In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Inquisition

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Dictionary and Bibliography
  • Guides to Archival Resources
  • Collections of Essays
  • Central Administration, Procedures, and Personnel
  • The Venetian Tribunals
  • The Modena Tribunals
  • Other Local Tribunals
  • Studies of Individual Inquisitors
  • Rome’s Interaction with Other Inquisition Systems in Italy
  • Against Major Heresies or Accused
  • Notable Individual Cases
  • Superstition and Magic
  • Censorship
  • Jews, Judaizers, and Muslims
  • Pretend Sanctity, Living Saints, and Mystics
  • Philosophers, Skeptics, and Atheists

Renaissance and Reformation Roman Inquisition
Christopher F. Black
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0279


“The Roman Inquisition” is a common title given to the Holy Office of the Inquisition as reformed from 1542 under central papal control in Rome. It brought existing local inquisition systems within Italy under central control from a Congregation of the Holy Office led by a select group of cardinals. A separate Congregation of the Index was established from 1571, which concentrated on censorship and book controls. The two Congregations had overlapping membership, but they did not necessarily work in harmony. By the early 17th century the papacy had established over forty local tribunals in central and northern Italy (except in the Republic of Lucca), and it had tribunals in Malta and the papal enclave in Avignon. The operation of local tribunals outside the Papal States had to be negotiated with state rulers; the system in the Venetian Republic came close to being a church-state diarchy. The Roman Inquisition had to operate indirectly in the Kingdom of Naples because the Spanish monarchy would not let it operate openly, and the papacy (as feudal superior), would not agree to a branch of the Spanish Inquisition there. Rome worked in the kingdom through archbishops, bishops, and special commissioners. Branches of the Spanish Inquisition operated in Sicily and Sardinia, but in these islands Rome had a little more influence on inquisition matters than on mainland Iberia. These complexities help explain why the historical study of the Roman Inquisition has been less coherent and more complex than for the Iberian inquisitions. Study of the Roman Inquisition, and the considerable increase in scholarly books and articles, has been much influenced by the opening to the scholarly community from 1998 of the renamed Holy Office’s central archive in the Vatican, the Archivio della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede (ACDF). This archival opening has generated new research and scholarly enthusiasm, which can be seen as diverting Italian scholarship from an old divisive preoccupation with the Inquisition’s alleged defeat of an “Italian Reformation,” which some Italians have blamed for defects in the development of modern Italy toward a coherent “nation.” As a non-Italian my selection of studies below, and comments, concentrate mostly on these more modern historical approaches and their results, and they largely avoid that partisan national history debate, and identifying specific polemicists. Given the great diversity of Catholic Church–reforming opinions within Italy, it seems that victory for one Protestant version was improbable. Undoubtedly inquisitors defeated or nullified some “Protestant reformers,” sometimes with much cruelty. But other factors, positive and negative, contributed to the consolidation of a reformed Catholic Church and society.

General Overviews

The fragmentation of the inquisition systems in Italy (discussed in the Introduction), and the closure of the central archive, explain the paucity of overall studies until recently. Del Col 2006 provides the fullest overall coverage for Italy, putting the early modern Roman Inquisition in the broadest chronological and geographical contexts. Black 2009 concentrates on the early modern period, as does the short survey Romeo 2009, much reprinted. Tedeschi 1991 was the fundamental guide previously, and it remains a mine of information and references for primary sources, with the 2003 Italian edition going back to original quotations. Bethencourt 2009 provides global coverage, with some imbalances of coverage between geographical areas and topics. Prosperi 2009 ranges widely over the post-Tridentine Church, emphasizing that the Inquisition worked alongside other means of disciplining and educating the faithful. The revised edition and the essays in Prosperi 2003 reflect recent scholarship since the opening of the Archivio della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede (ACDF). Black 2017 provides a short comparison of the Italian and Iberian Inquisitions. Lavenia 2013 and Valente 2009 survey polemical literature about the Inquisitions.

