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Protestantism in Italy

Protestantism in Italy


THE first impact of the Reformation in Italy was upon the higher classes. A large proportion of those who gave token of its influence, or became its adherents, were men of learning and position. Means of carrying the evangelical message to the people were not, indeed, wholly neglected. Here and there the voice of the earnest preacher was heard. Translations of the Bible also appeared, -a very readable one being produced by Antonio Brucioli (1530-1532). But outside of the Waldensian colony in Calabria, the masses were not generally enlisted in the new movement. They were not so well prepared as to be stirred at once by the watchwords of the religious revolution; and no adequate respite was afforded to arouse their attention and appreciation. The hand of a stifling despotism quenched opportunity before it had fairly been brought to their doors. Still there were thousands in the middle classes who became attached to the Protestant teachings.


Communication with Germany and Switzerland supplied special incentives to reformatory movements in Italy. It is known that Protestants were numbered among the German and the Swiss troops who served in the Italian wars; but this fact has moderate significance, as such agents were not probably very effective missionaries. Of much greater account was the interchange through the medium of universities and books. Some of the productions most acceptable to the people of Germany and Switzerland found numerous readers in Italy. "In spite of the terror of pontifical bulls, and the activity of those who watched over their execution, the writings of Luther and Melanchthon, Zwingli and Bucer, continued to be circulated, and read with great avidity and delight, in all parts of Italy. Some of them were translated into the Italian language, and, to elude the vigilance of the inquisitors, were published under disguised or fictitious names, by which means they made their way into Rome, and even into the palace of the Vatican, so that bishops and cardinals sometimes unwittingly read and praised works which, on discovering their real authors, they were obliged to pronounce dangerous and heretical." 1 Thomas M'Crie, Progress and Suppression of the Reformation in Italy, pp. 34, 35.


