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Sarcophagus of Saint Charles Borromeo, Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy.  The sign to the right reads, "Reliquie di San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinale Arcivescovo di Milano."

Sarcophagus of Saint Charles Borromeo, Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy. The sign to the right reads, “Reliquie di San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinale Arcivescovo di Milano.”

A Poem Wrought in Marble 

In 1867, Mark Twain spent several months touring Europe and the Holy Land aboard the steamship Quaker City.  He recorded his observations of the trip, which he later published as his first book, The Innocents Abroad, one of the great travelogues of the English language and one of the bestselling travel books of all time.  Among his impressions are those of Milan Cathedral (Duomo di Milano), the majestic seat of the Archbishop of Milan and currently the fifth largest cathedral in the world.  Milan Cathedral simply mesmerized him.  “What a wonder it is!  So grand, so solemn, so vast!  And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful!  A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems in the soft moonlight only a fairy delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath! . . .  It was a vision!—a miracle!—an anthem sung in stone, a poem wrought in marble!”[1] 

Twain was awed by Milan Cathedral’s spires,[2] its luminous windows,[3] its sculptures,[4] and its sheer mass.  He called the cathedral “the princeliest creation that ever brain of man conceived”[5] and could imagine no greater church building in the world.[6]  “They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter’s at Rome,” he remarked.  “I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.”[7]

Altar of San Giovanni Buono, Milan Cathedral

Altar of San Giovanni Buono, Milan Cathedral

Nevertheless, despite his obvious and unbounded enthusiasm for the cathedral, Twain managed to devote nearly half his chapter on the cathedral to a subject unrelated to the aesthetic merits of the building—namely, saints and holy relics.  In particular, he dwelt on the earthly remains of Saint Charles (Carlo) Borromeo, a former Archbishop of Milan, who was displayed in the cathedral’s crypt in a “coffin of rock crystal as clear as the atmosphere.”[8]  “To us it seemed that so a good a man . . . deserved rest and peace in a grave sacred from the intrusion of prying eyes,” he rued, “but peradventure our wisdom was at fault in this regard.”[9] 

Twain on Saints and Relics

Twain did not have a particularly positive opinion of saints or relics.  In The Innocents Abroad, for example, he criticizes “coarse” depictions of saints as suffering martyrs[10] and he decries the veneration of relics as “Jesuit humbuggery.”[11]  In his book The Reverend Mark Twain, Joe B. Fulton explains that Twain questioned not only the “theological concept of a saint,” but also the “aesthetic practices of martyrology.”[12]  Twain found “visual depictions of the saints unintentionally grotesque, using his own ‘grotesque realism’ to undermine their reverential seriousness.”[13]  In Italy, for example, Twain complained of the “huge, coarse frescoes of suffering martyrs” he found painted on the facades of roadside inns.[14] Twain, who rejected the “ideology inherent in the martyrological form,”[15] wryly noted that “[i]t could not have diminished their suffering any to be so uncouthly represented.”[16]  Twain was similarly disturbed by the statue of Saint Bartholomew at Milan Cathedral (pictured below), which depicts the martyr with his skin flayed.  “It was a hideous thing,” he wrote, “and yet there was a fascination about it somewhere.  I am very sorry I saw it, because I shall always see it now.  I shall dream of it sometimes.”

St Bartholomew - Milan CathedralStill, Twain complained “less about the idea of sainthood than about relics and the depictions of them.”[17]  To Twain, the veneration of relics was an irrational, antiquated practice, a holdover of the “peculiar devotional spirit of the olden time.”[18]  As Fulton observes, “[r]elics of the saints trigger comedy rather than reverence” for Twain, and relics are a frequent target of his irreverent humor in The Innocents Abroad.[19]  While recounting his visit to Genoa, for example, he paused to ruminate on the multiplicity of relics he had encountered.  “But isn’t this relic matter a little overdone?” he begins skeptically.[20]  “We find a piece of the true cross in every old church we go into, and some of the nails that held it together.  I would not like to be positive, but I think we have seen as much as a keg of these nails.  Then there is the crown of thorns; they have part of one in Sainte Chapelle, in Paris, and part of one also in Notre Dame.  As for the bones of St. Denis, I feel certain we have seen enough of them to duplicate him if necessary.”[21]  (Saint Denis, pictured below from Rheims Cathedral, is commonly depicted carrying his decapitated head in his arms.)

