The Italian Reformation
There is a sense in which we could say that the Protestant Reformation began in Italy. There were of course so-called “forerunners” of the Reformation in other countries, such as England, France, and Germany, but the extent of discontent in the peninsula with the policies of the papacy and with the unclarity of Roman Catholic theology seems unparalleled. The heterogeneous group known as spirituali was widespread in the country and included some of the greatest intellects of that day.
Most scholars today agree in pinpointing the failure of the Italian Reformation in the lack of a political leader who promoted and defended the cause. Germany had Frederick the Wise, England had Henry VIII and then, in a more purely Protestant form, Edward VI. France had some protectors in the French nobility, such as Marguerite of Navarre, her daughter Jeanne, and even Catherine de Medici, who allowed the French Protestants to grow to a considerable and powerful force within the country.
I am not sure if this formula works in every case. We may say that, besides having powerful protectors, the Protestants in other countries had a fallible political foe. When faced with a choice of obeying God or men, French Huguenots could rebel against the crown and Scottish Protestants against the queen. It was feasible. On the other hand, the strongest political force in Italy was the pope, and rebellion against him seemed futile to some and sacrilegious to others who preferred to wait for a Reformation from within.
The influence of the Italian spirituali permeated the country, so much that in some areas maids and stable boys were found to be conversing on theological matters with impressive understanding. A little booklet, The Benefit of Christ, a warm, lucid and concise explanation of the gospel, sold 40,000 copies in six years in Venice alone. In the end, however, the main representatives of this Italian Reformation movement had to make a choice of staying and suffering martyrdom (as did Pietro Carnesecchi and Fanino Fanini) or leaving the country (as did Peter Martyr Vermigli, Girolamo Zanchi, Renée of France, and Olympia Morata).
Only a few were able to stay in Italy unharmed. Some died too soon to be discovered (such as Benedetto da Mantova, Vittoria Colonna and Giulia Gonzaga), and others continued to quietly meditate on their religious views as a personal choice (such as Michelangelo).
What does this brief and apparently feeble Italian Reformation tell us today? It teaches us that Italians were not blind followers of the pope. In fact, the theological clarity and insight of some of the Italian theologians, coupled with their remarkable familiarity with Scriptures, biblical languages, and patristics, have continued to impress readers throughout the centuries.
Some of them gathered a large number of followers. Their sermons were commonly attended by large crowds who were sometimes compelled to stand outside the church. The entourage of noblewomen like Renée of France and Giulia Gonzaga were composed of intelligent and zealous Protestants who were seriously engaged in the study of Scriptures. Even Vermigli’s experimental school in Lucca, Italy, for the teaching of Scriptures and biblical languages to the laity, attracted large masses.
The same interest in the gospel has continued for some time in the lives of few, dispersed groups of Italians, was briefly revived during the Italian movement for independence and unification (Risorgimento), and is finding new strength today, as the internet, like the 15th-century printing press, makes the gospel accessible to all.