PIONEERS OF LIBERAL PROTESTANTISM IN ITALY
THE LIBERAL MOVEMENT among the Anabaptists in the north of Italy, though it was modified by the Italian temper of mind enough to develop characteristics of its own, was not so much an Italian movement as an importation from north of the Alps. It was influenced in its doctrinal views by Servetus, and was primarily concerned with the outward fruits of the Christian religion in personal character and in the relations of men in society. Its adherents were of those that had quite withdrawn from the Catholic Church but, thanks to the diligence of the Inquisition, it left no enduring mark. During the same period, however, a liberal ferment was working in another quarter, in the south of Italy, which was to be transported into northern Europe and there to become firmly established. Its leaders had derived an impulse from Erasmus, and its deepest interest was in the effect of the Christian faith upon inner spiritual experience, and in the purification of life from an inner source. Its adherents were devout Catholics within the very bosom of the Church, who still conformed to its worship, practiced its rites, and at least passively accepted the general body of its doctrine. This movement first gathered about a Spanish gentleman at Naples whose name was Juan de Valdes 1
The family Valdes was of the important little city of Cuenca in eastern-central Spain, whose hereditary proprietor at the beginning of the sixteenth century was Hernando de Valdes, a man of large wealth and wide influence. To him were born about 1500 two sons, Alfonso and Juan, who were what are called identical twins, for even in mature life they were so much alike not only in form and feature but also in voice, manners and mind that they were continually mistaken one for the other, and by some writers were thought to be but a single person.2 Both were of delicate health and ascetic habit, handsome in appearance, and polished in manner. Their education was supervised by Pedro Martir de Anghiera, a remarkable character of enlightened views and influential connections, and favorable to reform in the Church. After a career at the University of Alcalá, Alfonso devoted himself to Latin and jurisprudence, and Juan to Spanish and the study of the Bible, though without conventional theological training. The writings of Erasmus were, by their pointed criticisms of the Church, attracting much attention in Spain at this time, and arousing violent opposition in ecclesiastical circles. Alfonso was a disciple of Erasmus and his intimate friend, and when he became Latin Secretary to the Emperor Charles V. he won the favor of the latter for Erasmus in the face of attempts to ban his writings. He accompanied Charles at his coronation as German Emperor at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1520 was with him at the Diet of Worms, and again at Bologna in 1530 when Charles was crowned Roman Emperor by the Pope.3 He followed the Emperor to Augsburg immediately after, where in the interest of peace with the Protestant party he had interviews with Melanchthon, and translated the Augsburg Confession into Spanish for the Emperor to read. He remained in his office until he was carried off by the plague at Vienna in 1532.
His brother Juan, after spending some ten years in frivolous life, and indulging an insatiable appetite for romances of chivalry, at length came to a serious mind and turned his thoughts to religion and its reformation. In the spirit of Erasmus he published a Dialogue of Mercury and Charon 4 which contained such sharp comments on political and religious affairs as to make it unsafe for him to remain within reach of the long arm of the Inquisition. He therefore bade his native land farewell, and came to Naples 5 about the end of 1529. In 1533 he received appointment as Chamberlain (a sinecure, largely honorary) to Pope Clement VII. at Rome, but when the Pope died within a year Juan, now knighted by the Emperor, returned for the rest of his life to Naples, where he was appointed Secretary to the Viceroy, Don Pedro de Toledo.
It is not his public duties but his more private religious interests that claim our interest here. At this period he was evidently giving most serious attention to the questions of religion and the reformation of the Church which Luther had stirred up. Naples was experiencing an unusual interest in religion, and the eloquent sermons of Ochino at the crowded lenten services in San Giovanni Maggiore, avoiding the traditional refinements of scholastic theology, and preaching directly to the heart and on the faults of the age, chained the attention of all from the peasant to the Emperor himself. During several years in this period Vald gathered about himself a small but select circle of persons interested in religious problems and in a deeper experience of personal religion. Of the number there were such eminent personages as Pietro Martire Vermigli, Bernardino Ochino, Pietro Carnesecchi, Galeazzo Caraccioli, Giulio da Milano, and the noble ladies Giulia Gonzaga and Vittoria Colonna, all outstanding names in the religious history of the time. They used to spend their Sundays in intimate religious discussion at Valdés’s suburban home by the bay shore where the Chiaja now is. He would read a translation of a chosen passage of Scripture and comment upon it, with devotional application, and then the others would engage in discussion. Much freedom was used in the intimate circle, and some of the members were profoundly influenced in thought and life.
Out of these conferences grew the books of Valdés which, at first circulated only in Spanish manuscripts now lost, were after his death published in Italian translation. One of these was the Alfabeto Cristiano, a devotional work containing in dialogue form the sum of an evening’s conversation with Giulia Gonzaga and constituting a primer of his teaching.6 But his chief devotional work was Le cento e dieci considerazioni, which was translated into six languages, has been published in a dozen or more editions, and is still prized in the world’s devotional literature.7 Curioni wrote of it, ‘Many persons have written on Christian subjects, but it would perhaps be difficult to find any one that has treated them more completely and divinely than Juan Valdes. Valdés died of fever at Naples in the summer of 1541. His friend Jacopo Bonfadio wrote to Carnesecchi of him, ‘He was one of the rare men of Europe. He was without doubt in his actions, his speech, and in all his conduct a most perfect man.’8
Through his personal acquaintance and by his writings, which though banned in Italy and not published until after his death were eagerly and widely circulated by Protestants, Valdés in the few years of his activity exercised a lasting influence. Naples had already been infected with Lutheranism by the 8,000 German soldiers that had been quartered there in 1528, after the sack of Rome; but it was afterwards said that Valdés caused a far greater destruction of souls than they all.9 The anonymous author of the Trattato utilissimo del beneficio di Cristo crocifisso, a work that had enormous popularity at first, but was considered so pernicious that the Inquisition destroyed it almost to the last copy, was a disciple of Valdés and inspired by him.10 Ochino was intimate with Valdés, who it is said often suggested to him the themes for his sermons; and there is hardly a point of doctrine in the .Alfabeto Cristiano that is not found, often in the same expressions, in Ochino’s Prediche.11Ochino is the preacher frequently referred to in the Alfabeto. In fact, Valdés would seem to have started most of the Italian apostles of Protestantism on their way, or at least to have influenced their thinking. Only one of these fell a martyr to the Inquisition. Carnesecchi, who stood high in the Church and had much favored the reform of it, after having long been protected against the Inquisition, was in 1567 condemned as a stubborn, incorrigible heretic, beheaded and then burned. At his trial he stated that he had first been led into heresy by Valdés.
Sandius, who first compiled a brief dictionary of Antitrinitarians and their works, included Valdés among them,12 and in this has been followed by other writers. However, in Valdés’s extant works there is no evidence of antitrinitarian views. On the contrary, his statement of his view of Christ is entirely conventional.13 It is true that he nowhere speaks of the Trinity; but this is quite consistent with his principle of not taking into consideration anything not based on religious experience. He did not leave the Church nor encourage others to do so, but went faithfully to mass, communicated, and kept the usual religious observances. He certainly was not Lutheran nor Calvinist, still less Anabaptist; nor is it easy to classify him theologically beyond saying that he may fairly be called a liberal Catholic, who accepted the usages of the Church as a well-proved medium of spiritual nurture, yet may have taken its doctrines symbolically and put his own interpretation upon them rather than agree to their literal sense. Such a view is supported by the testimony of Carnesecchi, who said at his trial that Valdés always maintained a certain reserve as to the ultimate consequences of his doctrines;14 and of course he would not have ventured to put on paper any of the dangerous heresies later laid at his door. Moreover, he believed strongly in religious freedom and tolerance,15 and his habitual appeal was to the authority of inner experience rather than to some external source. Thus in principle, if not on doctrinal grounds, he would seem to be entitled to honorable mention in the preliminary history of the general movement with which we are concerned.16 But more positive evidence has come to light justifying Sand’s inclusion of Valdés. In the trial of Lorenzo Tizzano (or Tizziano) before the Inquisition at Venice in 1550, evidence was given that in Valdés’s circle at Naples there were heretics that denied the virgin birth, and held that Jesus was not the Messiah but only a prophet, and that Valdés himself held these views.17 It is no wonder, then, that a significant number of his disciples, when once beyond the reach of the Inquisition, came out more boldly in the avowal of doctrines as to which they had when in Italy maintained a discreet reserve. Such were Ochino, Francesco di Calabria, Camillo Renato, Giovanni Valentino Gentile, and Celio Secondo Curioni, who will appear later on in our history. Valdes therefore appears to have been if not a pioneer, at least a herald of our movement.
Of those in the company that gathered about Valdés at Naples and were influenced by him, none had a more conspicuous relation to our movement than the celebrated friar Bernardino Ochino, who has also been reckoned as perhaps the most influential propagator of the Protestant doctrine in Italy.18 Ochino was born in 1487 at Siena, the son of an obscure citizen named Domenico Tomassini, who dwelt in the quarter of the city called la contrada dell’ Oca, whence he acquired the cognomen Ochino. He had but a moderate education, but from early youth was deeply concerned for the salvation of his soul; and to that end he entered the branch of the Franciscan order called the Observants, whose rule seemed to him to be the strictest of all, and whose convent, the Osservanza, still stands outside the eastern gate at Siena. There is a tradition that after a time he left the order to study medicine at Perugia. If so, he later returned to it, and in due time was advanced to be General of the Observants. Finding their discipline too lax, he resigned his office and in 1534 sought greater peace of soul in the yet greater austerity of another branch of the Franciscans, the recently founded order of the Capuchins. During all these years he was by his extremely ascetic habits steadily gaining among all classes a great reputation for sanctity. Pale of face, barefoot and bareheaded, clad in coarsest garb, he went at all seasons and in all weather begging his way from door to door, and even when received in the palaces of the great he did not change his habit of life.19 Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, was his devoted disciple. To her Pietro Bembo, later Cardinal, wrote in 1539, ‘I have this morning conversed with the venerable father Fra Bernardino, to whom I have opened my whole heart and thought as I should have done to Jesus Christ. It seems to me that I have never talked to a holier man than he.’ 20
At the same time he was coming to be known as incomparably the best preacher in Italy. Preaching was done at this period not by the secular clergy but by friars of the preaching orders, principally the Franciscans, and especially in the lenten season. No one since Savonarola had equaled Ochino. The chief cities of Italy vied for his services, and competition between them was so great that the Pope, in order to prevent disputes, was forced to decide between them. Wherever he went, no church was large enough to hold the throngs that crowded to hear him, though he preached almost daily. When he preached at San Giovanni at Naples in 1536 the Emperor would often go with pleasure to hear him, and his eloquence was so moving that it was said that he made even the stones weep.21 When he preached the first lenten sermons at Venice in 1538, Bembo wrote of him, ‘I never heard any one preach more profitably or more devoutly than he’; and at the urgent request of many citizens he made early application for the coming year. In 1538 he was elected Vicar-General of his order by a nearly unanimous vote, ruled it with great wisdom, saw it extend rapidly, and against his will was re-elected in 1541 for, as the historian of the order wrote, it seemed as if nothing were wanting to make him a perfect General.22 Of his preaching again in Venice in 1539 Bembo wrote, ‘He is literally adored here. There is no one that does not praise him to the skies.’ He also preached with great effect in Rome, and at Perugia, Lucca and Modena; while at Siena the Consistory urgently begged the Pope to let him stay longer, and sent repeated requests for his lenten preaching. It was while preaching at Naples in 1536, 1539 and 1540 that he came under the influence of Valdés, as we have seen; and he was already spied upon there in 1539 by zealous guardians of orthodoxy, though up to his re-election in 1541 no serious suspicion seems to have fallen upon him. His sermons avoided scholastic subtleties and the arguing of doctrinal theories, and were directly personal and practical in character.
