Lucca: Cradle of the Reformation

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It was on 18 April 1521 that Luther appeared before the powers of this world and,
ostensibly, the next, at at the Diet of Worms. It was there he announced publicly the
formal cause of the Reformation, sola Scriptura. That doctrine says that Scripture is the
unique, final, ruling authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Scripture
trumps popes and councils. It alone is the final court of appeal and unlike popes and
councils, it does not contradict itself. Unlike popes and councils it is sufficiently clear
regarding salvation and the christian life.

Twenty years later we find another man facing some of the same questions. He was not
German but Italian. He name was Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562). In May of that
year he had been elected Prior of St. Frediano at Lucca. Since the city had an absentee
Bishop, the Prior more or less functioned as a kind of Bishop in his absence. Further,
because there was a shortage of pastors for the city, public officials were filling in. Philip
McNair (Peter Martyr in Italy: An Anatomy of Apostasy (Oxford, 1967), 210) writes that
the church in Lucca was “abominably corrupt.” The leading families controlled the
cathedral chapter and its “enormous riches.” In the decade prior heterosexual
immorality between priests and nuns, homosexuality between monks, crime, violence,
and even pederasty marked the life of among religious (those who had entered
monasteries or taken holy orders; ibid. 211–12). Remarkably, in September of this same
year “the two heads” of Roman Christendom Pope Paul III (1468–1549) and the
Emperor Charles V (1500–58) met in the wake of the failure of Colloquy of Regensburg
to resolve the Reformation crisis by formulating a genuine consensus on the doctrine of
justification.

Into this political, economic, and moral cauldron Peter Martyr was sent by Gasparo
Cardinal Contarini (1483–1542), himself a fascinating figure without whom the
Reformation might not ever have reached Italy nor Peter Martyr, whose initial work was
to begin to clean up the Cathedral Chapter and the cloisters of Lucca. He also began
reforming the educational system in Lucca where he studied Hebrew, in 1542, with the
great Humanist Hebrew scholar, Immanuel Tremmelius (1510–80), a Jew who had just
been converted to Christianity (ibid, 224–25). With the great Reformed scholar
Franciscus Junius (1545–1602), he would make a new Latin translation (the English of
the period) which, when combined with Theodore Beza’s new Latin New Testament,
would become a a resource for Reformed pastors and scholars across Europe and the
British Isles for decades. Also in the cloister was Girolamo Zanchi (1516–90), who
would go on to become one of most outstanding Reformed theologians in Strasbourg
and Heidelberg. Another surname among Vermigli’s students one might recognize,
Regolo Turretini (1519–82). His grandson, Francis Turretin (1600–81) would become, in
Geneva, one of the most important theologians in the Reformed tradition. Under
Vermigli’s leadership, the Academy in Lucca became a quiet but influential theological
college promoting the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation. In the academy
he taught Greek, lectured on the Pauline epistles, and preached weekly (Joseph C. McLelland, “Italy: Religious and Intellectual Ferment” in Torrance Kirby et al. ed. A
Companion to Peter Martyr Vermigli
(Leiden: Brill, 2009), 32.

Contrini was among the Cardinals in the entourage during Paul III’s visit to Lucca.
Contrani stayed with Vermigili during the visit and they talked much (McNair, 232). What
influence, if any did our crypto-Protestant have upon the Cardinal? The evidence is
unclear but what is clear is that his remarkable, Protestant ministry conducted (in
September of 1541) literally under the nose of the Pope and the Cardinals, in Lucca,
bore great fruit. Specifically, the source of the reformation of Lucca, however brief, was
Vermigli’s teaching and preaching of the same doctrines that Luther had gradually
rediscovered from 1513–21:

• That we are all born dead in sin;
• That grace is not a medicine for the sick but free divine favor for the lost;
• That God’s grace is sovereign and unconditional;
• That faith is not virtue formed within us by grace and works but the gift of God by
which we trust in Christ and in his finished work for us;
• That the basis of our right standing with God is not our inherent righteousness but
Christ’s perfect righteousness for us,
• That there are two kinds of words in Scripture, law and gospel;
• That God’s infallible Word is the sole magisterial authority for the Christian faith and
life.

We summarize these doctrines with three Latin phrases: Sola gratia, sola fide, and sola
Scriptura.

By August 1542 Contarini, the Cardinal who had protected him, was dead and
Vermigli’s cover was blown, as it were. He was forced to flee to Zürich, where he would
be received as a Reformed theologian and pastor. He would go on to teach and preach
in Strasbourg with Martin Bucer (1491–1551) from 1542–47, in Oxford University
(1547–52), in Strasbourg again (1553–56), and then again in Zürich for the rest of his
ministry.

Nevertheless, in many ways, his brief tenure in Lucca was a turning point and a cradle of the Reformation, not only for Italy but for Europe and the British Isles.

~ R.S. Clark

Dr. R. Scott Clark (PhD, Oxford University) is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California and a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America. He is the author of numerous books and articles. 

R. Scott Clark