Savonarola: Reform and Re-Dreams of Rebirth
One of the first reactions to the crisis of the new that inundated the Rinascimento at the turn of the sixteenth century was a traditional religious response – an appeal for reform. Once again a “re” word calling for a return, in this context to the Christianity of the early Church. As we have seen, this was a continuing refrain across the period, but it tended to grow in strength in times of crisis. Thus, although periodically across the Rinascimento fire-breathing preachers had elicited enthusiastic responses to calls for reform in the urban centers of Italy, one of the most famous, Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498), emerged virtually in conjunction with the French invasion of Charles VIII. Called to Florence by Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1490 and made prior of the Dominican monastery there that had been rebuilt and renewed by Lorenzo’s grandfather Cosimo, Savonarola became progressively more popular and influential as a preacher as the decade progressed.
Actually, his success built on the French invasion, as he had preached well before Charles came on the scene that a “sword of God” from the north would be called to Italy to chastise the corrupt and immoral city of Florence. When Charles seemed to fulfill his prophecy, the already popular preacher, who had railed against the princely and ungodly ways of Lorenzo de’ Medici and his circle, seemed to many to be confirmed as a prophet. And in the turmoil of the rebirth of the Florentine republic following Piero’s fall, his sermons took on greater force yet, especially as they focused on traditional ways of calling for change: reform, renewal, and rebirth.
Clearly for a preacher like Savonarola it was not a Roman renewal that was the goal, but a moral rebirth, in which Florence guided by God and His prophet/preacher, would become not so much a new Jerusalem as a Jerusalem reborn or, better yet, a reborn Garden of Eden. The ungodly ways of the Medici and their followers – the satyr in Florence’s garden – would be forcibly removed; and thus the first Godly Garden, where Adam and Eve lived in perfect harmony with God, would be reborn in Florence to serve as a model for Italy to reemerge as the spiritual leader of the world. In a way, his message provided a logical but significant twist to the traditional civic morality of the Rinascimento. Once again the government of a city would create a moral civic space in which a true Christian life could be led – but this time with the considerable advantage that that republican government would be guided on the path of virtù, true Christian virtù, by a preacher/prophet who could communicate to it God’s plans for the city’s rebirth as the leader of a reformed Christian world. Disaster and defeat thus became merely the first steps on the way to triumph and a true rinascita.
But that return to the past required moral and spiritual reform, and that meant eliminating more than just Medici satyrs from the garden. Savonarola’s famous bonfires of the vanities, where a wide range of art and literature, along with rich clothing and other things deemed immoral – such as cosmetics, wigs, carnival masks, and dice – were fed to the flames in public celebrations, were only the most famed aspects of a program that attempted to cleanse the city of vice in order to prepare it for its destiny as a reborn Garden of Eden, free of that old serpent, the Devil, and pagan satyrs. Under pressure from Savonarola and his supporters, who became progressively more powerful in the halls of government, laws were passed to reform and purify the city: expelling Jews and prostitutes and strengthening the punishments for sodomy, blasphemy, and superfluous luxuries. Moreover, the youth of the city, often seen as the instigators of the worst forms of immorality and vice, were recruited into youth brigades to monitor behavior and ensure that the city maintained its renewed moral fervor. This enthusiastic reform movement in the face of a crisis, in part real in terms of politics, economics, and military defeat, and in part imagined – but no less real for that – in terms of moral decay and corruption, won over many, creating a powerful group of supporters who spanned the social spectrum. The most active and visible were known as the Piagnoni (the weepers), apparently in response to their public tearful repentance for their sins and those of their fellow citizens.
Savonarola’s reforming zeal and religious enthusiasm did not go uncontested, however, especially its political dimensions. By 1497 he was seen by a growing number of opponents as a dangerous political figure who was guiding Florentine government via his avid supporter Francesco Valori. Valori, serving as Gonfaloniere of Justice, visited him virtually daily at his monastery, San Marco, to get instructions on how to rule. Those opponents were divided into several factions: the Arrabbiati (The Outraged), an aristocratic group that looked to the pope for support and were committed to blocking any return of the Medici; the Bigi (The Grays), who called for a return of the Medici; and the Compagnacci (The Bad Boys), who as their name implies, were against Savonarola’s strict moral reforms. Significantly, his fervent calls for more general Church reform – to literally burn the satyr of Rinascimento immorality out of the Church – also troubled many leaders in Italy and beyond, especially the pope, Alexander VI. The Borgia pope was not just concerned about Savonarola’s calls for a radical reform of society and the Church, or even his Florentine-centric vision of a renewed Christianity that might call into question papal leadership. More troubling immediately was the fact that Savonarola’s prophecies for the reformation of Florence required continuing the city’s alliance with the French. With the pope staunchly opposing a return of the French and planning to help his rapacious relatives take over lands that the French claimed in Italy, Savonarola’s support of a French alliance and calls for the king’s return placed the prophet and his prophecies in direct conflict with the dangerous Borgia pope.
Not surprisingly, then, when Alexander summoned him to Rome in the summer of 1495 to discuss these matters, Savonarola wisely demurred. The pope then stepped up his attacks on Savonarola’s prophecies, his diatribes against Rome, and his attachment to the French. He also took more direct action, attempting to stop his preaching and to force him to accept the discipline of the Church or, failing that, at the least the discipline of his Dominican order, with little success. Finally, in June of 1497, he excommunicated Savonarola, proclaiming that his claims and teachings were heretical and that he had been disobedient to his superiors. This immediately stopped his preaching, because allowing an excommunicated cleric to preach would have provided the pope with a rationale to place Florence under an interdict and would also have given him the excuse to adopt still stronger measures against the friar.
With Savonarola silenced, tensions escalated in Florence, with opponents of the friar pressing to break his hold on government and his supporters fighting to maintain his power and pressure the pope to back down. Things came to a head when a conspiracy was discovered to overthrow the friar’s supporters and return the Medici to power. A number of prominent citizens were quickly arrested, tortured, proclaimed guilty of treason, and ordered executed. Although this was fairly standard operating procedure for conspiracies, one of the highly touted reforms enacted early on by Savonarola’s supporters guaranteed the right to appeal convictions that carried the death penalty to the newly created Great Council, which theoretically included the most important families of Florence. Loud calls for an appeal, however, were quietly ignored. Executions, which many perceived as illegal, followed. And that, along with the friar’s excommunication, seemed to suggest to a growing segment of the population that he and his followers were not quite as honest, moral, and holy as they claimed – politics as usual still seemed to rule, and the Garden of Eden remained distant.
With opposition growing in Florence, Savonarola and his closest followers decided that he needed to return to the pulpit to rally support; thus in early February of 1498 he preached a sermon in which he attacked his excommunication and the pope. Alexander VI, in the face of this open defiance, responded with firmness, asking that the friar either be silenced by Florentine authorities or be sent to Rome. It did not take much to realize that a trip to Rome would not be particularly favorable for his health; thus, after one last sermon attacking the pope, he once again stopped preaching. But behind the scenes he and his supporters, both in government and in the Church, intensified their attacks on the corruption of the Borgia pope and the Church, even suggesting that Alexander was not a true pope because he had bought his office.
As tensions escalated in Florence and factional fighting threatened to spill into the streets, an unlikely-sounding resolution was found. For some time Domenico da Pecia, a Dominican friar and one of Savonarola’s most ardent supporters, had offered to walk through fire to demonstrate the power and truth of Savonarola’s preaching and prophecies. The Franciscan order, traditional contenders with the Dominicans for spiritual leadership, unhappy about the preacher/prophet’s popularity and questionable teachings, not to mention his troubles with the papacy, saw this as an opportunity to discredit Savonarola and his followers. Thus, toward the end of March, a Franciscan friar, Fra Rondinelli, challenged Domenico, offering to walk through the fire if Domenico did. Apparently Rondinelli did not claim that he would pass through unharmed, but he was willing to sacrifice himself in order to show that Domenico would not escape unharmed either and thus to give the lie to Savonarola and his supporter’s claims.
Actually, both Savonarola and the pope opposed the idea. Both argued that the test demanded a miracle from God, and men, even very holy men, could not command God. Nonetheless, under popular pressure, and with the goal of easing the tensions that had built to an exploding point in the city, the confrontation was organized by the Florentine government. Thus on April 7, 1498, in the main square of Florence a large fire was lit and a path of burning coals cleared for the two champions to walk. Large crowds had gathered for the event, but almost immediately what seemed to offer a final clear trial of the prophet’s message and power began to unravel, as supporters of both sides argued about the terms of the walk through the fire. The wrangling dragged on for hours, with the crowd growing more and more restive. Each side blamed the other for the delay. Finally, with what must have seemed like virtually divine irony or ire, a rainstorm intervened; the confrontation was called off, and the crowd dispersed.
Through the night more human ire seethed and plots thickened. The next day, Palm Sunday, found the people of Florence in the streets ready to settle Savonarola’s fate once and for all with violence. Armed supporters and opponents fought pitched battles. Francesco Valori was killed; his followers were soundly defeated in the streets; and San Marco, Savonarola’s monastery, was attacked. Finally, Savonarola and Fra Domenico were arrested, officially to save them from the mobs led by their opponents. The conclusion followed quickly. Although the pope requested that the friar be sent to Rome for trial, the Florentine government, now in the hands of his opponents, insisted on trying him themselves, apparently with an eye to showing that he was a false prophet and that he had used his preaching and prophecies to turn the government of the city to his own ends.
With a certain brutal irony, in the end the flames did decide the fate of the fiery preacher and his bonfires of vanities. For Fra Domenico and Savonarola were convicted and condemned to burn on May 23, 1498. Even as they were being “mercifully” first hanged and then burned, many present at the execution expected that a miracle would save the prophet. But there was no divine intervention. Florence was not to be a renewed Jerusalem or a reborn Garden of Eden; the new was not to be wiped out by a return to the origins of Christianity or a reformed Florentine church. And, tellingly, even the long tradition of Italian spiritual reform and religious leadership in Europe was soon to be challenged by a reforming wind from the north. Simply put, even religious reform and rebirth would not save the Rinascimento; the satyr would remain in the garden – perhaps because, when all is said and done, the Rinascimento garden as it had developed required the satyr and its illicit world of pleasures and passions as well as a Christian order,paceSavonarola. But where Florence’s prophet had failed, many across Italy and Europe would not so much follow as attempt to lead with often similar disciplining visions and attacks on Rome and the papacy.
Roman Corruption and the Varieties of Reform
Once upon a time (before the papacy was carried off to Avignon) a “Jew … rode off to the court of Rome … [where] he began cautiously to observe the ways of the pope, the cardinals and the other prelates, along with the courtiers.” What he found was troubling, for “from the most important to the least they were totally given to sexual sins and not only the natural kind but also sodomy, without any restraint, remorse or shame, thus the power of prostitutes and young boys to influence whatever grand affair was not to be underestimated.” But that was not all. “[They were] all gluttonous, drunks, and primarily servants of their bellies like brute animals.” Moreover, when he looked more closely he found “that they were all avaricious and lusted after money ignoring the divine and all that Christianity entailed.” Thus he concluded that in Rome one could find “no holiness, no devotion, no good works or examples of the good life … and no cleric demonstrated anything but lasciviousness, avarice and gluttony, fraud, envy, pride and the like and worse.”
