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Venice's Hidden Enemies: Italian Heretics in a Renaissance City

Venice's Hidden Enemies: Italian Heretics in a Renaissance City

by John Martin

How could early modern Venice, a city renowned for its political freedom and social harmony, also have become a center of religious dissent and inquisitorial repression? To answer this question, John Martin develops an innovative approach that deftly connects social and cultural history. The result is a profoundly important contribution to Renaissance and


How could early modern Venice, a city renowned for its political freedom and social harmony, also have become a center of religious dissent and inquisitorial repression? To answer this question, John Martin develops an innovative approach that deftly connects social and cultural history. The result is a profoundly important contribution to Renaissance and Reformation studies.

Martin offers a vivid re-creation of the social and cultural worlds of the Venetian heretics—those men and women who articulated their hopes for religious and political reform and whose ideologies ranged from evangelical to anabaptist and even millenarian positions. In exploring the connections between religious beliefs and social experience, he weaves a rich tapestry of Renaissance urban life that is sure to intrigue all those involved in anthropological, religious, and historical studies—students and scholars alike.

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University of California Press
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Studies on the History of Society and Culture Series
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6.30(w) x 9.35(h) x 1.09(d)

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Venice's Hidden Enemies

Italian Heretics in a Renaissance City
By John Martin

University of California Press

Copyright © 1993 John Martin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-07743-1


Salvation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Venice

A fertile, elementary age was bound to produce something more than an opposition between a well-co-ordinated Protestantism on the one hand and a well-expurgated Catholicism on the other.

Lucien Febvre

The myth of Venice was able to capture the imagination of sixteenth-century Europeans not only through literature and works of political theory but also through such stately images of the city as Jacopo de' Barbari's perspective of the city, printed in Venice about 1500. (Museo Correr; courtesy of Osvaldo Böhm)

Few places in the history of the western world seem so unlikely a setting for an examination of the conjoined themes of repression and dissent as Renaissance Venice. For Venice has almost always been perceived as a place apart, and not only because of its watery location, so splendid and so strange. In the fourteenth century, for example, when most of the other cities and states of Italy were torn by violence and civil conflicts, this peaceful island republic, "solidly built on marble but standing more solid on a foundation of civil concord," appeared to the visiting Florentine humanist Petrarch as "the one refuge of honorable men." But it was in the sixteenth century that Venice's unusual destiny provided an especially striking counterpoint to the general course of Italian and other European developments. It was in that century that the city survived not only the invasions of Italy first by the French and then by Spanish troops but even preserved, despite all odds in an age of princes, many of the internal liberties of republican institutions. Thus, in what was to become a famous and influential book, The Commonwealth and Government of Venice, the Venetian humanist Gasparo Contarini boasted that no state could be found in history or his own times "that may bee paragond with this of ours, for institutions & lawes prudently decreed." And to the French political philosopher Jean Bodin, also writing in the sixteenth century, Venice was virtually synonymous with political freedom. "Whereas other cities and districts are threatened by civil wars or fears of tyrants or harsh exactions of taxes or the most annoying inquiries into one's activities." Bodin observed, "[Venice]seemed to me to be nearly the only city that offers immunity and freedom from all these kinds of servitude." To contemporaries, Venice was indeed a republican island in a sea of monarchies. In such a free and serene city, what reason was there for dissent? And what excuse was there for repression?

Yet Venice never really was, of course, a place apart. As a major port and commercial center on the crossroads of the trade routes that connected east with west and Europe with the Mediterranean, Venice stood at the center of things-and not only the world of merchants. Venice was also an intellectual center. In the early sixteenth century the city claimed the largest publishing industry in the world; and its university, in nearby Padua, attracted students from all over Europe. Indeed, Venetian history has always been tied to the fortunes of Europe and the Mediterranean. It is thus no surprise that, in the age of the Reformation, religious tensions made themselves felt in this northern Italian city.

Although these religious tensions and in particular the development of religious dissent in sixteenth-century Venice have been marginal concerns to most scholars who have made the city the focus of their research, this book is by no means the first to examine the history of Venetian heresy. It has now been over a century since Karl Benrath published his Geschichte der Reformation in Venedig (History of the Reformation in Venice); the second volume of Emilio Comba's I nostri Protestanti (Our Protestants), which appeared in 1897, was devoted to the same subject; and Paul Grendler's. Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, published in 1977, is but one of scores of related studies that have appeared in recent years. And yet the field has been cultivated in such a way that it risks enclosure in one of those intellectual hothouses of subspecialization-by no means rare in academia-in which the possibility of cross-pollination with social and political history, for example, or with other dimensions of intellectual history has become increasingly remote. This study, by contrast, is an effort to carry at least a few of the seedlings out into the open air. My central goal is both to offer a general picture and to do so with attention to the larger social, political, and intellectual contexts.

The problem of context has not been an easy one for students of religious dissent in sixteenth- century Italy. At first, of course, the backdrop seemed obvious. Efforts at religious reform that the Catholic church defined as heretical scholars considered to be extensions or echoes of the Protestant Reformation to the north. They searched for signs of Lutheran or Calvinist sympathies; and, given what were for the most part their own Protestant or liberal commitments, they lamented the failure of the reform to take root-a failure they generally attributed to Rome's reaction and the dogged aggressiveness with which it suppressed the new ideas.

In the 1930s two eminent Italian historians-Delio Cantimori and Federico Chabod-offered new frameworks for the study of the Italian heresies. In his Eretici italiani del Cinquecento (Italian heretics of the sixteenth century), published in 1939, Cantimori redefined both the context and the character of the contributions of the Italian reform movements. In Cantimori's view, the Italian reformers were not especially influenced by Luther or Calvin. To the contrary, they were often as hostile to the teachings of the Lutheran and Reformed churches as they were to Roman doctrine. The significance of the eretici became particularly plain in their refusal ultimately-after abandoning the Roman church-to make the new Protestant confessions their home. As Cantimori put it, they were "rebels against every form of ecclesiastical organization." To be sure, there was a time when many of them hoped to find their ideas realized in the new Protestant confessions and, during the 1540s especially, fled to Geneva, Basel, Bern, Zurich, and other Swiss cities with some optimism. But after the execution of the Spanish antitrinitarian Michael Servetus in Geneva in 1553-an execution

Calvin himself encouraged-the Italian heretics realized that the gulf between their values and those of Calvin was irreconcilable. Many sought refuge in Poland and Moravia where the political regimes were tolerant of religious diversity. Among the exiles were figures such as Bernardino Ochino, Giorgio Biandrata, and Lelio and Fausto Sozzini. Cantimori's argument made it clear that the patently radical and often antitrinitarian ideas expressed by these and many other Italian reformers belonged to a context quite different from that of the magisterial Reformation. In formulating their views these men drew, he argued, not on the writings of Luther or Calvin but rather on several currents of syncretism and religious rationalism that originated in Renaissance Italy. Thus they looked with particular interest to the works of the humanist Lorenzo Valla and the Platonist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Cantimori's formulation of a specific definition of heresy had the merit of stressing the contribution that Italian radicals and Socinians made to the ideas of tolerance and freedom of conscience that seemingly foreshadowed many of the most notable achievements of the Enlightenment.

Shortly before Cantimori completed Eretici italiani, Chabod published a remarkable study on the history of religious life in the Duchy of Milan during the sixteenth century. In this work, part of his comprehensive examination-of the duchy in the age of the emperor Charles V, Chabod viewed the reform movements of the sixteenth century in relation to the specific political context in which they developed. The invasions of Italy by France and Spain that began at the end of the fifteenth century, he argued, precipitated a crisis that was both religious and political; they provoked not only anger and hostility against those princes who had allowed the "barbarians" back into Italy but also, as Chabod emphasized, a sense of outrage "against the Church and the clergy, who were incapable of either consoling or exalting the faithful, so anxious in this period, and who seemed instead, with their bad examples, to invoke the wrath of God. This was the environment in which Machiavelli launched his bitter condemnation of princes and in which Ochino, Vergerio, and the other Italian reformers mounted their condemnations of the Roman church.... Thus together were political and religious protests born."

In contrast to the formulation of Cantimori (whose interests led him to emphasize the most original dimensions of Italian reform thought), Chabod's analysis underscored the affinities that existed between the various reform movements in Italy and those north of the Alps. To be sure, he was conscious of certain radical and Anabaptist tendencies among the heretics he studied, but his emphasis fell primarily on those who had been influenced by Luther and by Calvin. This was especially apparent in his discussion of reform movements in the easternmost parts of the duchy, at Cremona and Casalmaggiore. In Cremona, Chabod uncovered a large and well- organized community that adhered to the reform-a community he described as nettamente calvinista (clearly Calvinist). Thus like Cantimori's, Chabod's work represents a watershed in the study of the reform movements in sixteenth-century Italy. For unlike the earlier focus of scholars such as Benrath, Chabod's interest never led him to mourn the failure of the reform. More decisively, his analysis made it clear that context-the social experience but especially the political environment-was decisive in the development of reform ideas in Italy.

The studies of Cantimori and Chabod have animated much of the very best research into the history of the Italian reform movements. Scholars following Cantimori's lead continue to uncover evidence of radicalism (antitrinitarianism; anabaptism; spiritualism), while those following Chabod draw attention to the widespread diffusion (both geographical and social) of reform ideas-often moderate, philo-Protestant ideas-in sixteenth-century Italy. Indeed, the current researchers on the Italian Reformation often point to the presence of reform ideas among the popolo, especially merchants and artisans. The view, widespread only a generation ago, that reform ideas in Italy were confined to the aristocratic circles of the Italian courts no longer holds. Still no one has attempted to analyze the relative participation of different social groups in the various reform movements of the age. Moreover, given the now rather long-term coexistence of the research traditions initiated by Cantimori and Chabod, surprisingly little has been done to bring them together-to see, that is, the interplay of religious ideas with social and political experience. Accordingly, in this book I seek-through an exploration of the reform movements in Venice-to offer a new characterization of the heresies of sixteenth-century Italy. I do so, above all, by trying to understand the various currents of reform ideas in the city and their relation to one another. This "intellectual" history is never divorced from its social and political contexts. The approach of this book, therefore, is methodologically inclusive, perhaps even eclectic. It is my conviction that a balanced picture of the history of heresy in early modern Venice must take as many ideas and as many social groups as possible into account.

Given these goals, it makes little sense for me to begin my research with a specialized interpretation of eretici. Cantimori's definition in particular is much too restrictive. I therefore begin with a decidedly conventional use of the term. When I refer to heretics in a general sense, I mean first and foremost those individuals whose ideals for the reform of church and society placed them at odds with the interests of both the Roman curia and the Venetian state. Admittedly, at times these individuals made no conscious effort to break, even in matters of detail, with the teachings of Rome or with arrangements in Venice. As long as no clear line was drawn between dissent and orthodoxy-roughly down to the year 1550-such figures were not uncommon. If they were defined as heretics, it was not so much because they saw themselves as dissidents but rather because (as I try to show in the first two chapters of this book) the interest of both the papal curia in Rome and the ruling elite in Venice had narrowed the options for acceptable approaches to reform.


Excerpted from Venice's Hidden Enemies by John Martin Copyright © 1993 by John Martin. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

John Martin is Associate Professor of History at Trinity University.

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