St Denis - Rheims Cathedral

Twain is not the only one to have expressed exasperation at the multitude of saintly relics displayed throughout Europe.  A French anti-clerical cartoon from the early 1900s, for example, “reconstructed” Saint Blaise—complete with five heads, six arms, and six legs—from “authentic” bones displayed in various cities.[22]  Twain’s avowed skepticism of relics, however, did not preclude a certain fascination with the sainted figures who supplied them.  Later in his career, in fact, Twain would actually engage in hagiography, although he arguably never really altered his view of saints, sainthood, or Catholicism generally.[23] 

Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, published in 1896, is a fictionalized account of Saint Joan of Arc’s life as retold in the (fictional) memoir of her page, Louis de Conte.  The book’s seriousness and the “air of absolute reverence” with which Twain portrays Joan of Arc represent such a stark break from his previous work that he initially published it anonymously.[24]  Years later, however, Twain fully acknowledged his authorship and embraced the book as his greatest work.  “I like the Joan of Arc best of all my books and it is the best,” he declared.[25]  “[I]t furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; 12 years of preparation & 2 years of writing.  The others needed no preparation, & got none.”[26]  Twain valued Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc even more highly than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.[27] 

Good Saint Charles Borromeo

Twain manifested an interest in the life of another saint, Saint Charles Borromeo, in his much earlier The Innocents Abroad.  Twain described Saint Charles with reverence and admiration, characterizing him as “a good man, a warmhearted, unselfish man,” even though he bristled at the way the saint’s corpse had been placed on public display.[28]  Inviting readers to descend with him into the crypt, under the grand altar of Milan Cathedral, he prepared them to “receive an impressive sermon from lips that have been silent and hands that have been gestureless for three hundred years.”[29]

St Borromeo - Crypt3“The priest stopped in a small dungeon and held up his candle,” Twain begins.  He and his companions now stood in Saint Charles’s tomb.  Recognized as one of the great 16th century reformers of the Catholic Church, during a period known as the Counter Reformation, Saint Charles was responsible for, among other things, establishing seminaries to educate priests and ministering with great compassion to victims of the plague.[30]  He was born an aristocrat and could easily have taken advantage of the ease and luxury his station afforded.  Instead, he showed little interest in worldly goods and devoted his life to serving others.

Saint Charles was born on 2 October 1538 at Arona Castle on Lake Maggiore.  His father, Count Gilbert Borromeo, was a “man of talent and sanctity,” and his mother, Margaret, was a member of the Medici family, one of the most power and influential families of the Renaissance.[31]  He received the tonsure at the age of twelve and after his uncle’s election to the papacy in 1559, he served in various offices in Rome.  He was ordained a priest in 1563 and was subsequently appointed Archbishop of Milan in 1564.  

Milan Cathedral - Spires 3

Spires of Milan Cathedral, as seen from roof

After arriving in Milan, he immediately set to work reforming the diocese.  According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, “[w]hen St Charles came first to reside at Milan he sold plate and other effects to the value of thirty thousand crowns, and applied the whole sum for the relief of distressed families.”[32]  Meanwhile, despite earning a considerable income from various sources, he chose to live modestly.  Francis Panigarola, Bishop of Asti, recounted how he once found Saint Charles on a very cold night studying “in a single tattered cassock.”[33]  He said, “I entreated him, if he would not perish with cold, to put on some better garment.  He answered me smiling, ‘What if I have no other?  I am obliged to wear a cardinal’s robes in the day; but this cassock is my own and I have no other, either for winter or summer.’”[34]

St Carlo Borromeo Tended by an Angel, by Francesco Caccianiga, oil on copper (early 18th century) (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

St Carlo Borromeo Tended by an Angel, by Francesco Caccianiga, oil on copper (early 18th century) (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

To curb the gross abuses he discovered in his diocese, Saint Charles established strict regulations governing the clergy, who he found “lazy, ignorant and debauched” upon his arrival.[35]  He also established seminaries to “remedy the disorders engendered by the decay of medieval life.”[36]  His broader reforms, however, were not always well received, and they created many enemies.

