Part One: From Italy to Exile
(Part Two is in our November issue. You can also read it online. -Ed.)
If you listen carefully, you can already hear Protestant pastors and Reformation scholars girding up in preparation for the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517). They’ll treat us to lectures, conferences, books, and blog posts on that red-letter date of the Reformation. It’s good to commemorate things and I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what 2017 makes of 1517. But in the lead-up to those events, it’s worth remembering that 1517 is a pretty arbitrary date to use as the anniversary of something as complex as the Reformation. It’s not that the Ninety-Five Theses were unimportant; they were! And for a Reformed guy, I’m a big fan of Luther. But neither the Theses nor the sequence of events that resulted from their publication encapsulate the Reformation. Rather than narrowing the commemoration, I say let’s broaden it to include the many people, gatherings, debates, writings, and events that together constituted the bursting forth of sixteenth-century Protestantism.
One of the lesser-known dates associate with the Reformation that I’m commemorating this year—with a risotto and maybe a nice Nebbiolo—is the birth of the Italian Protestant exile and theologian Jerome (or Girolamo, if you prefer) Zanchi. Zanchi was a key Reformation figure of the generation following Luther and Calvin. He was critical in the development of Reformed Protestantism and was a remarkable theologian and biblical commentator. In his day (and for generations after his death), his influence was widely recognized and he was deeply admired, both for his learning and for his piety. Today, he’s most often remembered as the author of Absolute Predestination, an eighteenth-century treatise that he did not write and of which he might well have been critical. But that’s a story for another time, and we hardly need to hazard into the eighteenth century to find good material. There’s plenty in Zanchi’s own life worth commemorating.
The Italian Years
Jerome Zanchi was born on February 2, 1516 to a family of the middling sort but with rising prospects. His father, Francesco, had recently relocated from Venice to Alzano, outside of Bergamo in northern Italy. The elder Zanchi, who had been a secretary, lawyer, and poet, succumbed to plague in 1528 and his wife, Barbara Morlotti, died three years later, leaving their son an orphan. Jerome Zanchi rarely reflected upon his youth (at least in his writings) and, to my knowledge, never discussed how he felt about the loss of his parents. Yet, their deaths set him on a path that brought him to the center of the religious controversies that were, even then, gathering around Europe.
Soon after his mother’s death, in February 1531, young Zanchi entered the religious community of Santo Spirito di Bergamo and became a novice in the Augustinian Order of Canons Regular. The Augustinians were a medieval religious order whose members lived communally according to a rule of life inspired by St Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Like contemplative orders such as the Benedictines, canons swore vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (obeying the so-called “Counsels of Perfection”) and gathered throughout the day for the round of prayers known as the liturgical hours.
Unlike the contemplatives, who separated themselves from the world in monasteries, however, the Augustinian canons labored in churches and focused their energy on public ministries like preaching and teaching as well as the administration of the sacraments. Perhaps this orderly world was just what an orphaned teen needed.
Three paternal cousins and a maternal uncle already belonged to the order; following their lead was the obvious course for Zanchi. Although he was technically too young to join the canons, his unique circumstances and family connections probably allowed the rules to be bent. Little can be said specifically about Zanchi’s time at Santo Spirito, which probably means he followed a traditional path after entering the order and stayed more or less out of trouble. He surely began the long process of preparing to take holy orders and must have studied the works of his order’s namesake as well as the writings of Aristotle, the great medieval scholastic theologians (perhaps especially the thirteenth-century Dominican Thomas Aquinas), and probably some of the Church Fathers. His intellectual gifts couldn’t have escaped the notice of his superiors and he may have spent some time at the University of Padua in the 1530s. But he was back in Bergamo in 1541, by which time he had been ordained, named a canon, and appointed to the office of “public preacher.”
Probably in late 1535, four years after arriving at Santo Spirito, Zanchi met Massililiano Celso Martinenghi (1515-1557). Celso was the younger by a year and had spent far less time living the religious life, but he was a nobleman’s son. Despite the mismatch of caste and experience, the two formed a fast friendship that remained, as Zanchi put it many years later, “unbroken to the end.” Together they read theology and studied Greek and, early in 1541, when fifteen members of the Bergamo community left to join the house of San Frediano in Lucca, both Zanchi and Celso were among the number. In ways they could hardly have foreseen, this move altered the course of their lives.
