God’s waiting room: residents of Naples still tend to paupers’ remains in the Fontanelle ossuary. Photo: Contrasto
Show Hide image

The Fontanelle ossuary: in Naples’ stacks of skulls, all men are equal

The bones housed in the Fontanelle ossuary speak to the conviction that the obscure deserve comemmoration, too.

The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity
Peter Brown
Harvard University Press, 288pp, £18.95

In Naples, the poor have always lived among the dead. Caves carved out from the soft tufa on which the city was founded bear witness to millennia of both settlement and tombs. In 1656, when plague struck the densely packed tenements of a district beyond the city walls called the Valley of the Dead, a vast and ancient quarry was appropriated to serve as a charnel house.

Two hundred years later, the Fontanelle, as it was known, had become an immense jumble of bones and skulls, piled in the gloom of the caves. To Gaetano Barbati, a local priest, this cemetery, filled with the skeletons of paupers, despised and forgotten in death just as they had been in life, offered a standing reproach. So, in 1872, he set to ordering their remains. To him and to the poor who lived beside the Fontanelle the dead housed in the ossuary were potential saints: souls which, once purged of their sins in the afterlife, might intercede with Christ for the living. The duty of care paid to the remains of the indigent promised, in the opinion of those who performed it, nothing less than a chance of heaven.

It was not only visitors to Naples who were liable to find this cult shocking. In 1969, the archbishop of the city officially denounced it as fetishism. Yet the spectacle of rows upon rows of skulls, neatly and lovingly stacked in the Fontanelle, is at least as moving as it is unsettling. It speaks powerfully of an ideal that it is not necessary to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to admire: the conviction that the obscure no less than the great deserve commemoration. Indeed, it is the implication of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, told in Luke’s Gospel, that the poor are likelier than the rich to end up clasped to Abraham’s bosom. The Christian heaven, as it has long existed in the imagination, is thoroughly democratic. It is not a place where the hierarchies that, in the fallen world, had condemned the indigent of Naples to their lives of poverty and hunger, and ultimately to a pauper’s grave, are replicated. In heaven, so most Christians often assume, all souls rank as equal.

This, however, has not always been the case. During the early years of Christianity, the understanding of the afterlife was very different. Peter Brown, in the opening pages of his book The Ransom of the Soul, introduces us to Julian, an archbishop of Toledo who, in the late 7th century, compiled from earlier Christian authors an anthology of writings on the fate of the soul. The result, A Medical Report on the Future World, was a huge bestseller throughout the Middle Ages, and articulates numerous presumptions that are familiar to Christians today; and yet, as Brown engagingly puts it, had its author met many of those whom he cites, “they might have struck him, despite their common Christianity, as strange, almost Jurassic creatures from a world very different from his own”. The afterlife was one of the many aspects of Christianity that had evolved over the course of the faith’s first centuries. Just as Lazarus, in the parable, was gathered up into Abraham’s bosom rather than going straight to heaven, so would most souls, the early Christians believed, be held in an equivalent of a station waiting room until the Day of Judgement. Only martyrs were exceptions. They and they alone passed directly into paradise. In death as in life, there was an elite.

The story of why Christians ceased to believe that most souls “should, as it were, mark time before entering heaven”, and how a recognisably medieval conception of the afterlife came to evolve, is the subject of Brown’s slim but revelatory book. As in his previous work of history, Through the Eye of a Needle, so his theme in The Ransom of the Soul turns out to have much to do with money. Sin, in the monetised world of the Roman Mediterranean, came to be envisaged as a kind of debt. The devil was increasingly cast as a “Scrooge-like accountant”, complete with ominous ledger-book, while God was imagined as a generous creditor, ever capable of waiving sinners’ arrears. Yet how best to ensure that a sinner’s debt was indeed wiped clean in the afterlife? In late antiquity, opinion on that was divided; and only gradually, in the Latin west, did a definitive answer evolve.

Perhaps, some Christians wondered, benefit might derive from waiting for the Day of Judgement beside a martyr? In Naples, on the opposite side of the valley from the Fontanelle Cemetery, there is a catacomb that once contained the mortal remains of the city’s patron saint: Januarius, a bishop put to death for his faith. In the 4th and 5th centuries, following the legalisation of Christianity, the rich were increasingly prepared to pay for the privilege of being buried in the tutelary presence of such a man – with the result, predictably, that the catacomb ended up colonised by their graves. Yet when the bishop of the neighbouring city of Nola wrote in 420 to a colleague in North Africa, asking for his approval of this practice, the reply could hardly have been more of a rebuff. “Burial beside the saints did nothing whatsoever for the soul.” Such was the blunt and ultimately decisive verdict of the theologian who, more than any other, served to set the Christian west on its distinctive course: Augustine of Hippo.

“We should not only pray, but give alms.” Augustine’s concern, in giving this advice, was with the salvation of the vast mass of ordinary Christians. Rather than dispose of worldly goods altogether, as urged by Pelagius, his greatest rival in the field of theology, he urged the faithful to give money to the poor in a quotidian routine of charity. Daily life was defined in his writings as a continuous attempt to stop the bark of the soul from sinking. “It took place against the noise of the steady creak of the bilge pump of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.” The dead as well as the living were implicated in this struggle to keep the soul afloat. As Brown demonstrates, moving from Augustine’s Africa to post-Roman Gaul, both needed each other. The bond between them, which even today prompts worshippers in the Fontanelle Cemetery to tend to the skulls arrayed there, “constantly cemented by the rituals of the Church, became a cosmos of its own – a subject of deep preoccupation, the stuff of visions, and the object of the regular prayers and donations of millions”.

With a lifetime of study and reflection behind him, there is no one better at tracing the process of such change than Peter Brown. The Ransom of the Soul shows him to be as sparkling as ever; and it takes us, as his books always do, on a tour of depths that he is uniquely qualified to explore. The outward turn of events, be it the fall of empires or the founding of kingdoms, snarls and swirls on the surface like Neapolitan traffic; but deep underground, lit by flickering torches, there are frescoes, and ancient graves, and rows of skulls to be found. How fortunate we are to have Brown as our guide to them. 

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Getty
Show Hide image

Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage