Jesuit preacher and ascetical writer, commonly considered Italy's greatest orator after Bernardine of Siena and Savonarola; b. Nettuno, Province of Rome, Italy, March 20, 1624; d. Rome, Dec. 9, 1694.
Before his entrance into the Society of Jesus in 1637, Segneri studied at the Roman College under Sforza Pallavicino
and was strongly influenced by Pallavicino's interest in sacred oratory. Concentrated studies in the Scriptures, and the Fathers' and Cicero's oratorical works rounded out Segneri's background for his preaching ministry, which began soon after his ordination in 1653.
He began his career preaching from cathedral pulpits, but from 1661 to 1692 he gave himself mostly to Lenten sermons and popular missions. His preaching, which was often accompanied by self-flagellation in the pulpit and penitential processions, quickly achieved wide recognition in Italy, especially in the Papal States and Tuscany where he concentrated his work. Not only crowds of common people flocked to his sermons, but also many prominent figures, notably the Grand Duke Cosimo III and his family. Antonio Pignatelli read and admired his Lenten sermons and, as Innocent XII, summoned Segneri to Rome in 1692 to be his preacher, and made him a theologian of the Sacred Penitentiary.
Despite occasional lapses into figures of questionable taste and misuse of secular erudition, both of which were characteristics of 17th-century Italian literature and oratory, Segneri succeeded in almost totally reforming the art of pulpit oratory. In the Quaresimale, Lenten sermons (Florence 1679, with many later editions), in the Prediche (Rome 1694), and in the Panegirici sacri (Bologna 1664), Segneri manifests a tremendous command of figures and imagery, indomitable vigor and zeal, and a multiplicity of converging proofs and arguments in the manner of Bourdaloue, although the latter lacked Segneri's rich imagination. His style was in the best classical tradition; his delivery rapid, fiery, and impetuous.
Segneri added to his renown as a preacher a certain eminence as a theologian. He opposed the publication of Fundamentum theologiae moralis, a work of Thyrsus González, SJ, which advocated probabiliorism. When the book was published despite Segneri's defense of probabilism, Segneri continued his opposition with the Lettere sulla materia del probabile (first published Cologne 1732). Against Quietism he wrote the Concordia tra la Faticae la Quiete nell'Orazione (Florence 1680). His adversaries denounced the work to the Inquisition and it was condemned. He was allowed to reprint it in 1691 with certain changes.
Bibliography: Opere complete, 4 v. (Turin 1855).
[w. j. fulco]