Every once in a while I stumble upon a little hole in the wall place with a story that leads me on a chase for information that doesn’t seem to stop. The little Oratorio della Misericordia di Volterra, pictured above, is just such a place.
Right next to the 11th century Duomo of Volterra, the little Oratorio houses a tiny museum and a bulletin board full of information on the workings of the Misericordia through history. The Misericordia began as a confraternity of the faithful working to give aid to anyone who needed it. You see, back in the 11th century the Government didn’t sponsor much in the way of assistance to the sick or the poor. Christians of the time actually took notice of the good works and wise words of Jesus, a rarity in today’s world, and were evidently eager to make some effort toward filling the “love they neighbor” gap and increasing their chances of getting to heaven. This, in a very small and inadequate nutshell, was how the Confraternity was born.
The Volterra Misericordia came into existence in 1291 and is the fifth oldest in Italy after Florence (1244), Siena, Pontremoli, and Rifredi. Members came from all social classes. When doing their work, they dressed as you see on the left, covered so that their work ministering to the poor and the sick could be done anonymously, a deal strictly between the individual and God. The picture shows how a member might transport the dead in a cart, perhaps during the plague years.
Volterra’s Oratorio della Misericordia has a couple of other interesting artifacts, including the cataletto shown above, used to transport the sick to a hospital upon the shoulders of, one assumes, several brothers of the Misericordia.
There’s also an antique mechanism used to help lift a person into a bed or means of transport called an egroleva, shown above.
Today the Misericordia has come to be associated with ambulance services. In a way, it’s always been part of a system of transporting the sick using the technology of the times.
Odd, too, that one of the definitions you come across for the word “Mesericordia” is that of a thin, medieval dagger used in giving the “mercy” blow to an opponent.
While much of the old piety and selfless devotion to anyone in need is absent from the Misericordia today, there are still huge organizations called “Confraternita della Misericordia” associated with the larger cities of Italy. And just as modern Christianity has moved away from the teachings of Jesus and toward the selective misreading of Leviticus as its central theology (Catholic Church gives D.C. ultimatum), the Confraternita della Misericordia has come under fire for accepting large sums of money from the Italian government to run Immigration camps or “CPT/Migrant’s Dentention Centres.”
How things change. How travel gets you to thinking…
Find the Oratorio on a map: Volterra Misericordia Map
More reading: A wonderful account of the Misericordia recorded in 1835 is found here
Volterra has a website: Misericordia di Volterra but it’s only in Italian