Rioting Over the Virgin Mary’s Belt: Enlightenment, Reform, and the Religion of the People in Tuscany

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Shaun Blanchard

On the evening of the May 20, 1787, a crowd began to gather before the Duomo (cathedral) in Prato, a small city about twelve miles outside Florence. The frustration of the pratesi (citizens of Prato) with their bishop, a Florentine noble named Scipione de’ Ricci (1741–1810), was long running and deep. Since his appointment to the diocese of Pistoia and Prato in 1780 by Peter Leopold, the Habsburg Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ricci had rolled out an uncompromising and radical reform of religious life.[1] While he was an idealist and tirelessly devoted to his pastoral mission, Ricci could also be bossy, abrasive, and tone-deaf to the concerns of his increasingly aggravated Catholic flock. The riot that kicked off that night, which was only finally dispersed the next day when a large troop of soldiers arrived, was one of the most remarkable displays of popular resistance to the policies of enlightened political and religious overlords in the Century of Lights. The “tumult of Prato,” as the riot is known, is a striking reminder that revolution and counter-revolution did not always follow predictable class lines, and religious and cultural concerns could clash and blend with political and economic ones.

The Prato Cathedral.
Prato Cathedral

Scipione de’ Ricci’s attempt at a top-down religious revolution, which climaxed at the Synod of Pistoia (1786), was “the nearest to victory that Enlightened Catholicism came.”[2] Nevertheless, Ricci and his associates (called “Pistoians”) eventually became uniformly infamous in Catholic thought due to their proximity to the “heresy” of Jansenism (deemed crypto-Protestant) and their association with the principles of 1789. Despite nearly two centuries of opprobrium, it is now increasingly recognized that the Pistoians anticipated some of the most popular reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), especially in the pastoral and liturgical arenas.[3] But the utter failure of Ricci in his own day points to an unescapable truth that bishops and princes were fatally slow to learn in this era: people don’t like being forced to be enlightened.

Portrait of Scipione de’ Ricci, 1787.

Reforms Ricci made – like the closing and consolidation of many parishes inside the city walls and the stabilization of clerical income – grated against entrenched social and economic interests. Ricci feuded openly with nuns and friars, and he tried to merge all their religious communities into one new order. He did the same with the confraternities – social and religious community clubs that were very popular with the laity. Although not opposed to religious art and statues per se, Ricci and his allies targeted a number of sacred items for removal from churches. He discouraged many popular devotions, reserving particular disdain for the Sacred Heart of Jesus devotion associated with the hated Jesuits (Ricci called it “cardiolatry” [heart worship]; “novelty”; “superstition”). Books and pamphlets in support of all these changes poured into the diocese from “friends of the truths” abroad – that is, from dissident Jansenist networks in French, Dutch, Italian, and German lands. Many of these texts, eagerly distributed by Ricci to his parish priests, harshly criticized the decisions of recent popes and called for radical reforms. Ricci was forming a generation of clergy in the episcopal seminary in this combative strain of reformist Catholicism.[4]

Taking their cue from Ricci, Jansenized clergy promoted the Bible (recently translated into Italian by Archbishop Antonio Martini of Florence) as the central devotional tool for anyone who could read. The bishop and his men preached that devotion should primarily revolve around Jesus and scriptural themes rather than Mary, the saints, or pious legends. In a move particularly shocking for Italy of that time, Ricci not only encouraged vernacular missals (that is, booklets containing the prayers of the Latin Mass in translation) but even sanctioned experimentation with the use of Italian in the (hitherto entirely Latin) liturgy itself. The old custom of the priest pronouncing the most important prayers of the Mass “secretly” (silently) was replaced with the loud and clear pronunciation of prayers, to which the congregation was encouraged to respond.

While small circles in Prato – including influential members of the clergy – supported Ricci, most pratesi, rich and poor alike, were offended by a man they saw as arrogant, out of touch, and possibly heretical. Word was getting out that Ricci had fallen out in a bad way with Pope Pius VI and his representative (the papal nuncio), and that he had feuded with the highly respected Archbishop of Florence. But many of the laity were particularly confused and upset by the outward changes to liturgical and devotional life. They were determined to stop what they saw as an iconoclastic and crypto-Protestant rampage that was destroying their old traditions and changing their religion from something tangible, dependable, and comforting to something new, foreign, and intellectualized.