This tale was told by Boccaccio in the Decameron as the second story of the first day. Like several others told by his young storytellers, behind its anticlerical and anti-Rome message it contained a crucial qualification that separated clerical corruption from the ultimate truth of Christianity. For the premise of the tale was that this Jew, Abraham, a rich Parisian merchant, had gone to Rome to observe the capital of Christendom after being impressed by the praises of Christianity of a friend and fellow merchant who hoped to convert him. When Abraham had suggested the visit, however, his friend had lost all hope of converting him, as he, like most, was well aware of the negative reputation of Rome and the papal court. Thus upon Abraham’s return he was not surprised by his negative reports. He was very surprised, however, when Abraham confessed that his visit had convinced him that Christianity was actually the true religion. With a wry reasoning that does perfect justice to Boccaccio’s sense of humor, Abraham had concluded that if Christianity had endured and prospered in the face of such corruption at its heart, it must truly be sustained by the Holy Spirit and be the one true religion. Otherwise it would have failed long ago. Thus Abraham requested to be baptized immediately and lived happily ever after “a good and valiant man of saintly life.”
But Abraham’s fictional faith notwithstanding, Rome remained corrupt in the eyes of contemporaries across the Rinascimento. And, if anything, with the return of the papacy to the city in the fifteenth century and the establishment of a more princely and courtly rule, the workings of the Holy Spirit behind the scene became increasingly hard for many to see, even if the city and the papacy grew apace, flourishing as the artistic and cultural capital of the Christian world. This perception of papal corruption was reinforced by the fact that the Church itself had become increasingly dominated by, and at the mercy of, Italian elites. Of the twenty-six popes who had ruled from 1417, when Martin V brought the papacy back to Italy, until 1600, twenty-three were Italian. A similar pattern, if slightly less extreme, can be seen among cardinals, where the proportion of Italians increased from approximately 50 percent at the election of Pius II in 1458 to thirty-four of thirty-nine in 1523, when Clement VII was elected pope. Much the same dominance was to be found among bishops appointed by the papacy and in the papal bureaucracy and burgeoning clerical office-purchasing class; thus, significantly, for many powerful Italian families the Church had become a lucrative investment. The response to this dominance and continued veniality and corruption was a virtually constant and increasingly demanding call for reform.
In Latin, Italian, and English we are faced with yet another “re” word that calls not for something new, but for a return or rebirth to a better, more perfect time – in this case, the correct first time. In the ancient and medieval Christian tradition that the Rinascimento inherited, reform tended to call for a return to one or both of two crucial beginnings for religion. The first, of course, was a personal return to the life of Christ. Saint Francis captured the essence of this vision of reform when he advocated that people should reform themselves and their lives on the model of Christ and his life in this world. As God had walked the streets of Jerusalem as a man, the question of the perfect Christian life was a simple one. One merely had to re-form one’s life on his form and his life as revealed in the New Testament. Francis himself, after retiring to contemplate that life of the God/man, found that he himself had been blessed with the stigmata, the wounds that Christ had received during his crucifixion. One can hardly imagine a more impressive reform – his body had literally been reformed and taken on the form of Christ’s body.
Yet such personal reform, because it was individual, was not particularly radical in its implications for society, even if it required a radical personal change. Only if large masses of individuals independently reformed themselves on the model of Christ’s life and, moreover, agreed on what that reform entailed would the shape of society change. Ultimately, if all were guided by the Holy Spirit in their individual reform, the outcome would be a collective reform that would change the world; but lacking that, reform could follow as many paths as there were self-reforming individuals. For most radical reformers, reforming the Church itself – an institutional reform – seemed a more promising goal. Perfecting a Church capable of organizing, disciplining, and defending a truly Christian society would return it to its original form as envisioned in the first days of the Church, the foundational days of Christ and his disciples. And those days were perfectly recorded in the New Testament, the inspired writings of the Church Fathers, and the documents and institutions of the early Church; all that was necessary was to reform the institutions of the Church based on those texts.
Reform and Religious Enthusiasm in the Sixteenth Century
Both types of reform and rinascita of Christianity had their supporters in the sixteenth century. For the leaders of the Church, however, institutional reform seemed to offer the added possibility of reasserting their long-standing claims to a more dominant political role at the expense of rulers who had progressively limited their claims to discipline and guide Christendom. Significantly, however, reform itself was not a vision limited to theologians or ecclesiastical authorities. It was promulgated by popular Franciscan ideals, by the mendicant orders more generally and by fire-breathing preachers more particularly, as well as by confraternities and informal religious groups along with less-often-discussed spontaneous explosions of lower-class religious enthusiasm. Savonarola’s ability to mobilize the religious enthusiasm of Florentines, from the humblest to the richest, from the uneducated to Pico della Mirandola and other jewels of the Medicean quasi-court, from the powerless and marginal to the most powerful families of the Florentine elite, is just one impressive example of the way spiritual reform was capable of powerfully touching deep chords throughout society.
In the fifteenth century mendicant orders, especially their Observant branches – committed to stricter discipline and observance of the orders’ rules – had played a crucial role in reform, both institutional and personal. Thus, while they tended to advocate institutional reform for their orders and for the Church, in their personal lives, preaching, and ministry to the laity they stressed personal reform based on a life modeled on Christ. In Italy it has been calculated that the number of Observant communities among the various mendicant orders increased from about 30 in the 1420s to more than 1,200 by 1517. The Observant Franciscans provide a good example, with fiery preachers such as Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444) and Giovanni da Capistrano (1386–1456) crisscrossing the north of Italy denouncing corruption, sin, sodomites, and Jews. Still today one can see San Bernardino’s famous symbol, the abbreviation in Latin for Jesus, yhs, surrounded by a sunburst, painted on the upper stories of buildings as a remembrance of his preaching in many Italian cities. Not all the religious enthusiasm that he or his fellows promoted, however, was positive, as demonstrated by the outbursts of repression and violence against Jews and those labeled sodomites that often followed his preaching. This was the darker side of the religious and reform enthusiasm of the day – an attempt to close out of the Rinascimento those perceived as unacceptable others. The isolation or elimination from the Christian community of those deemed “others” was a process that would progressively gain force across the sixteenth century, and it went hand in hand with calls for reform and the spiritual enthusiasms of the day.
Among the Observant Dominicans, a Spaniard, Vincent Ferrer (1350–1419), was a major reformer and influence on his order in Italy. Savonarola was only perhaps the most noted preacher in his order who followed in his footsteps. Egidio of Viterbo (1469–1523) pressed for similar reforms in the Augustinian Observants and had a major impact in Italy and beyond. In fact, the Augustinian Observants played an increasingly important role in the Holy Roman Empire, especially through the houses associated with a revival of Saint Augustine’s teachings led by the Windesheim Chapter. One of their most important theologians was, of course, Martin Luther. Beyond the Observant mendicant orders, informal groups of people, both lay and clerical, came together locally to take vows that organized personal spiritual reform. Often drawing on traditional Italian confraternities and deeply influenced by northern European movements (such as the Brethren of the Common Life, the Devotio Moderno and, more troubling to authorities, the Hussites and the Lollards), these groups melded together clerics and a wide array of people from all classes, but with strong support among artisans and women, especially in the cities of northern Italy. Often building upon creative local traditions, some of which went back to the prophecies of Joachim of Fiore, these hotbeds of spiritual enthusiasm and popular Christianity flourished with an intensity that was worrisome, at least to those who feared their potential to transform reform into another “re” word, revolution.
Many leaders of the Church entertained similar fears about the religious enthusiasms and calls for reform led by women and devoted considerable time and attention to attempting to redirect that enthusiasm into channels deemed safe. Everywhere it seemed that holy women in religious orders and in the secular world were gaining visibility and not only calling for reform but serving as models for it. An indication of how successful they were is the fact that of the forty-four Italians made saints between 1494 and 1559, twenty-one – almost half – were women, a rare example of female equality during the period. The Franciscans and Dominicans actively publicized the numerous saintly women who populated their third orders, again with an eye to fomenting reform and claiming a leading role in it. The most noted model for such sanctity was Saint Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), associated with the Dominicans, whose active life, sanctity, and spiritual visions served as a model for a bevy of noted Dominican spiritual women, including most prominently Colomba of Rieti, Veronica of Binasco, Angela Merici, Caterina de’ Ricci, and Lucia Broccadelli of Narni. Lucia Broccadelli of Narni (1476–1544), for example, had her personal reform confirmed by the appearance of her own stigmata, once again a telling sign of her self-reforming in Christ. She was widely famed as a living saint, and her prophesies were so impressive that the duke of Ferrara, Ercole I d’Este (1431–1505), brought her to Ferrara to serve as his court’s quasi-saint and advisor.
Many women also gained notoriety for their sanctity outside formal religious orders. One example among many was Francesca Ponziani, daughter of an upper-class Roman family, who lived a saintly life as a wife and mother and progressively gathered around her a spiritual community of upper-class Roman women also committed to living a spiritual life without cloisterization or taking formal vows. But less famous women everywhere also played an important, if informal, role in the religious lives and spiritual enthusiasms of their communities. Little discussed but very important was the tradition of women healers, who used both herbs and traditional remedies along with an extensive repertory of spiritual cures that played a significant role in the everyday lives of virtually every city, town, and village. With their prayers and those spiritual cures, they often were seen as leading figures in the everyday religious life of their communities – and, significantly, it seemed to many that their spirituality delivered real benefits in the form of health, healing, and community harmony based upon Christian practices from the first days of the Church.
As the institutional reform supported by the established hierarchy of the Church gained momentum in the sixteenth century, however, these more humble and popular forms of religious enthusiasm, and especially female involvement with the spiritual, once largely ignored, became increasing suspect. In fact, one of themes of the religious reforms of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century was an increasingly aggressive attempt to separate large segments of the spiritual world from the quotidian life of everyday people and to make the spiritual world accessible only through the mediation of clerics and the Church – potentially yet another great divide, separating in this case a religious elite from the Christian masses. A few women on the right side of the divide became saints, and many deemed to be on the wrong side became heretics or witches, while the great majority were pressed in the name of reform to express their spiritual enthusiasms within the stricter disciplinary confines of a male-led Church and to display a form of safely domestic piety deemed ideal for female spirituality. Not only did limiting the spirituality of women to the home return them to their “correct” place in society, to many Church leaders it also seemed to promise to eliminate the revolutionary potential of female spiritual enthusiasms, as they believed that few revolutions could be launched from domestic isolation, perhaps incorrectly.
The Florentine writer Francesco da Meleto (1449–c.1517) is an interesting if little-known masculine example of the religious enthusiasm and hopes that flourished at less humble but still nonclerical levels in early sixteenth century Italy. The illegitimate son of a Florentine merchant whose mother was apparently an ex-slave, he grew up and studied in Bologna. Returning to Florence at eighteen, he remained for a few years, but shortly after his father’s death he decided to travel to the East to continue his studies. Perhaps influenced by the intellectual ferment of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities he encountered there, he became convinced that great religious changes were in the offing that would unite those three great monotheistic traditions. Returning to Florence, his prophetic visions were reinforced by the Savonarolan prophecies that swept the city in the nineties along with the medieval Joachite tradition of the approaching last age of the Holy Spirit, which had enjoyed periodic revivals in Italy and Florence, especially in times of crisis.
