People often wonder why, since three suspects were convicted of killing Meredith Kercher, most can only remember the name of the woman. One, not the only, reason is the Italian attitude toward women. The story starts with a spirituality based in sex and the worship of the female. Our word “veneration” comes from Venus, goddess of fertility, called in Italian, Venere. The primeval object of “veneration” was the goddess with the power to call forth desire from men, and to make barren women fertile.
Despite the fact that the Pope resides among them, Italians are not as Catholic as one might expect. Italy remains, as the journalist Luigi Barzini put it, “gloriously pagan.” In Italy, “Christianity has not deeply disturbed the happy traditions and customs of ancient Greece and Rome” but is a “thin veneer over older customs.”
Pagan pantheism survives in the Italian proliferation of saints. But in Italy, one feminine deity has always been venerated above the rest. Throughout Italy, one confronts images of a beatific young mother holding or nursing a baby, gazing down mysteriously from a roadside edicola — tiny shrine — or from a niche in a church, or from the walls of art museums.
There’s a pagan element in the cult of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The young virgin is worshipped apart from God or Christ. The Mary cult is stronger in Italy than in any other European nation. Italy has the greatest number of Church-validated Marian “apparitions” — sightings of the Virgin — than any other nation throughout recorded Church history.
Italy is home to hundreds of regional Mary cults. The most common name for the local Madonna deities is, simply, Santa Maria delle Grazie — the Mary of thanks, the Mary who dispenses favors. Traditionally, favor seekers approach the icon of Santa Maria delle Grazie on their knees with ex voto objects, small pressed metal or painted tile offerings, usually depicting a body part — a heart, an arm, a pair of eyes — whose recovery will be attributed to the attention of the Madonna delle Grazie.
Favors, though, are not granted for free. Madonnas in the Italian Mary cult are not necessarily altruistic. Like the vengeful goddesses of ancient Rome, the Madonnas are jealous and fickle and demand veneration. “The madonnas and saints worshipped by Italian Catholics are seen to have the power to cure and protect, they are also seen as a source of danger,” wrote a scholar of popular Italian Catholicism, Michael Carroll. “This danger has nothing to do with the punishment of sin, it derives from something much simpler: the saints and madonnas of Italy want to be worshipped, and it is toward this end, and the maintenance of their own cults, that they use their great power.”
The flip side to Italian veneration of the female deity is wariness about her legendary insatiable neediness, the voracious desire and jealousy of females, embodied in the whore, who is also still very much a part of modern Italian culture. All women are assumed to be in possession of bewitching seductive powers, but proper women are assumed to know how to use control and limit those powers.
Modern young women visiting Italy might not recognize those limits, though, because the stripper or girly-showgirl was so mainstreamed in Italy, especially during the years of Silvio Berlusconi’s control of Italian television and politics. The gusher of hard, sex-based commercial marketing, the nearly naked television dancers called veline jiggling on political talk shows, were just the visual element of a political structure that officially degraded women.
Their schizophrenic status had subtle effects on Italian women. The nation had a large and growing class of professional women who were not veline. Female lawyers, police, judges, and forensics experts played key roles in the Amanda Knox trial. While most media focused on the male judge, prosecutor, and lawyers, all of these men had female lieutenants who did most of the heavy lifting in the case. The best lawyer in the case was a woman, Giulia Bongiorno, a powerful Parliamentarian who had, inexplicably, used her wits to help womanizer Berlusconi stay in power.
But Italy was ranked 74th out of 128 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2010 global index of gender equality, lowest in the EU and behind Ghana and Kazakhstan. For professional women like the lawyers and policewomen involved in the Kercher murder investigation and trial, the years leading up to and during the murder trial were a time of massive disconnection between their apparent and their real status. Italian professional women like Bongiorno and the other female lawyers and police in the Knox case put up with their veline sisters and the national girl-ogling sport, but uneasily. Many were divorced or single. The ancient Madonna/whore split poisoned their private lives, not to mention their attitudes toward other women — including the American college vixen Amanda Knox.
Two popular Madonnas reside in Perugia. One is the Madonna del Verde, a very old fresco from the mysterious round hilltop Tempio Sant’ Angelo, dating to the Dark Ages, whose background color green represented hope. The temple, located at the highest point in Perugia, is locally believed to have originated as a temple to Venus or Vesta. The site was probably also important to the Etruscans, who kept spiritual sanctuaries and tombs on hilltops adjacent to, but separate from, the city centers reserved for the living.
The other Perugia Madonna is the Madonna delle Grazie in the Duomo. Giuliano Mignini, the prosecutor of the Knox trial, kept her image hanging on the wall behind his desk and spoke of how she had helped his uncle escape from certain death at the hands of the Russians in the 1940s. The icon is a larger-than-life, clearly pregnant young woman, painted in 1515 by Giannicola di Paolo, one of Perugia’s Renaissance greats. She wears a brocade blue dress, and her pale eyes are strangely distant and slightly uneven. Perugians hundreds of years ago adorned her image with a real crown. Every day, parishioners can be seen kneeling before her. Over the centuries, they have appeased or thanked her with thousands of ex voto offerings — silver hearts and other body parts tied with small red ribbons — tucked in the glass case behind her.
Both Perugia’s Madonnas have pale, heart-shaped faces, tiny pert noses, light distant eyes, small perfect mouths. Amanda Knox bears an uncanny resemblance to both of them. The hippie soccer player from twenty-first-century Seattle could have been the Renaissance artist’s model.
Nina Burleigh is the author of “Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Forgery in the Holy Land,” “A Very Private Woman: The Life and Unsolved Murder of Presidential Mistress Mary Meyer,” and two other books. She has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker and Time, and is a contributing editor at Elle.
Excerpted from “The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox. Copyright @ 2011 by Nina Burleigh. Reprinted by permission of Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.