A Florentine rails against an image of Saint John the Baptist
The relationship between devotee and an image was expected to be reciprocal: the devotee offered prayers and vows, often gifts, in exchange for the agency of the image. In some instances, images were mocked and defaced when they failed to meet their “obligations,” although most often the disappointed devotee simply switched allegiance. The story below is included in a collection of jokes and witticisms compiled by a Tuscan priest called Piovano Arlotto (Arlotto Mainardi, 1396–1483). It is written as if narrated by Florentine leader Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.
A shoemaker had long venerated a particular image of Saint John. He asked the saint about the fate of his son and whether his wife had been faithful. Apparently finding the answer inadequate, the shoemaker demanded “Which San Giovanni are you?”
The response, “I am your Giovanni Battista”—actually from a mischievous altar boy pretending to speak from the image—prompted the frustrated shoemaker to vent his displeasure: “May calamity overtake you! May God give you a bad Easter! You’ve never said other than evil. It was your evil tongue which caused Herod to have your head cut off. I know you haven’t told me the truth about what I asked you. I’ve come here for a good twenty-five years or more to adore you, and I’ve never given you any difficulty. I promise you I’ll never come back to you again!”
This selection closely follows the account in Richard C. Trexler, “Florentine Religious Experience: The Sacred Image,” Studies in the Renaissance 19 (1972), p. 27, whose translation of the man’s speech it reproduces.
Original: Motti e facezie del piovano Arlotto, ed. Gianfranco Folena (Milan: R. Ricciardi, 1953), pp. 40–41.