In Florence on the corner of Palazzo Vecchietti at the junction of Via degli Strozzi and Via de’Vecchietti is a bronze statue of an insolent, jeering little devil. The work of Giambologna (or Jean de Boulogne, 1529-1608) it was commissioned by Bernardo Vecchietti to commemorate a mysterious incident in Florence’s history.
In 1425, a Dominican friar, Pietro da Verona (see below), a sort of precursor of Savonarola, was preaching against heresy in Piazza del Mercato Vecchio (now Piazza della Repubblica) when a startled black horse ran into the square. The monk, immediately realising that this was a ruse of the Devil to distract his listeners, raised his hand to make a large sign of the cross over the satanic beast. The possessed beast withdrew and disappeared around the corner of Palazzo Vecchietti, leaving nothing but a plume of smoke and strong smell of sulphur…..
So , who was Pietro da Verona?
Pietro da Verona, also known as St. Peter Martyr, was born in Verona in 1205 to a Cathar family. Having become a Dominican, he gained a reputation for his visceral opposition to heretical ideas and was appointed head inquisitor for Lombardy, where he became known for the number of victims he condemned to burn at the stake.
When he later moved to Florence, he established a sort of Christian militia to fight against the Patarini, a movement of clergy and populace rebelling against the excesses of certain prelates and their way of life. It is said that he feared his life would come to a violent end due to the hatred he aroused – and, that is exactly what happened on the 6th April, 1252, when a certain Pietro da Balsamo split his head open with a billhook (cleaver). The murderer later repented his crime and himself became a Dominican.
In the numerous paintings of this murder, one see the saint almost impervious to the cleaver buried in his skull. Only two years after his death, the man was canonised as St. Peter Martyr by Pope Innocent IV, who thus exalted the role he had played in fighting heresy.
So next time you are in Florence seek out the “little devil” and recall the story of Satan on horseback and the fate of Pietro da Verona.