It happened that 1541 was something of a crisis moment in Lucca. Located about two hundred miles south of Bergamo, the city had become notoriously corrupt. Its absentee bishop provided no moral guidance and even the Augustinian house at San Frediano had grown lax. The responsibility to restore order—both among the canons and on the city streets—fell upon the shoulders of the newly appointed prior, Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562).
Vermigli already had a reputation as one of the order’s finest preachers, and although he had not yet clearly identified himself with the Protestant movement, he was known for his reforming efforts and evangelical ideas. His theology had provoked a confrontation with Church authorities, who had forbidden him to preach. But he was released from the restriction by spring 1541 and, in May, took up his post as prior at Lucca. In later years Zanchi viewed this turn of events as God’s providence, for Peter Martyr became a father figure, pointing the younger man toward a new understanding of the gospel and reorienting his reading of the scriptures.
At Lucca, Celso taught Greek, Zanchi taught theology, and Vermigli devoted himself to reforming the community, helping guide the town, and lecturing on the Pauline Epistles. Zanchi sat under Peter Martyr’s daily exposition of the scriptures, which cast the Bible as the touchstone, that by which both the great works of the past and the writings of contemporary theologians were to be evaluated. In fact, the community at Lucca became an incubator for Protestantism in northern Italy. Immanuel Tremelli, a Jew recently converted to Christianity who came to embrace the Reformation, joined the community. He probably acted as Zanchi’s first Hebrew teacher but later developed into one of the great Protestant Old Testament scholars. Another man, Celio Secundo Curione, was not formally a member of San Frediano but frequently fellowshipped with the canons and his friendship with Zanchi blossomed, years later, in the latter’s marriage to Celio’s daughter.
Peter Martyr stayed barely fifteen months in Lucca. He fled in 1542 in the wake of his rising fame. His increasingly clear allegiance to Protestant theology made him an easy target for the Inquisition. But he left a deep impression on both Zanchi and Celso, who remained at the monastery for almost another decade, preaching, teaching, and learning. They read the works of several leading Swiss, German, and French Reformation thinkers, including Philip Melanchthon’s Commonplaces, Martin Bucer’s Treatises, Heinrich Bullinger’s On the Origin of Error, and John Calvin’s Institutes. Zanchi read deeply now in the Church Fathers and continued his study Hebrew. He also produced a synopsis of Calvin’s Institutes for private study, which was published posthumously as Compendium praecipuorum capitum Doctrinae Christianae (1598)—in English, the Compendium of the chief heads of Christian doctrine.
In spring 1551, Celso, who had been serving as prior at San Frediano, decided to leave Lucca, probably for fear of the Inquisition. He planned to make his way to England, join Vermigli (now the Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford), and advance the cause of the Reformation. But providence intervened, and while Celso was in the Swiss city of Basel, Calvin and the Italian Protestant nobleman Galeazzo Caracciolo convinced him to accept a call to pastor an Italian congregation in Geneva. He remained there, serving that refugee community, for the rest of his life.
In October of 1551, about six months after Celso left, Zanchi also fled. Near the end of his life, he described this as a liberation, likening his departure from Italy to the end of a Babylonian captivity. Although he always expressed fondness for his homeland and its people, he was apparently happy to leave. Yet this move must have been a striking disruption for Zanchi. He left the Roman Church, the Augustinian community, and his extended family. He left the places, the food, and the language with which he had been reared. And he did it all for a very uncertain future; he had neither prospects nor clear plans.
Dr. O’Banion’s account of Zanchi’s life and thought will be continued in the next issue of Ad Fontes.
Patrick J. O’Banion (Ph.D., Saint Louis University) is an associate professor of early modern history at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO and a ruling elder at South City Church (PCA) in St. Louis, MO, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is the author of Sacramental Confession and Religious Life in Early Modern Spain (Penn State, 2012) and This Happened in My Presence: Moriscos, Old Christians, and the Spanish Inquisition in the Town of Deza, 1569-1611 (Toronto, 2017).