CHAPTER VI
THE UNITARIAN ANABAPTIST MOVEMENT IN ITALY

IN THE PREVIOUS CHAPTERS have been traced the scattered outcroppings north of the Alps, in the wide-spread but incoherent body of those that were popularly classed together under the name of Anabaptists, of a marked tendency, during the first forty years or so of the Reformation, toward a more liberal type of Christianity than that which was rapidly becoming fixed among the followers of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. We have seen that while the leaders of this tendency were in the main men of outstanding ability and ample learning, the rank and file of the whole movement were of the humbler classes in rank, wealth and education. Their primary interest in Christianity was not as a system of belief but as a way of life; and their main emphasis was laid not upon theological doctrines but upon the practical application of Christian principles to personal conduct and character, and to the Christianizing of human relations in organized society.

In contrast with the Roman Church and the existing Protestant confessions, with their insistence first of all upon strict compliance with fixed standards of orthodoxy, they had taken a long step forward toward the realization of full mental freedom in religion. They adopted no creed and imposed no confessions, and even if they accepted without question or qualification whatever seemed to them to be the teaching of Scripture, yet it had not occurred to any of them to regard the Bible as a limitation of the freedom of the Christian man, but rather as the charter of it. Again, as regards the fundamental principle of tolerance of differing religious views, they had taken an equally long step forward, and one indeed essentially involved in the idea of liberty, when the principle of religious tolerance which they practiced with one another became transformed, as applied to civil government, into the kindred policy of religious toleration, which they so steadily advocated and so seldom enjoyed. But as regards the third fundamental of liberal religion as here conceived, the full use of reason in religion as applied to religious doctrines, they left much to be realized. In fact, in doctrines themselves they had only a secondary interest, and that least of all in those of a speculative nature to which objection might be made on grounds of reason. In any case, their question would have been not, Is the doctrine reasonable? but, Is it scriptural?

A little later than the Anabaptist tendencies above noted, there also began to develop south of the Alps, out of the bosom of the Catholic Church, liberal tendencies in some respects similar to these, in some respects contrasted with them, and in some complementary to them. These were the outgrowth of quite different antecedents, rooted in the soil of the Renaissance. Soon after the middle of the fifteenth century, the writings of the Greek philosophers began to spread abroad, and to be widely read and discussed, in Italy. The intellectuals, therefore, were led to regard the traditional dogmas more in the light of philosophy than in that of theology; and while still maintaining an outward conformity to the Church, they were often, even in clerical circles, at heart more pagan than Christian. The consequence was that even before the Reformation the hold of various Christian doctrines upon many nominally Catholic minds had been decidedly weakened.1 The supernatural birth and the divinity of Christ had already been denied by 1500, and it was said that half a century later, in the time of Pope Paul IV. (Caraffa), a man was deemed to be of little account unless he were tainted with heresy.2 When the seeds of the Reformation spread from northern Europe into Italy they found, therefore, their most fertile soil not, as often north of the Alps, among the humbler classes, but among the educated middle class, especially in the cities, whose interest in the new movement centered largely upon the reform of Christian doctrines. Here it was inevitable that, while many would still hold the traditional doctrines unchanged, yet others would reject them as not acceptable to reason. It was these bolder and more radical thinkers, not very many in number, though notable for the extent of their influence, that furnished the stimulation that before the end of the century led to the separate existence of the movement with whose history we are here concerned. The first springs of the Socinian-Unitarian movement, there fore, regarded for the moment as a system of religious belief, are to be found not in the Protestant lands of the North, but in Catholic Italy. The especial contribution of these Italian liberals was the recognition of the importance of reason in religion which, when added to the fundamental principles of freedom and tolerance which the liberal Anabaptists had already fully adopted, furnished the principle still needed to make their system complete by assuring it sane guidance. When these Italians, by that time exiled from Italy, came a generation later into connection with the Anabaptists who were multiplying in Poland, they thus brought to the movement there the intellectual stimulus and leadership that were needed to transform a loose aggregation into a coherent body, and to win it respect. From that time on, as will be later seen, this movement began to assume definite shape.

