A famous seventeenth-century Dutch engraving, known as The Candlestick, pictures the Reformers of the sixteenth century, and certain others, gathered around a table on which shines a candle. Among the divines represented is the German Martin Luther, the French John Calvin, the Swiss Uldrich Zwingli, the Czech John Hus, the Scotsman John Knox, the Slav Matthias Flaius Illyricus, and the Englishman William Perkins. Because these various leaders often represented conflicting theological viewpoints, it takes some imagination to envision them meeting together so peacefully.

However, though the picture is incomplete, it does furnish a fair graphic representation of the character of the European Protestant Reformation. Born in Germany, it was not confined to the world of the small German states. Already in the 1530s Lutheranism penetrated and sank roots in the Scandinavian countries.

In the Swiss cantons of Zurich, Bern, and Basel of the Helvetic Confederation, and in the free republic of Geneva, a vigorous reform of the Church took place. This movement, which was parallel to, but not identical with Lutheranism, we call reformed Protestantism. From this base reform spread out all over Europe—from France to the Netherlands, to East Central Europe—and later to the New World.

The Reformation in England was certainly more than an act of Parliament. To the building up of the Anglican Church (ecclesia anglicana) contributed numerous and able theologians, such as Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer. In Scotland, between 1557 and 1560, the preaching of John Knox had great and decisive influence upon the small landed aristocracy (the Lairds), who, against the will of the staunchly Catholic Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”), imposed Calvinism as the state religion of Scotland.

Snuffing the Candle in Italy

Also in the engraving are two Italian theologians: the Florentine Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Bergamo-born Jerome Zanchi. Their presence demonstrates that Italy was not cut off from the circulation of ideas and proposals of Church renewal in the first half of the sixteenth century in Europe. Indeed, numerous recent studies have shown convincingly that the Protestant Reformation, in all its forms (from Lutheranism to Calvinism to Anabaptism), penetrated and sank roots in Italy. It made converts at every level of society and witnessed the formation of underground circles, not only in the most northerly regions adjacent to Protestant countries, but also in the remote southern areas of Calabria and Sicily.

The conditions for free and open debate did not exist, however, in the Italian Christianity of the sixteenth century. The political powers would not allow it, for they used religious uniformity as a means of ensuring their control (a means of rule—instrumentum regni); nor could the Church of Rome tolerate disagreement without its authority being put radically in question.

A quarter of a century or so after the protest of Martin Luther—once it had become clear that it was impossible to stem the penetration of the new “protestant” faith—the Roman hierarchy moulded a plan to block the spread of the heresy and reconquer the lost ground. Rome reconstituted its establishment for rooting out and punishing heresy, the Inquisition (1542), and at the council of Trent (1545) fixed its doctrines in opposition to the Protestant theology, and promoted a number of reforms of religious life of its own, which would not undermine its institutional power. This is usually known as the Catholic, or Counter-Reformation

The Waldensian Exception

As a result of the increasing efficiency of the Inquisition and the failure of any prince or republic to take up the cause of the Reformation against Rome (Italy as a whole had come under the control of Catholic Spain, the epitome of intolerance), Protestantism in Italy was gradually extinguished by 1600. There was however a single exception: The Waldensians.

In the valleys of Piedmont, located west of the city of Turin near the French border, Waldensian peasants and mountaineers, who in 1532 had joined the Calvinist faith, fought an amazing guerrilla war for their freedom. They stood off the troops of their lord, the Duke of Savoy, and obtained toleration for their faith within the narrow confines of their valleys. The agreement of Cavour (June 1561) recognized, for the first time in the Reformation era, the right of a religious minority to practice publicly a faith that differed from that of the ruler and the majority of the population. (The established practice in Europe was that subjects of a prince were obligated to accept his faith.) The same toleration, however, did not favor the Waldensian communities of Calabria in southern Italy; they were ruthlessly persecuted and eliminated in 1561.

Although Protestantism was finally suppressed in Italy (with the Waldensian exception), the Italian Reformation was saved from becoming a fossil of history by the intellectual activity of certain Italian exiles who found refuge in other Protestant countries. Some of them made enduring contributions to European theology and culture. Indeed, since 1542, a recurring phenomenon in Italian history is the emigration—flight—of intellectuals who have refused to bend to violence.

Italian Reformers

The most outstanding Italian theologians who fled the country soon after the reconstitution of the Roman Inquisition were Peter Martyr Vermigli, formerly a prior of the Augustinian order, and Bernardino Ochino, a highly sought after preacher in Italy. During the brief reign of Edward VI in England, Vermigli was given the Regius professorship of theology at Oxford University, and Ochino received a benefice in London. Together they participated in the revision of the Book of Common Prayer and in the formulation of the Forty-two articles of religion promoted by the great Anglican reformer Thomas Cranmer. Compelled to flee England at the accession of Mary Tudor, Vermigli ended his career serving with great distinction as professor of Scripture at Zurich. Ochino lived out his time in exile in Moravia.

