Antitrinitarianism in Northern Italy, 15171553


    In the two previous chapters we have seen how, during the early years of the Reformation, in Protestant Holland, Germany, and Switzerland, antitrinitarian thought arose only to be at once suppressed.  In the present chapter we shall have to trace how at the same time the same sort of thing went on in Catholic Italy.  In that country, where men could see the grossest corruptions of the Church at close range, and were anxious to see it purified, the ideas of the reformers at first spread very widely.  But the Church’s power to suppress heresy was so great that the Reformation never gained much foothold south of the Alps save in two regions, the Republic of Venice, and the Grisons in southeastern Switzerland; and it is in these two districts that we shall find an interesting development toward Unitarian beliefs.

    The city of Venice, as the commercial metropolis of Southern Europe, had a very active commerce with the manufacturing cities of Protestant Germany.   Hence although Venice had long had on its books the usual laws against heresy, including one for the burning of heretics, the authorities were loath to enforce them strictly, lest their trade with the northern Protestants should be injured.  The result was that the Reformation teachings which early were brought to Venice by German traders rapidly spread in the city, and before long to all the larger towns of the Venetian territory.  Many Protestant congregations were formed and regular meetings were held, though of course with more or less secrecy for fear of persecution.

    Along with other Protestants, Anabaptist preachers also began early to cross the Alps, probably by way of the Grisons, and their doctrines too spread with great rapidity.  By the middle of the sixteenth century over sixty places are reported where they had congregations, and there were doubtless many more than these.   The Italian Anabaptists were better organized than their northern brethren, for besides regular ministers they had numerous “bishops,” who traveled about from church to church, preaching, ordaining ministers, keeping up close relations between the various congregations, and warning them of danger.  Although they had a few members of wealth, or even of noble birth, they were almost entirely of the humble classes, mainly artisans; and of course they had to meet secretly in private houses.  They manifested the same liberal tendencies in belief here as north of the Alps, and these received a strong additional impulse from the little books of Servetus on the Trinity, which seem to have been widely circulated among them.  His influence in these parts had by 1539 spread to such an extent that reports of it reached Melanchthon, and a letter in his name was addressed to the Senate of Venice, urging that every effort be used to suppress the abominable doctrine of Servetus which had been introduced there;1 though the letter, if ever received, had little effect.

    How thoroughly the orthodox teaching had decayed among these Anabaptists of northern Italy is shown by the conclusions of a remarkable church Council which they held at Venice in 1550 — so far as is known the only Council they ever held at all.  They had a strong church at Vicenza, and discussion had arisen there in that or the previous year as to whether Christ were God or man; and as there was a difference of opinion, it was decided to call together a Council to determine the matter.   Messengers were sent to all the congregations in northern Italy, inviting each of them to send its minister and a lay delegate.  The Council met at Venice in September, 1550, and was attended by some sixty delegates from several of the larger cities and many of the smaller towns in Italy, as well as from congregations in the Grisons, and from St. Gallen and Basel in Switzerland.  It is inferred that as many as forty churches must have been represented.  The delegates were carefully scattered about in lodgings so as not to attract attention and invite persecution, and their expenses were contributed by the larger congregations.  The sessions were held in secret, and continued almost daily for forty days; they were opened with prayer, and the Lord’s Supper was celebrated three times.  Having taken the teaching of Scripture for their sole authority, they at length agreed upon ten points of doctrine.  The one of most interest to us here is the very first article, which declares that Christ was not God but man, born of Joseph and Mary, but endowed with divine powers.  These conclusions were made binding upon all their congregations, and were accepted by all but one, which was therefore forced to break off fellowship with the others; and one Pietro Manelfi, who had formerly been a Catholic priest, but having turned Protestant had for the past year been a traveling Anabaptist preacher, visiting the scattered congregations all over northern and central Italy, was appointed one of two to go about among them and preach the doctrines just adopted.2

    Meanwhile the Protestant doctrines had been making such alarming progress in Italy that the means previously used by the Catholic Church to suppress heresy were proving insufficient, so that in 1542 the Italian Inquisition had been established for the especial purpose of hunting out heretics and bringing them to punishment; and in the Venetian territory many Protestants had already been imprisoned or banished, had recanted or fled.  Perhaps scenting danger to himself, the ex-priest Manelfi, about a year after the Council at Venice, returned to the obedience of the Roman Church, appeared before the Inquisition, gave a full account of the spread of Anabaptism and of the proceedings of the Council, and betrayed the names of all the members whom he could recall.  Orders were at once issued for their arrest, and trials of them went on at Venice during the next year.  Some recanted, some fled the country and went to Turkey where under Mohammedan rule they could find the freedom of worship denied them in Christian Italy, some seem to have joined a community of Anabaptists in Moravia, many doubtless suffered imprisonment, and two or three, returning to Italy years afterwards, were then seized and put to death.  The burning of heretics had ceased to be practised at Venice, for the reason given above.3  Instead, a method of execution was used which would be more secret, and hence bring less reproach upon the city.  In the darkness of midnight the victim, attended only by a priest to act as confessor, was taken in a gondola out into the Adriatic, where a second gondola was in waiting.  A plank was laid between the two, and the prisoner, weighted with stone, was placed upon it.  A signal was given, the gondolas parted, and the heretic was no more.

    Thus in the Republic of Venice antitrinitarian beliefs, which had come to prevail in a large majority of the Anabaptist congregations, came to a tragic end.   Of the most numerous congregation, that at Vicenza, at least a few members still remained in 1553, in correspondence with one of their faith in Switzerland; but though many others doubtless continued here and there to cherish their faith in private, or to speak of it to trusted friends, they no longer dared do anything to win converts to it, and we bear no more of them, there or elsewhere.  We noted, however, that some of the delegates to the Council at Venice came from Anabaptist congregations in the Grisons, and we must next turn thither to trace another chapter of struggle and persecution.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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