Among men eminent for learning or official station, there was a considerable group in Italy, who, without leaving the Roman Catholic Church, exhibited points of affiliation with the Reformation. Under this description may be included some of those who instituted, in the closing days of Leo X., the so-called Oratory of Divine Love. The oratory was an association in the interest of earnest piety, designed to work against the worldly, and almost pagan, tone which had ruled in the Roman court, and had come to unwholesome expression in some of the writings of the Italian humanists. It numbered men of such reputation as Caraffa, Contarini, Sadoleto, and Giberto. Its specific design was not so much a reformation of doctrine as of practice. Some of its members at a subsequent date found opportunity to give formal expression of their views respecting the needs of the Church, being invited by Paul III. to act on the commission which he appointed to report a plan of reform. The commission seems to have discharged its task with a good degree of fidelity. Indeed, the report which was rendered in 1537 so exposed the wounds of the ecclesiastical body, that, at a later date, it was thought advisable to include it in the index of prohibited writings. These tokens of earnestness and enlightened sentiment were not necessarily associated with any leaning to evangelical views, as the case of Caraffa indicates. But, in fact, such views had a following in this circle. There is clear evidence that the cardinal, Gaspar Contarini, favored the doctrine of justification by faith. His friend Cardinal Pole, who was in Italy for a long period, was equally disposed td uphold this doctrine. Flaminio, a man of considerable literary distinction in his time, occupied unquestionably the same ground. The writings of these three men are the best, though not the only, basis for inferring their position. See M'Crie, pp. 168-179; Ranke, History of the Popes, Book II. Cardinal Morone was so far suspected of sympathizing with the reformed views, that he was cast into prison, and detained there for some time. 2 Schelhorn, Amœnitates Literariæ, XII. 572-577, gives a list of twenty-one charges. See also Cantù, Gli Eretici d'Italia, Discorso XXVIII. At the Council of Trent, several representatives of the Italian clergy were in substantial accord with the Protestant doctrine of justification. 1 Ranke instances the archbishop of Siena, the bishop Della Cava, and Giulio Contarini. The biographer of Paul IV. says that this tenet was an occasion of stumbling to a large part of the prelates and monks of that era. 2 Articulo, nel quale inciamparono gran parte de' prelati e de' frati di quell' età (Caracciolo, qnoted by Bernino. Historia di Tutte 1'Heresia, vol, iv. secol. xvi. cap. vii.). The same writer says that not only many bishops, vicars, monks, and priests, but also many inquisitors themselves, were infected with heresy. 3 Molti dell' istessi inquisitori erano heretici, come confessò il Vergerio, quando nella prima esamina fù malamente assoluto da loro (Ibid.). This statement may be overdrawn; but it is, manifest, that, in the more educated circles, some items of Reformation theology had quite an extensive currency. The real accession, however, to the cause of the Reformation, was by no means of equal extent. Those who held to the authority and outward unity of the Church had no certain grasp of their advanced views. They found themselves compelled to retreat, and their transient advocacy of evangelical beliefs, or tolerant regard for them, only served to make more emphatic the illustration that Rome was hopelessly bound with the chains of mediaeval dogmatism. Italy, however, witnessed a less timid approach to Protestantism, a much warmer and more positive appropriation of its principles, than that just described. A company of decided adherents appeared in all the important cities, --in Ferrara, Modena, Florence, Milan, Padua, Lucca, Siena, and Naples. The same may be said of the Sicilian Palermo. In Ferrara the amiable and highly accomplished French princess Renée showed herself to be devotedly attached to Protestant teachings, and protected, to the full extent of her ability, those imperiled by a like faith. In Bologna the Reformation cause found a stanch representative in John Mollio, a teacher in the University. Venice, for a season, offered a very favorable theatre for the new opinions. As early as 1530 an inspiriting message came thence to the German Protestants, an exhortation to stand firm in their defence of the gospel before the Emperor and the Diet. In the years immediately following, the number of those who met in private to encourage and instruct each other in the evangelical faith so increased, that they began to consider the propriety of assembling public congregations. Venice was also the point of departure for a remarkable book, The Benefit of Christ's Death. Trattato utilissimo dal beneficio di Giesu Christo crucifisso verso i Christiani. This was published anonymously in 1543, and is said to have been circulated to the extent of forty thousand copies before the Inquisition commenced that onslaught against it which came very near blotting it out of existence. By some it has been attributed to Paleario, a professor of oratory who taught in Siena, Lucca, and Milan. The language of Vergerio, bishop of Capo d'Istria, who became an exile for his faith, indicates the adaptation of the book to find a welcome with all liberal minds. "Many are of the opinion," he says, "that there is scarcely a book of this age, or, at least, in the Italian language, so sweet, so pious, so simple, and so well fitted to instruct the ignorant and weak, especially in the doctrine of justification."
2 M'Crie, p. 127. Vergerio adds: "I will say more. Reginald Pole, the British cardinal, and the intimate friend of Morone, was esteemed the author of that book, or partly so; at least, it is known that he, with Flaminio, Priuli, and his other friends, defended and circulated it."
The evidence that Paleario was the author is a statement in his defence, made in 1542 before the senate of Siena, from which it appears that he had written a treatise with the same or a very similar title. In the extant writings of Paleario there is no such treatise, unless it be identified with the celebrated book in question. On that supposition it must be concluded that the work had been circulated to some extent, in one section of Italy, before it was published anonymously at Venice.
Against the conclusion that it was written by Paleario is the fact that he is not once named by contemporary writers as the author. Caracciolo says that it was composed by a monk of San Severino in Naples; that it was revised by Flaminio; that it was printed many times, especially at Modena, by order of Morone (Bernino, secol. xvi. cap, vii.).

The spirit of the treatise was conciliatory rather than polemical. "The book of Paleario," says Jules Bonnet, "had none of the poignant irony or satirical tone of Savonarola. The author carefully abstained from all controversy, in order to make known the doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, the nature of which he explained and the fruits of which he described with the deepest feeling. The Benefit is not so much a book as an outpouring of the heart."
1 Aonio Paleario, Eng. translation. Two or three brief extracts may serve to illustrate these comments.

"O great unkindness! that we who profess ourselves Christians, and hear that the Son of God hath taken all our sins upon him, and washed them out with his precious blood, suffering himself to be fastened to the cross for our sakes, should nevertheless make as though we would justify ourselves, and purchase forgiveness of sine by our own works."
"Wherefore, my dearly beloved brethren, let us not follow the fond opinion of the bewitched Galatians, but rather let os follow the truth which St. Paul teacheth us, and let us give the whole glory of our justification unto God's mercy and to the merits of his Son."
"O that unmeasurable goodness of God ! How greatly is the Christian bound unto God ! There is no love of man, be it never so great,
that may be compared with the love that God beareth to the soul of every faithful Christian, whereof Christ is the Bridegroom."

