Academic journal article Church History

The Protestant Reformation in Counter-Reformation Italy, C. 1550-1660: An Overview of New Evidence

Academic journal article Church History

The Protestant Reformation in Counter-Reformation Italy, C. 1550-1660: An Overview of New Evidence

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The author wishes to thank Massimo Firpo as well as Eugenio F. Biagini, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Mary Laven, and Alexandra Walsham for their suggestions. Warm thanks also to Joan E. Redmond for reading several drafts of this article.

On January 26, 1607, Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador in Venice, wrote to Giovanni Diodati, the leading personality of the Italian Protestant congregation in Geneva, and professor of Hebrew, who had recently translated the Bible into Italian:

Monsignor Paolo [Sarpi] has informed [Sir Henry] Wotton that this is the time to start any sort of secret congregation in Venice. He says it will be useful to procure from Geneva the services of a learned, modest and eloquent person, familiar with the Holy Scripture, who will stay in the house of Monsignor Paolo and Wotton, and will constantly receive direction from Monsignor Paolo regarding how to behave, and maintenance and protection if necessary from Wotton. It will be better for him to be introduced as a scholar in medicine. We thought to extract a sort of liturgy from the actual Roman missal, deductis deducendis , and to leave aside the most difficult and contested articles of our faith, without any contrasting argument, but building general orthodox foundations, from which everyone will be able to discover the arguments for salvation.1

This enciphered communication--Wotton writes in the third person--shows the complexity of the religious panorama in Venice around the Interdict crisis.2 Paolo Sarpi, the leading opponent of the Counter-Reformation, a sort of "Montaigne in the habit of a friar" as sometimes described by historians,3 was the key figure in an international network of Swiss Calvinists, French Huguenots, and English Protestants. They were committed to a combination of "opening to Italians the doors of the heavenly truth" (which Diodati gave as the reason for a new translation of the Bible)4 and the political opportunity of opening a religious front in the peninsula. Without being himself a Protestant--as a consistent historiographical debate on Sarpi's religion over last decades has demonstrated5 --Sarpi often affirmed that settling a Protestant congregation in Venice could be a useful instrument of political pressure against Rome and the Spanish power.

Particularly challenging in the letter is Ambassador Wotton's approach, probably misrepresenting reality and over-estimating the actual number of philo-protestants on the Laguna. A learned gentleman involved in Court politics and a literary friend of the poet John Donne,6 Wotton was in contact with Italian members of Geneva's church and academy, and with leaders of the Huguenot party, in particular with the "pope of the Huguenots," Philippe Duplessis-Mornay.7 He was also the patron of William Bedell, the chaplain of the British Embassy in Venice and author of the Italian version of the Book of Common Prayer , later provost of Trinity College Dublin, bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, and driving force of the Irish translation of the New Testament, and who later died during the 1641 Irish rebellion.8 Wotton had close ties with international Calvinism, the network of "Brethren in Christ" born in the late sixteenth century that played a relevant part in seventeenth-century religious conflicts, as demonstrated by Ole Peter Grell, Andrew Pettegree, and Philip Benedict.9 For example, Wotton would also be a strenuous supporter of the Gomarist party at the Synod of Dort in 1618, against the Arminians. But his established-Church background became a fundamental resource in the context in which he served. In need of strong support from Geneva, he soon welcomed to Venice the very same Diodati, under the false name of Giovanni Coreglia, as a sort of plenipotentiary agent of the Genevan Company of Pastors. Diodati himself would later write a long report on his travels in Italy, describing both his hopes and frustrations stemming from Sarpi's religious ambiguity. …

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