Another influential Italian reformer was Peter Paul Vergerio. The atmosphere of self-examination and self-criticism that spread throughout the European Christian world reached this once-powerful papal advisor and bishop of Capodistria. Converted to the Protestant faith, he took refuge in the Valtellina, a mountainous area extending north-east from Milan, which was, in his day, under the control of Zurich. He later became a theological adviser to Duke Christoph of Wurttemberg. Concern for the communication of the Gospel was a hallmark of this reformer, who published an astonishing number of tracts, prayers, and liturgies—some of them of classic beauty.

From Lucca—the city where Peter Martyr Vermigli had helped found the first Protestant academy of Italy—came Emanuel Tremelio and Jerome Zanchi, two distinguished biblical scholars who taught at Heidelberg University in Germany.

Fleeing the Darkness

From the 1550s to the 1570s there was an exodus of about sixty leading Italian families, who controlled the Italian commerce in silk and velvet. By the first decades of the seventeenth century both the Church in Geneva and its famous academy were largely dominated by the descendants of these families. One such person, John Diodati, represented the Genevan Church at the Synod of Dordt in Holland in 1618 (where the “Five Points” of Calvinism were drawn up). Diodati also prepared an elegant Italian translation of the Bible in 1607.

Another graduate from Geneva, the important theologian Francesco Turretini (1623–1687), was undoubtedly the most prominent Genevan theologian after Calvin. Turretin’s three-volume work on theology was used as the standard handbook of reformed theology in the major theological faculties of Europe and North America until the last century.

Hundreds of families, being pursued by the Inquisition for “heretical leanings,” abandoned Modena, Ferrara, Mantova, and Venice. Among them were humanist scholars, nobles, poets, and physicians.

From Naples, Galeazzo Caracciolo, Marquis of Vico and nephew of Pope Paul IV, fled to Geneva. He was instrumental in building up the Italian reformed Church. The account of Caracciolo’s dramatic life, written by Nicolo Balbani, an exile from Lucca who served as pastor of the Italian Church in Geneva, appeared in English translation under the extravagant title News from Italy of a Second Moses, and as The Italian Convert. Under this last title it was published in Boston in 1751, becoming the first book by an Italian to be printed in America.

On the other hand, hundreds of outstanding laypeople and clergy like the Florentine Antonio Bucioli, the first translator of the Bible into Italian, were tortured and died in the prisons of the Inquisition. They found out in a very real sense that Christian faith involves much more than ideas or religious practices, and that the sign of the Cross was more than a religious gimmick.

Another aspect of the Italian Reformation was the influence of the intellectual activity of certain radical religious Italian exiles who found refuge in Protestant Europe. The great Italian historian Delio Cantimori argued earlier in this century that these figures had a significant impact on European culture by introducing into the mainstream of the Reformation humanistic influences they derived from the Italian Renaissance. In this regard, we should mention the example of Lelio and Fausto Sozzini, who started Socinianism, a heretical movement that had its fullest flowering in the late sixteenth century in eastern Europe. (Socinianism is unitarian—it denies the Trinity.)

The Freedom of the Word

“The Word did it all … I left it to the Word,” said Martin Luther in that startling—and unconvincing—statement, as if, as he later said, when the Reformation happened he was quietly drinking beer with his friends. (Indeed, the Reformation was slightly more than a storm in a beer mug!) It shook the world and overturned kingdoms; it was mingled with ugly elements of greed, power, and pride, with political and social matters. Still, perhaps the unshakable trust (certitudo) in the power of the Word of God is its indelible mark.

The assertion that the Word of God could not be bound by human fear, but must go daringly free was also shared by the Italian Reformers. And they were sensitively aware that the Reformation watchword “by Faith alone” (Sola Fide) was the end of legalism—of the lopsided over emphasis on reward and merit.

They also recovered the concept of the Church as primarily people—as the communion of the Saints, with the attending emphasis on Christian equality, and the priesthood of all believers. Yet, due to the peculiar, difficult situation in Italy, they had no opportunity for experimenting and discussing novel ideas in lecture rooms. They knew that for their ideas, they must be prepared to suffer and, if need be, to die.

Not for nothing, the author of the Benefit of Jesus Christ, a noble theological document of the Italian Reformation, spoke for most of the Protestants of his country when he stressed that

As Christ suffered all the persecucyons and shames of the worlde for the glory of God, so ought we joyfully to sustayne the shames and persecucyons that the false Christians do to all thos that will lyve godly in Christ.

Emidio Campi is a Waldensian pastor in Zurich, Switzerland. He also teaches church history in the University of Zurich, and was formerly general secretary of the World Student Christian Federation.