IN climatically pagan Italy, constitutionally polytheistic, favoring a genial and artistic faith, populated with undying saints whose awesome or beloved effigies moved annually through the streets, and enriched by the gold that came to the Church from a dozen subject lands, one should not have expected to find men and women dedicated, sometimes at mortal risk, to the replacement of that picturesque and hallowed faith by a somber creed whose political support was the reluctance of northern nations to fatten Italy with the proceeds of their piety. Yet everywhere in Italy there were people who felt, even more keenly and intimately than the Germans, the Swiss, or the English, the abuses that were demoralizing the Church. And in Italy, more than anywhere else, the educated classes, though already enjoying some freedom of teaching and thought, were demanding the liberation of the intellect from even outward allegiance to the myths that so charmed and disciplined the populace.
Some of Luther’s writings appeared in the bookstalls of Milan in 1519, in Venice in 1520. In St. Mark’s itself a friar dared to preach the doctrines of Luther. Cardinal Caraffa reported to Pope Clement VII (1532) that religion was at a low ebb in Venice, that very few Venetians observed the fasts or went to confession, and that heretical literature was popular there. Clement himself (1530) described the Lutheran heresy as widely spread among both clergy and laity in Italy; and in 1535 the German reformers claimed 30,000 adherents in the homeland of the Church.1
The highest lady in Ferrara was a fervent Protestant. Renée, daughter of Louis XII, had imbibed the new ideas partly from Marguerite of Navarre, partly from her own governess, Mme. Soubise. The Princess brought this lady with her when she married (1528) Ercole d’Este, who became (1534) the second duke of that name to rule Ferrara. Calvin visited her there (1536), and intensified her Protestant convictions. Clément Marot came to her, and, later, Hubert Languet, the Huguenot publicist. Ercole accepted them all in polite Renaissance fashion until one of them shouted Idolatría! during the Adoration of the Cross on Holy Saturday (1536); then he let the Inquisition question them. Calvin and Marot fled; the others appear to have saved themselves by affirming their orthodoxy. But after 1540 Renée gathered a new Protestant entourage, and ceased attendance at Catholic worship. Ercole soothed the Pope by exiling her to the ducal villa at Consandolo on the Po; but there too she surrounded herself with Protestants, and brought up her daughters in the Reformed faith. Ercole, fearing that Protestant daughters would be worthless pawns in the game of political marriages, removed them to a convent. Finally he allowed the Inquisition to indict Renée and twenty-four of her household. She was convicted of heresy, and was sentenced to life imprisonment (1554). She recanted, received the Eucharist, and was restored to religious and political grace;2 but her real opinions were silently expressed by the melancholy solitude of her remaining years. After Ercole’s death (1559) she returned to France, where she made her home at Montargis a refuge for Huguenots.
Modena, also under Ercole, had a lively Protestant moment. Its Accademia of scientists and philosophers allowed great freedom in discussions, and some of its members, including Vesalius’s pupil and successor Gabriele Fallopio, were suspected of heresy. Paolo Ricci, an ex-friar, preached openly against the papacy; Lutheran ideas were debated in the shops, the squares, the churches. Ricci and others were arrested. Cardinal Sadoleto protected the Academicians, claiming that they were loyal to the Church, and that they should, as scholars, enjoy freedom of inquiry;3 Paul III contented himself with their signatures to a profession of faith, but Ercole disbanded the Academy (1546), and one unrepentant Lutheran was executed at Ferrara (1550). In 1568, as the Catholic reaction stiffened, thirteen men and one woman were burned for heresy at Modena.
At Lucca, Pietro Martire Vermigli, Prior of the Austin Canons, organized a learned academy, brought exceptional teachers to it, encouraged freedom of discussion, and told his large congregation that it might look upon the Eucharist as not a miraculous transformation but a pious remembrance of the Passion of Christ; this out-Luthered Luther. Summoned for questioning by the chapter of his order at Genoa, he fled from Italy, denounced the errors and abuses of Catholicism, and accepted a professorship of divinity at Oxford (1548). He took a disputed part in formulating the Book of Common Prayer (1552), left England when Catholicism returned to power, and died as professor of Hebrew at Zurich in 1562. Eighteen canons of his priory at Lucca followed him in abandoning their order and Italy.
Vermigli, Bishop Sorano of Bergamo, and many others had been turned to the new ideas by Juan de Valdés. He and his brother Alfonso, of high Castilian lineage, were perhaps the most talented twins in history. Alfonso, a devotee of Erasmus, became Latin secretary to Charles V, and wrote a Dialogo de Lactancio (1529) in which he defended the Sack of Rome, and contended that Luther would never have left the Church if, instead of condemning him, she had reformed the abuses that he had justly denounced. Juan contributed to the same volume a Dialogo de Mercurio y Carón, whose heresies were political: the rich should be made to earn their living; the poor have a right to share in the income of the rich; the wealth of a prince belongs to the people, and should not be wasted in imperialistic or religious wars.4 Clement VII naturally preferred Juan, and made him a papal chamberlain at thirty. Juan, however, moved to Naples, where he devoted himself to writing and teaching. He remained loyal to the Church, but favored the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith, and rated a devout mysticism above any external ritual of piety. Distinguished men and women gathered around him and accepted his lead: Vermigli, Ochino, Marcantonio Flaminio the poet, Pietro Carnesecchi, Vittoria Colonna, Costanza d’Avalos, Duchess of Amalfi, Isabella Manriquez, sister of the Spanish grand inquisitor, and Giulia Gonzaga, whose beauty we have already acknowledged. After Juan Valdés’s death (1541) his pupils scattered through Europe. Some, like Vittoria Colonna, stayed in the Church; some developed his teachings into open heresy. Three minor pupils were beheaded and burned at Naples in 1564; Carnesecchi was beheaded and burned at Rome in 1567. Giulia Gonzaga was saved by the death of the merciless Paul IV; she entered a convent (1566), and with her the Neapolitan party of reform came to an end.
