City of the Reformation Venice
Tourists from all over the world flock to the attractive and lively city of Venice in north-eastern Italy. They come to explore, either on foot or along the canals, the priceless cultural artistic and architectural heritage of its historic centre, set on islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Venice and its lagoon have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1987.
From the 12th to the 16th century, Venice was the mightiest maritime republic of Italy, asserting its authority over competitors Genoa and Pisa. Further areas of the mainland from Friuli to the cities of Bergamo and Brescia were also controlled by the republic. Its realm of power in the eastern Mediterranean reached as far as Cyprus, Crete, Istria and Dalmatia, amongst other places. Venice, with 180,000 inhabitants, was one of the largest major cities in 16th-century Europe.
In 1451, the Roman Catholic Patriarchy of Venice was created. However, during the late Middle Ages conflicts repeatedly flared in its relations with the Roman Curia, as Venice remained intent upon its independence. The city was international and multi-ethnic, attracting traders, merchants, craftsmen, intellectuals and clerics from all over the world. The city’s German merchants were housed in a large building called the Fondaco dei Tedeschi not far from the Rialto Bridge.
The Venetians’ awareness of their distance from Rome, with its dogma and teachings of the Catholic Church, coupled with humanist influences, particularly on the intellectual strata of the republic, nurtured a climate of relative openness towards European culture and the Reformation ideas emanating from the far side of the Alps. From 1520, Luther’s works quickly caught on in Venice, which with its 500 publishing and print houses was the capital of European printing in the 16th century, and then spread throughout Italy. This turned the city on the lagoon into an epicentre of the Reformation movement in Italy.
In 1524, reading or owning heterodox literature was made punishable by excommunication. However, the forbidden books now generally circulated underground and were discussed in like-minded circles. This led to the development of some real faith communities. And so a clandestine network slowly but surely arose that some even called a “church”, but which remained hidden from public view. The religious motives of this movement were aimed less at reforming the Church than at improving individuals, the personal adoption of faith and developing a Christian mindset.
Many representatives of this theology were to be found amongst the regular Venetian clergy. The Franciscan monk Bartolomeo Fonzi (1502-1562) preached according to Luther’s theology. His sermons went down particularly well with the German merchants in the “Fondaco”. He spent three years in exile in Augsburg from 1531, where he translated Luther’s “Address to the Christian Nobility” into Italian, before returning to Venice.
After the Inquisition commenced there in 1542 to prevent the spread of “Protestant heresy”, many Reformation-minded thinkers left Venice and fled over the Alps to Zurich, Basle, Strasbourg or Calvin’s Geneva. Although they were termed “Lutherans”, most of them were actually more disposed towards the Swiss Reformed Reformation.
In his later years, Fonzi sympathised with the Baptists. Numerous groups of Baptists had formed in Venice, where they held a synod in 1550. But soon thereafter they were discovered and persecuted by the Inquisition. Fonzi also fell into their clutches. After being taken prisoner, he was put to trial for a length of four years and ultimately sentenced to death. This was carried out using the Venetian capital punishment for heretics – drowning in the lagoon.
From the 1550s on, sharpened reprisals by the Inquisition worsened the situation of the followers of the Reformation in Venice and the rest of Italy. By the end of the 16th century, all networks had finally been decimated. One exception was the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, where the German traders and merchants were permitted to celebrate Protestant worship.
Nowadays, “Protestant” Venice has a Lutheran, a Waldensian Methodist, an Anglican and a Baptist church.
Venice City Council (in Italian only): www.comune.venezia.it
Comunita Evangelica Luterana di Venezia: www.kirche-venedig.de/english
Chiesa Evangelica Valdese e Metodista di Venezia (in Italian only): veneziavaldese.wordpress.com
Chiesa Evangelica Luterana in Italia (in Italian only): www.comune.venezia.it
Chiesa Evangelica Valdese (in Italian only): www.chiesavaldese.org