Francesco and Rosa Madiai

Francesco and Rosa Madiai


In 1853, John Hall Wilton, agent for the famous showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, wrote Lord Shaftesbury requesting the presence of an Italian Protestant couple who had been imprisoned and exiled because of their religion. The purpose of the trip was for “these interesting people to exhibit themselves in our United States.”[1]

            Frances Power Cobbe, an author and friend of Shaftesbury, reported Barnum as saying, “It would be such an affecting sight to see real Christian Martyrs!”[2]

            Today, when Barnum is remembered as co-founder of the renowned Barnum and Bailey Circus, this proposal seems amusing. But Barnum, who had not yet founded the circus, was always on the lookout for celebrities to take on tour, and the Madiai were, at that time, international celebrities.


Fniding Love and Truth

Francesco Madiai was born in a small town near Florence, Italy, in 1805, in a family of small land-owners. Growing up as a devout Roman Catholic, he had his faith shaken when, during confession, a priest denied him absolution for eating meat during Lent. It didn’t matter that a doctor had recommended this hearty diet.

            Francesco moved to Florence at 16, when he started to work as courier for several families. It was an interesting job that allowed him to travel. In 1840, he visited one of his brothers who lived in Boston and began to learn some English. His brother’s wife was a member of an Episcopalian church, and introduced Francesco to the church and to the Bible.

            Back in Florence, he was hired as a courier by an English family. The woman who cared for their children. Rosa Pulini, caught his attention. About six years older than him, she had lived in England and spoke English well. They began to talk about the Bible. With no Italian Bibles available, she translated and explained some passages for him.

            Eventually, they married, moved together into a home near the Florence Cathedral, and made their living by taking in lodgers, especially foreigners. They began to attend services at the local Evangelical Swiss church where, as Rosa explained later to a mother superior, “we saw the true Christian respect we sought.”[3]


The Winds of Persecution

In 1849, Leopold II, Grand Dke of Tuscany, decided to tighten some religious laws which had been fairly tolerant, by ordering the closure of Protestant churches and investigating their members. These measures didn’t stop Protestants from meeting in secret and smuggling and distributing Bibles and tracts from other countries.

            On August 17. 1851, the police searched the Madiai residence and found two copies of the Bible. Francesco and three others were arrested. Only Francesco, however, was taken to the infamous Bargello prison in Florence on charges of proselytizing. Eight days later, Rosa was taken to the women’s ward. In November, Francesco was transferred to the Murate prison, a newer building with stricter rules.

            "My dear friend, pray earnestly for us,” Rosa wrote to another woman shortly after her imprisonment, “that God will allow us to honor and bless him with all our hearts, in the state where he was pleased to place us. The Spirit is willing but the flesh attacks fiercely.”[4]

            The letter exchange between Francesco and Rosa, as well as her letters to her friend and some supporters, are deeply moving. To her friend, Rosa feels free to describe in detail the grimness of her surroundings and her reactions. The prison is unhealthy and noisy, the food is scarce, and emotions ebb and flow. “Pardon me, my God,” she says, “but my afflictions surpass my strength, oh, grant me help!”[5]

            Her letters to her husband are more cheerful. She knows he is ill, and she is determined to keep him encouraged. Each paragraph is filled with Scriptures: Matthew 10:32, 16:24, 19:29, John 16:33, Acts 14:22, Romans 8:18...

            “When we feel weak, let us cling to the hem of Christ's garment,” she says, “for all who touched it were healed, and thus shall we be strengthened by faith in him. ... The knowledge of his having conquered will give us also strength to conquer in him and by him. The flesh will certainly suffer, but how many insults did not our innocent Saviour endure! He, innocent, and we, miserable sinners! ... It remains for us to pray for our enemies; they are more to be pitied than we!”[6]

            She was not completely idle. She did some sewing and read books from the prison library, including St. Augustine’s Confessions and a treatise on St. Augustine. A long conversation she had with a visiting priest (which she reported to a friend) sheds light on the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church and on Rosa’s convictions and knowledge of Scriptures. The doctrines the priest took for granted are the same she had wrestled with for years and, after careful examination, found unbiblical.

            Francesco’s letters are shorter but equally encouraging. “I have One who thinks for me, and for you, and who says, ‘Fear not, I am with you.’ Let the winds and storms come, and the mercy of God will save us.”[7]


International Uproar

            Thanks to their past occupations, the Madiai had enough connections abroad that their imprisonment caused an international stir, so much that the British minister of foreign affairs, Lord Palmerston, arranged for them to have the best lawyers available.

            In spite of these lawyers and several witnesses (including a nun) who testified that the Madiai had always been discreet, respectful, and charitable, the court trial in June 1852 didn’t end as they had hoped. Francesco was condemned to four years and eight months in solitary confinement and forced labor in the prison of Volterra, Tuscany, and Rosa to three years and nine months of imprisonment in the prison of Lucca, in the same region. They were also required to pay the expenses for the trial. After their imprisonment, they would be under constant police surveillance for three years.

            The sentence caused an international uproar, with governments and organizations writing countless letters of appeal to the grand duke. Leopold stood his ground until March 15. 1853, when the pressure became unbearable. He then changed the couple’s sentence from imprisonment to perpetual exile.

            With the help of the French consul in Livorno, the Madiai sailed to Marseille, then moved to Nice, France, where Francesco managed a storage unit of the British Bible Society. The couple was able to return to Florence only in 1859, when Leopold II abdicated.

            Francesco’s health, however, had become gravely compromised. In 1862, while he was visiting England to raise funds for the building of a new cemetery in Florence for those rejected by the Roman Catholic Church (too many for the existing English Cemetery), his condition worsened. He died in 1868.

            Rosa lived until 1871 and is buried in the English Cemetery in Florence. The Italian inscription on her grave reads, “Rosa Pulini Nei Madiai. My soul magnifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior. I believed the Gospel. I suffered in this sad world. Now I am in Heaven, residing with Christ.”


[1] Edwin Hodder, The Life and Work of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, K.G., Cassell & Co., 1887, 459

[2] Frances Power Cobbes, Life of Frances Power Cobbes, vol 2, Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1894, 510

[3] Misses Senhouse, Letters of the Madiai and Visits to Their Prisons, London: James Nisbet, 1853, 111 (I modified some of these quotations after checking with the original Italian).

[4] Senhouse, Letters, 32

[5] Ibid., 38

[6] Ibid., 40-42

[7] Ibid., 46


Simonetta Carr