On 26 October 1569, a priest by the name of Jerome Donati Farina was sent to murder him while he attended evening prayers.  As Saint Charles kneeled before the altar and a choir performed a motet by Orlando di Lasso—“It is time therefore that I return to Him that sent me,” they sang—Farina fired an arquebus, striking Saint Charles in the back.[37]  Believing himself mortally wounded, Saint Charles “commended himself to God.”[38]  However, as the Lives of the Saints explains, “it was found that the bullet had only struck his clothes in the back, raising a bruise, and fallen harmlessly to the floor.”[39]  A painting titled Farina’s Assassination Attempt by Gian Battista della Rovere (Fiammenghino) located in the south transept of Milan Cathedral depicts the event.[40]

Reliquary (St Borromeo) - KrakowSaint Charles died many years later in Milan on 4 November 1584 at the age of forty-six.  He had celebrated his last mass at Arona, his birthplace, several days earlier, and arriving in Milan, he immediately took to bed and asked for the last rights.  After receiving the final sacrament, he whispered Ecce venio (“Behold, I come”), and expired.  He was canonized by Pope Paul V in 1610.[41]  (The reliquary, pictured left, contains a relic of Saint Charles.  It is located at the Archdiocesan Museum in Krakow, Poland.)

The Vanities of Earth

Twain was clearly familiar with Saint Charles’s story, and he alludes to several of the saint’s virtues, particularly his generosity and his compassion, in The Innocents Abroad.[42]  Twain writes, “His heart, his hand, and his purse were always open,” and he imagines the saint’s “benign countenance moving calmly among the haggard faces of Milan in the days when the plague swept the city.”[43]  In the presence of Saint Charles’s corpse, however, Twain’s thoughts turn to death and the impermanence of earthly things. 

Relics of Saint Charles Borromeo, Milan Cathedral

Relics of Saint Charles Borromeo, Milan Cathedral

The body, he states, was “robed in costly habiliments covered with gold embroidery and starred with scintillating gems.”[44]  Meanwhile, Saint Charles’s “decaying head was black with age, the dry skin was drawn tight to the bones, the eyes were gone, there was a hole in the temple and another in the cheek, and the skinny lips were parted as in a ghastly smile!”  After describing other treasures arrayed about the body, Twain declares, “How poor and cheap and trivial these gewgaws seemed in the presence of the solemnity, the grandeur, the awful majesty of Death!”[45]  Saint Charles’s “sermon,” delivered by silent lips and still hands, was this:  “You that worship the vanities of earth—you that long for worldly honor, worldly wealth, worldly fame—behold their worth!”[46]

In the end, the body of Saint Charles—the relics of Saint Charles—had greater power over Twain than perhaps he realized.

Post Script:  Charles Borromeo and Palestrina, the “Savior of Church Music”

View of the Roman Forum.  Palestrina's music has been called the "soundtrack" of Rome.  He composed over 100 masses and 250 motets here during his lifetime,

View of the Roman Forum. Palestrina’s music has been called the “soundtrack” of Rome. He composed over 100 masses and 250 motets here during his lifetime.

One of the issues taken up by the Council of Trent, the 16th century Ecumenical Council convened to debate and implement extensive reforms in the Catholic Church, was the future of sacred music.  By the mid-16th century, liturgical music had grown so elaborate and unintelligible in its complexity that the Council considered banning polyphonic music from the liturgy altogether.  According to popular legend, Cardinal Borromeo, then a member of the Council, commissioned Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina to compose a Mass to convince the Council otherwise.[47]  The result was the extraordinary Missa Papae Marcelli (Mass for Pope Marcellus).  Palestrina’s Mass demonstrated that polyphonic music could be simultaneously beautiful, pure, and textually clear, and it changed the minds of those on the Council, which ultimately abandoned the movement to ban sacred music from the liturgy. 

In reality, Palestrina likely composed the Missa Papae Marcelli years earlier, probably in 1555, eight years before the Council of Trent sought a resolution on the fate of sacred music.  Nevertheless, regardless of whether the Missa Papae Marcelli was commissioned for the purpose, Palestrina’s music, and the Missa Papae Marcelli in particular, were undoubtedly highly influential in saving polyphony.  As Will Durant has noted, “by its fidelity to the words, its avoidance of secular motives, and the subordination of musical art to religious intent” Palestrina’s music “played a part in leading the committee to sanction polyphonic music.”[48]

Milan Cathedral, as seen from roof

Milan Cathedral, as seen from roof

For a fantastic overview of Palestrina and his music, see the BBC’s extraordinary series Sacred Music, series 1, episode 2, on “Palestrina and the Popes.”  Presented by Simon Russell Beale with music performed by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, the episode originally aired on 28 February 2008.


[1]Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad 124 (Signet Classic 1980) (1869).

[2]Id.  (“Away above, on the lofty roof, rank on rank of carved and fretted spires spring high in the air, and through their rich tracery one sees the sky beyond.”).

