius.

In Renaissance Florence, St Zenobius was second only to the city's principal patron saint, John the Baptist. His prominence in their ample pantheon was due to his miracles, including a proven ability to bring the dead back to life, and his stout defence of the city in times of political and military crisis.

In the 'Life of St Ambrose', the great bishop of early Christian Milan (337-397) -- written after Ambrose's death by his secretary Paulinus -- we first hear of Zenobius. Paulinus tells us that Ambrose visited Florence in one of his multiple postmortum apparitions:

In Tuscany, too, in the district of Florence where the holy man Zenobius is now bishop, Ambrose -- because he had promised that he would visit more frequently those seeking him -- was seen praying at the altar which is in the Ambrosian Basilica he built [the church now called San Lorenzo, consecrated by Ambrose in 393]. This we learned from the report of the holy Bishop Zenobius himself.

These are the only certain facts about St Zenobius: he was a good bishop -- and, at least, he did exist (which is more than some saints can claim). Not much data, really. But medieval chroniclers could make bricks with just this little bit of straw.

In the late 9th century, on a 26th of January, the saint's body was carried from the old Ambrosian Basilica and interred anew in the cathedral of Santa Reparata (later to become Santa Maria del Fiore, the current Duomo). Despite it being the middle of winter, as the procession passed alongside a dead tree -- an elm, I believe -- the saint's body accidentally touched it -- and MIRÁCOLO! it burst into green leaf and flowered (as shown on this wooden panel by Ghirlandaio). We know this happened because the Archbishop Lorenzo di Amalfi (d. 1049) recorded the story a century later, with the saint's name given as Zanobi (the Italian version of Zenobius).

Then, for almost 250 years, our sources are silent. Some more miracle-making was undoubtedly bubbling away beneath the surface, but only comes into view in the 13th century, when someone in the Florentine clergy created a whole new 'Life of St Zenobius'. This Vita Zenobii was spread about under the name of Bishop Simpliciano (Ambrose's successor as bishop of Milan), giving it an entirely spurious antiquity and authority.

All in a good cause, of course. Raising a local saint to prominence gave a big boost to the prestige of Florence and its bishopric:
He was a citizen of Florence and a most holy man. And God granted him many miracles, he revived the dead and it is believed because of his merits our city was liberated from the Goths.
In 1331, the body of St Zenobius was exhumed from the crypt of the early Duomo and re-entombed in a sepulcher in the middle of the central nave (he will be moved again in 1439, finally coming to rest in a chapel directly behind the main altar, known today as the Tribuna di San Zanobi). Anyway, digging down under the altar, they found the saint's relics, and
... removed some of the saint's skull and , and had it nobly placed in a head of silver, made in the likeness of the face and head of the saint , so that each year on his feast day it could be shown to the people with great solemnity.
That's the silver reliquary bust (signed by the Florentine silversmith Andrea Arditi) pictured at the top of this post.

Generally, the mid-14th century was a time of great renewed interest in the Florentine bishop-saint. Fittingly, a new life of Zenobius was composed by a monk named Biagio, and it was stuffed full of miracles.

St Zenobius brought back to life five dead people, we are told, including the child who was run over by a cart as he played in front of the cathedral. His distraught mother (a widow, of course) wailed and groaned until St Zenobius' prayers revived him -- a miracle pictured left by the Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli.

None of this is surprising. Florence, to be sure, was not alone in so blatantly manufacturing miracles performed by its local bishop-saint. Many other Italian cities did the same. But Florence shows itself to be more imaginative -- and perhaps more agressive -- in displaying its civic pride.

Even so, what happened next is a surprise.

From Zenobius to the Girolami

If you look carefully at the shoulders of the reliquary bust of St Zenobius (top left), you will see both are marked with the same coats of arms -- argent, a sable saltire, with a bishop's mitre above. These coats of arms belong to the Girolami family, a rich Florentine clan of merchants (wool, silk, linen) and international bankers. Their presence there indicates that a member of the Girolami family -- and not the church -- was responsible for the manufacture of the reliquary and, also, that the Girolami claimed the saint as a member of their family!

The Girolami arms and the arms of St Zenobius are identical because the family traced its lineage back to the saint's father, Lucianus. Indeed, the family was known as the "Girolami of the Bishop" because of its special relationship with the early bishop. The relationship grew stronger over the years: in 1475, a Filipo Girolami commissioned a new 'Life of Zenobius'. Just two years later, his brother Francesco paid for the translation of the Latin 11th-century 'Life of Zenobius' into Italian. Both made clear that the saint was Girolami born and bred.

From Zenobius to Zenobia

Not to mention, this being the early Renaissance, that some clever Girolami had been reading his Latin Historiae Augustae and pondered the triumph of the Emperor Aurelian over Queen Zenobia:
And so [Zenobia] was led in triumph with such magnificence that the Roman people had never seen a more splendid parade. For she was adorned with gems so huge that she laboured under the weight of her ornaments. Her feet were bound with shackles of gold and her hands with golden fetters, and even on her neck she wore a chain of gold. Her life was granted her by Aurelian, and they say that thereafter she lived with her children in the manner of a Roman matron on an estate that had been presented to her at Tibur, which even to this day is still called Zenobia....
All that gold must have impressed the bankers. So, it took no great leap of Girolami faith to extend the family's ancestry back through Zenobius to Zenobia's children -- who had, presumably, lived happily-ever-after in Rome. Why else would the names be so similar? Zenobius, male. Zenobia, female. A perfect match. And Florence isn't all that far from Rome. So, the Girolami family claimed that they -- and St Zenobius alike -- were the descendants of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra.

But were they even descendants of St. Zenobius?

The early 'Lives' state only that Zenobius was born into a noble Florentine family without specifying the Girolami. It is only in 1286 that a history of Florence provides the first known reference to the relationship between the family and the saint. But it was a fact that they did boast two bishops of nearby Fiesole, who were truly family members -- Bishop Zanobi Girolami (890-909) and a second Zanobi Girolami (966-984). That was just about the time that St Zenobius' body was being moved to Santa Reparata and the miracle of the flowering elm.

The stage was set.

What could be simpler, more natural, and more prestigious, than to conflate the bishops of Fiesole with the founder bishop-saint Zenobius? Thus, not very much later, the Girolami coat of arms appears on the saint's silver reliquary -- and the rest is history.

The head reliquary is the first, but far from the only example of the of the Girolami's patronage of the saint. They regularly and publicly advertised their ties to his cult -- a tradition that lasted well into the 20th century. Among other things, it earned them the privilege of following trumpeters, communal heralds, and a banner painted with the Girolami arms in a procession on the feast of St Zenobius each 25 May.

But there will be no such Girolami procession today.

The family died out in the 18th century. The last of the Girolami, Piero di Zanobi (d. 1786), bequeathed his property and possessions to the Covoni family, to the sons of his sister Virginia, who married Francesco Maria di Marco Covoni in 1737. The last Covoni to honour St Zenobius in public was the Princess Borghese Covoni who spent 50 lire (a tidy sum) on a garland to be hung on the 12th-century Girolami tower in the Via Por Santa Maria in Florence on 25 May 1940.

Alas, just as there are no Girolami, there is now no tower either. The German forces destroyed the ancient building when they mined this historic part of the city before retreating from Florence in 1944.

And so ends today our celebration of St Zenobius.

Although he wasn't a true descendant of our Zenobia (not even close), we're not quite finished with Zenobius. He owned a magic ring, you see. And that will be the subject of our next post.


Upper left: Andrea Arditi, Reliquary bust of St Zenobius, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence. Credit: Alinari/Art Resource, New York.

Upper centre: The Burial of St. Zenobius by Ghirlandaio (ca. 1479). Credit: MMA Francis L. Leland Fund, 1913, Accession Number 13.119.2

Left: St. Zenobius Resuscitating a Dead Child by Benozzo Gozzoli (Florentine, ca 1420-1497). Credit: MMA Rogers Fund, 1915, Accession Number 15.106.3

Lower centre: Three Miracles of St. Zenobius by Botticelli (1444/45–1510). Credit: John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1911, Accession Number11.98

Lower left: Girolami tower (12th-c), Florence. Credit: Alinari/Art Resource, New York

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive