CATHERINE OF SIENA, Saint. Dialogo della serafica vergine, et sposa di Christo.

Venice, Domenico Farri, 1579.


8vo. pp. [32], 652, [4]. Italic letter, little Roman. Woodcut vignette and small decorated woodcut border to title, decorated initials and ornaments. Light age yellowing, a few marginal ink marks. A very good copy in late C19 vellum over boards, gilt, marbled eps.

A classic of medieval mysticism, first published in Italian in 1472, and reprinted nearly 70 times in the C16. ‘The mystical counterpart in prose of Dante’s “Divina Commedia”’ (Cath. Enc. III, p.447). St Catherine of Siena (1347-80) joined the Third Order of St Dominic. Initially devoted to helping the poor and sick, she was spurred by a ‘mystical death’ to enter the public sphere. She began to write and correspond, among others, with Gregory XI, asking him to leave Avignon and reform the Church. In 1375, she received the Stigmata. She spent the last years of her life in Rome, ‘working strenuously for the reformation of the Church, serving the destitute and the afflicted, and dispatching eloquent letters on behalf of the pope’ (Cath. Enc. III, p.448). Her influential writings, of which ‘Dialogo’ is the most important, are milestones of Christian theology and Italian literature. ‘Dialogo’ is a conversation between the soul rising to God and God himself, divided into 4 parts (Discretion, Oration, Providence, Obedience) and 167 chapters, written not long before her death, c.1377-78. Catherine provided advice on spiritual well-being, penitence, virtue, expiation, divine love experienced by the soul, the desire to be closer to God (allegorically represented as a bridge), meditations on life and humanity, and the achievement of perfect love. Albeit these are explained in philosophical concepts (through ‘the eye of the intellect’) inspired by Scholasticism, the clear Italian makes complex mystical observations easy to penetrate. ‘Dialogo’ was allegedly written during Catherine’s ecstasies and celestial visitations, for which she was renowned. ‘The key-note to Catherine’s teaching is that man, whether in the cloister or in the world, must ever abide in the cell of self-knowledge’ (Cath. Enc. III, p.448).

These altered states were caused, scholars now suggest, by a serious eating disorder, ‘anorexia mirabilis’ (‘inedia prodigiosa’), which has been compared to ‘anorexia nervosa’, first described in the C19. ‘Catherine’s condition was characterised by a disgust for the sweet, a condition also described in anorexia nervosa, characterised by specific neurophysiological changes. St. Catherine’s case may be considered one of the oldest descriptions of altered gustation (dysgeusia)’ (Galassi et al., p.939). From a diet of vegetables, water and the Eucharist, she got to eating solely the Eucharist by the last few years of her life; even her confessor advised her to eat more, and she admitted she was suffering from an ‘infirmitas’ that made this impossible. In a letter to another religious, she wrote: ‘I say it to you in the sight of God, that in every possible way I could I always forced myself once or twice a day to take food; and I pray to God […] that he will grace me in this matter of eating so I may live like other creatures, if this is his will’ (quoted in Bell, p.23).


4 copies recorded in the US. USTC 819718; EDIT16 10273. Not in Brunet. F. Galassi et al., ‘St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380 AD): one of the earliest historic cases of altered gustatory perception in anorexia mirabilis’, Neurol. Sci., 39 (2018), pp.939-40; R. Bell, Holy Anorexia (1985).
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