It will be remembered that Joachim of Fiore had predicted that one of the signs that heralded the last age would be the conversion of the Jews and Muslims to the one true religion, exactly what Francesco believed was about to occur. Although Savonarola, with his own predictions of a new/last age, in the end died a fiery death in 1498, his religious prophecies and calls for reform certainly did not. Francesco, then, merely added his own personal vision to the broader reforming discourses of the day when he published in 1512 his dialogue, Convivio de’secreti della Sacra Scrittura (Discussion on the Secrets of the Scriptures). Much like his medieval predecessor Joachim, he predicted that a new leader would come forward to convert the Jews, reform Christianity, and open the way to a new age of peace and happiness for all and offered an exact date – 1517. Needless to say, with the advantage of hindsight, that date, the year in which Martin Luther supposedly posted his reform program on the church door in Wittenberg, makes our Florentine prophet’s prophecy seem particularly prophetic.
But well before 1517 Francesco’s prophecies attracted attention. In fact, in 1514 he was invited to Rome by Pope Leo X to “discuss” them. Although we know little of those discussions, clearly they were not a mere exchange of ideas. At the least he found his reform vision contested there by the Camaldolese hermit Vicenzo Querini (1478–1514), a Venetian noble and noted reformer himself. According to his fellow Venetian reformer and Camaldolese hermit Tommaso Giustiniani (1476–1528), Querini attacked Francesco’s prophecies and visions as the product of the Devil. Apparently undaunted, Francesco returned to Florence and wrote a second work, which he dedicated to the pope, predicting more explicitly that the Muslims would be converted to Christianity in 1536. With Querini’s death, Giustiniani took up the attack on Francesco, and, with a certain irony, finally in 1517 those attacks bore fruit with the condemnation of Francesco’s prophecies as heretical. His books were ordered burned, and he was called upon to publicly abjure his calls for reform and his prophesies – something that he apparently never did as, perhaps conveniently, he disappeared from the historical record.
Francesco’s attackers, Vicenzo Querini and Tommaso Giustiniani, were much better-known reformers, examples in their own right of the religious enthusiasms burning brightly even among the upper classes. Both were nobles from noted Venetian families who had been trained for public service in the Venetian tradition, studying at Padua and as young men holding important posts in government that seemed to mark them out as future leaders of the republic. But both at about the age of thirty – exactly the age at which a Venetian noble was expected to marry and take up the responsibilities of adult life – withdrew from public life to pursue their own personal religious reform. Although the details remain unclear, it appears that the two, moved by a shared religious enthusiasm, abandoned the political and civil world of Venice to experiment with withdrawing to Giustiniani’s house on the island of Murano. There they lived a life of Christlike personal reform along with a group of like-minded young nobles that included yet another future figure of importance, Gasparo Contarini (1483–1542). What especially captured the imagination of their contemporaries was the group’s rejection of the active life to take up a withdrawn life of contemplation and individual reform at precisely the moment when their city, Venice, was in the darkest days of the War of the League of Cambrai. Their withdrawal from civil life to follow the path of private reform seemed to reflect a total rejection of the civic morality and the ideal of active political life of an earlier day.
Finding that contemplative life unsatisfactory, however, Giustiniani eventually left his island retreat to journey to the Holy Land, once more searching for answers to the critical spiritual problems of his day in the past that mattered most to him, the first days of Christianity. Finally, in 1510, now back in Italy, he decided to join the order of Camaldolese hermits, a small reforming order, becoming a monk in their most important hermitage near Arezzo, just south of Florence. In 1511 he was joined by his old friend Querini, who apparently was less certain about becoming a hermit but was still committed to the older Giustiniani, who had been in many ways his spiritual mentor since their teens. As monks they took the suggestive names of Paolo and Pietro (Paul and Peter), respectively, the two most important apostles of the early Church.
Their vision of reform, their views about the Church, and their own personal spiritual travails and concerns about salvation are richly documented in a triangular correspondence, recently rediscovered, between the two new monks and Gasparo Contarini, their old compatriot from Murano days who had decided to remain in the world and who would become a major figure in reform circles, both ecclesiastical and political. Contarini was the slightly younger contemporary of the two monks and a close friend of Querini, who often referred to their love for each other in their letters with an emotional tone not unusual between close male friends. These letters spanned the teens of the century, although after Querini’s death in 1514 the correspondence between Giustiniani and Contarini became less frequent and more reserved. The early letters focused on the traditional Rinascimento debate on whether the active life of a Christian in the world or the withdrawn life of a monk was the best road to salvation, with Giustiniani aggressively pressing Contarini to join his two friends in their withdrawal. Contarini resisted, insisting that he was not capable of giving up his active life, even as he expressed concern about whether this put his soul and his salvation at risk. Perhaps what is most interesting in this often very intense correspondence is Contarini’s vision that he would be saved by Christ’s love and his own faith, not by his works in this world – salvation by faith alone, it appears, was in the very air breathed by many, a part of the larger shared religious culture of the day. And evidently this was much the same air that reformers like Luther, even in the distant north, were breathing in those same years.
One might well ask how Contarini, with his often-reiterated vision of salvation by faith and not works, eventually became a cardinal and an important reformer within the Church, while Luther and his followers were labeled heretics by that same Church. Therein, of course, lies a long, complex story far beyond the scope of this book. But from the perspective of Contarini and the Italian Church, one thing is evident: Contarini, like many other reformers, felt that reform would remain within the Church – a church that, after all, was theirs. For, as noted earlier, from the highest level of popes and cardinals down to the level of ecclesiastical bureaucrats and humble clerics, the Church that existed was largely Italian and thus essentially in their hands. In this context Italian elites both ecclesiastical and secular tended to share the view that their Church needed to be reformed, not overthrown; this meant that, especially at upper-class levels, similar reforming ideals produced very different results in Italy and beyond the Alps. Many northern rulers had much to gain and little to lose by aligning with reformers who were ready to break with the Roman Catholic Church. And, significantly, most of those who believed that they needed the Church, like the Emperor Charles V, remained loyal to it. In turn, when Italian reformers challenged that hierarchy or, worse, prophesized that its corruption promised change in the order of things, at least at first they were not seen as particularly dangerous. The Church responded hesitatingly, hoping such religious enthusiasms would fade or be incorporated into what they saw as their own mainstream reform visions. But with time that confidence waned, and Church leaders and the ruling elites in Italy came to fear that the religious enthusiasms that were breaking out everywhere were literallybreaking out, with the real potential to leave them behind. And what reformers across Europe were labeling as a necessary return to the old, they began to fear was actually dangerously new.
The Sack of Rome: The Violence of the New
Certainly the relative novelty of foreign armies in Italy after 1494 helped to make these dangers crystal clear when on May 6, 1527, the unimaginable happened. Imperial troops led by the Constable of Bourbon, a renegade French noble in the service of the Emperor Charles V, swept into Rome virtually unopposed and sacked the city. It has been claimed with a certain justice that this was the real barbarian sack of the ancient city that truly finished its destruction. But at the time, it was perceived by many as the greatest calamity of the ongoing destruction of the wars that were devastating Italy and destroying the Rinascimento. Still, not all shared that opinion. Some in Italy and more in the north of Europe, where reforming sentiment was calling for a break with the Church of Rome, saw the sack of the city as its just reward for centuries of corruption and a sign of a deeper impending change – perhaps even a sign of the impending end of time and the return of Christ for the Last Judgment. Many of the German troops who pillaged the city, in fact, adhered to the new confessions of the north. And while it would be difficult to separate their typical mercenary lust for plunder and rapine from any religious enthusiasm that contributed to their violence, it seems that both were involved.
The sculptor, goldsmith, musician, and self-aggrandizing autobiographical author Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) was in the city at the time and has left a description of sack in his Vita (Life or Autobiography) that, typical of his writing, says more about his own heroic role in Rome’s defense and the favorable impression he made on the Medici pope Clement VII than it does about the event itself. Still, he relates that along with three friends he went out to see what was happening as the imperial troops rapidly scaled the weakly defended walls and began pouring into Rome. It quickly became evident that the city was going to fall, and his friends were in a panic, ready to flee. But, ever the hero, Cellini called on them to show that they “were men,” and, as they were armed with arquebuses, ordered them to shoot into the thickest group of enemy soldiers, where earlier he had noticed a leader standing. He reported that “we all fired twice in succession and … one of our shots killed the Constable of Bourbon … we learned later.” Often dismissed as Cellini’s typical braggadocio, his account is accurate at least to the degree that the Constable was shot and killed as his troops entered the city.
Cellini and his companions fled along with the crowds before the rampaging soldiers and barely made it into the Castel Sant’Angelo, the papal fortress lying on a bend of the Tiber that commands the center of the city. There the pope, many leading cardinals, and members of the papal court had holed up, hoping to resist the invaders. Always ready to boast of his military prowess and violent abilities, Cellini recounted his exploits in defense of the fortress, claiming modestly that on that first day, as most of the rest of the troops watched in terror while the city was being sacked, he fought on, harrying the enemy troops trying to break into the fortress so effectively that they were stopped and the pope saved. During the ongoing sack and the siege of Castel Sant’Angelo, he, however, gave few details of the disaster, preferring to recount his many adventures, including killing innumerable enemy troops; cutting in half an enemy officer at long distance with a shot that impressed even the pope with its impossibility; wounding another leader, the prince of Orange, with a masterful shot; and scaring (not quite the Devil out of) Cardinal Farnese (the future Pope Paul III [1534–1549]) with another clever shot that the cardinal thought was meant for him – something that Cellini believed contributed to the future pope’s enmity toward him and his eventual jailing in 1538. But as Cellini pointed out, he was writing the story of his life and could not be distracted for too long by what were in the end mere historical events. Yet if the earlier French invasion of 1494 had signaled for many the beginning of a period of wars that would change forever the political order of Italy, the sack seemed to herald the end of Roman Catholic Europe as a religious entity and requires a closer look at those “mere events” and the players involved. We will return to Cellini and his more personal vision of the history that mattered later.
The relatively new pope at the time was Clement VII (1478–1534; pope 1523–1534). He was the illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici, assassinated in the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, and had been raised by his famous uncle Lorenzo and educated by some of the most important scholars who surrounded Lorenzo in his later years. As was the case for his cousin, Pope Leo X (1475–1521; pope 1513–1521), the Medici family strategy of marrying into the Roman nobility and pursuing ecclesiastical office had once again paid off for Clement. He did not have quite the meteoric career of his cousin, who had rapidly scaled the heights of the Church hierarchy, being named a cardinal at fourteen and elected pope at thirty-eight. By contrast, Giulio, as he was called before he became pope, began his rise to power shortly after the fall of the Florentine republic in 1512; he was named archbishop of Florence in 1513 and later in the same year cardinal at the age of thirty-four. When Leo’s hand-picked head of the government of Florence, Lorenzo II de’ Medici, died in 1519, he asked Giulio to oversee the city. While a relative success in Florence, he was missed in Rome, where he had been an active participant in the lively court life of the city as well as an increasingly powerful figure behind the papal throne. Following the death of his cousin in 1521 and the brief interlude of the little-loved non-Italian pope, Adrian VI (1459–1523; pope 1522–1523), he was elected pope and took the name Clement VII at the still quite early age of forty-five.
