Of Justice and Slaughter

Via Galli Tassi, in Lucca’s historic centre, is a destination for visitors to the city’s not very well known art gallery which, in addition, to renaissance painting on the first floor has a fine nineteenth century picture selection on the second. It’s such a pity that the Uffizi are (understandably) infested by hordes of tourists while Lucca’s own art gallery is very often my solitary haven.

Villa Galli Tassi is also a destination for those attending Lucca’s courts. One does not enter such institution unless as an accuser or an accused, or if acting as a witness to either party. Some of my readers will know why I had reason to attend the elegant neo-classical building a couple of days ago.

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It was originally a general and mental hospital and was visited by the shortly to be assassinated King of Italy, Umberto I, and the Queen Margherita as this plaque in the entrance portico testifies.

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I sometimes feel that some of the inmates attending, like Miss Flite in Dickens’ scathing satire on the law courts “Bleak House”, would have been better off if the original function of the building had been continued.

There is a third reason for walking up Via Galli Tassi which, incidentally, has some of Lucca’s finest patrician palazzi bordering it. It is that here one of the city’s few non-Roman Catholic places of worship is situated. It’s not a recent attempt at evangelism nor is it a non-Christian cult but instead, one of the oldest protestant sects in existence.

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Back in the thirteenth century the Waldensian fought a bitter struggle for their right to religious freedom which was principally based on the direct study of the Bible as God’s truth and not that expounded by priestly castes… Oppression by the dominating popish powers was heavy and bloody. Indeed ,John Milton himself, who loved Italy and met many of its greatest men during his visit including one who had suffered by being presented with the instruments of torture for expressing a universal scientific truth, that the earth rotates around the sun, Galileo Galilei, was angered enough to write one of his greatest sonnets:


On the Late Massacre in Piedmont

 Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d saints, whose bones

       Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,

       Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old,

       When all our fathers worshipp’d stocks and stones;

Forget not: in thy book record their groans

       Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold

       Slain by the bloody Piemontese that roll’d

       Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans

The vales redoubl’d to the hills, and they

       To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow

       O’er all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway

The triple tyrant; that from these may grow

       A hundred-fold, who having learnt thy way

Early may fly the Babylonian woe.


The notice on the Luccan Waldensian church facade translates thus:

“The Waldensian church derives from a reform movement of the middle ages known as the Poor Lombards or the poor inhabitants of Lyon which had as one of its founders a Waldensian from Lyon traditionally known as Peter Waldo. After the middle ages despite continued persecutions the Waldensians tightened contacts with other reform movements directed to the poorer classes and evangelism. The Waldensians, at the synod of Chanforan in 1532, organised themselves into a reformed church on the model of Zwingli and Calvin.

Persecutions wiped out the Waldensian centres in Provence and Calabria while they were able to hold out in the Cottian Alps in the area known as the “valleys of the Waldensians”. After 1848 they were able to obtain civil rights under the Sardinian king Charles Albert and began to proselytise throughout Italy meeting up with evangelical movements throughout the country.

The evangelical Waldensian church is a member of the ecumenical council of churches (CEC) the reformed world alliance and the federation of evangelical churches in Italy (FCEI)”.

I would also add that after the Cathars and the Albigenses “heresies” were crushed, the Waldensians became the victims of the Inquisition in France. In 1487 Pope Innocent VIII organized a crusade against them forcing any Waldensians to seek refuge in Switzerland and Germany with some becoming part of the Bohemian Brethren. In 1535 the Waldensians sponsored the publication in Switzerland of the first French Protestant version of the Bible, translated by Pierre Robert Olivétan.

Our choirmaster is, among other things, also a member of the Waldensian church, something he only regrets in so far as it’s quite a long way to go on Sunday mornings from Fornaci di Barga to the centre of Lucca.

I have yet to attend a Waldensian service although I have been invited to do so. Hopefully today it’s a far different situation from when their martyrs’ bones were scattered on the cold ice fields of the Alps or is it? Christians are sadly again being martyred in warmer climes, areas which saw the birth of western civilization and the invention of writing. I need not say more….




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