The bishop of Prato shows the Sacred Belt from the pulpit of the Cathedral of Prato.
The bishop emeritus of Prato (Gastone Simoni) shows the Sacred Belt from the pulpit of the Cathedral of Prato, 2007.

The angry crowd gathered in the piazza del Duomo that Sunday evening in May 1787 continued to expand rather ominously under the shadow of Prato’s beautiful cathedral, a Romanesque structure which boasts magnificent art, including the Renaissance frescos of Filippo Lippi (1406–69). By nightfall, the crowd in the piazza had transformed into a raucous mob. Their grievances were lengthy, and the pratesi were happy to recite them to anyone who would listen. But the last straw was the rumor that their meddlesome bishop planned to remove Prato’s most beloved relic, la sacra cintola (or il sacro cingolo), from its home in a lavish side chapel in the cathedral. La cintola was believed to be the Virgin Mary’s belt, thrown from a cloud by the Mother of God to the Apostle Thomas when she was assumed into heaven. This 87 centimeters long strip of wool was brought to Prato in the twelfth century, under circumstances that can only be deemed mysterious. Adding to its mystique, la cintola was displayed only several times a year when, from a beautiful external pulpit (the work of Donatello and Michelozzo), the bishop would bless the crowds in the piazza below with the belt. In addition to feeding the nearly limitless Italian appetite for devotion to la Vergine, Prato’s boast of possessing the Queen of Heaven’s belt was a significant source of civic pride.

After dark on that Sunday night in May, the swelling crowd, many of them carrying torches and makeshift weapons, began to recite traditional Latin hymns and litanies – in itself a statement against Ricci’s vernacular reforms – while continuously ringing the great bells of the Duomo’s campanile. A large group then forced themselves into the cathedral, tore out the bishop’s coat of arms and cathedra (throne) and gleefully burned them before the cheering mob. The flames of the growing bonfire in the piazza were then fed by the spoils of the episcopal palace and seminary, sacked by groups of furious pratesi. Books and pamphlets deemed heretical were committed to the flames with particular relish, since it was the texts that the bishop imported and printed that were seen to be the root cause of all the recent trouble. The bishop’s extensive wine cellar, however, was committed to the crowd’s nourishment on the spot, with predictable results (I presume the cellar was full of the glorious Chiantis still produced on Ricci’s ancestral lands near Greve in Chianti). “Scipionists,” that is, supporters of the bishop (mostly clergy), were hunted down and intimidated. One suspicious priest was detained until he proved his orthodoxy by reciting a traditional litany to Mary in Latin!

While the armed crowd had complete control of the city, no blood was spilt and many of the bishop’s friends hid or slipped away quietly before approaching mobs could accost them. Torch-lit processions went from church to church around Prato, restoring statues and other furnishings that had been removed on the bishop’s orders. Veiled statues that had been ordered unveiled by the bishop in a rejection of a local custom deemed superstitious were covered up again.[5] The situation was unstable until the following day, when an exhausted crowd (surely some of them hungover) melted away rather than face the soldiers and police who had been dispatched to retake control of Prato. They were also sent to neighboring Pistoia to prevent a similar outbreak.[6]

Luckily for Ricci, he was far from the grasp of the mob. The Tuscan bishops had been called to the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, for a meeting that would decide whether Ricci’s vision for a reformed Catholicism – as officially expressed at the recent Synod of Pistoia – would triumph in Tuscany. Although supported by the Grand Duke Peter Leopold and some bureaucrats and intellectuals, Ricci fought a losing battle at this Episcopal Convocation. Only two other bishops were willing to completely back him, and a conservative party of thirteen prelates rallied behind Archbishop Martini of Florence.

