Spain and the

Italy at the time of the Reformation

A.) The Situation in Italy prior to the Reformation

Politically, Italy was not unified, a patchwork of medium and small size states, many of them monarchies (the Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of Sicily, the Duchy of Milan, the Duchy of Savoy-Piemont etc., others republics (Venice, Genova, Florence, Siena, Lucca etc.), the PAPAL STATE a theocracy. Part of Northern Italy formally was part of the HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE, although it had been centuries since an Roman king had visited Italy for a reason other than being crowned Emperor.
Northern Italy, in the late 15th and early 16th century, saw a succession of wars and a frequent change of the political landscape. Milan, Venice, Florence and the Papal State competed for hegemony in northern Italy, with papal son CESARE BORGIA entering the scene. Toward the end of the 15th century, France, Spain, the Emperor and the Swiss Federation entered the scene, Italy being reduced to the theatre of war of foreign armies.
With the exceptions of Naples-Sicily and Venice, the Italian states were far from politically stable. The Republics of Venice and Genova experienced a number of coups which brought significant changes, such as the expulsion of the Medici in Florence, the brief period of a theocracy there under Savonarola. The Papal State suffered from chronic nepotism of the popes who often gave away parts of the state to establish secular principalities for their relatives.
Within Catholic Europe, Italy had the highest density of bishoprics; the Catholic church in Italy was at least as corrupted as in Germany, if not more. For many Italians, this corruption was even more plainly visible, because many of the popes were prime examples of corrupted church officials, the most notorious being ALEXANDER VI. (Rodrigo de Borja). The ITALIAN RENAISSANCE had been more outspoken in her criticism of the church, than the so-called NORTHERN RENAISSANCE (better : non-Italian Renaissance). Machiavelli blamed the papacy for having prevented Italian unification.
Italy, however, had experienced a brief reform attempt. GIROLAMO SAVONAROLA, Prior of the monastery of San Marco in Florence (1491-1498) reformed his monastery reinvorcing monastic discipline and harshly criticizing the immoral lifestyle of the city's elite. After the death of LORENZO DE MEDICI (1494), the Medici family was expelled from Florence, and Savonarola had become that influential, that some historians refer to Florence after the expulsion of the Medici as a theocracy. Savonarola, refusing to come to Rome as ordered (1495) was forbidden to preach, which he ignored. He believed in the coming of the apocalypse and became more demanding in his sermons, irritating and alienating some of his supporters; in 1498, having lost the support of the Florentine authorities, he was declared a heretic and burnt at the stake.

B.) Italy and the Lutheran Reformation

So why did the Lutheran Reformation have so little an impact on Italy ? The only protestant communities in Italy were communities of WALDENSIANS, in remote mountain valleys; they have been founded long before the Lutheran reformation and integrated into the reformed church organization, because their beliefs had much in common.
A major factor was the language - Luther's publication, his bible translation were in German. It seems that the church censorship worked better in Italy, despite the frequently changing political situation, preventing Luther's ideas to be widely spread. The bible translation, the concept of comparing reality with scripture, did not reach large segments of the population, hence the situation in most regions of Italy did not become as revolutionary, as explosive, as in many parts of Germany and Switzerland, where state officials asked Luther respectively Zwingli to implement the reformation in an orderly, controlled manner, a major reason being to keep the situation under control.
Then Italy had gone through a failed attempt to implement a ferormation (Savonarola).
With a high density of bishops, there were many church officials who regarded any reformation a threat to their position. While the corruption of the papacy and of most bishops was obvious, at regular intervals these positions became vacant, and it was the powerful families of Italy which competed for having family members elected to these positions; although these familes often were enemies of each other (Romeo and Juliet), they probably were united in fearing the reformation might deprive them of these potential spoils.