His relationship with the Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; emperor 1519–1556), whose troops sacked the city and besieged him in Castel Sant’Angelo for almost eight months, was actually one of off-and-on alliance. Charles had supported his election as pope with the expectation that he would be an ally against Francis I (1494–1547; ruled 1515–1547), the French king who was the emperor’s most powerful competitor for power in Italy and Europe. Clement, in turn, attempted to work with Charles to cut short the religious troubles in the emperor’s Germanic territories and supported the Edict of Worms of 1521 that proscribed Martin Luther. Shortly after his election, Clement also demonstrated his support by aligning with the emperor as a new phase of open conflict broke out between the French and their supporters in Italy and Charles and his Italian allies. A famous victory for Charles at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 was crowned with the capture of the French king, who was carried off to Spain. But what looked like a definitive victory for the emperor was undone by an overoptimistic faith in the word of Francis. Signing the Peace of Madrid, which theoretically ended the wars between the two, Francis was released after pledging to give up all claims in Italy. Almost immediately, however, he repudiated his pledge, claiming that it had not been freely made – with some justice, obviously, as at the time he had been the emperor’s prisoner.
This meant renewed hostilities. Clement, concerned about the growing power of Charles and seeing Francis as a necessary counterbalance, began secret negotiations with the French. And finally, on May 22, 1526, he formally dumped the emperor, joining the newly formed League of Cognac, led by Francis and including his own native city of Florence along with Venice and Milan. An imperial reaction was not long in coming. In September the Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, a member of that powerful Roman noble family and an ally of Charles, went into the streets of Rome with his followers, and with the cry of “Colonna and Liberty” plundered the Vatican while Clement fled to the safety of Castel Sant’Angelo. Charles, however, backed off from supporting this open confrontation with the pope and repudiated Colonna’s attack. Having learned his lesson, the pope in turn repudiated his alliance with the French, and peace seemed to have broken out between the emperor and the pope.
But appearances were deceiving. Clement, overconfident about his rediscovered understanding with the emperor, unwisely sent home the troops supplied by his Florentine allies, leaving Rome dangerously undefended. Meanwhile, German and Spanish troops had entered Italy and were plundering their way through Lombardy, vaguely in the name of the emperor and his claims to Milan. But Rome beckoned, with its famed corruption and perhaps even more famous riches; thus, when the renegade Constable of Bourbon took command, those troops were ready to follow him south toward a richer prize. The pope was still not too concerned, because his Venetian allies had an army in the field, led by the duke of Urbino, that seemed more than capable of intercepting Bourbon’s motley horde before they reached the holy city. Urbino monitored Bourbon’s progress, apparently waiting for the right moment to intercept him or orders from Venice. But those orders never came; thus, although he followed the southward march at a safe distance, he never engaged the host. The result was that the impossible followed swiftly: virtually undefended, Rome fell and was brutally sacked.
As if the Sack of Rome were not enough, while Clement was besieged in Castel Sant’Angelo, Florentine republican leaders took advantage of the moment and threw out the Medici, reestablishing a short-lived republic in the pope’s home city. Meanwhile, the emperor staked out the high ground, denouncing the sack, as disease struck the sacking army, carrying off many of the occupying troops along with many Romans. Finally, in June of 1529, peace between the pope and the emperor was formally reestablished. In the typical style of the dynastic diplomacy of the day, it was sealed by the marriage of Charles’s illegitimate daughter, Margaret, to the illegitimate son of Lorenzo II de’ Medici, Alessandro, along with a promise that the Medici would be returned to power in Florence aided by Charles. It also theoretically required the emperor to return Milan to the Sforza. Francesco II Sforza (1495–1535), son of Ludovico il Moro, who had been in and out of power in the city, found himself suddenly renamed duke. In reality, however, he was on a short leash, for the emperor married him to one of his nieces; thus when Francesco died (perhaps too conveniently) without heirs a few years later, the city became once again a part of Charles’s empire.
Shortly thereafter Charles honored his commitment to Clement by besieging the recently reborn Florentine republic. It resisted heroically for almost a year, finally falling in August of 1530. Two years later the Medici were restored to power by the emperor, with Alessandro de’ Medici named hereditary duke. His unpopular rule was cut short by assassination in 1537, and he was replaced by a young Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519–1574; ruled 1537–1574). Over his long rule this new Cosimo ruthlessly solidified the Medici control of the city, once again creating an impressive court for Florence, drawing to it many of the artists and intellectuals of the day, even if he was not especially famed for his largess. Confirming his success, he was named grand duke of Tuscany by the emperor in 1570, a title which the Medici jealously defended down to 1737, when Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the last Medici grand duke of Tuscany, died.
Clearly the major player in all of this was the Emperor Charles V, one of the most important political figures of the century. And he was also perhaps the best example of the power of bedroom diplomacy of his day, for his genealogy set him on the path to European domination. His father, Philip (1478–1506), was the duke of Burgundy when Charles was born and would become Philip I, king of Castile, through marriage. In turn, Philip was the son of the Emperor Maximilian I (1459–1519; emperor 1493–1519) and Mary of Burgundy. Charles’s mother gave him an equally impressive pedigree, for she was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, joint rulers of Spain. His younger brother, Ferdinand (1503–1564; emperor 1558–1564), ruled Austria and theoretically, through marriage, Hungary as well. Although this just begins to sketch Charles’s genealogical power, things really began to come together for him with the death of his mother’s father, Ferdinand, in 1516. At that point, already ruling Castile, he inherited Aragon and became king of Spain. This carried with it the Spanish territories in the New World and claims to Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. Then, when his other grandfather, the Emperor Maximilian I, died, he inherited his Habsburg lands in the center of Europe and another series of claims in Italy.
The question that faced all of Europe with Maximilian’s death was who would be elected emperor. Francis I, king of France, was not eager to see Charles’s extensive powers and claims strengthened yet further, primarily because he was committed to pursuing his own claims to many of the same territories, especially in Italy. Thus he angled to obtain the title for himself, seeing it as both blocking Charles’s ambitions and serving his own. Charles, however, won in the end, apparently aided by well-placed bribes to the electors, who selected him emperor. Crowned at Aachen in 1520, he rapidly found that he had little time to enjoy his title and claims to power. His territories in the north of Europe were embroiled in the confessional throes of the first days of what would become the Protestant Reformation. In Spain his heavy-handed program of establishing his own men in the most important offices of state, often German-speaking foreigners, quickly led to revolt in Castile (1520–1521). And in Italy open warfare with Francis began in 1521 over their conflicting claims to Milan and Naples, acerbated by disputes over Navarre and Burgundy.
Charles attempted to settle his religious problems via the Diet of Worms, which he called and presided over in 1521. Luther was summoned and appeared under a safe conduct, unsuccessfully defending his vision of reform. With the Edict of Worms, which Charles promulgated in May of that year, he proclaimed his support for the papacy and opposition to Luther, announcing, “[W]e forbid anyone from this time forward to dare either by words or deeds, to receive, defend, sustain or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic.” Clearly this was a victory for the papacy. But the emperor also attempted to stop Luther by taking up the cause of reform himself and pressed the Church for the reforms that he saw as necessary for healing the religious divisions in his territories. He pushed this agenda most directly by vigorously supporting the election of Pope Adrian VI (1459–1523; pope 1522–1523), who succeeded Leo X. This short-lived pope was Charles’s own boyhood tutor, Adrian Dedel. Adrian’s austere ways and reform agenda, strongly supported by the emperor, made him unpopular both in Rome and more widely – an unpopularity often couched in attacks on his non-Italian background and ways.
During Adrian’s short reign, however, he did accomplish some significant reforms. Perhaps most importantly, he cut back aggressively on both the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Church and the extensive building programs of Leo. This saved the Church a great deal of money and had the potential to move it back toward a more spiritual institution, as reformers demanded. But it also sapped the lifeblood out of the rich and vibrant culture of the city. And, at a deeper level, it threatened to dry up the economic benefits garnered by many elite Italian families, who had literally invested their sons in ecclesiastical offices. Needless to say, this made him unpopular with both the leading families of Italy and the artists and intellectuals who had enjoyed Leo’s largesse. Thus many were thankful that both Adrian and his reforms were short-lived. And with the election of the second Medici pope, Clement VII, Rome hoped to return to the glorious days of Leo. Many of those hopes, however, were not to be realized, for Clement was handicapped by financial problems, most notably his costly wars and the Sack of Rome itself.
Returning to Charles’s own problems, although his attempt to reform the Church at its center with a pope of his own accomplished little, he was more successful in the political arena. He managed to put down the rebellion in Castile and gain effective control in Spain, which allowed him to concentrate on his claims in Italy and his most powerful enemy, Francis I. As noted earlier, it appeared that Charles had won out when Francis was defeated and captured at the Battle of Pavia in 1525. But his pledge to leave Italy to the emperor in return for his freedom was quickly broken, and in 1526 Charles found himself once again at war against the newly formed League of Cognac and his erstwhile ally, Pope Clement. The Sack of Rome followed. And things began to fall into place for him: the pope allied with him once again; Florence was retaken for the Medici; and Charles gained control of Milan, making him, in effect, the dominant power in Italy.
Yet even with all his successes, as he grew older it appears that he too was spiritually troubled by the religious and political turmoil of his day. Thus he startled Italy and Europe when in 1556, in his mid-fifties, he stepped down and renounced his imperial title as well as his several kingships in favor of his brother Ferdinand (1503–1564; emperor 1558–1564) and his son Philip II (1527–1598) and retired to a monastery. He died two years later, but over the course of his life he had dramatically changed the course of Italian affairs both through his wars and through his matrimonial alliances. While it may be true that the pen is not mightier than the sword, in his case it seems clear that the marital bed was, for a continuing adherence to bedroom diplomacy tied most of Italy and much of Europe and the world to his Habsburg family. In that context he married his relatives into the family lines of the Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga in Mantua, the Doria in Genoa, the Piccolomini in Siena, and the Farnese in Rome, not to mention the ruling families of Portugal, France, Denmark, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. In the larger world the conquests in the name of Spain of Cortes and Pizzaro in the Americas,which he also inherited, began the flow of tremendous treasure to Spain and Europe. And although its impact has been debated, that new wealth disrupted the economy of the Old World in the short run with its massive influx of gold and silver and began the process of creating both an Atlantic and a global economy that eventually shifted the center of the economic world from the Mediterranean and the North Sea to the Atlantic and beyond. Back in Italy, Charles had expanded Spanish power from the southern kingdom of Naples literally throughout Italy and accelerated the process of reintegrating the peninsula socially and culturally with the rest of Europe. The days of the Rinascimento and a unique Italian civiltà were numbered.
