di Francisco Bethencourt
Sabina Pavone gently sent me the book she authored with Chiara Petrolini and Vincenzo Lavenia, Sacre metamorfosi. Racconti di conversione tra Roma e il mondo in età moderna (Rome: Viella, 2022) 578 p. The title was inspired by the work of Girolamo Bascapè in the seventeenth century and reveals the power of transformation of the soul and the individual attributed to conversion by the Christian tradition based on the foundational cases of Paul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions provide a crucial intellectual and emotional example of self-reflection and formation. The power of changing convictions and identity by an individual choice is compared to massive conversion through conquest or enslavement, the diffusion of the Christian faith by missionaries outside or inside European colonisation, which is at the core of this book, the role of the Roman institutions, mainly the Holy Office but also the Propaganda Fide defining orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the different strategies of the religious orders. The pressure on the newly converted and the racialisation of specific communities, such as the Jews and the Muslims forced to convert in Iberia, are mentioned phenomena. The Introduction also touches on the issues of failed conversions and imposture, the reorganisation of memory, miraculous circumstances, the tension between sudden revelation and slow transformation, the superposition of old and new practices, and the role of the missionaries. Other religious traditions (or moments) of proselytising practices are also reflected upon, an important issue that would deserve a full book of comparative analysis. Different forms of conversion and integration in Islam and Christianity, for example, are highlighted, but more could be done in the light of the classic William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. The chapters concentrate on narratives of conversion related to specific cases of slaves, royalty, impostures, ambassadors, soldiers, children, condemned to death, dying persons, blind people, miraculous and martyred situations, visionaries, communities and social groups. They all have new information, good analysis and food for thought. I found particularly innovative the chapters by Sabina Pavone on the conversion of communities and by Chiara Petrolini on the conversion of children. The method is also interesting since these authors recover the old (and abandoned) practice of publishing original documents in the middle of their chapters, not as appendices. It is very useful. I knew the excellent work of Vincenzo Lavenia and Sabina Pavone; for the first time, I was exposed to the stimulating research by Chiara Petrolini. To sum up, this book made me learn a lot and think about new paths of religious history.