" This so holy and divine affiance is gendered in our hearts by the working of the Holy spirit, who is communicated unto us by faith, which never goeth without the, love of God. And hereof it cometh that we be provoked to do good works with a certain liveliness and effectual cheerfulness."
"Justifying faith is, as it were, a flame of fire, which cannot but cast forth brightness. And, like as the flame burneth the wood without the help of the light, and yet the flame cannot be without the light, so is it assuredly true that faith alone consumeth and burneth away sin, without the help of works, and yet that same faith cannot be without good works. Wherefore, like as if we see a dame of fire that giveth no light, we know by and by that it is but vain and painted, even so, when we see not some light of good works in a man, it is a token that he hath not the true inspired faith which God giveth to his chosen, to justify and glorify them withal."
"O happy is that man who shutteth his eyes from all other sights, and will neither hear nor see any other thing than Jesus Christ crucified, in whom are laid up and bestowed all the treasures of God's wisdom and knowledge!"
How could a hierarchy, which put forth every effort to banish sentences like these from the sight and memory of men, tolerate the writings of the Apostle Paul?


From Naples there went forth a widespread influence in favor of the Reformation. Juan Valdés, a Spanish gentleman, secretary of the viceroy of Charles V. in Naples, was largely the originator of the new movement in that quarter, "Possessed of considerable learning and superior address, fervent in piety, gentle in disposition, polite in manners, and eloquent in conversation, he soon became a favorite with the principal nobility, and with all the enlightened men, who, at certain seasons, resorted in great numbers to the Neapolitan metropolis." 1 M'Crie, p. 107. For an account of the writings of Veldés, see Boehmer, Bibliotheca Wiffeniana, vol, i. An association imbibing much of reforming zeal, though its efforts were directed rather upon the life and faith of individuals, than upon the institutions of the Church, was formed about him. Among the more distinguished of those who felt the influence of this association, were Bernardino Ochino, general of the Capuchins, and Peter Martyr, an honored member of the Augustinian Order. The former had an extraordinary reputation as a pulpit orator. Since the days of Savonarola no one had displayed an equal aptitude for persuasive address. Great throngs attended his preaching. With the plaudits of the people were joined the praises of the learned and the fastidious, -- a Contarini, a Bembo, and the talented Vittoria Colonna. Charles V. said of him, "He preaches with such spirit and devotion as might cause the very stones to weep." 1 See Karl Benrath, Bernardino Ochino of Siena, translated from the German; Cantù, Gli Eretici d'Italia, Disc. xxiii. Peter Martyr was less rich in popular gifts, but possessed superior learning and judgment. His talents were better suited to bear the ordeal of expatriation which fell to the lot of both; and he won in subsequent years a large measure of affection and respect throughout the length and breadth of the Reformed Church.


The extent of the patronage accorded to religious innovation at length alarmed the Roman court. To meet the exigency, the Pope was counseled to resort to that dread instrument which had already approved itself as the most effectual means of exterminating the heretic. Accordingly, in 1542 the edict was issued for establishing a supreme tribunal of inquisition at Rome. Six cardinals, among whom Caraffa was the foremost, were appointed as an inquisitorial commission. Powers practically unlimited were devolved upon the new tribunal. Without apprehension of the interposition of another court or authority, it was to proceed against those suspected of heresy, and also against any who should venture to befriend them. Only one reservation was made by the Pope, the right to pardon a penitent. l 1 Later edicts sought to fortify the inviolability, or irresponsible despotism, of the tribunal. Plus V. issued a decree, the plain import of which was, that to raise a finger against the Inquisition should be counted a horrible sacrilege, entailing upon the offender a forfeiture of all honors, possessions, and rights. (Quoted by M. Young, Life and Times of Paleario, ii. 553, 554.)


In mentioning this tribunal we have indicated the death-blow to the Reformation in Italy. "Popish historians," says M'Crie, "do more homage to truth than credit to their cause, when they say that the erection of the Inquisition was the salvation of the Catholic religion in Italy. No sooner was this engine of tyranny and torture erected, than those who had rendered themselves obnoxious to it by the previous avowal of their sentiments fled in great numbers from a country in which they could no longer look for protection from injustice and cruelty. The prisons of the Inquisition were everywhere filled with those who remained behind, and who, according to the policy of that court, were retained, for years in silent and dark durance, with the view of inspiring their friends with dread, and of subduing their minds to a recantation of their sentiments. With the exception of a few places, the public profession which had been made of the Protestant religion was suppressed. Its friends, however, were still numerous; many of them were animated by the most ardent attachment to the cause; they continued to encourage and to edify one another in their private meetings; and it required all the exertions and violence of the inquisitors during twenty years to discover and exterminate them." 1 Reformation in Italy, pp. 205, 206.