But now he began to incline more and more to new ideas in religion, and away from the practices of the Church. He seriously criticized religious vows, fastings, indulgences and purgatory. Doubts about him began to arise, and while there was as yet no Inquisition, the Pope gave his nuncio orders to keep an eye on him when he went again to Venice in 1542 to preach in the Sant’ Apostoli, then considered the finest church in the city. He was before long called on to explain certain expressions that sounded heretical, and easily did so. Soon after this the nuncio condemned for alleged heresy the preacher Giulio Terenziano at Milan, who had also been one of Valdes’s circle at Naples.23 Ochino boldly ex pressed his indignation at this act of ecclesiastical tyranny, whereupon the nuncio forbade him to preach any longer; but the uprising of the citizens in Ochino’s favor was so strong that the nuncio yielded, and after three days Ochino resumed the pulpit, though now preaching with more restraint. But he had gone too far. The doctrines of the Reformation were spreading alarmingly in Italy, and something more effective must be done to check them. Acting upon advice given ten years before by Cardinal Caraffa but then rejected, the Pope issued on June 21 the bull ‘Licet ab initio’ establishing the Italian Inquisition. Ochino’s teaching required looking into, and he was perhaps the very first to be summoned to appear before it. The summons was veiled under a polite note inviting him in the Pope’s name to visit Rome ‘on matters of importance.’ It was whispered in Rome that he was soon to be made a Cardinal, and Ochino himself thought it might have been planned in this way to purchase his silence.24 At all events, he was suspicious. However, he determined to obey the summons, and was ordered to appear forthwith, without waiting, as he had proposed, for the summer’s heat to be over.
Ochino set out on foot at the middle of August, but he had not gone far before he learned what was really wanted of him. He had now to decide whether to face the Inquisition and renounce the views that had brought him under suspicion, or to remain steadfast to his convictions and suffer death, or to flee the country and thus save both his conscience and his life. When he had gone as far as Florence, he fell in with Vermigli, another member of the Valdes circle whose case was parallel to his own, and who had already determined to flee. He persuaded Ochino to do the same.25 After proceeding to Siena to take leave of his family, Ochino then turned his steps northward. It was fortunate for him, for at a Capuchin convent just south of Siena guards were set to seize him when he should appear. Vermigli followed him two days later, traveling to Switzerland by another route. By the flight of these two advocates of reform in the Church the cause of reformation in Italy suffered a blow from which it never recovered. At Ferrara Ochino is said to have been given clothing and other assistance by the Duchess Renee, 26 Pr in faith and friend of Calvin, to whom she doubtless gave him a letter of introduction. Proceeding by way of Chiavenna and Zurich he came in time to Geneva, where we shall later renew our acquaintance with him. He was now fifty-five years old.
When the flight of Ochino became known in Italy, it created the greatest sensation. Pope Paul III. was enraged, and at first threatened to suppress the Capuchins altogether as accomplices in the matter. The Inquisitor Caraffa, finding his prey escaped, wrote him a long letter of bitter reproaches, comparing his apostasy to the fall of Lucifer. A Sienese nobleman, Claudio Tolomei, wrote him at length beseeching him to return to the Church, while others heaped abuse upon him. He in turn wrote a long letter to the Council at Siena to justify his action; but he never showed any disposition to return to the obedience of the Church.27 He was now, and for some time had been, Lutheran in the doctrine of justification, but his more serious heresies were not to appear until later.