Reform and the Council of Trent
Whether or not the blame for the Sack of Rome can be laid at Charles’s feet, that disaster, along with the Church’s inability to contain the burgeoning religious enthusiasms of the north, which seemed to be raining radical new heresies in the name of reform almost daily, confirmed what had long been clear: the Catholic Church would have to seriously tackle the issue of institutional reform. Calls for such reform from leaders of the Church had continued to grow as it became clearer that gradual reform imposed from above would not deal with the deep structural problems it faced. Most lamented were: corruption, which might be more accurately read as clerical careerism, from the lowest priests and monks to the College of Cardinals and the papacy itself; nepotism, which turned on a loyalty and support of family over the Church’s spiritual mission; a princely pope and higher clergy, much too eager to gain land and power; and what was widely thought to be the lack of a clear sense of the Church’s spiritual mission.
As if that were not enough, many felt that the Church also suffered from a malaise that might best be described as being ultimately too catholic – catholic in the original sense of the world meaning all-inclusive. In the early Church this had been seen as positive, as it allowed the Church to include the many, often diverse strains of belief that memories of Christ and the teachings of his disciples had evoked. With time, however, that inclusiveness had begun to be seen as a problem, and to a degree the history of the medieval Church became one of defining what would be included and what would be defined as outside Christianity – catholic beliefs, in the original sense of the term, being progressively narrowed by eliminating those that were defined outside the pale, as being incorrect. By the middle years of the sixteenth century this process had come a long way. Protestant thinkers merely accelerated it, forcing the perhaps now misnamed Catholic Church to define yet more narrowly what was inside their once catholic boundaries, and labeling what they perceived to be outside as heresy.
Complicating things even before the challenge of the Reformation, a clergy with an uneven education (at times virtually none) meant that the official religion of the Church was frequently more honored in the breach than in practice, especially at the local level. This did not mean that everyday people did not consider themselves practicing Christians, but it did mean that the Christianity they practiced was often distant from the formal theology of Church leaders and theologians. From this perspective the beliefs and practices that made up the lived Christianity of many were much too broad and all-inclusive – too catholic again. And this was especially troubling in the face of Protestant beliefs and practices that had often grown out of and reflected similar everyday ways of understanding and living Christianity. Ultimately, as far as Church leaders were concerned, this was a problem of education and discipline. Most agreed that “true” Christianity had to reach the masses via a clergy capable of disseminating and disciplining a “correct” vision of the faith. The problem was that the clergy itself was largely unprepared to carry out this task, and at the local level they were often the problem, encouraging exactly the practices that leaders saw as dangerously outside of acceptable Christianity. Institutional reform from the top down, with an emphasis on education and discipline, was thus necessary to gather the flock back within the fold of the one true Church, at least from the perspective of the hierarchy of that Church, making it, ironically, safely less all-inclusive and catholic.
Finally, in 1545, Pope Paul III (1468–1549; pope 1534–1549) called a reforming General Council of the Church that would become known as the Council of Trent. In many ways, then as now, he seemed an unlikely reformer. Born Alessandro Farnese to a rich Roman noble family noted for their condottieri and patronage of the city’s lively cultural life, both licit and less so, he was educated by the best scholars of the day and originally aimed at a political career. In Florence, as a young man at the quasi-court of Lorenzo the Magnificent he was close to Giovanni de’ Medici, the future Pope Leo X. Following in the latter’s footsteps, he entered the Church and advanced rapidly, apparently thanks to the more illicit side of papal Rome. For at twenty-five he was made a cardinal, reportedly at the insistence of his sister Giulia, who was Pope Alexander VI’s mistress. Thereafter he played significant roles in the rule of the popes who preceded him, even sitting out the Sack of Rome in Castel Sant’Angelo with Clement VII and Cellini. As pope, however, Paul was noted for his nepotism, love of pomp and ceremony, patronage of artists and intellectuals such as Michelangelo, and his building program for Rome, which included the construction of the famous Farnese Palace and important restructuring of Saint Peter’s. This was exactly the expensive and glorious Rome that reformers objected to and that continued in the costly tradition of his Medici predecessors. It also demonstrated that the Rinascimento, although pressed on all sides, was far from over, at least in Rome.
But Paul also had reforming credentials. He was reputed to be a good administrator, and he had apparently taken his responsibilities quite seriously when he was bishop of Parma as a young man. As pope he also advanced and supported a number of important reforming leaders from the ranks, making them cardinals, most notably Gasparo Contarini, Pietro Bembo, Jacopo Sadoleto, Giovanni Morone, Reginald Pole, John Fisher, and Giovanni Pietro Carafa, the future Paul IV (1476–1559; pope 1555–1559). He also tried to reform the functioning of the papal curia by limiting the sale of offices and dispensations, meeting stiff resistance from entrenched interests in both cases. He even endeavored in the early 1540s to order absentee bishops living in Rome to return to their dioceses, without much success. Perhaps his most notable attempt at reform before convening the council was his appointment in 1536 of a committee of leading clerics presided over by his new cardinal, the Venetian reformer Gasparo Contarini, to look into the problems of the Church and propose reforms. The resulting Consilium de emendanda Ecclesia (Recommendation for Correction of the Church) of 1537 minced no words, listing an impressive number of abuses and problems and pointing the finger directly at Rome and a tradition of papal leadership that emphasized the political and material over the spiritual. In essence it called into question the whole development of a princely papacy based on a territorial base in Italy and the powerful taxation system that supported the Church’s large bureaucracy. After a pirated copy was leaked in 1538, which caused Protestants to gloat over the listed abuses, it was shelved, although not forgotten.
In 1542 reform in the form of stricter discipline gained center stage when, pressed by Cardinal Carafa and a number of other leaders of the Church, the pope renewed and strengthened the Roman Inquisition. Actually a medieval ecclesiastical tribunal, it had been established in 1229 to deal with a series of heresies that then threatened the Church. In the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Italy it had moved on to deal with conflicts over radical Franciscan teachings on spirituality, clerical poverty, and Joachite prophesies of the impending destruction of the Church and the arrival of a last age of the Holy Spirit. In the fifteenth century it had continued, but was less active. Toward the end of that century, in 1478, Pope Sixtus IV, however, allowed Ferdinand and Isabella to set up their own special branch of the Inquisition in Spain, a local Iberian Inquisition. It rapidly became very important in that realm, focusing its attention on Jews, Muslims, and the deep fears of false converts from those religions. Theoretically under the control of the pope, it became a powerful and feared institution in its own right in Spain, working closely with political authorities there to discipline society much more broadly.
After 1542 the reformed Roman Inquisition (as distinct from the Spanish) remained more directly under the control of the pope. That tighter control by the papacy also meant that the Roman Inquisition was more carefully monitored and more legally limited than most other tribunals of the day. This is not to argue that it did not operate with a heavy hand at times, or that it was not ruthless and often short-sighted and repressive. In fact, it rapidly spread a climate of fear and intimidation in Italy. And with its reformed institutional base and more effective procedures, within a generation it was reaching out even into the rural areas of Italy to discipline the faith of peasants and humble women and discovering that the religious enthusiasms that underlay many popular cries for reform were far from the official beliefs of the Church.
Closely related to this disciplining drive to stamp out religious error, often labeled heresy, by the renewed Inquisition was an attempt to shut down what we might label the wider world of literature, which had gained a much broader purchase in society as printing was producing cheaper books for a broader reading public. Religious enthusiasm created a profitable market for books that dealt with an eclectic range of religious topics, from the most traditional and orthodox to the most adventuresome and heretical. Clearly the latter were perceived as a danger, and the renewed Inquisition moved to eliminate them. But books that seemed immoral or that seemed to question the proper order of society were also seen as threatening; thus, for example, Boccaccio’s Decameron was censored and bowdlerized, most aggressively for its anticlerical sentiments, but also for its perceived immorality and sexual permissiveness. In this context the sometime Inquisitor and Papal Nuncio, Giovanni della Casa, in 1549 drew up for the pope a list of books to be prohibited in the name of reforming Christian society, which was followed in 1559 by the first official list of prohibited books, the Index librorum prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books).
While widespread censorship followed quickly, eliminating many books and making it difficult for others to be published or circulated, for upper-class readers and the powerful much of the literature officially banned by the Index remained available and was read, perhaps with even greater interest given its now formally illicit nature. Publishers also developed clever schemes to avoid this censorship. Nonetheless, it became more difficult and costly to print or read a wide range of material that spanned the spectrum from the erotic and pagan classics of the ancient world to heretical or even merely reform-oriented works on religion. From this perspective Paul III’s reform platform was coming to envision the Church as a fortress to be defended against the dangers of the new – new heresies, new books, new ideas – a vision that, given the Rinascimento’s negative vision of the new, was widely accepted at the same time that it was closing off much of the excitement and creativity of the period. Rather than the Rinascimento being an opening to the past, it was becoming a disciplined closing limited to one officially correct past – ultimately quite a different project.
Returning to the council called by the pope, the city of Trent was finally selected as a compromise site for tackling a serious reform of the Church. A small city on the road that led from Italy over the Brenner Pass to northern Europe, it was seen as a promising neutral location – not quite in Italy, yet not quite over the Alps. Even in a neutral place, however, as much as reform was seen as needed, it was also feared. Thus from the start the council was called together with some difficulty and eventually devolved into three separate sittings: 1545–1547, 1551–1552, and 1561–1563. The first attempted to deal with both doctrine and discipline within the Church and ended without great success. Perhaps the most important accomplishment was a decree on the key theological issue of salvation. Against Luther’s claim that salvation was a gift from God requiring faith alone, the council returned to a traditional claim that free will was crucial to being saved. Salvation was not simply a matter of God’s grace, conferred without reference to a person’s deeds, or foreordained given God’s infinite power and foreknowledge of all that would happen in His creation. Humans had to will to accept God and to demonstrate through good works that they deserved to be saved. Thus the council argued that they were upholding a long-standing doctrine of human free will against those who in essence denied it. The council, however, avoided the deeper theological complexity of their position, largely because the ecclesiastics who gathered there held such a wide range of views on the relationship between grace and free will that consensus was hard to find. Nonetheless, free will, accepting God’s grace, and earning it were to become the key elements of what distinguished the Roman Catholic vision of salvation from the Protestant. On other issues the first session of the council was less successful, and few meaningful decisions were made on institutional reform or in discussions of the nature of the sacraments. After moving for a short time to Bologna in 1547, the first session closed in 1549 at the death of Pope Paul III.
In 1551 the second sitting was called, again at Trent, by the new Pope Julius III (1487–1555; pope 1550–1555). Although a small group of German Protestants was invited with an eye toward promoting a reunion of the Church, the division between Protestants and Catholics was too deep; thus it was short-lived and largely ineffective. Contributing to its lack of accomplishments were the strong political divisions between the religious leaders who supported the French king and those who supported the emperor. When warfare again broke out between the two, the council shut down in early 1552. Hopes were raised, however, with the death of Julius, as it seemed that a strong non-Italian pope might be elected, the noted English advocate of reform, Cardinal Pole. But he lost out, reportedly by one vote, to an Italian cardinal who took the name of Marcellus II and lived only three weeks. His successor, Paul IV (1476–1559; pope 1555–1559), was more interested in papal-driven discipline and reform; thus, although he took Paul III’s name, he did not recall his council.
