Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) serves as lead pastor of New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel. Chris blogs at www.chriscastaldo.com.
It may be surprising for many to hear that a Reformation occurred in Italy. We normally use the term “Reformation” to describe the defection of Protestants from Roman obedience in places like Wittenberg, Strasbourg, Zurich, and Geneva. But surely the Italian peninsula was always loyal to the papacy?
Yet Italy was also poised for gospel renewal in the opening decades of the 16th century. Waves of invasions by French and Habsburg armies, epidemic diseases such as syphilis, harvest failures, and a growing resentment toward clerical authority produced a generation of troubled hearts. And, as they did else elsewhere, reformers in Italy found solvent for their fears in the promises of Scripture.
But who were these Italian evangelical reformers? Following posts will introduce you to some of them. For now, however, I wish to go deeper into the central impulses that ran through the movement: disillusionment with clerical authority and eagerness to personally encounter Christ.
Disillusionment with Clerical Authority
The movement of evangelical renewal in Italy is generally thought to have started in 1512 and concluded in the 1560s (allowing for echoes into the 17th century). It that same year the Italian General of the Augustinian Order, Giles (Egidio) of Viterbo, asserted, “Men must be changed by religion, not religion by men.” He had proclaimed that the disastrous events of the preceding decades were warnings to the pope to call a council for the renewal of the church. The council was convened but its reforms were meager.
To get a sense of the clerical culture of this period, we can observe its popes. Julius II (pont. 1503-1513) is often called the Warrior-Pope. He dressed like a Roman emperor, donning a yellow cape, and preferred the fragrance of gunpowder to incense. Absorbed by the secular role of the papacy, he especially enjoyed battle, personally riding into combat with his soldiers well into his 60s. Julius was also a great patron of the arts, commissioning Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael to paint the papal apartments.
The successor to Julius was Leo X (pont. 1513-1521). Leo was not quite a warrior, but he did share Julius’s commitment to upholding the grandeur of the papacy through artistic and cultural patronage. When he was elected pope at age 37, he is said to have skipped from the Conclave exclaiming, “Now that God has provided the papacy, let us enjoy it.” It was of course Leo who was reigning in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses. It’s interesting to note that the year of Luther’s Theses is the same year that the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517) concluded. Some interpreters of the Reformation have suggested that God intended genuine reform at this point of the church’s history. If it didn’t come from Leo or a council, it would come another way. The Reformation was born.
It was the cousin of Leo X, Clement VII de’ Medici (pont. 1523-1534), who had to face the brunt of the Protestant threat. As the ideals of reform were disseminated across Europe, political factions gradually coalesced in opposition to Rome. Such opposition came to a head in the spring of 1527 when an imperial army of Spanish soldiers and Lutheran German pikemen scaled the Roman walls and proceeded to sack it over the course of eight months. While Clement VII managed to escape with his life, he could do nothing but observe the devastation from the Vatican Palace in Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Sack of Rome may be understood as an illustration of the broken state of the papacy and to some extent of the clerical bureaucracy in general. The Florentine statesman Francesco Guicciardini gave voice to this discontent around 1530, articulating on behalf of many the underlying desire for reform.
Naturally I have always wanted to see the ruin of the Papal State. But as fortune would have it, I have been forced to support and work for the power of two popes. Were it not for that, I would love Martin Luther more than myself, in the hope that his sect might demolish, or at least clip the wings, of this wicked tyranny of priests.
Eagerness to Personally Encounter God
We should not make the mistake of thinking that all quarters of the church in this period were bereft of gospel-centered faith. At the same time that clerical bureaucracy was impoverishing the formal structures of the church, other movements were promoting spiritual renewal. In Italy, the humanism of the devotio moderna was inspiring a return to both the sources of the Bible and the early church fathers. This fresh reading of Scripture, particularly Paul, encouraged an emphasis on the interior regeneration of human hearts issuing forth in lives of personal consecration to God. These influences were nurturing a nascent generation of reformers.
There are numerous examples of men and women whose biblically oriented and spirited faith took shape in the Italian Reformation. Here is an example from the pen of the evangelical humanist and poet Marcantonio Flaminio. We will return to Flaminio later in this series to consider a fascinating event that occurred at his deathbed; but for now, notice the emphasis on personal faith that pervades his poetry:
The sun hath reach’d the heaven’s mid-height,
Earth droops beneath his parching light,
Oh Father! Thus thy power display,
Send through our hearts thy living ray,
Till every burning sense confess
Our God’s surpassing worthiness.
Let no cold cares of earth remove
That fervid zeal, that generous love;
But let them still more brightly shine
Beneath the light of Grace Divine
Till summon’d from our chains we rise
To dwell in Faith’s meridian skies.
Here is another example from a Venetian goldsmith named Iseppo. Concerning the need for churches to be transformed according to the gospel, he said to a friend “that he has hope in God that he will see the Venetian lords know the true faith, that they will take all the images of saints and the crosses and other things from the churches, put them in a heap, and set them on fire . . . that the churches will become guild halls for preaching.”
We Must Not Forget
One reason we must remember the Italian Reformation is that in every age we are susceptible to reducing Christian faith to something less than a vital relationship with Christ. Contemporary evangelicals may not be tempted by the same distractions that occupied Renaissance popes. We are not fastening armor to our bodies in preparation to fight adversarial famiglia in Tuscany or Bologna. However, just because we don’t invest ourselves in frescoes or wear a yellow cape, does not mean that we are free from the age-old temptations of unholy distraction.
The Serpent of Old tempts us with the same old allurements in different forms. Therefore, it is good for our souls and for the progress of the kingdom to periodically step back from the busyness of ministry to consider what occupies our commitments and do whatever is necessary to realize Christ-centered reformation. As Peter Martyr Vermigli says concerning our allegiance to Christ, “By divine goodness we have been gathered into the happy army and under the banner of so noble a prince and so great a brother. He will spare neither goodwill nor great power to help us. Let us yield ourselves completely to him.”
 Francesco Guicciardini, Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Statesman, trans. M. Domandi (New York, 1965), 125-26.
 Marco Antonio Flaminio. Fifty Select Poems of Marc-Antonio Flaminio, Imitated By the Late Reverend Edward William Barnard. (Reprint. San Bernardino: University of California, 2015). 65. (Original work published 1829, p. 365).
 John Jeffries Martin, Venice’s Hidden Enemies: Italian Heretics in a Renaissance City, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press: 2004), 94.
 Peter Martyr Vermigli, The Peter Martyr Reader, ed. John Patrick Donnelly, Frank A. James, III, and Joseph C. McLelland (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 1999), 14.