Before proceeding to speak of the leading pioneers of this movement south of the Alps, it will be well first to survey the beginnings of the Reformation there, and to tell of a transient movement in northern Italy which, while it was headed in the same direction, was yet largely independent of them. In no part of Italy did the Reformation take earlier or wider root than in the Republic of Venice,3 whose active trade with the commercial cities of Germany drew many traveling merchants thither, many or most of whom would of course be Protestants. Venice had in deed had on its books since 1249 an undertaking to burn at the stake any found guilty of heresy,4 but it had long been allowed to slumber, for the burning of Protestant heretics would have tended seriously to interfere with the German trade; and in practice, in the first half of the sixteenth century Venice enjoyed in Catholic Italy a reputation for toleration comparable to that which Holland later had among Protestant lands. For Venice long showed itself impatient of interference in its local concerns by the Roman curia, and resisted the increasing pres sure to have the laws enforced, so that the Inquisition was not in full cry there until 1547.5 Long before this Lutherans were known to be holding meetings (of course more or less in secret) in various parts of the city. They were yet more numerous in Vicenza and other cities in the vicinity, where there are said to have been from 200 to 500, including some persons of importance, who used to meet, generally in the houses of patricians, to discuss religious subjects. The Pope,6 when informed of this, was much concerned, and put fresh pressure upon the local government to take severe measures for uprooting the heresy. Many prosecutions and trials for heresy ensued, and the Lutheran meetings were thus broken up by the Inquisition.7 This was in 1546, the date which Socinian tradition later fixed as that of the origin of the Socinian movement, as will presently be seen.

Along with the views of Luther, those of the Anabaptists also early penetrated northern Italy, most likely coming from Zurich after the Anabaptists were driven thence in 1525,8 and probably by way of the Grisons. It was among these northern Italian Anabaptists that a definite formulation of Unitarian doctrine was first adopted for purposes of propaganda; and this is apparently to be traced to the two books on the Trinity which Servetus had published in 1531- 32 The influence of Servetus in these parts was early noted with deep concern. In 1539 9 an unknown person addressed to the Venetian Council a letter bearing the signature of Melanchthon, saying, ‘I have learned that a book of Servetus is being circulated there, which has revived the error of Paul of Samosata condemned by the primitive Church. . . . I have thought that you should be warned and entreated to urge and encourage them to avoid, renounce and detest the wicked error of Servetus.’ 10 Girolamo Zanchi, minister to the Protestant congregation at Chiavenna at a time when radical opinions were causing much disturbance there, traced them all to Servetus.11 Guillaume Postel in 1553 published at Venice an apology for Servetus in which it was declared that he had many followers in Italy who denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ;12 and the wish to convert these from their errors was a large motive for Calvin in the following year to write his refutation of the errors of Servetus.13 Again, Pierpaolo Vergerio, an Italian Protestant fugitive living at Tubingen, writes on September 6, 1554 to Bullinger, leader of the Reformation at Zurich: ‘There is with me now Girolamo Donzelino, a physician lately driven from Italy for the Gospel’s sake, a prudent man, who knows much of what is going on in Italy. He declares that the Servetian plague is spreading a great deal more,’ etc.14 Finally, Pope Paul IV. in a bull of August 7, 1555, refers to apostates who deny the dogmas of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.15 Here are evidences enough of a smoldering fire in the north of Italy, ready under favoring conditions to burst into a flame. How this took place, and how the flame was speedily extinguished, only to burst out two decades later in other lands, can now be related.

For two centuries and a half a legend has been current, and repeated as authentic by successive generations of writers on this period, of a certain heretical society at Vicenza, some forty miles northwest of Venice, which was the original source of that movement, and of its leaders, which twenty years later came to the surface in Poland as a nascent form of Socinianism. The story is so interesting, and has so often been told and accepted as true, that it deserves to be told again here, if only that it may be rejected as unhistorical, and then be replaced by the authentic facts out of which it grew up to its current form. The legend is given in three successive forms appearing within a few years of each other. A Brief Narrative of the Origin of the Unitarians in Poland, by Andrew Wiszowaty, grandson of Faustus Socinus, was first printed in an appendix to the Ecclesiastical History16 of Christopher Sandius, an Arian living at Amsterdam. It was again given in 1684 in the same author’s Bibliotheca Antitrinitariorum.17 Finally, Stanislas Lubieniecki in his History of the Polish Reformation, published in 1685, but written some time before his death in 1675, and perhaps used in manuscript by Sand and Wiszowaty, gives a more extended version, citing as his authorities a manuscript history by Stanislas Budzindski,18 and a life of Laehus Socinus, neither of which is now extant. From the data transmitted in these three accounts, all of which appear to derive from a common source, the story can be made out as follows:

About the year 1546, in various cities in the territory of Venice, there were numerous persons who undertook to explore the truth, and to this end held religious meetings and conferences. Laelius Socinus, together with some Italian associates more than forty in number, held such conferences and meetings at Vicenza, in which they called in question especially the current dogmas about the Trinity, the satisfaction of Christ, and the like. Among the members of this society are said to have been an Abbot named Leonardo Buzzale (Busale), Lelio Sozini, Bernardino Ochino, Nicola Paruta, Valentino Gentile, Giulio di Treviso, Francesco di Ruego (Rovigo), Jacopo di Chieri, Francesco Negri, Dario Sozzino, Paolo Alciati and others.19 When the matter became known, they fell under severe persecution, some were put to death, others saved their lives by scattering, leaving Italy, and going to various countries. The Abbot Buzzale together with forty others sought and found among the Turks a safety not to be enjoyed as Christians among Christians. Buzzale went at last to Damascus, where he lived the rest of his life as a tailor; the rest to Thessalonica, all but three, Giulio di Treviso and Francesco di Ruego, who were put to death by drowning at Venice, and Jacopo di Chieri, who died a natural death there. Those that did not go to Turkey took refuge in Switzerland, Moravia, and at length in Poland; of whom the chief was Lelio Sozini.

The version given by Lubieniecki adds a detailed statement of the main topics of Christian faith agreed upon in these meetings, which are found to anticipate all the main positions of the Socinianism later to arise in Poland. The conclusion is therefore drawn that these meetings were the primary source of the Socinian doctrine, and of the apostles that were to spread it north of the Alps. Not content with the story even as it is, the fan of subsequent writers has sometimes seen in these Collegia Vicentina, as they have been called, one of those Academies that were so marked an element in the Italian culture of the sixteenth century, and has made out Laelius Socinu’s (a youth of twentyone!) as the president of it.20 Nothing else, however, is known of this alleged Academy, nor what its title was, nor where it met, nor what it discussed, nor of the decree that condemned it, except that unverifiable local tradition places the meetings in the Casa Pigafetta,21 or in one of the splendid mansions in Lonedo in Lugo, a pleasant town on the left bank of the Astico, where the plain of Vicenza reaches the foot-hills of the Alps; and the road is shown by which the members escaped in their flight to Germany.22

The authenticity of this story, however, has long been under suspicion among historical scholars.23 It is noted that there is no contemporary reference, either Catholic or Protestant, to these meetings, and that the first mention of them occurs only in 1676, a hundred and thirty years after the alleged date. Of the alleged participants in the conferences, at least three can not have been living at Vicenza at the time. Ochino, as we shall later see, had fled the country in 1542 in circumstances that would certainly have rendered his life a forfeit had he ever ventured to return to Italy; Negri was already living at Chiavenna across the border in 1543, and too well known to have risked his life by residence near Vicenza;24 and while Laelius Socinus did not leave Italy until 1547, he did not then do it as a suspected heretic fleeing for safety, and returned to Italy several times within the next eight years.25 At least two other names seem out of place in the above list. Giulio di Treviso (Giulio Gherlandi) and Francesco di Ruego (Francesco della Saga of Rovigo) were indeed put to death at Venice as related, in 1562 and 1565 respectively; but Gherlandi was not baptized until 1549, after which he joined the Anabaptists in Moravia, whence he was sent back to Italy in 1559 to visit the brethren there, and especially to persuade them to abandon their radical views, and to promise them a welcome in Moravia; while Francesco di Ruego, who had also been sent from Moravia on a similar missionary journey, was in 1546 only a young lad.26

Again, the doctrinal points said to have been agreed upon at these conferences on the one hand make no mention of several points emphasized at the time by all the Italian reformers, while on the other hand the view of Christ is opposed to that later held by Gentile and Alciati, the views in general are much more positive and definite than those ever confessed by Laelius Socinus or Ochino, and they show a striking likeness, even to word and phrase, to those set forth sixty years later in the Racovian Catechism in Poland. The conclusion thus seems irresistible that the plastic tradition of four or five generations gradually cast together into one piece the authentic but hazy memory of a liberal Anabaptist movement at or near Vicenza about the middle of the sixteenth century, the conclusions of an Anabaptist council at Venice in 1550 (to be related below), the names of some of the most important Italian pioneers of Antitrinitarianism, and the developed system of doctrine that the Socinians eventually reached in Poland early in the seventeenth century; but that it unconsciously fell into glaring inconsistencies which put us in the way of discovering the historical truth.27 That truth the researches of competent scholars now enable us to state.

The correct statement of the case, resting for the most part on records of the Inquisition brought to light at Venice fifty or sixty years ago, is as follows.28 After Lutheranism had been uprooted at Vicenza,29 Anabaptism began to spread with great rapidity through all that region. Its chief missionary was an ex-priest named Tiziano, of whose later history we shall speak in another connection in a later chapter. He is said to have been the first to spread Anabaptist doctrines in Italy, though he had the assistance of several others. By the middle of the century the movement had adherents in more than sixty places, and there were definitely known to be more than a thousand of them in Venice alone.30 They were well organized, with ordained ministers, and under the oversight of ten or more ‘apostolic bishops,’ who went from congregation to congregation to preach, ordain, and give counsel. They were almost wholly of the humbler class, mainly artizans, and they held their meetings in private houses in great secrecy.31 They seem to have been much more concerned with the doctrinal phase of the Reformation than were their northern brethren; and their beliefs, evidently influenced by the writings of Servetus, tended to be much less orthodox. For besides the usual Anabaptist views, there was more or less general denial of the Trinity, and difference of view as to the nature of Christ. This tendency was especially marked in the congregation at Vicenza, so that in order to determine these questions it was decided to call together a council of leaders of all the congregations in northern Italy. This was about the beginning of 1550.

