“A relick of high esteem”: An English Visitor in Turin and the Cult of the Shroud

The recent two-month ostension of the Shroud of Turin concluded this past week with the visit of Pope Francis. Now that the relic has been safely returned to its climate-controlled case in the cathedral, the Shroud reverts again to its usual state as an invisible presence in the city.

This inter-ostension condition of the Shroud is that experienced by the vast majority of travelers to Turin since the relic’s arrival there in 1578. Prevented from seeing the Shroud itself, written accounts of it by these visitors instead focus on the outer trappings associated with the cloth – the chapel containing it, images of it, and rituals involving it. This was also the case for those celebrating the New Year 1682 in the Savoy capital.

Stopping in Turin for the New Year 1681-2

Fitzroy Northumberland British Museum

Image: Portrait of George Fitzroy, Earl of Northumberland, as a boy in Roman costume, after Henri Gascar, last quarter of the seventeenth century Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Beinecke Library at Yale University preserves a manuscript journal written by an English traveler in Italy during 1681-2.  The anonymous author was a member of the retinue of George Fitzroy, Earl (later Duke) of Northumberland (1665-1716), an illegitimate son of King Charles II of England.  Traveling in Italy from November 1681 to June 1682, the group stopped at Turin, Milan, Florence, Bologna, Naples, and Rome.  In Padua the diarist then separated from the main company, which proceeded to Venice, while the author continued on to Avignon.

Only one page of the manuscript has been digitized so far, but luckily for enthusiasts of Piedmontese Baroque, it is the page describing the party’s arrival in Turin on New Year’s Eve 1681. After a general description of the city, the journal entry immediately focuses on the ducal palace and Guarino Guarini’s chapel of the Holy Shroud, then nearing completion.

Northumberland Turin 1681 BeineckeImage: Relation of my voiage into Italy with my Lord Northumberland, fol. 6r (Osborn b352)
Source: The James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Wee arrived at Turin on y.e last day of Decembre 1681. This city is well situated where the Doïre [i.e. Dora] a small river joins with the Po, w.ch there begins to bee navigable, for you find boats to carry you down to Venice. The buildings of the new city especialy look very stately. The town is furnisht with water by the Doïre w.ch they lett into y.e streets every night. Itt is surrounded with strong ramparts sett with young oak trees, that make a pleasant walk. The new pallace in y.e city is well built. You may see in itt a chappel all of black marble, built a purpose for y.e holy Sindon or winding sheet wherein they say our Saviour was wrapt up: a relick of high esteem the Effigie whereof is painted upon most of ye walls in Piemont. Itt is shewn in a publick place upon very extraordnary occasions, and then do resort to Turin a multitude of People, who are all bound to cast themselves upon their knees at y.e sight of itt. In this same pallace is y.e Royal Gallery full of pictures of severall good hands. There are many pieces of Titian as Christ’s whipping out of y.e temple the buyers and sellars. St Peters Denyal of his master &c …”

Here the single digitized page concludes.  Among other things, the journal entry reveals how popular images of the Shroud throughout the Savoy territories helped to prepare visitors for their experience at the reliquary chapel in the capital, heightening their anticipation, and how accounts of previous ostensions played a role in travelers’ experience of the city even when the Shroud was not on display during their stay.

A video (below) prepared by the city of Turin’s cultural portal documents many of these images of the Shroud, “painted upon most of y.e walls in Piemont.” For other examples, see this PDF, “Affreschi Sindone in Piemonte” (source).