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Renaissance Stand-Up

January 6, 2012
San Bernardino of Siena

Jacopo Bellini, San Bernardino of Siena (Private Collection)

This second post is about diversion and diversions.  I was up at the crack of dawn today on the road to Hell fully intending to complete my notes for a class devoted to an introduction to Quattrocento Catholicism in Florence.  I like to think of this as a preemptive session with students.  It helps them to better understand the whole semester if I can spend 30-45 minutes giving them a little background on religion.

I well remember my own first experience of Catholic confusion as a freshman at Kalamazoo College.  Billie Fischer, art historian extraordinaire, had spent much of the class period showing us works by Donatello including his Judith and Holofernes.   Interested enough to do a little research I went off to the library to locate a Bible, a King James Version.  I was a good little Protestant girl and I didn’t know any better.  I couldn’t find the story anywhere and, the next day, Billie kindly explained to me about the deuterocanonical books that failed to make the cut in the Hebrew and Protestant Bibles.

But I digress.

 Putting together my notes about religion I ran across a reference to the 15th century country priest Piovano Arlotto who is known today for his many pranks and jokes.  Like a moth attracted by a light I immediately dropped religion and started taking notes on Renaissance humor pulling off the shelf a favorite text, Barbara C. Bowen’s 100 Renaissance Jokes: An Anthology, where I found this anecdote about how Arlotto introduced one of his three-part sermons in Palermo.

‘The first part I understand, and you don’t; the second part you understand and I don’t; the third part neither you nor I understand.” (Bowen, p. 26)

From Arlotto I moved on to my favorite Franciscan mendicant preacher:  San Bernardino of Siena (pictured above).

A good preacher, like a good stand-up comedian, understands and is able to read the audience.  Traveling priests like Arlotto and San Bernardino of Siena preached sermons and used humor to engage their listeners.  San Bernardino would publicly own up to his own weaknesses  in his sermons.  He used to confess that, in his youth, the Bible made him fall asleep.

While I admit my love for the Quattrocento has to do in large part with the art, it’s mostly about the people.   I love exploring humans and humor.  In the Quattrocento you get humans, humor, and humanism–it’s a triple whammy!  I will leave you with one final anecdote, of the many, about Arlotto.

After a long day of preaching, coming to an inn on a cold, rainy night, Arlotto found the place packed with people and no room by the fire for a tired shivering priest.  Taking the innkeeper aside, Arlotto complained, loudly enough for others to hear, that he had stopped a few miles back to relieve himself and in doing so had set down and forgotten his bag full of money at the spot. In the next few minutes the crowd in the inn slowly disappeared as travelers went off to search for the bag of money and Arlotto was able to find himself a nice place by the fire.

Going back to the Quattrocento religion notes now.

Note to self: don’t make the notes so boring that you put the students to sleep.

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