Renaissance and Reformation Cardinal Gasparo Contarini
Andrea Vanni
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0310


Gasparo Contarini (1483–1542), the scion of one of the most noble houses of the Republic of Venice, was born on 16 October 1483. After his initial education, he moved to Padua where he deepened his philosophical studies at the university. In September 1520, as ambassador to the court of the Emperor Charles V, he took part in the Diet of Worms. He followed the Emperor to Spain and stayed there until 1525, coming into contact with the “most terrible” Inquisition. From Venice he was sent in May 1528 to Rome as ambassador to Clement VII, with the aim, albeit unsuccessful, of involving the Pope in the League of Cognac against Charles V. The end of the war between France and Spain revealed his gifts for diplomacy: By facilitating Francesco II Sforza’s return to Milan, he ensured that Venice’s Terraferma possessions would not border with those under Spanish control. Between 1530 and 1535, he made a career in his home state: He was Savio of the council, one of the three heads of the Council of Ten, one of the council’s inquisitors, one of the Doge’s six councillors and one of the three officials in charge of the University of Padua. His political line was characterized by prudence and moderation. In 1535 Pope Paul III made him cardinal. He was named head of the commission charged with preparing the council whose work would culminate in the promotion of the document known as Consilium de emendanda ecclesia and, successively but unsuccessfully, in the reform of the apostolic tribunals of the Datary and Penitentiary. In the same period he became close to Reginald Pole and the members of the Ecclesia viterbiensis. In 1538 Paul III sought his presence in Nice, at the signing of the peace treaty between Charles V and Francis I. He returned to Rome via his diocese of Cividale di Belluno, obtained in 1537. In 1540 he expressed himself in favor of the recognition of the Society of Jesus, being an admirer of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. In 1541 he took part in the Diet of Regensburg: His idea that the rift between Catholics and Protestants could be remedied theologically through the article on double justification was to founder against the dogma of transubstantiation. For having agreed to the Lutherans’ demands, once back in Italy he had to defend himself from accusations of heresy. On 27 January 1542 he was named ambassador to Bologna. Appointed by the Pope to a new peace mission to Charles V, he was unable to go because of an illness. He died on 24 August 1542. Buried in the church of San Procolo in Bologna, his ashes now rest in Santa Maria dell’Orto in Venice.

Contemporary Biographies

Just after Contarini’s death, his brother Tommaso, his nephew Alvise and his friends and collaborators Matteo Dandolo and Lodovico Beccadelli planned the writing of a biography that would promote the reputation of his activities and his works. The major role of his brother, who in the years of the 1550s wanted to restore the figure of Gasparo and, implicitly, the luster of his family, is shown in Fragnito 1978. The most important contemporary biographies of Contarini are Della Casa 1564 and Beccadelli 1799. Brief references to other unpublished biographies are in Cicogna 1827.

  • Beccadelli, Lodovico. “Vita di Monsignor Reverendiss. et Illustriss. Messer Gasparo Contarino, Gentilhuomo Venetiano et Cardinale della S. Romana Chiesa.” In Monumenti di varia letteratura tratti dai manoscritti originali di monsignor Lodovico Beccadelli. Vol. 1, Book 2. Edited by Giovanni Battista Morandi, 9–59. Bologna, Italy: nell’Istituto Nazionale, 1799.

    Written during the pontificate of Paul IV, when Beccadelli had been sent away from Rome, the biography capitalizes on the direct contact that the author had with Contarini in the role of his secretary from 1535 to 1542 but assumes excessively eulogistic tones when describing the Venetian patrician’s work in composing the Consilium de emendanda ecclesia and his activity at Regensburg.

  • Cicogna, Emmanuele Antonio. Delle inscrizioni Veneziane. Vol. 2. Venice: Giuseppe Picotti, 1827.

    See pages 226–241. In this text there are references to Contarini’s funerary honors, written by Romolo Amaseo in 1542, and to other incomplete biographies. It also provides a detailed bibliography, mostly of primary sources.

  • Della Casa, Giovanni. Gasparis Contareni Vita. In Latina Monimenta. Quorum partium versibus, partim soluta oratione scripta sunt. Edited by Joannis Casae, 89–145. Florientiae: in officina Iuntarum Bernardi Filiorum, 1564.

    Della Casa probably met Contarini in the 1530s, when they were still in the service of the Republic. The biography, begun in the 1550s and finished by Pietro Vettori, tends to highlight the dedication and loyalty of the cardinal to the Church of Rome. Republished in Contarini 1571 (cited under Gasparis Contareni Opera), which was reprinted in 1968 (Farnborough, UK: Gregg).

  • Fragnito, Gigliola. Memoria individuale e costruzione biografica. Beccadelli, Della Casa, Vettori alle origini di un mito. Urbino: Argalia Editore, 1978.

    Includes a brief profile of Gasparo Contarini written by Matteo Dandolo (pp. 173–181).

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