In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cardinal Bellarmine

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Renaissance and Reformation Cardinal Bellarmine
Stefania Tutino
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0236


Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino (or Bellarmine, in the Anglicized version) was born in 1542 and died in 1621. A nephew of Pope Marcellus II, he entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1560. Bellarmine studied at the Roman College, where he returned, after brief sojourns at various universities in Europe, as a professor first and as rector later. In 1587, he became a consultor for the Congregation of the Index and, a decade later, he became a consultor for the Roman Inquisition. In 1599, he was appointed cardinal and, in 1602, he became archbishop of Capua. Bellarmine’s cursus honorum within the Roman Curia, impressive as it may be, does not fully convey the centrality and complexity of the role he played in the theological, political, and intellectual history of post-Reformation Catholicism. Bellarmine was probably the most influential Catholic theologian of his time: His masterpiece, the Controversiae, became a sort of Catholic manifesto against the Protestant doctrines. He also occupied a prominent role in crucial theological controversies within the Catholic camp, such as the so-called controversy de auxiliis over the role of grace and free will. In addition, Bellarmine was an influential and controversial political theorist. His theory concerning indirect papal authority, or indirecta potestas, was almost put on the Index of Prohibited Books by Pope Sixtus V, who did not think that Bellarmine defended papal supremacy strongly enough. Yet that same theory became, later on, the theoretical underpinning for the official Catholic position on the debate over the Oath of Allegiance in England and in the crisis over the Venetian Interdetto. As a censor Bellarmine was personally involved in the initial phase of Galileo’s trial, but he was also the author of the 1616 document attesting that Galileo had not received any condemnation or punishment by the Inquisition. Bellarmine was one of the most distinguished members of the Society of Jesus, and, in fact, the Society began campaigning for Bellarmine’s canonization immediately after his death. Yet, the canonization process was stalled for more than three centuries, and Bellarmine was canonized only in 1930. His contemporaries and quite a few modern scholars have treated him with either an intense hagiographical admiration or an equally intense animosity. More recent scholarship has finally started to grapple with the complexity, as well as the centrality, of this figure in the history of post-Tridentine Catholicism and in the religious and political history of early modern Europe more generally.


Scholars have always considered Bellarmine as one of the most influential protagonists of post-Reformation Roman Catholicism, and yet virtually all the existing biographies of Bellarmine are written by fellow Jesuits with the more-or-less explicit intention of highlighting Bellarmine’s deeds in light of his canonization. Fuligatti 1624 is the earliest biography written. It was published three years after Bellarmine’s death at the request of Muzio Vitelleschi, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, who viewed the biography as an aid in the propaganda campaign for a speedy canonization of Bellarmine. Despite its obvious hagiographic framework, it is still useful because it contains a rich array of primary sources and because it gives a sense of the standing of Bellarmine among his contemporaries. A second edition, enlarged and slightly modified, appeared in 1644. Bartoli 1678 also constitutes part of the sustained Jesuit effort to convince the Roman Curia that Bellarmine should have been canonized. However, like Fuligatti 1624, it contains useful primary documents on Bellarmine. In addition, because of the fame of its author (Bartoli was one of the early historians of the Society of Jesus who were better known), it enjoyed a wide circulation. Frizon 1708 is the first biography of Bellarmine written by a French Jesuit. This is also a work of hagiography more than historiography. Among the modern biographies, Raitz von Frentz 1921 is also written by a fellow Jesuit and with a sympathetic, partisan view of Bellarmine’s contribution to Catholic theology. Nevertheless, its author is one of the most respected scholars of Bellarmine’s spiritual works, and, thus, this biography contains useful sections on this subject. Thermes 1923, written by a French Jesuit immediately after Bellarmine was beatified by Pope Pius XI, is a hagiographic and readable synthetic work. Brodrick 1928, despite its hagiographical approach (its author was also a member of the Society of Jesus), is the most accurate and complete biography of Bellarmine. Brodrick 1961 is not simply a compendium of Brodrick 1928. Rather, it was written after Bellarmine was finally canonized and thus was not subject to the pressure exerted by the Jesuit order to portray Bellarmine’s doctrine in the most positive light possible. In addition, it takes into account more recent scholarship on Bellarmine, especially Murray 1948 (cited under Bellarmine’s Political Theory). As a result, Brodrick 1961 offers a substantially revised judgment on Bellarmine and on the significance of his political theory.

  • Bartoli, Daniello. Della vita di Roberto Cardinal Bellarmino . . . scritta dal padre Daniello Bartoli libri quattro. Rome: Nicolò Angelo Tinassi, 1678.

    Even though it is a rather verbose piece of hagiography, it is nevertheless useful because it contains a good amount of primary sources that cannot be found in Fuligatti 1624.

  • Brodrick, James. The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Francis Cardinal Bellarmine, S.J., 1542–1621. 2 vols. London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1928.

    Written also by a fellow Jesuit, this biography shares with the others a general apologetic and hagiographic tone. Nevertheless, it is the most accurate biography of Bellarmine, and it is substantiated by a rich array of primary sources.

  • Brodrick, James. Robert Bellarmine: Saint and Scholar. Westminster, MD: Newman, 1961.

    Not simply a compendium of Brodrick 1928. It provides a substantially different and less sympathetic evaluation of Bellarmine’s political thought. Less documented than Brodrick 1928, it is, nevertheless, an important testament to the changing attitude of Anglo-American scholarship on Bellarmine.

  • Frizon, Nicolas. La vie du cardinal Bellarmin, de la Compagnie de Jésus. Nancy, France: P. Barbier, 1708.

    This biography is also hagiographical in nature. It is mostly based on Bartoli 1678 and Fuligatti 1624, but it is an interesting piece of evidence on the status of the Society of Jesus during the reign of Louis XIV.

  • Fuligatti, Giacomo. Vita del cardinale Roberto Bellarmino della Compagnia de Giesv. Rome: Per l’Erede di Bartolomeo Zannetti, 1624.

    It is hagiographic in nature, but it contains useful primary sources and it gives a sense of Bellarmine’s reputation among his contemporaries.

  • Raitz von Frentz, Emmerich. Der ehrwürdige Kardinal Robert Bellarmin S.I., ein Vorkämpfer für Kirche und Papsttum, 1542–1621. Freiburg, Germany: Herder, 1921.

    Written by a fellow Jesuit, it is hagiographical in nature. Nevertheless, it is accurate and provides a useful analysis of primary sources. The parts of the work concerning Bellarmine’s spiritual writings are especially useful.

  • Thermes, Joseph. Le bienheureux Robert Bellarmin, 1542–1621. Paris: Gabalda, 1923.

    Written also by a fellow Jesuit immediately following the beatification of Bellarmine, it is a reference work rather than a work based on primary research.

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