Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Between Spirituali and Intransigenti: Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga and Patrician Reform in Sixteenth-Century Italy

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Between Spirituali and Intransigenti: Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga and Patrician Reform in Sixteenth-Century Italy

Article excerpt

In May of 1549 a colleague questioned the orthodoxy of Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga (1505-1563) based on another person's doubts. Gonzaga responded in his own hand and defended his orthodoxy in the following terms:

I am a Catholic and a good one and I have in my house someone who knows and wants to teach me what I ought to say and think as a Catholic; if I am not a member of the Company of the Rosary or that of the Sisters of Ravenna, have patience. It is enough that I am of the Company of Christ and I sense the need that I have for him, because I confess myself to be a sinner, and so I am.1

This is a firm yet ambiguous statement of loyalty to the Catholic Church. Gonzaga was committed to the Church, but he admitted that he needed someone to show him what that meant. Further, his reference to his membership in the "Company of Christ" indicates his use of a rather inclusive standard for describing membership in the Church. His statement also demonstrates that, even in his own lifetime, Gonzaga's work and his relationships with others led some to wonder where he stood on the religious issues of the day.

Four centuries have not lessened the difficulty in understanding Ercole Gonzaga, who stands as a widely recognized but not well-understood figure in the landscape of sixteenth-century Italian history. He was the second son of Francesco Gonzaga (1466-1519), Marquis of Mantua, and Isabella D'Este (1474-1539), prominent figures in the world of Renaissance politics and culture. As a noble cardinal and bishop of Mantua he enjoyed a substantial income with which he played the patron and cared for his numerous children. He enjoyed the benefits of a typical training in the humanities in Mantua. His studies under Pietro Pomponazzi at Bologna in the 1520's deeply influenced him. He assembled a library that included examples of classical literature, patristic theology, scholastic works, humanist editions of the classics, and treatises by a variety of Protestant authors and left to his heirs approximately 1,500 volumes. His awareness of ecclesiastical and international politics grew when he spent nearly ten years in Rome as his family's primary diplomatic agent.2 From 1537 to 1561 Gonzaga resided in Mantua. There he engaged in a reform of his diocese that included numerous diocesan visitations, reform of convents, attentiveness to the education of the clergy, and a reform of lay confraternities. From the death of his brother Duke Federico, in 1540, to 1556 Cardinal Gonzaga served as ducal regent for his nephews. In this capacity he protected Gonzaga interests in Italian and imperial politics. Gonzaga's lengthy correspondence and his relationships with prominent political and religious figures have made him familiar to historians seeking witnesses to the political and ecclesiastical history of sixteenth-century Italy.3 His friendships with and support of certain individuals who eventually chose to become Protestants would seem to conflict with his role as a leading member of the College of Cardinals. Yet, his career culminated in 1561 when Pope Pius IV named him legate to the Council of Trent, where he presided until his death in March of 1563.

Most interpretations of Gonzaga's life have reflected broader debates among historians as to the nature of Italian Protestantism and reform within the Catholic Church. Prominent in this discussion is the division between the spirituals and the intransigenti. The spirituals are generally said to have held to some form of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, cultivated a personalized religion based on the reading of Scripture, particularly the Pauline epistles, engaged in the study of the Fathers, and sought an irenic solution to the division between Protestants and Catholics. Historians have included among the spirituals Cardinals Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542) and Reginald Pole (1500-1558), Bishop Gian Matteo Giberti (1495-1543), and some significant individuals who became Protestants: Bernardino Ochino (1487-1564), Pier Paolo Vergerio the Younger (1498-1565), and Pietro Martire Vermigli (1499-1562). …

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