Instead, as noted earlier, he strengthened the Roman Inquisition and instituted the Index. He even took the disciplinary move of formally forbidding the reading of the Bible in the vernacular, widely seen by conservatives as a perilous source of independent lay thinking about Christianity and of many dangerously new ideas that were fueling popular religious enthusiasms and heresies. Restricting the reading of the Bible to those who could read it in Latin essentially limited its reading to the educated upper classes, who were believed to be more capable of dealing with its subtleties and, realistically, often had more to lose if religious reform became too radical. Paul’s repressive approach to reform and, more generally, to Church governance, however, was seriously weakened by his political failures, most notably his ill-advised alliance with the French in 1556 in their war against Philip II of Spain (1527–1598; ruled 1556–1598). The allies were soundly defeated by Philip, and with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559) his claims in Italy were recognized to the detriment of the pope and the French. All in all, Paul’s papacy seemed to confirm to many that reform needed to rely less on popes; and with his death, once again the idea of a general Church council gained wide support.
His successor, Pope Pius IV (1499–1565; pope 1559–1565), apparently accepted this logic and reconvened the council in 1562. This third session, lasting from 1562 to 1563, was by far the most important, in terms of both doctrinal matters and the reorganization of the Church. As far as doctrine was concerned, the central meaning of the mass, as a celebration of Christ’s sacrifice that turned on the real transubstantiation of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ in the eucharistic ceremony was confirmed. This was a crucial distinction. Protestants almost universally had come to believe that the ceremony involved merely a symbolic remembrance, not a real transubstantiation – that is, that the bread and wine were not actually transformed into the substance (trans-substantiation) of the flesh and blood of Christ. The council also confirmed the priest’s role in this, thus emphasizing the distinction between the priesthood and believers. Only a priest could carry out this central re-creation of Christ’s body and blood – a concept that was most significant for the future of the institutional Church, where with increasing insistence direct access to the spiritual would be restricted to, or at the least closely monitored by, the priesthood. The existence of Purgatory was also confirmed, again an important rejection of the position of most Protestants, who held that Purgatory was a medieval invention, unmentioned in the Bible or by Church Fathers. Finally, the sacraments of holy orders and marriage were officially added to baptism and communion, establishing four sacraments (of an eventual seven) that the institutional Church offered its followers, organizing Christian life virtually from birth to death.
Although central to the way the Church would define itself and crucial for confirming the deep divide with the Protestant movement, none of these decisions were in themselves particularly reform-oriented; rather, they tended to confirm medieval traditions and practices. In this, then, they harkened back to an earlier time and thus qualified as reform, but largely insisted on what was already current practice. The decisions of the council on institutional reforms, however, were another matter. There was intense debate about whether bishops should be required to reside in their dioceses, argued in terms of whether this was a matter of divine law or divine precept. Those who favored a strong pope held that this was merely a divine precept, which meant that the pope could decide on an individual basis who had to remain in his diocese and who would be free to live elsewhere – for instance, at the papal court. By contrast, many bishops, especially those from Spain and France, along with the more radical reforming Italians supported a hard-line position claiming that this was a divine law, which meant that the pope did not have the power to overrule it. In the end Cardinal Morone, who was papal legate at the council, won the day with the council agreeing that this was merely a divine precept, not a law, leaving the door open for the pope to decide when bishops might leave their sees.
While the more radical proponents of institutional reform failed to win on this issue, the debate revealed a more general consensus that bishops were destined to be key players in the institutional reform envisioned by the council. This was especially important in the area of education, where local priests were often not well enough educated to lead their flocks or at times even to perform the most basic rituals of the Church. Thus the council ruled that bishops were responsible for setting up and overseeing seminaries to train priests. They were also required to perform regular visitations and hold annual synods to make sure that local clergy were performing as they should. The goal of these reforms was to create an institutional structure in which bishops disciplined their flocks, making sure that the Church actually functioned in a hierarchical and regular manner. Ideally, at every level discipline would flow from above through a spiritual organization staffed by clergy capable of actually serving the ultimate goal of Christianity – making it literally the perfect vehicle for the unfolding of the Holy Spirit in this world and the dissemination of a modern social discipline from the center to the periphery.
As a result, not just any reform-minded individual could redirect the religious enthusiasm of believers, for even the Holy Spirit would now work through a hierarchical bureaucracy that informed the Christian community through the medium of the Church, its institutional hierarchy, and its local bishops. With a tighter organization and a more disciplined and educated clergy from top to bottom, the council’s reforms prepared the ground for a church militant that could combat what was perceived as the Protestant menace, a church militant that would ultimately take control of the religious enthusiasms of Christians and direct them on the “correct” path, making the clergy the final masters of the spiritual in this world. Significantly, behind this project of reform lurked a virtually modern division of the world between the spiritual, controlled by the clergy, and the material, open to all. This division would ultimately result in a slowly developing de-spiritualization of everyday life and a demystification of secular life in the world – never entirely complete, but crucial nonetheless for what we see as modern science and, more subtly, for the modern search for a material-based, yet moral, social order in forms such as capitalism, socialism, and anarchism.
Books also played an important part in this program of education, with handbooks for clerics at all levels and catechisms and instructional religious tracts for the more humble being encouraged. Art, often seen as the teacher of the illiterate, was a target of the council’s disciplining drive as well. It considered carefully the role of art in Christian society, insisting that it be straightforward and emotionally powerful for its viewers, so that “through the saints [depicted] the miracles of God and salutary examples are set before the eyes of the faithful, so that they may give God thanks for those things, may fashion their own life and conduct in imitation of the saints, and be moved to adore and love God and cultivate piety.” The emphasis on the saints, with the clarification that they were merely exemplary, leading to the worship of God and His miracles (and thus His power, not theirs), not only insisted on the didactic power of painting, but also reiterated the Church’s stance on the importance of saints. Many Protestants had aggressively contested the Catholic cult of saints and the images associated with it, claiming that those images encouraged a form of idolatry, with believers worshipping saints and their images rather than God – saints had become essentially a new pantheon of pagan gods. Thus the council made it clear that images of saints merely led to and evoked the true power of God as expressed through His saints and had no power in their own right.
It appears that such disciplinary rulings, reinforced by polemical writers like the powerful cardinal and bishop Carlo Borromeo, actually had an impact on religious art, for the second half of the century saw some decline in the influence of the often-convoluted style in religious art labeled Mannerism in favor of a more simple and emotive representation of the saints and the Virgin. Even representations of the human body appear to have been affected. The glorious nudes of Michelangelo and a host of others lost ground to more chastely dressed saints or at least artfully displayed figures that managed not to suggest, even in their nudity, anything that might offend prudish observers, although there were some significant and contested exceptions. Perhaps the best-known example of this trend was the dressing of the nude figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, originally represented as God had made them, without clothing. Shortly after Michelangelo’s death one of his pupils, Daniele da Volterra, was hired to paint “braghette” or pants on those nudes, earning him and his coworkers the contemptuous nickname of “Braghettoni.” In fact, the pants were actually more like loin cloths, as can still be seen in the Sistine Chapel today, for even after the recent cleaning thebraghettehave been retained, apparently protecting modern viewers from the ongoing danger of seeing humans as God made them.
Even the Inquisition got involved in the disciplining of art. One of the best-known cases involved the Venetian painter Veronese’s famous painting, which started out as a Last Supper but ended up as merely a Feast in the House of Levi (Illustration 10.1). Although commissioned as a Last Supper for the Dominican Monastery of Saints Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, the Venetian branch of the Inquisition, known as the Holy Office, apparently received complaints about the painting. Rather than nudity, the issue raised was that instead of a simple and direct representation of the theme that made clear to the viewer the meaning of this crucial event that presaged the mass and the sacrament of the eucharist, Veronese had painted a lively dinner party replete with modern characters, including jesters, German soldiers, drunks, and even a pet dog. Not only did all that unlikely detail seem to create confusion about the meaning of the Last Supper, some worried that it might even be seen as a mockery of claims for transubstantiation of the bread and wine in the eucharistic ceremony as promised at the Last Supper. But while the Holy Office did ask about potentially deeper theological issues in a rather vague manner when they called in the painter in 1573, in the end they focused on the way the painting unfaithfully represented the scene and confused its meaning for viewers with all its unseemly details and ordered Veronese to change it. That he did. Perhaps not quite as the Holy Office envisioned, however; for rather than painting out the offending details, he simply and elegantly eliminated the whole issue by renaming his painting Feast in the House of Levi, removing once and for all questions about unnecessary details or religious messages.
10.1. Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi, 1573, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice. Photo: Cameraphoto Arte, Venice/Art Resource, New York.
As far as the institutional Church was concerned, in the long run the Council of Trent’s reforms dramatically transformed the Catholic Church. But “in the long run” is a necessary qualifier; for even if the leaders of the council understood that top-down reforms and discipline were only as effective as the bureaucracy and church leaders that implemented them, their ability to implement them was curbed by the simple limits of the technology of governing a large, unwieldy organization and the resistance of those most affected by such changes, within both the clergy and the broader Christian community. As a result, while it is true that “in the long run” the Council of Trent was a crucial turning point in the history of the Catholic Church, its actual impact in the short run may be overrated. In theory it was impressive and perhaps even modern in its disciplinary drives, even as officially it looked back and claimed to be traditional. Yet as actually implemented, it might well be argued that the idea that it was the key turning point for religion in the sixteenth century may be stealing the thunder from the most immediately important driving forces of the century, reform and its closely related spiritual enthusiasms. Together they were breaking out all over and at all social levels and deeply transforming Christian society and Italy, while the Council of Trent and the Church tried with limited success to ride their tsunami.
Yet for some modern theoretical thinkers those spiritual enthusiasms and reforming drives that began well before Trent and continued to be a force long after the council were, if anything, more than a tsunami; for they have been hypothesized as major factors in what was perhaps the greatest transition associated with the development of the modern psyche and modernity itself – the development of a modern inner sense of self. Certainly the confessional debates and the violent furor and repression that accompanied them forced many at all levels of society to deeply evaluate what their personal beliefs actually were. In that inner self-evaluation the question became not just how do I seem to those who judge my consensus realities, but rather, more intensely, what do I believe, what is my faith, and how does it relate to God? In fact, in the older tradition of consensus realities that would obviously continue to coexist with a deeper sense of an inner self, some in Italy adopted what was known as Nicomedism. Named after the biblical figure Nicodemus and coined by the Genevan reformer John Calvin, those who followed this strategy, like the biblical character, disguised their true faith and followed the outward forms of religion that their society required of them – protecting their consensus realities – while secretly adhering to what they really believed. This dissimulation of true belief seems to be the essence of the inner/outer conflicts that characterize the modern psyche. And when the many others who carefully considered their true inner convictions and how to act on them in a society increasing committed to policing confessional faith are added to those who dissimulated, it seems to imply a much deeper awareness of one’s inner life and its significance.
The Church’s move to emphasize more regular confession is often seen as further enhancing this emphasis on interiority. When confession and the examination of one’s conscience that was theoretically at its heart was irregularly practiced and poorly understood by many, often uninstructed in its deeper meaning, it may have been seen as more of an outer duty than a deep reflection on one’s inner self and faith. But as faith became more contested and confession became more aggressively pushed as a repeating crucial time in life when true penance and confession garnered forgiveness and personal renewal, a careful examination of the inner self became at the least an ideal. Some have argued, in fact, that in the context of such regular self-evaluation there developed an inner-directed culture of guilt that largely replaced community judgments as the primary guide for behavior. That may well overstate the case for the sixteenth century, but the idea that in a time of crisis individuals were developing a more inner and self-evaluative sense that extended well beyond the religious seems a likely hypothesis. In the face of such monumental changes or, more simply, in the face of the powerful spiritual enthusiasms and reform sentiments of the day, the modest ability of the Church to apply the discipline and reforms of Trent to Italian society appears to be merely an episode in a much broader sea change.