This uprising, known as il tumulto di Prato, was the people of Prato’s response to the Synod of Pistoia and the positions they knew that Ricci and the Grand Duke were pushing at the Florence Convocation. Ricci’s failure at the Palazzo Pitti, and the political reality that the Prato tumulto clearly demonstrated, forced the Peter Leopold and his government to concede most of the issues. This bloodless – albeit very intimidating – popular action marked the beginning of the end for the Bishop of Pistoia-Prato’s daring experiments. His tenure as one of the most fascinating and loathed bishops of the age of the Enlightenment did not survive similar riots in both Pistoia and Prato in 1790, this time spurred by the rumor the Ricci planned to remove Pistoia’s beloved – and purportedly miraculous – Madonna dell’Umiltà fresco. Several months later, in June 1790, a major riot broke out in Florence, forcing the government to abandon much of what remained of Peter Leopold’s enlightened reforms. Ricci’s resignation in 1791, the departure of Peter Leopold to Vienna to become Emperor Leopold II in 1790,[7] and a thunderous Vatican condemnation of the Synod of Pistoia in Pius VI’s bull Auctorem fidei in 1794 was not only the end of “Riccian” reform, it was effectively the end of Jansenism as a serious ecclesial force.

The conflict sparked by Scipione de’ Ricci’s daring reform of traditional Catholicism was perhaps the clearest example of the religion of the idealistic eighteenth-century intellectual clashing with traditional faith in the pews on the eve of the French Revolution. Fascinatingly, in the decade after the Tuscan riots, very similar popular reactions occurred in Mainz, Naples, and the Austrian Netherlands. All of these territories were ruled by “enlightened” princes or bishops who attempted rather radical reforms of religious life. While this anti-reformist rioting was not without political and economic motives, it manifested primarily in the forcible restoration of popular Catholicism, which had been repeatedly infringed upon by enlightened rulers and churchmen considered out-of-touch at best and crypto-Protestant at worst. Episodes such as this should complicate our picture of the Age of Revolutions – sometimes the singing and cheering crowds were the forces of conservatism, and the stately princes and bishops the purveyors of revolution.

Shaun Blanchard is assistant professor of Theology at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His first monograph, The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) explores late eighteenth-century reform networks that anticipated the Second Vatican Council. He has also published articles and book chapters on a variety of topics in early modern and modern theology and history. Blanchard is currently working on book chapters on the papacy and the Enlightenment and British and Irish Catholicism and the Enlightenment. An anthology of translated Catholic Enlightenment texts he is co-editing with Ulrich Lehner will be published in 2020.

Title image: Duomo di Prato.

Further readings in Italian:

Gabriele Turi, “Viva Maria”: La reazione alle riforme leopoldine (1790–1799). Florence: Olschki, 1969.

Carlo Fantappiè, Riforme ecclesiastiche e resistenze social: La sperimentazione istituzionale nella diocesi di Prato alla fine del’antico regime. Bologna: Mulino, 1986.

In addition to the scholarly works above, readers of Italian can access a good, brief overview here:

English readers can consult:

Eric Cochrane, Florence in the Forgotten Centuries 1527–1800: A History of Florence and the Florentines in the Age of the Grand Dukes. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Shaun Blanchard, The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Finally, for a readable and engaging overview of the period see Owen Chadwick, The Popes and European Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.


[1] Formerly separate dioceses with their own cathedrals, Pistoia and Prato were combined into one diocese in 1653. They were separated again in 1954.

[2] S. J. Miller, “The Limits of Political Jansenism in Tuscany: Scipione de’ Ricci to Peter Leopold, 1780–1791,” in The Catholic Historical Review 80.4 (1994): 762–67, at 762.

[3] Shaun Blanchard, The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[4] See Dale Van Kley’s recent monograph profiling a Jansenized “Reform Catholic International” that was especially powerful in the final third of the eighteenth century: Reform Catholicism and the International Suppression of the Jesuits in Enlightenment Europe (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[5] That is, statues covered by silk veils and exposed only for rare, special occasions when they were exhibited for public viewing. Veiled statues were considered especially powerful conduits of divine power and often associated with miracles or particular “fruits” (blessings).

[6] For a richly detailed account of the riot itself, see Giampiero Guarducci, “Scipione de’ Ricci nella Toscana delle riforme leopoldine: Una storia nella cronaca,” Archivio storico pratese 83, I-II (2007): 5–248, at 6–22.

[7] Peter Leopold’s older brother, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, died in 1790. Peter Leopold was succeeded by his son Ferdinand III (1769–1824) as Grand Duke of Tuscany. Ferdinand was far less interested in radical religious reform than was his father or uncle.

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