[3]Id. at 125 (“We loitered about gazing aloft at the monster windows all aglow with brilliantly colored scenes in the lives of the Saviour and his followers.  Some of these pictures are mosaics, and so artistically are their thousand particles of tinted glass or stone put together that the work has all the smoothness and finish of a painting.”).

[4]Id. at 124 (noting that the bas-relief carvings on the cathedral’s doors were “so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures—and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest”).

[5]Id.

[6]Id. at 130.

[7]Id.

[8]Id. at 129.

[9] Id. at 128.

[10] See id. at 149.  During his journey through Italy, Twain observed, “Here and there, on the fronts of roadside inns, we found huge, coarse frescoes of suffering martyrs like those in the shrines.  Id. at 149.

[11] Id. at 43.

[12] Joe B. Fulton, The Reverend Mark Twain:  Theological Burlesque, Form, and Content 106 (2006).

[13] Id. at 105. 

[14] Twain, supra note 1, at 149.

[15] Fulton, supra note 12, at 106.

[16] Twain, supra note 1, at 149.  Twain concludes dismissively, “We were in the heart and home of priestcraft—of a happy, cheerful, contented ignorance, superstition, degradation, poverty, indolence, and everlasting unaspiring worthlessness.”  Id.

[17] Fulton, supra note 12, at 105 (internal citations omitted).

[18] Twain, supra note 1, at 179.  Twain described the veneration of relics as a belief in “the protecting virtues of inanimate objects made holy by contact with holy things.”  Id.

[19] Fulton, supra note 12, at 105.

[20] Twain, supra note 1, at 119. 

[21] Id. at 119–20.  Later, while exploring Milan Cathedral, Twain is shown, among other relics, “two of St. Paul’s fingers and one of St. Peter’s,” a “bone of Judas Iscariot (it was black),” “part of the crown of thorns (they have a whole one at Notre Dame),” and a “picture of the Virgin and Child painted by the veritable hand of St. Luke,” the second he had seen.  Id. at 129.

[22] See, e.g., Europski Dom Dubrovnik, Saint Blaise:  Veneration Without Boundaries 21 (2012) (featuring an illustration titled “Les Reliques Authentiques”).

[23] Fulton, supra note 12, at 107–08.  Twain published Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, a novel about Joan of Arc, in 1896.  Fulton argues that since “Twain’s attitudes toward Catholicism remained negative before, during, and after the writing of the work, one must find some other, more reasonable, explanation to make sense of it.  Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc marks no sea change in Twain’s attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church, or indeed toward religion generally.”  Id. at 108.

[24] See 17 The Cambridge History of English and American Literature 29 (A.W. Ward et al. eds., 1907–1921) (2000) (“Recognizing that the book was quite out of his customary vein, Mark Twain published it first anonymously . . . .”).

[25] Id. at 29.

[26] Id.

[27] Fulton, supra note 12, at 108 (explaining that Twain ranked Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc above Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). 

[28] Twain, supra note 1, at 127.

[29] Id.

[30]4 Butler’s Lives of the Saints 255–62 (Herbert J. Thurston, S.J. & Donald Attwater eds., 2d ed. 1956).   Butler’s Lives of the Saints declares that “with Pope St Pius V, St Philip Neri and St Ignatius Loyola, he is one of the four outstanding public men of the so-called Counter-reformation.”  Id. at 255.

[31] Id. at 255.

[32] Id. at 257. 

[33]Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id. at 258.

[36] Id.

[37] Id. at 259. 

[38] Id. at 259–60.

[39] Id. at 260.

[40] See Ernesto Brivio, The Life and Miracles of St. Carlo Borromeo:  A Pictorial Itinerary in Milan Cathedral (2006), fig. 11.

[41]Butler’s Lives of the Saints, supra note 30, at 261–62.

[42] Twain, supra note 1, at 127. 

[43] Id.

[44] Id. at 128.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Will Durant, 6 The Story of  Civilization:  The Reformation (1957).  Importantly, another major reason for the movement to ban sacred music was the realization that some composers drew inspiration for their compositions from common, often bawdy, popular songs of the day.  In addition to rejecting the unintelligibility of polyphonic compositions, which regularly resorted to overlapping melodies and multiple, interwoven lines of text, the Council sought to “exclude from churches all such music as . . . introduces anything of the impure or lascivious, in order that the house of God may truly be seen to be . . . the house of prayer.”  Id.

[48] Id.

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