He had had a bad run at the dice that night, and left the Osteria del Fico (Fig Tree Tavern) the worse for drink and significantly lighter in the pocket, and possibly missing a few articles of clothing. A disgruntled man on a hot July night – Florence is a furnace in summer – with an eye out for someone else to blame for his misfortune. He passed by a fresco of the Madonna at church of Santa Maria degli Alberighi not far from the tavern.
As luck would have it, a horse had recently relieved itself, and Rinaldeschi felt a sudden urge to take out his annoyance on the Virgin who had chosen not to play Lady Luck on his behalf. He scooped up a bit of the pile and hurled it at the painting.
A good deal of it stuck, which must have sobered him up right quickly. He hurried home and hoped (prayed?) that no one would connect the event with him.
The sun rose the next morning and passers by noted the remaining dung plastered just above the nape of the Madonna’s diadem just above her neck. Hard to make this out as a good thing. To many, this had a sort of significance. Either that, or they felt it was better to show that even if some Florentine thought it acceptable to throw dung, they certainly were not among such people. Votives and other symbols of veneration began to pile up.
Florence was in a delicate time just then. Savonarola, the bonfire of the vanities purist and destroyer of frivolous images, had been executed just three years earlier and there were still those who thought of him as a beacon of right thinking in a corrupt world. It was in any event difficult to defend this kind of behaviour whoever the culprit, and a crew of eight magistrates was quickly gathered to find out who was responsible.
Well, it’s a compact city and people do notice things. A small boy was found who had witnessed the act (why was he not in bed, one wonders) and he said it was a grown man, which cleared the apprentices and other juvenile delinquents for a change. Possible others present at the tavern drew a few conclusions. In short order, the unlucky Rinaldeschi had become a Person of Interest and those who knew him were asked to be in touch.
A few days later he was found hiding out in the Garden of the Franciscan convent of S. Francesco al Monte alle Croci (aka San Salvatore) outside Florence. Divine intervention, some said. The jig was up, he tried to stab himself, but got caught up on a sturdy rib cage. Hauled back to Florence and interviewed, he admitted the whole thing and asked for a quick execution. Better than than mob justice.
Absolution was given and the Compagnia dei Neri oversaw his hanging from a window outside the Bargello. It remained there all the following day, which by chance was the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, a boistrous affair in the Florence of the time, and no doubt Antonio’s body only added to the merriment. The trial and execution over, the dung was removed and left a stain, either a good sign or a warning or simply a reminder, take your pick.
Official records give the story in some (conflicting) detail, but beyond that, there is also the nine panel painting, cartoon almost, that shows the whole sorry story and at the end which it becomes a tug-of-war for Rinaldeschi’s soul. Happily, the Angels won this one.
And the fresco itself? Alas, the church was demolished sometime after 1783, presumably by people less utterly bedeviled than Antonio.
For more on this entry from the Police Gazette and the after death aftermath, see:
William J. Connell, Giles Constable, Sacrilege and Redemption in Renaissance Florence: The Case of Antonio Rinaldeschi, Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies; 2nd Revised & enlarged edition (October 1, 2008)
The painting can be seen in Florence’s Museo Stibbert.