Bernardino Ochino went through all the stages of religious development. Born near the birthplace of St. Catherine in Siena, he rivaled her piety. He joined the Franciscans, but finding their discipline too lax for his mood, he transferred to the severer order of the Capuchins. They marveled at his ascetic self-denial, his passionate mortification of his flesh; and when they made him their vicar-general they felt that they had chosen a saint. His sermons—in Siena, Florence, Venice, Naples, Rome—resounded through Italy; nothing like them in fervor or eloquence had been heard there since Savonarola a century before. Charles V went to hear him; Vittoria Colonna was deeply moved by him; Pietro Aretino, who had sampled almost every sin, was stirred to passing piety by hearing him. No church was large enough to hold his listeners. No one dreamed that this man would die a heretic.
But at Naples he met Valdés, and through him became acquainted with the works of Luther and Calvin. The doctrine of justification suited his spirit; he began to hint at it in his sermons. In 1542 he was cited before the papal nuncio at Venice, and was forbidden to preach. Shortly afterward Paul III invited him to Rome to discuss the religious views of some Capuchins. Ochino may have trusted the enlightened Pope, but he feared the long arm of the Inquisition, and Cardinal Contarini warned him of danger. Suddenly this saint and idol of Italy, meeting Peter Vermigli in Florence, decided, like him, to cross the Alps into Protestant terrain. A brother of Vittoria Colonna gave him a horse; at Ferrara Renée gave him clothing. He proceeded through the Grisons to Zurich, thence to Geneva. He applauded the puritan discipline that Calvin was establishing there, but, his German being better than his French, he moved on to Basel to Strasbourg to Augsburg, trying to earn a living by tongue or pen. In 1547 Charles V, having overwhelmed the Protestants at Mühlberg, entered Augsburg as master of Germany. He learned that the Capuchin whom he had heard in Naples was living there as a married man; he ordered the magistrates to arrest him; they connived at Ochino’s escape. He fled to Zurich and Basel, and then, when he seemed at the end of his food, he received a call from Archbishop Cranmer to come to England. There, as a pensioned prebendary at Canterbury, he labored for six years (1547-53); he wrote a book that strongly influenced Milton’sParadise Lost; but when Mary Tudor came to the throne he hurried back to Switzerland.
He secured appointment as pastor of a congregation in Zurich, but his Unitarian views offended it, and he was dismissed when he published a dialogue in which a defender of polygamy seemed to have the better of the argument against a monogamist. Though it was December (1563), he was ordered to leave the city within three weeks. Basel refused to let him stay there; he was allowed a brief sojourn in Nuremberg; soon he set out with his family for Poland, then by comparison a haven for off-color thinkers. He preached at Cracow for a while, but was expelled when the king banished all non-Catholic foreigners (1564). On the way from Poland to Moravia three of his four children succumbed to pestilence. He survived them two months, dying at Schackau in December 1564. Almost his last words were: “I wish to be neither a Bullingerite nor a Calvinist nor a papist, but simply a Christian.”5 Nothing could have been more dangerous.
It was of course impossible that Italy should go Protestant. The common people there, though anticlerical, were religious even when they did not go to church. They loved the time-hallowed ceremonies, the helping or consoling saints, the seldom-questioned creed that lifted their lives from the poverty of their homes to the sublimity of the greatest drama ever conceived—the redemption of fallen man by the death of his God. The political domination of Italy by an intensely religious Spain conspired to keep both peninsulas Catholic. The wealth of the papacy was an Italian heirloom and vested interest; any Italian who proposed to end that tribute-receiving organization seemed to most Italians to be verging on lunacy. The upper classes quarreled with the papacy as a political power over Central Italy, but they cherished Catholicism as a vital aid to social order and peaceful government. They realized that the glory of Italian art had been bound up with the Church through the inspiration of her legends and the support of her gold. Catholicism itself had become an art; its sensuous elements had submerged the ascetic and the theological; stained glass, incense, music, architecture, sculpture, painting, even drama—these were all in the Church and of her, and in their marvelous ensemble they seemed inseparable from her. The artists and the scholars of Italy did not have to be converted from Catholicism, for they had converted Catholicism to scholarship and art. Hundreds, thousands of scholars and artists were supported by bishops, cardinals, and popes; many humanists, some polite skeptics, had risen to high position in the Church. Italy loved attainable beauty too much to despoil itself over unattainable truth. And had those fanatical Teutons, or that sour popelet in Geneva, 01 that ruthless ogre on the throne of England, found the truth? What depressing nonsense those Reformers were shouting—just when the intellectual classes in Italy had quite forgotten hell and damnation! One could understand a quiet and private rejection of Christian theology in favor of a vague and genial deism, but to replace the mystery of transubstantiation with the horror of predestination seemed a passage from a heartening symbolism to a suicidal absurdity. Just now, when the Church had spread her forgiving wings over the pagan proclivities of the Italian people, Calvin was calling upon the world to fetter itself in a puritanism that threatened to exile all gladness and spontaneity from life. And how could Italian joy and art continue if those barbarous Teutons and Englishmen should cease to send or bring their coins into Italy?