You often see him in art, the Dominican friar standing around with an axe embedded in his skull, and probably wondered: who is that guy?
The parents of Peter of Verona (1206-52) were said to have been (or at least were sympathizers with) the Patarene sect of northern Italy. Like the Cathars of Southern France, the Patarenes believed in Dualism, that were two principles, a good creator god and his evil adversary who ruled the world. Although they considered themselves Christians, they, like the Cathars, were appalled by the worldly and corrupt medieval Papacy with its temporal powers, and refused to pray or send the Pope his tithes or take oaths or worship relics. Although the Paterenes were never as widespread in Italy as their French cousins, they were a too much of a threat to Rome to ignore. And Florence was one of their centres.
Peter rebelled against his parents with all the force of the newly converted. At age 15 he went to the University of Bologna, where he met St Dominic and joined his new order of Friars Preachers, whose primary mission was to convert Cathars back to Catholic orthodoxy.
Peter was a natural, persuasive speaker, and it wasn't long before he became one of the Dominicans' star preachers, drawing huge crowds wherever he went. In 1234, Pope Gregory IX appointed him Inquisitor for Northern Italy, and in 1244, sent him to Florence, where Santa Maria Novella became his base.
Although they say Peter converted many Paterenes in Florence, mere words weren't enough. With the brutal success of the Albigensian Crusade (1209–29) in obliterating Catharism in France still fresh in everyone's minds, he founded a holy militia, the Società di Santa Maria, and after an especially fiery sermons in Piazza Santa Maria Novella, attacked the Paterenes, massacring hundreds in spots now marked by columns the Croce al Tebbia and the column in front of Santa Felicità.
When he wasn't breathing fire, Peter led the foundation of the confraternity of the Misericordia, which is still doing good deeds today. He also performed one of his most famous miracles in Florence: he was preaching on the corner of Via Strozzi and Via dei Vecchietti, when an enraged black horse (Satan in disguise) came charging at the crowd. Peter boldly stood in front the beast and made the sign of the cross, and off scooted the devil, leaving behind only a sulphurous pong.
Today Florentines call the corner the 'Canto del Diavolo', and if you examine the wall of the Palazzo Vecchetti you'll see a copy of the bronze Diavolino, or Little Devil, sculpted by Giambologna. Originally there were two Little Devils holding a pair of flagpoles. The second was lost when part of the palace was demolished in the mid 19th century; today the surviving original is in the Museo Bardini. A fresco of the scene in the original Misericordia headquarters, the Loggia del Bigallo, captures the moment, although the black horse has since faded to blue.
In 1252, while returning from Como to Milan, Peter was murdered with a knife in his heart and an axe in his head (which has since become his most recognizable, if often surreal, attribute in art). The official story has it that the assassins were hired by the Paterenes, one of whom repented and lived a holy life as the Blessed Carino of Balsamo. Others say it was revenge over a property dispute. As he died, Peter was said to write out the beginning of the Apostles' Creed, the 'Credo' with his own blood.
He was canonized by Innocent IV eleven months after his death, on March 9, 1253, which still rates as the fastest canonization in history. He is the patron saint of Inquisitors, midwives and Puerto Rico.
Because of his close association with Florence, he also appears frequently in art: you'll find him in the Grand Cloister of the Santa Maria Novella, in the Battle between the Catholics and the Heretics by Lorenzo Sciorina and in the Death of St Peter Martyr by Domenico Ghirlandaio and in the St Peter of Verona Triptych by Fra Angelico, now in the Museo Nazionale di San Marco.
Images by: Museo di Bigallo, PD Art