  • Bethencourt, Francisco. The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478–1834. Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    The translation marginally updates a 1995 French original, L’inquisition à l’époque moderne (Paris: Fayard), without benefiting directly from the 1998 opening of the Holy Office archive (ACDF). Best on Portugal and Goa, weakest on the Roman Inquisition. Much emphasis on rituals and social roles rather than trials.

  • Black, Christopher F. The Italian Inquisition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

    Covers the Roman Inquisition from 1542 to the 18th century and comparative inquisition activities in Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia; deals with central organization and local tribunals, trial procedures, punishments, and changing targets over the period. Highlights offense categories such as superstition, pretend sanctity, solicitation in confession. Surveys changing censorship problems.

  • Black, Christopher F. “Local Contexts and Regional Variations: Inquisitions.” In Judging Faith, Punishing Sin: Inquisitions and Consistories in the Early Modern World. Edited by Charles H. Parker and Gretchen Starr-Lebeau, 28–39. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    A quick guide comparing procedural aspects of the Spanish, Portuguese, and Roman Inquisitions, stressing diversity between and within them according to state organization, local politics, and the degree of challenge from episcopal authorities. Limited documentation allowed by publisher.

  • Del Col, Andrea. L’Inquisizione in Italia: Dal XII al XXI secolo. Milan: Mondadori, 2006.

    The fullest coverage of inquisitions in Italy through all periods, by an expert on the archival material in Friuli; also one of the first to take advantage of the ACDF records.

  • Lavenia, Vincenzo. “Il tribunale innominate: Appunti sull’immaginario dell’Inquisizione romano.” In Religione, scritture e storiografia: Omaggio ad Andrea Del Col. Edited by Giuliano Ancona and Dario Visintin, 289–314. Montereale Valcellina, Italy: Circolo Culturale Menocchio, 2013.

    Covers imaginative, polemical, and novelistic literature dealing directly and indirectly with the various inquisitions and images of inquisitors. Discusses Girolamo Massari’s Eusebius captivus (1553), which recounts experiences of two German students, imprisoned by the inquisition in Rome and freed by Pius IV. Literary figures who discussed the inquisition and prison conditions included the poet Torquato Tasso.

  • Prosperi, Adriano. L’Inquisizione romana: Letture e ricerche. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2003.

    The essays together provide a wide-ranging study of the Roman Inquisition. Historiography and changing views of the Inquisition. Effects of the opening of the Holy Office archive. Essays throw light on local inquisitors, their vicars, and tribunals; on the manuals for inquisitors; on the mentalities of censorship; and on the censoring of fiction.

  • Prosperi, Adriano. Tribunali della Coscienza. Inquisitori, confessori, missionari. Rev. ed. Turin, Italy: Einaudi, 2009.

    Original edition 1996. Inquisitions and inquisitors in the wider contexts of reformed Catholicism and control over the faithful. Inquisitors, bishops, and confessors as rivals and collaborators. A richly researched and influential contribution to the history of the Italian Church, with the Inquisition seen as playing an ambivalent role.

  • Romeo, Giovanni. L’Inquisizione nell’Italia moderna. 4th ed. Rome: Laterza, 2009.

    Since 2002 the concise guide to the Early Modern period, based on wide research.

  • Tedeschi, John. The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991.

    An invaluable collection on many aspects of the Roman Inquisition, densely end-noted. The leading essays on organization and procedures of the Roman Inquisition: inquisitorial sources, dispersed archives (Dublin, Brussels, Paris), manuals, censorship. Scholars should use Italian translation, and update, Il giudice e l’eretico (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2003).

  • Valente, Michaela. Contro l’Inquisizione: Il dibattito europeo secc. XVI–XVIII. Turin, Italy: Claudiana, 2009.

    Surveys a whole range of critical writings, well informed, or wildly polemical. Includes an Italian exile Girolamo Massari’s fictional story (Eusebius captivus, 1553) of a trial against an imaginary heretic. Also notes late-18th-century defenses of the Holy Office, including by ex-Jesuit and a Master of the Sacred Palace. A pro-Inquisition book by Tommaso Vincenzo Pani in the late 18th century is well studied.

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