Word was sent to each congregation to send two delegates to a formal council of Anabaptists to be held at Venice in September. About sixty delegates met, including some from two congregations in Switzerland, and several in the Grisons. It is noteworthy that of the names of those reported as attending the council only two bear any resemblance to those given in the tradition above quoted — the Abbot Girolamo (not Leonardo) Buzzale, and ‘il Nero,’ (perhaps Francesco Negri). The brethren were scattered about the city in lodgings, and their expenses were borne by the several congregations. They met almost daily and discussed all points freely in the light of Scripture. Meetings were opened with prayer, and the Lord’s Supper was observed three times. Sessions continued for forty days, and at length agreement was reached on these ten points:

  1. Christ is not God but man, born of Joseph and Mary, but filled with all the powers of God.

  2. Mary had other sons and daughters after Christ.

  3. There is no angelic being created by God, but where Scripture speaks of angels it means men appointed by God for a given purpose.

  4. There is no other Devil than human prudence, for no creature of God is hostile to him but this.

  5. The wicked do not rise at the last day, but only the elect, whose head is Christ.

  6. There is no hell but the grave.

  7. When the elect die, they sleep until the judgment day, when all will be raised.

  8. The souls of the wicked perish with the body, as do all other animals.

  9. The seed of man has from God the power of producing flesh and spirit.

  10. The elect are justified by the eternal mercy and love of God without any outward work, that is, without the merits, the blood, or the death of Christ. Christ died to show forth the righteousness of God, that is, the sum of all the goodness and mercy of God and of his promises.

These ten points certainly show a refreshing independence of the doctrines hitherto received, and they were unanimously agreed to save by the delegates from the congregation at Cittadella, which was there fore excluded from further fellowship with the others. Two ministers were appointed to go about among the churches to instruct them in these doctrines, which marked by far the most radical pronouncement made in the Protestant world hitherto. An especially fertile field was reported 32 to lie in the Valtellina, and an echo of missionary activity there is perhaps to be found in a letter written to Bullinger of Zurich not long afterward.33

One of the two traveling preachers appointed was Pietro Manelfi of San Vito,34 an ex-priest who had now been a Protestant for about ten years, and had of late been very active among the Anabaptists. He performed his new office for a little more than a year, during which persecution of Protestants in Italy was becoming ever more frequent. Whether or not moved by fear for himself, he returned to the Church, confessed his errors, and in depositions given before the inquisitors at Bologna and Rome related all he could recall regarding the Anabaptists, their council, their beliefs and organization, and the names and addresses of individuals.35 Arrests and prosecutions speedily followed, and trials continued during the following year. Some suffered punishment, some recanted, some fled to Moravia or Turkey, while yet others succeeded in escaping observation, kept the faith, and continued to practice it in greater secrecy than ever. But although for some time these still kept up correspondence with their brethren elsewhere, their congregations had been so thoroughly scattered that they could no longer carry on effective propaganda or exert an active influence. The traveling bishops, who went about among the congregations to instruct them in the new articles, soon discovered that beside the dissenting congregation at Cittadella,36 whose delegates kept the vote at the Venice council from being unanimous, there were also numerous individuals that were unwilling to accept them. This was true at Vicenza, at Verona, in the Valtellina, and doubtless elsewhere.37 These naturally fell away from the movement, or perhaps were excluded from membership in it. Under the persecution following, which fell on all Anabaptists alike, some of these found their way to Moravia where a conservative wing of the Anabaptist movement was enjoying comparative peace. Of these exiles in Moravia there were some thirty,38 and it was from these that della Saga and Gherlandi were sent back, as we have seen, in 1559 to convert to more orthodox views the surviving radical brethren, of whom no further knowledge has been preserved to us.

The movement that flourished at Vicenza and held the council at Venice, which is so interesting in itself, and which had it been allowed to develop freely might have done much in Italy for the cause of mental freedom, reverent reason, and generous tolerance in religion, was therefore but a transient and tragic episode, which seems in fact to have had but slight connection with the movement that later arose in Poland, and little if any historical influence upon it.