In this procession I recognized the sacred office of the Brothers of Misericordia, one of the earliest institutions of priestly charity; and perhaps the only national trait of ancient Florence which now remains. The principles of this order are founded on the basis of universal benevolence. A pure and primitive simplicity marks every feature and act of this fraternity, who, in silence and in solitude, fulfil their sacred and unostentatious offices. The gloom with which their solemn duties invest them, receives new and mournful impressions, from the tradition which connects its origin with the history of the great plague in 1548, celebrated by Boccacio in his De-Cameron. They relate that many portentous omens predicted this awful visitation. A dead crow fell from the air, and three boys, at whose feet it had dropped, tossed it towards each other in play. These three boys died, and soon after the plague broke out, and in its fearful ravages desolated the city. During its continuance, a few individuals, firm. in purpose and strong in piety, self-devoted, attended on the sick and dying, and the survivors of these chosen few, afterwards taking the monastic habits and order of Brothers of Misericordia, assumed for life the performance of those services which in the hour of anguish and sorrow they had voluntarily fulfilled. Their small church is situated close to the Duomo, the House of God; but all is sad and solemn in the aspect of this institution. It was built shortly after the plague, and was raised on the margin of the gulph dug to receive the dead. A black dress, in which the brethren are attired from head to foot, entirely covers the person and conceals the face. The brother, whether of noble or of lowly birth, is equally undistinguished and unknown, and their duties are performed, and charities dispensed, to the noble or the beggar, with the same indiscriminating ceremonies.
A few tapers on the altar, and at the shrine of the Virgin, burn night and day, throwing a dim and feeble light around. Six of the- brethren watch continually; and medical aid is always in readiness. Divine worship is performed by them in the morning and in the evening, assisted by those individuals whom piety or sorrow may have brought to mingle among them. On the floor are arranged biers, palls, torches, and dresses. The sick are taken to the hospitals, the dead are conveyed to their last home, and the unclaimed brought to their church on a bier, covered by a pall. They are summoned to their duties by the solemn tolling of their deep-toned bell, which, when heard in the dead and silent hour of the night, falls on the ear with dismal and appalling sound. Another office of the Brethren of the Misericordia is to visit the prisons, and prepare the condemned for death. Once a-year, on Good-Friday, this duty is publicly per-formed. Twelve brethren of the order, and twelve penitents, form the procession, bearing the head of St John on a car, and the image of a dead Christ, covered with black crape. The procession is preceded by solemn music, and closed by a long train of priests clothed in black.
In this institution the numbers are unlimited, forming a wide extended circle, which may embrace members from every city, acknowledging the same faith, bound by one uniting, but secret and mysterious tye. They are not of necessity individually known to each other, but can render themselves intelligible by certain signs and words, in any circumstances requiring communication. Their vow enjoins them to be ready, night or day, at the call of sudden calamityto attend those overtaken by sickness, accident, or assault. A certain number of them are in rotation employed in asking charity, a service which they are obliged to perform barefooted, and in a silent appeal, the rules strictly forbidding the use of speech, when engaged in any duty. Their call is never left unanswered, every individual making an offering, were it only of the smallest copper piece, as it is money supposed to be lent to pray for departed souls. This peculiar order, for there are others not greatly dissimilar, possesses a privilege of great magnitude, extended only once in every year, and to one single person. An individual of their body becoming amenable to the laws of his country, in virtue of this privilege, may claim exemption from the penalty, receiving his life at the prayer of his brethren. This ceremony, when it occurs, is performed with every circumstance of pomp and solemnity. The order, habited in the dress of the ancient priests, carry branches of palm in token of peace, and, accompanied by all the imposing grandeur of the church, present themselves in front of the palace of the Grand Duke, when the Sovereign Prince condescends to deliver the act of grace. They next proceed to the President of the Tribunal of Supreme Power. This officer, in person, leads the way, conducting them to the prison, into which they enter, and there receiving their liberated brother, they invest him in the dress of their order, and crowning him with laurel, conduct him home in triumph.
No fixed period is enjoined for the fulfilment of the vow taken by this order. Many in the highest sphere have sought expiation of sins by assuming it fora longer or shorter time, proportioned to the measure of their crime, or to the sensitive state of their consciences. Princes, Cardinals, and even Popes, have been numbered among their penitents, and have joined in their vows and services.
While dwelling on the picture which this subject presents to the mind, it is impossible not to be struck with the scope given to human passions, in the belief inculcated of a remission of sins, obtained by a few expiatory observances. It is evident that this reliance, instead of being a check to guilty wishes, facilitates their accomplishment. The desired object is first attained, and then penance or propitiation comes lagging after, as time or opportunity may suit. That a being should be driven by the anguish of a lacerated conscience to seek relief in the gloom and solitude of so severe an order, as that of La Trappe and others, must ever appear at once touching and awful; but instances of this nature are rare, and when they do occur, the efficacy of such self-sacrifice must be measured by the degree of restored peace imparted to the wounded spirit. The belief, however, that a vow fulfilled, an ascetic discipline observed, during perhaps a period of short-lived remorse, can expiate the commission of sin, is a dangerous doctrine.