Discipline and Attempts to Control Religious Enthusiasms
In the short run, however, after the council closed in 1563 its educational and disciplinary goals were only as effective as the human and material resources available to carry out the reforms envisioned. As already noted, bishops were theoretically to be the key in implementing many of Trent’s reforms, and a number in Italy took up the challenge with considerable success, perhaps most notably the cardinal and bishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo (1538–1584). Born into an important Milanese family, Borromeo’s early career was helped by the very nepotism that deeply troubled reformers. Shortly after his uncle became Pope Pius IV in 1559, Carlo was called to Rome and given a number of important posts. A year later, at the age of twenty-two, he was appointed archbishop of Milan and became a cardinal, thus following in the pattern of youthful cardinals, multiple office holding, and absentee bishops. But for all that, he quickly gained visibility in Rome as an able administrator and reformer and played a significant role in the reopening of the Council of Trent for its last and most productive session in 1562. Some claim that the death of his brother in that same year led him to radically reform his personal life, adopting an asceticism that emphasized poverty and spirituality. Whether or not that was the case, with the death of his uncle Pius IV at the end of 1565, he left Rome and took up residence in Milan with an eye to administering his diocese in the spirit of Trent.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he administered his diocese as his own reforming spirit interpreted the goals of the council. An important qualification, for more often than not Trent’s reforms were implemented as local clerical authorities interpreted them in the context of their own vision and at times their own personal interests, significantly deforming the top-down vision of the council. Borromeo provided discipline with regular visits of inspection, as well as with a series of local councils and synods that he called, designed both to investigate and to discipline local practices. Convents and monasteries were also aggressively reformed with an eye to improving their spiritual quality and enforcing a strict cloisterization of nuns. The lack of both had been seen by many at Trent as one of the blackest marks on the moral reputation of the Church. In turn, he started a number of schools and academies, reportedly often using his family wealth to help finance them, and stressed the importance for the laity of catechism overseen by an educated clergy. He also founded hospitals, orphanages, and shelters for the poor and abandoned, especially women.
In his zeal, however, he also revealed a number of the more negative aspects of the reforms that divided and disciplined society by creating stricter boundaries between those defined as inside the Christian community and those seen as outside; thus he used the renewed Inquisition to hunt out those who entertained religious views that seemed to question the ideas of a new, more militant Church; to strictly limit the freedom of Jews; and to repress those whom he and his inquisitors saw as misusing or misappropriating the spiritual powers of the Church. These aggressive disciplining reforms, which often seemed more like repression, earned him many enemies and at least two assassination attempts. But his approach to reform also appeared to many to be the correct way to implement the top-down discipline imagined by the council, an approach that he laid out in print in his Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanenesis (The Works of the Church of Milan) published in 1582, frequently cited as a model for reform. In the end, what was considered his saintly life and his evident successes made him a prototype for the ideal reforming bishop, a fact confirmed by his rapid canonization as a saint in 1610.
The flourishing growth of new religious orders also played a significant role in reform following Trent, even if many were more a product of the general reforming enthusiasm of the day and were founded during or even slightly before the council. The Theatines, for example, were founded by a small group in Rome in 1524 who took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, with an eye to reforming the Church and serving its needs in the world. This new order was led in its early years by the Venetian Gaetano Thiene (1480–1547), who eventually became a saint (Saint Cajetan), and Pietro Carafa (1476–1559), who became Pope Paul IV (1555–1559). Beyond a commitment to establishing confraternities and hospitals (especially concerned with the new disease of syphilis) and stressing frequent confession and communion, they wanted their community of reformed priests to inspire piety and promote spiritual enthusiasm among the laity. The Capuchians, formally recognized by Pope Clement VII in 1527, were actually just another reforming order that had broken from the Observant wing of the Franciscans. They grew rapidly in Italy and focused on living an exemplary life of poverty, working with the poor, and advocating frequent communion; they were also noted for their selfless care for the ill during outbreaks of the plague. But they were less concerned with teaching or leading the Church and thus were less involved in the institutional reforms that followed Trent. Other orders, such as the Barnabites, founded in Milan in the 1520s, and the Somaschi, founded in Venice in 1534, flourished in a limited way after Trent and were joined by small orders founded in the second half of the century, such as The Clerks Regular of the Mother of God (the Matritani), founded in 1574, The Clerks Regular Minor (the Caracciolini), founded in 1588, and the Poor Clerks Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools (the Scolopi), founded in 1597.
It was the Jesuits, however, who were most closely associated with the work of disseminating the reforms of Trent and prompting reform more generally. Formally recognized by Pope Paul III with a papal bull of September 27, 1540, the movement had actually begun at the University of Paris, where a group of young students led by the Basque ex-soldier Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556) had taken a vow to go to the Holy Land to convert Muslims. From early on they professed strong support for the papacy, which won them important backing from a number of popes. They also stressed institutional reform and an active ministry in the world. But, perhaps most importantly, from their first days they followed a strict discipline, much more clearly spelled out in their rule than in those of other orders. At times, in fact, their discipline and organization appeared to border on the military, with a highly centralized administration under a Superior General who lived in Rome in close contact with the central powers of the Church. The rapid growth of the order, along with its exceptional discipline and unusual power and success, however, alarmed some. This included not only the better-established monastic orders like the Dominicans and Franciscans, who frequently saw them as dangerous competitors, but also several popes, including Paul IV (1555–1559), Pius V (1566–1572), and Sixtus V (1581–1590), as well as secular authorities in a number of Italian cities.
Still, the widely felt need for a better-educated lay public that could lead society with the Christian values of the reformed Church helped to make the order a major player in the second half of the sixteenth century. In many ways their educational ideal advocated what might be seen as a Jesuit form of civic morality, updated for an Italy in crisis and a militant Church. The colleges that they founded throughout Italy and beyond were officially open to all, but, as the teaching was in Latin, in reality most of their students came from families rich enough to have trained their sons in Latin. The education provided was based on the classics, both of the ancient world and of Christianity, fitting well the Rinascimento ideals of education, but with the crucial addition of a strong grounding in Catholic discipline and an evolving sense of fraternal solidarity among those who studied with them. A few of these colleges developed into full-fledged universities of great import, but most remained local schools with an emphasis on what might be labeled secondary education. They were so successful that they virtually exploded in number, with 144 colleges established by 1579 and 372 by 1615; in fact, the Jesuits claimed that they lacked the numbers to staff all the schools that were requested – the Superior General at the turn of the seventeenth century lamenting that he had had to turn down at least 150 petitions to found new colleges because of such a lack. A Jesuit education quickly became an important part of the educational experience of many of the leaders of Italy and the Catholic world – a common training and discipline whose import would be difficult to gauge, but should not be underestimated.
The Jesuits were also noted for their missionary work in the rural areas of Italy and in the broader world. The latter work has been more often studied, but the former was also important in its attempts to bring the spirituality and religious enthusiasms of the rural laity under the discipline of the Church. In the order’s early days, however, its reputation was enhanced by missionary successes in Asia such as those of the Portuguese Francis Xavier (1506–1552), who would eventually be sainted for his proselytizing in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan. One of the original Paris founding group who, along with Loyola, had pledged to go on a mission to Palestine, his actual career in Asia setting up networks of Jesuits who worked to win over the rulers and upper classes there seemed to offer great promise. Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), noted for his accounts of his life in China, is perhaps the best known of the many who followed in Loyola’s footsteps. Meanwhile, in the Americas, Jesuits often took over the pioneering work of other orders, using their tighter discipline to considerable advantage. Especially in Brazil and Paraguay they created their own minisocieties, where the native population was theoretically protected from enslavement while being Christianized, with results, however, that frequently did not live up to the high ideals expressed in their founding. At the same time, they founded colleges in the major cities of South America with the mission of Christianizing and transporting their own vision of the Rinascimento to the new elites of a now much larger world. In many ways a Jesuit form of the Rinascimento quietly conquered the elites of much of the world and set the stage for a diaspora of its culture and values that would underlie a developing ideal of “Western civilization,” for betterand worse.
The order’s worldwide experience as missionaries and teachers was also reflected in their important publishing endeavors. Not only did they print key spiritual and educational works, they also published widely read accounts of the new worlds and the new ways of life they encountered – new, of course, only from the perspective of Europe. These accounts added to the increasing realization that the world was larger than the ancients or Church Fathers had realized and that much of it was, in fact, new and troubling to the apparent certainties of both traditions. With time, this again helped to make the dream of a Rinascimento just that, a dream. In the face of a world full of new things and new peoples, lands, and cultures, it was becoming a dream that simply did not apply, even for those who were officially committed to it and attempting somehow to fit the world within its much too narrow confines. Ironically, then, the new was breaking out all over even in the very heart of the religious order committed to reform and the Rinascimento. And even its militant view of reform and its many successes in the wider world would not bring the return of the Rinascimento or the first times of a no longer unquestioned superior past.
The Quasi-Saint Benvenuto Cellini: Religious Enthusiasm and the Great Social Divide
In many ways the spiritual life of the often violent sinner Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), whom we encountered defending Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome, suggestively evokes this and the religious enthusiasm of the last years of the Rinascimento. And at the same time, it rather strangely evokes how deeply such spiritual reform could connect with the tensions created by disciplining drives across society that were often unwittingly contributing to reestablishing a Great Social Divide that separated the “best” from the rest. For while many were grappling with the new religious and social realities of a Rinascimento in crisis, Cellini made their struggles surprisingly, if strangely, explicit in his Vita (Autobiography). In a work that seems to fit particularly well the modern label of an ego document, along with his self-described murders, brawls, beatings of women and servants, high-handed ways, and illicit sexual preferences, the self-promoting Cellini also presents a rich description of his own ennobling spiritual reform that suggests at one level the wide reach of the spiritual enthusiasms that often fueled reforming thought in the shared culture of midcentury, and at another his virtually saintly, if not Christlike, experiences.
From the start of his autobiography, in true Rinascimento fashion, Cellini made a point of noting his family’s ancient aristocratic origins, which he traced back to the very first times of Florence. He also related the numerous miraculous signs that foretold his own ennobling accomplishments and future. Moreover, having inherited his father’s skill as a horn player, which had provided the latter a solid career supported by Medici patronage, Cellini rejected pleas to pursue that profession because he felt it did not offer the glory and status that he believed was warranted by his greater virtù. Instead, he opted to take up what he saw as his destiny, creating great works of art and winning fame and elite status as an artist. If the road to that fame, as he described it in his autobiography, was hard and cluttered with misadventures and setbacks at the hand of Fortuna – often in the figure of powerful women who did not appreciate his aggressive masculine ways – it was still the heroic and ultimately ennobling road. Fame, heroism, and great works of art, along with high-handed masculine manners, however, all demonstrated for Cellini one thing, his virtù – that which made him an artist rather than a mere artisan.
