In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Italian Reformation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies, Dictionaries, and Other Reference Resources
  • Editions and Translations of Primary Sources
  • Correspondence
  • The Historiographical Debate and Terminology
  • Luther and Calvin in Italy
  • Waldensians
  • Geography of the Italian Reformation
  • Gasparo Contarini, the Spirituali, and Italian Evangelism
  • Reginald Pole and Giovanni Morone
  • Nicodemism
  • The Beneficio di Cristo
  • Juan de Valdés
  • Peter Martyr Vermigli and Bernardino Ochino
  • Vittoria Colonna
  • Women of the Italian Reformation
  • Anabaptism and Popular Reform
  • Biographical Studies
  • The Toleration Controversy
  • Pucci Francesco
  • Socinianism and Antitrinitarianism
  • The Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited Books
  • Renaissance Art and Religious Dissent
  • The Italian Reformers and the Diffusion of Renaissance Culture

Renaissance and Reformation The Italian Reformation
Diego Pirillo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0285


Why did Renaissance Italy not accomplish a religious reformation like that which occurred in 16th-century Germany? This question, raised by Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), nourished intense debates in Italy between the Risorgimento and Fascism, becoming a recurrent point of contention in the controversies between church and state that followed unification. Generations of scholars and intellectuals saw the consequences of the failed Italian Reformation as extending well beyond the early modern period and informing the precarious national consciousness. During the 1930s, studies by Benedetto Croce, Federico Chabod, and Delio Cantimori as well as the opening of Italian scholarship to new trends in European and Northern American historiography marked a crucial shift, leaving aside the quarrels of the Risorgimento and creating the basis for all successive research on the religious crisis of the long 16th century. Particularly notable was the controversy between Croce and Cantimori that found expression also in Cantimori’s preface to the Italian translation of a classic pioneering study, Frederich C. Church’s The Italian Reformers, originally published in 1932 (New York: Columbia University Press) and translated into Italian in 1935 (Florence: La Nuova Italia). Another turning point was represented by Hubert Jedin’s “Catholic Reformation or Counter-Reformation?” (Lucern, Switzerland: Stocker, 1946), which opened the way to a new era of studies on early modern Catholicism, recently reassessed in John O’Malley’s Trent and All That (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000). In the following decades, while historical anthropology led Italian scholars to focus on popular beliefs in the wake of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (Turin: Einaudi, 1976), the influence of German historiography gave life to a new wave of research on social discipline and the age of confessions. In the same period Italian and Anglophone scholars also debated the meaning of the Beneficio di Cristo and shed new light on the influence of Juan de Valdés on Italian Evangelism. Finally, in 1998, the opening of the Archive of the Holy Office allowed the access of new documents and a reconsideration of the procedures and the functioning of the institution through which the Catholic Church fought the spread of heresy. Today we have a detailed map with which to study the chronology and the geography of the Italian Reformation. Following Seidel Menchi 1994 (cited under General Overviews), we can divide the religious crisis of the long 16th century into four main periods: the “theological call to arms” (1518–1542), marked by the convergence between the philo-Protestant movement and the spirituali; the “spontaneous diffusion” (1542–1555), in which religious dissent moved from elite circles into streets and squares circulating especially among merchants and artisans in the urban centers of northern Italy; “repression” (1555–1571), which coincided with the pontificates of Paul IV and Pius V; and finally “extinction” (1571–1588), when the trials for heresy declined and the Inquisition turned its attention to magic and witchcraft. With the repression of religious dissent in Italy, several groups of reformers were forced into exile and Italian Protestant communities continued to exist in Northern Europe, from Switzerland to England and Poland. As indicated by John Tedeschi, while participating in the theological controversies of the age of confessions and defending the principle of religious tolerance, the Italian reformers also contributed to the European dissemination of the Italian Renaissance, publishing and circulating prohibited books such Dante’s Monarchy, Machiavelli’s Prince, and Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent.

General Overviews

Welti 1985, Caponnetto 1992, Firpo 1993, and Seidel Menchi 1994 are all useful introductions on the Italian Reformation, especially on its history and geography. For surveys of more recent scholarship, see Delph, et al. 2006; Benedict, et al. 2007; and Brundin and Treherne 2009. Also, a useful introduction is Firpo 1996, in which—along with several articles on Francesco Pucci—is collected a magisterial essay on the history of the Italian Protestant Church in 16th-century London.

  • Benedict, Philip, Silvana Seidel Menchi, and Alain Tallon, eds. La réforme en France et en Italie: Contacts, comparaisons et contrastes. Rome: Ecole Française de Rome, 2007.

    A collection of articles by leading scholars in the field that compares and contrasts the eruption of the Reformation in Italy and France.

  • Brundin, Abigail, and Matthew Treherne. Forms of Faith in Sixteenth-Century Italy. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

    A collection of articles and a rich introduction to the religious crisis of 16th-century Italy that takes into account figures such as Pontormo, Titian, Aretino, and Tasso.

  • Caponnetto, Salvatore. La Riforma protestante nell’Italia del Cinquecento. Turin, Italy: Claudiana, 1992.

    A useful and detailed outline of the Reformation in 16th-century Italy that examines the spread of religious dissent from Venice and Ferrara to Naples and Messina.

  • Delph, Ronald K., Michelle Fontaine, and John Martin. Culture and Religion in Early Modern Italy: Contexts and Contestations. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2006.

    A collection of articles by leading scholars and a useful overview of the spread of religious dissent in Renaissance Italy from Venice to Florence, and from Modena to Mantua.

  • Firpo, Massimo. Riforma protestante ed eresie nell’Italia del Cinquecento. Rome and Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1993.

    An excellent and comprehensive introduction to the Italian Reformation, which charts the religious crisis of 16th-century Italy from north to south and within different social groups.

  • Firpo, Luigi. Scritti sulla Riforma in Italia. Naples, Italy: Prismi, 1996.

    Along with several articles on F. Pucci, this collection also includes a magisterial essay on the history of the Italian Protestant Church in 16th-century London.

  • Seidel Menchi, Silvana. “Italy.” In The Reformation in National Context. Edited by Robert Scribner, Roy Porter, and Mikuláš Teich, 181–201. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511599569

    A brief but penetrating and useful chronology of the rise and fall of the Reformation in Italy (see Introduction).

  • Welti, Manfred. Kleine Geschichte der italienischen Reformation. Gütersloh, Germany: Gutersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1985.

    A useful introduction to the history of the Italian Reformation, which charts the spread of religious dissent in Italy and follows the emigration of the Italian reformers throughout Europe.

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