Does a Reformation End?: Rethinking Religious Simulation in Sixteenth-Century Italy

Does a Reformation End?: Rethinking Religious Simulation in Sixteenth-Century Italy

Does a Reformation End?: Rethinking Religious Simulation in Sixteenth-Century Italy

Simone Maghenzani (Cambridge)

Another great paper at the Institute of Historical Research. This time, it’s a little late in the period but still a fascinating topic: the Reformation in Italy, a closer examination of Italian Protestantism in the sixteenth century. The paper was given by Simone Maghezani. Maghezani recently finished his PhD in September at the University of Turin. He work is entitled: The Reformation in Italy. Propaganda and dissent from the Peace of Augsburg to the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1555-1660). He is currently a research fellow at Cambridge University where he continues his work on the Reformation in Italy, and Modern Italian Protestantism.

Maghezani wanted to look closely at the 1560s and 1570s, the crisis of the Italian Reformation, Italian exiles, and the problem of Nicodemism. What are we talking about when we talk about the Italian Reformation? Traditionally, the historiography has seen the Council of Trent as the Catholic response to the Counter Reformation. We also tend to think of the Inquisition during the 1550s and 1560s. The Inquisition represented the real power among the elite in the Catholic Church. In these two decades, the repression was managed by Inquisitors in Northern Italy and the local bishops in Southern Italy. This was an age of strong internal conflict within the Church. The Catholic Reformation and Counter Reformation are often used interchangeably but Maghzani wanted to separate these categories when examining the Italian Protestant movement.

From a letter by Pope Pius V to a local bishop in Modena:

“…I allow full licence to absolve for heresy, and to reconcile with the Church, if the heretics truly repent, and if they reveal the name of all their accomplices, making the accomplices abjure in public or secretly.” Pius V, 1567

Unfortunately, Pietro Carnesecchi was not so lucky. Carnesecchi, an Italian Humanist and former papal secretary, was well connected in aristocratic and papal circles. He became enamoured with controversial religious writer Juan de Valdés, who introduced him to Luther’s doctrines. After many years spent dodging the Inquisition for heresy, Carnesecchi was betrayed by Cosimo I de’ Medici, beheaded and then burned in 1567 along with sixteen other men. His trial was startling in Italian religious circles.

In the late 1550s, the Italian Reformation split. Many Italian exiles fled to Geneva and by 1558 people started establishing a new Orthodoxy for this new church. The first breaks occurred in 1548 the case of Francesco Spiera whose abjuration and death sparked controversy within the movement. His death became an extremely famous polemical case. The Italian exiles that became Calvinists in Geneva in the 1550s started with a strong polemic asking people to flee or accept martyrdom. Nicodemism has been traced back to Strasbourg with Anabaptists. Maghezani argued that Nicodemism wasn’t just a moral or social practice, it was the legitimisation of religious simulation of a specific doctrine. The nature of the Italian Reformation was very spiritualistic and it was a consequence of this Valdensian approach.


Calvin coined the derogatory term that harkens back to the Gospel of John, John 3:1-2, where the Pharisee Nicodemus while outwardly, still a practising Jew, meets Christ secretly to get instruction in the Christian faith. Calvin used the term “Nicodemism” to define people in the Protestant movement who wanted to follow Jesus without putting in the work. He understood that it wasn’t just a moral attitude but it encompassed a different philosophy and theology. Nicodemism was not in line with mainline Protestantism.

Maghezani went on to discuss some of the important members of the Genevan Protestant exiles, like Niccolo Balbani. Balbani, a Calvinist convert, was a member of the elite from Lucca. Some elite families decided to become exiles in Geneva and built a Protestant community there. In 1556, Balbani escaped to Lyon and became a minister of the local church where he started writing his religious polemic asking Italian Protestants not to lose hope. He wrote the Italian translation of the Catechism of Calvin. Balbani remained very involved with the Genevan exiles until his death there in 1587.

“…It is necessary to follow the Apostles’ example: to hide in private houses, sharing the Word And the sacraments by night…Your resistance will be acknowledged: the example of France and Flanders should straighten the souls of those faithful dispersed across Italy”
~Niccolo Balbani, To Italy, preface to Calvin’s Cathecism, 1566.

The French Wars of Religion also had a vast impact on the religious tide in Italy. The Inquisition was extremely concerned about heretical literature crossing over from France.

“His Majesty and the Council of the Holy Inquisiton know that among French heretics are printed many books that are going to be secretly sent to his Kingdom and others of his Majesty…”
~Giovanni Bezzara de la Quadra, Inquisitor of Sicily 1568

The celebration by the Church of the St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre in 1572 also had an impact on this polemic and changed its tone. It’s generally assumed that the suppression of heresy in Italy was long accomplished by the 1580s but there were still calls for exile and fleeing well into the 1620s.

~Sandra Alvarez

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Watch the video: A Look at the Reformation - Marcus Grodi - Deep in History (November 2021).