Describing that path of virtù in his autobiography, Cellini demonstrated, at least to his own satisfaction, that he had literally lived up to his own model of the elite artist, Michelangelo. Like Michelangelo, Cellini’s skills (virtù) were so exceptional, as he insisted regularly, that he deserved to regain his family’s aristocratic heritage. Unfortunately, as his autobiography inadvertently shows, few real aristocrats were willing to grant him that status, even as they reportedly praised his skills. In fact, it is not hard to read between the lines of his account that the high-handed masculine ways that he believed were necessary to demonstrate his aristocratic manners rubbed many of his patrons the wrong way. For while they may have been forced by codes of honor and aristocratic ideals to treat such behavior by those they considered their peers carefully or risk the violence of duels or more complex confrontations, with Cellini, the great gap between their status and his allowed them to respond more negatively. In essence they could do without his art, finding other more humble and respectful artisans, and thus they could and did replace him in his correct social place regularly when he overreached.
Obviously, Cellini did not present his clashes with his patrons in that light. His emotionally violent confrontations with popes, princes, and kings, not to mention the merely rich and powerful of Florence, Rome, and even France, produced a series of setbacks – including loss of commissions, loss of favor, and even banishments – as well as almost two years in papal prisons. That time in prison, however, reveals how even this would-be aristocrat and often unrepentant sinner could also present himself in the guise of one committed to a level of individual spiritual reform that suggested a yet higher status, a virtually saintly one. The tale as Cellini relates it actually takes us back to his account of the Sack of Rome, when he mentioned in passing that during his defense of the city, one of his clever shots came so close to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese that the cardinal harbored the suspicion that it was actually meant for him. Cellini insisted, with typical braggadocio, that those who knew his abilities (virtù) would never have thought such a thing, given his excellent marksmanship; but nonetheless he warned his readers that that shot would come back to haunt him.
Eleven years later, in 1538, when Farnese had become Pope Paul III, Cellini was accused of having taken advantage of the turmoil during the sack to steal a large fortune in papal jewels. Paul, hoping to regain that fortune, ordered Cellini arrested and pressured to return what he had stolen. According to his own account, Cellini brilliantly defended himself and his innocence against the charges. The pope, however, thanks to a lethal combination of his ongoing grudge, his evil advisors, his greed, and his inability to admit his error in accusing Cellini, rather than freeing him, had him jailed in the papal fortress and prison, Castel Sant’Angelo. Ironically, it was the very fortress that he had earlier defended during the Sack of Rome.
At first his imprisonment was rather loose, and Cellini continued with his work on commissions while in jail. But time passed, and rather than the pope relenting, his confinement became stricter, until finally Cellini decided to take advantage of his metalworking skills to escape. Thus he dismantled the door to his cell and, using strips of sheets, climbed down the walls of the castle to almost carry off a brilliant escape that once more demonstrated his manliness and virtù. Almost. For although he reported proudly that his escape was the talk of Rome and that everyone was impressed by his virtù, even the pope, he admitted that due to the strain on his arms and bleeding hands he lost his grip during his descent and fell the last part of the way to the street, breaking his leg. Found there, he was carried to the house of Margarita of Austria, the illegitimate daughter of Charles V, who, although she was married to a relative of the pope, had been married previously to Alessandro de’ Medici and in theory was a friend of Cellini’s through their shared Florentine connections. Through a complicated series of noble intrigues, however, he found himself quickly reconsigned to the pope and prison, with the promise that a papal pardon would soon follow.
That promise was not kept. Rather, Cellini found himself in much stricter confinement “in the prison of those condemned to death,” with a dangerously broken leg and a guard who sympathized, “Oh my, poor Benvenuto what have you done to them [the great] to warrant this.” [italics mine] In the face of what looked like impending death, Cellini found religion in his own spiritual reform and – typically, given his enormous self-esteem – in his special relationship with God, which ultimately made him superior even to the guard’s “them” – those of unquestioned power and authority on the other side of the Great Social Divide. In the vein of a spiritual hero, he replied to his guard with Christian resignation, “The sooner I escape the jail of this world, the happier I will be, especially as I am sure that my soul is saved and that my death is unjust. Christ in his divinity and glory will gather me to his disciples and friends, who like Him, and they, were unjustly executed as I will be.” Suggestively, even when anticipating his martyrdom Cellini sees it in terms of his finally joining the most elite of the elites, the circle of Christ and his disciples. If his craft and art no longer seemed able to confirm his superior status as he lay dying in the papal prison, his special relationship to God and martyrdom would win him a place in the ultimate elite – at the side of God in Paradise.
Clearly, a placement in one of the lower circles of Dante’s Paradise, contemplating the Divinity from afar, was much too humble a spiritual placement for Cellini. But he put off – momentarily, at least – sitting at the side of God in Heaven thanks to the pleas of his important noble supporters who pressed his case with the pope. Taken from his death cell, he was given a slightly better one that contained only “quite a bit of water and many tarantulas and poisonous worms.” But it also came with a book or two, including, interestingly, given the Church’s suspicion of vernacular Bibles, a copy of the Bible in Italian, which provided the inspiration for Cellini’s final Calvary. Reading it, as he contemplated suicide, he was visited by an angel as he dozed off, who admonished him not to damage God’s great work done in creating him and not to lose faith in Him or in his own virtù. In response, he began to write religious poetry on the blank pages in the Bible, overcome by just the kind of religious enthusiasm that the Church feared Bible reading tended to awaken in the uneducated.
In his growing spirituality he prayed and sang hymns to pass the time as his body steadily deteriorated, with his nails growing so long that he could not touch himself and his teeth rotting and falling out. Nonetheless, his broken leg healed “miraculously” after four months, a foretaste of the greater miracles to follow. His spiritual fervor continued to grow, with dreams and visions taking up more and more of his prison life. One of his most powerful occurred after he prayed to God and begged the same angel who had saved him from suicide to be allowed to see the sun just once after months in his dark cell. One night his angel came to him to answer those prayers. But even Cellini’s description of “his” angel is revealing, given his own self-depiction as a “noble” lover of youths; “my Invisible [angel] there revealed himself in human form as a youth [giovane] with just the first signs of a beard, with a most beautiful and splendid face, but austere, not lascivious.” His angel had the beauty of the youths who had attracted him in the everyday world, but he was careful to note that it transcended that world, for the experience that was to follow turned on the spiritual and transcendent, not on the sensual pleasures of the material world.
After guiding him through a space that contained the “infinite thousands” of people who had lived up to that time, his angel led him outside to where ladders leaned against a wall, allowing Cellini to climb up out of the shade and view the sun directly. When he first saw it, he closed his eyes, for like normal mortals, he feared that its direct light would blind him. But then he opened his eyes, willing to risk blindness in order to take full advantage of the miracle granted him. And as he looked directly at the sun, its blinding rays separated to reveal the disk of the sun itself looking like molten gold, described very much in the terms of the goldsmith that he was. But the true miracle in all its material spirituality had just begun for this more and more transcendent artisan and artist, because as he watched the sun, it began to bulge, and from its surface emerged a magnificent golden Christ on the Cross. Cellini could not help crying, “Miracles, miracles! Oh God, your forgiveness, your infinite virtù, what a great thing you have made me worthy of.” The grace of God was literally shining upon him.
Then Christ moved off to the side, and there appeared from the disk of the sun the Madonna with a playful Christ Child in her arms, accompanied by two beautiful angels and worshipped by Saint Peter, the first pope. Cellini watched for a time, and then the vision disappeared and he was back in his dark cell. Still overwhelmed by his vision, he began to cry loudly, “The virtù of God has made me worthy of His showing me all His glory, which perhaps has never been seen by any other mortal eye; from this I know that I am free and happy with the grace of God.” Once again, even in this moment of extreme spiritual ecstasy, Cellini presented himself as having virtually unique status in the eyes of God. And he made this clearer yet by noting that a vision of the first pope, Peter, praying to the Virgin and Christ Child revealed him praying to them to intercede for none other than Cellini himself. He even claimed that his vision had allowed him to learn the exact date when their prayers would be answered and he would be liberated from jail. The strangeness of Cellini’s spiritual election masks an important point that requires emphasis in the context of our earlier discussion of a sense of interiority and an inner self. For while Cellini’s account of his life and suffering as a would-be artist and quasi-saint seem to be the quintessential self-presentation for constructing a consensus reality about himself – often a highly unlikely one – all the events of this truly miraculous moment, his spiritual apotheosis, are told in terms of his inner feelings and inner self. A consummate man of action and self-fashioning, he fashions even his inner self for posterity at the heart of his autobiography – ego document indeed.
Before his prophecy came true, however, as it must in such miraculous accounts, he described one last spiritual experience:
Still I do not want to leave out one thing, the greatest that ever happened to any person – [a thing] which attests to the divinity of God and his ineffable ways, which he deemed me deserving of being made worthy. Ever after that vision [perhaps the dream just described] there remained a glow [or a halo (uno isplendore)] over my head, a thing marvelous to behold. This is visible to every person to whom I wish to show it, even if they are few in number. [italics mine]
Evidently Cellini’s halo was the crowning glory of the deep religious enthusiasm that his suffering in jail brought out in him, and suggested that he had leaped the greatest gap of all in Christian society, becoming a spiritual being, with his halo modestly visible only to a chosen few. Before that saintly halo the distinctions between orthodox and heterodox, artisans and artists, commoners and aristocrats, inner and outer self, and the Great Social Divide itself simply paled, and he was ultimately beyond the discipline of this world.
Once freed from the papal prison, however, his elite pretensions returned to more mundane dimensions; he again focused on his great art, his superiority to his artistic competitors, and his largely unrecognized but nevertheless true equality with the most important men of his day. In a way, however, Cellini’s successes and failures serve as an evocative metaphor for the coming successes and failures of the second half of the sixteenth century in Italy and the slow dissolving of the Rinascimento in the larger and newer world that denied its uniqueness and dreams of a return to the past. His personal reform and religious enthusiasms, like those of his day, while impressive, were not enough to bring back the past or overcome the more powerful forces arraigned against him and theciviltà of the Rinascimento. For all his striving and posturing he, like most of his contemporaries, could not jump a Great Social Divide that was making Italy socially and politically much more like the rest of Europe. Yet he anticipated, with his often asocial ways and demands for a special status as an artist and intellectual, a future vision of intellectual elites and genius that would soften that divide for those recognized as exceptionally talented – although, as his many failures reveal, that status would require the recognition and approval of those actually on top of society. At the same time, his dreams of a return to his family’s ancient noble origins that would bring him greatness in the future eerily echo the very dreams of the Rinascimento itself and their failure. Cellini would not return to those origins, and even his momentary deep spiritual reform would deliver no more than a halo that only a chosen few could see. And the same was true of the Rinascimento; its halo was seen by fewer and fewer, and the deep empowering return to a series of first times was becoming more and more a dream. Admittedly it would be re-dreamed regularly, but the times were doing the one thing that they can be counted upon to do, changing. And the new, in the form of new disciplines, new and stronger social and religious divides, and new powers in Italy, was undermining dreams of return and reform whether spiritual, social, political, or Cellini’s reveries of saintliness.