A policy which sent the spy and the executioner into the nooks and the corners could not be expected to spare such a body of Christians as the Waldensian colony in Calabria. Under the pressure of their surroundings, the members of this community had become so far Romanized as generally to attend mass. But in heart they had not turned aliens to their antecedents. Awakened by the news of the Reformation, and strongly reminded of the faith of their ancestors, they were made to repent of their compliance with Romanism. A Neapolitan historian of that time thus describes the treatment to which they were subjected by the extirpators of heresy: "Some had their throats cut, others were sawn through the middle, and others thrown from the top of a high cliff; all were cruelly but deservedly put to death. It was strange to hear of their obstinacy: for while the father saw his son put to death, and the son his father, they not only gave no symptoms of grief, but said joyfully that they would be angels of God; so much had the devil to whom they had given themselves up as a prey deceived them." 2 Tommaso Costo, quoted by M'Crie, p. 266.


Among the Italian martyrs, there were a number whose character, and whose bearing in the face of torture and death, entitle them to perpetual remembrance. Such was Mollio, the Bolognese professor, who was brought before his judges in 1553. His superiority to the suggestions of fear may be judged from his address to the assembled dignitaries. "As for you, cardinals and bishops," said he, "if I were satisfied that you had justly obtained that power which you assume to yourselves, and that you had risen to your eminence by virtuous deeds, and not by blind ambition and the arts of profligacy, I would not say a word to you. But since I see and know on the best grounds that you have set moderation and modesty and honor and virtue at defiance, I am constrained to treat you without ceremony, and to declare that your power is not from God, but from the devil. If it were apostolical, as you would make the poor world believe, then your doctrine and life would resemble those of the apostles. When I perceive the filth and falsehood and profaneness with which it is overspread, what can I say of your Church, but that it is a receptacle of thieves, and a den of robbers? What is your doctrine but a dream, -a lie forged by hypocrites? Your very countenances proclaim that your belly is your god. Your great object is to seize and amass wealth by every species of injustice and cruelty. You thirst without ceasing for the blood of saints. Wherefore I appeal from your sentence, and summon you, O cruel tyrants and murderers, to answer before the judgment-seat of Christ at the last day, where your pompous titles and gorgeous trappings will not dazzle, nor your guards and torturing apparatus terrify us." Algieri, a native of Nola in the kingdom of Naples, came to the stake as one might approach a sacred altar for an ace of solemn and joyful devotion. In his prison he had written to friends at Padua, "I have found honey in the mouth of the lion, an agreeable retreat in a frightful precipice, glorious prospects of life in the abode of death, joy and peace in an abyss of hell. The prison is bitter to the criminal, but sweet to the innocent. It distils the dew, and gives in abundance the milk which strengthens the soul." Pascali, pastor of the Waldenses in Calabria, who was executed at Rome in 1560, met his fate with equal intrepidity. As the time approached for his sacrifice, he declared that his faith and rejoicing increased. "Yes," he exclaimed, "my joy is so lively that I can fancy that I see my fetters broken; and I would be ready to brave a thousand deaths, were that necessary, for the cause of truth." Pietro Carnesecchi, a Florentine of good birth, liberal education, and high character, endured the final ordeal with exemplary steadfastness. He was beheaded and burned at Rome in 1567. Three years later, Paleario, who had been taken from his professorship at Milan to a Roman prison, was repaid for his service to truth with the gibbet and the flames. A few hours before his death, he wrote to his wife, "I would not have you to be sorrowful at my happiness, nor take as evil what is my good. The hour is come when I am to pass from this life to my Lord and Father and God. I go there joyfully, as to the marriage of the Son of the great King." 1 For the quotations of the paragraph, see M'Crie and Bonnet. In the presence of such witnesses, it does not seem presumptuous to hope that the evangelical message will yet reap an abundant harvest in Italy.

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