In 1520 Pope Leo X. declared Martin Luther excommunicated (Bull EXSURGE DOMINE).
In 1525 the last SFORZA Duke of Milan died, King Francis I. of France and Emperor Charles V. both competing for the inheritance; the case was not decided until 1535. In 1527 an Imperial Army reinstated the Medici in Florence and went on to take Rome (SACCO DI ROMA), a measure expressing the Emperor's displeasure with Pope CLEMENT VII. who had been hostile to him. The Imperial Army sacked the city, the Lutheran soldiers, regarding the pope as the Antichrist, acting with special ferocity. This experience was not suited to win any fiends for the Lutheran reformation.
The court of Duke HERCULE D'ESTE (1528) attracted a number of French reformist refugees; Florence in 1530 expelled ANTONIO BRUCIOLI for having made reference to Luther and Bucer. Lutheran theses were discussed by students of the University of Padua in 1531. Overall, these were isolated incidents, the church authorities responding by suppression, succeeded in preventing the spread of these ideas.

C.) Italy and the Council of Trent

The necessity of a church reform was obvious. The traditional instrument for such a reform was a general council - which Martin Luther had demanded to be held in his 95 theses. However, the popes feared general church councils, as such councils in the past had declared individual popes deposed, and as they placed restrictions on the freedom of the papal decisions and authority.
In 1510 at the instigation of French bishops the COUNCIL OF PISA was convened (-1513); pope Julius II. refused to recognize it and called for the LATERAN COUNCIL instead (1512-1517), which decided on a limited reform - a reform which then was not implemented.
Papal legate Cardinal CONTARINI had negotiated with the Lutheran delegates in Germany. In 1536 he was charged by Pope PAUL III. to form and lead a commission which was to compose the draft of a church reform. The same year, the COUNCIL OF MANTUA was convened, to decide on such reforms. However the council failed to attract a sufficient number of participants from outside Italy; neither were the COUNCIL OF VICENZA 1537 and the (first) Council of Trent 1542. The Emperor insisted on a general council to be held on Imperial territory; it was finally convened in Trent (COUNCIL OF TRENT, 1545-1563). Due to the volatile situation, the council was dominated by Italian bishops and took an uncompromising course toward the reformation, rejecting the compromise solution which would have permitted the Lutherans their two key demands, priest marriage and the eucharist in both kinds.
In 1547 the Italian-dominated Council of Trent decided to relocate to Bologna, and the Emperor refused recognition; in 1551 it was reopened at Trent. The council decided upon enforcing strict discipline on the clergy, reinvented Catholicism (TRIDENTINE CATHOLICISM), stuck to the idea of one church,declared the various protestant churches heresies, placed heretical publications on the index of forbidden books and established the inquisition to combat heresy. Shortly after, the TRIDENTINE CONFESSION (Professio fidei Tridentina, 1564), a new idex of prohibited books, the TRIDENTINE CATECHISM (1566) were published. While scandals within the Italian church were not abolished completely, these reforms reduced them; they also established an institutionalized church control of public life, which lead to the demise of the Italian Renaissance (Galilei was forced by the Inquisition to recant his support for the Copernican theory, 1633). In many parts of Italy, the Inquistion stayed in control longer than elsewhere, preventing the spirit of the enlightenment to fully unfold.

Biography of Savonarola, from Catholic Encyclopedia 1912 edition
Die Plünderung Roms (Sacco di Roma), from Schweizer Garde, in German, illustrated
Sacco di Roma, from Cronologia, in Italian
Lateran Council 1512-1517, from A History of General Councils 327-1870
REFERENCE Christopher Duggan, A Concise History of Italy, Cambridge Concise Histories, Cambridge : University Press 1994, 320 pp.
Franz Xaver Seppelt, Georg Schwaiger, Geschichte der Päpste (History of the Popes), München : Kösel 1964, in German
Mark Greengrass, The Longman Companion to the European Reformation c.1500-1618, Harlow (Essex): Longman 1998, pp.145-151, KMLA Lib.Sign. 274.06 GB 121

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2001, last revised on November 15th 2004

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