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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works, Dictionaries, and Encyclopedias
  • Journals and Book Series
  • Archival Sources
  • Published Primary Sources
  • Collections of Papers
  • Spirituality
  • The Council of Trent
  • Bishop and Reformer
  • The Roman Curia
  • Confession and Discipline
  • Inquisition and the Fight Against Heresy
  • Preaching and Pastoral Activity
  • Culture and Education
  • Art and Architecture
  • Music
  • Iconography
  • Canonization and Sanctity
  • Influence Outside Milan
  • Legacy

Renaissance and Reformation Cardinal Carlo Borromeo
Emanuele Colombo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0320


Carlo Borromeo (b. 1538–d. 1584), who was a cardinal archbishop of Milan (1564–1584), represented a model bishop in the post-Tridentine Catholic Church and was a leading figure of early modern Catholicism. Born in Arona (Novara), he was the nephew of Giovanni Angelo de’ Medici, later Pope Pius IV (1559–1565), who made the young Borromeo a cardinal and nominated him Secretary of State (1560). Until 1565 he was in Rome; he served in the Curia during the last period of the Council of Trent (1562–1563) and conducted the papal correspondence with the legates in Trent. In 1563 he was ordained priest and received episcopal consecration. From the beginning of 1566, after the death of Pius IV and until the end of his life, he resided almost continuously in the archdiocese of Milan, where he started an ambitious program of reform. Following the decrees of the Council of Trent, Borromeo introduced systematic pastoral visitations and provincial and diocesan synods. He improved the education of the secular clergy and the control of the religious orders. He supported confraternities for lay people and reinforced the value of penance and confession. His patronage of arts and music and his care for sacred architecture also had a great influence beyond the archdiocese. This plan of reform created frequent conflicts both with the Spanish governor of Milan, since Borromeo refused to allow political authorities to intervene in religious matters, and with the papacy, because of Borromeo’s insistence on episcopal rights. He became the model of the post-Tridentine bishop in Italy and beyond. On 22 October 1569, while he was praying in the chapel of the episcopal palace, Borromeo escaped an assassination attempt. A member of the Brothers of Humility (Humiliati) who was opposed to Borromeo’s reforms fired a shot that grazed Borromeo’s side. His survival was considered a miracle and bolstered his saintly reputation. He died in 1584 and was canonized in 1610. His feast day is 4 November.

General Overviews

Some works in Italian such as Jedin 1971 and Jedin and Alberigo 1985 provide an excellent general introduction to Borromeo, setting his life in historical context. Among works in English, Hsia 2010 and Bireley 1999 are overviews of early modern Catholicism that challenge the notion of Counter-Reformation with their alternative definitions of “Catholic Renewal” and “Refashioning of Catholicism.” In their view, early modern Catholicism cannot be seen solely as a reaction to the Reformation, and they both present Borromeo as a model of the Tridentine bishop for the Catholic Church. The same nuanced interpretation can be found in Cochrane 1988.

  • Bireley, Robert. The Refashioning of Catholicism, 1450–1700: A Reassessment of the Counter Reformation. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999.

    In this handbook of the history of early modern Catholicism, Carlo Borromeo is presented in chapter 3 (“The Council of Trent and the Papacy”) as the “embodiment of the Tridentine reform bishop” (p. 61). The book includes a good bibliography.

  • Cochrane, Eric. “Counter Reformation or Tridentine Reformation? Italy in the Age of Carlo Borromeo.” In San Carlo Borromeo: Catholic Reform and Ecclesiastical Politics in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century. Edited by John M. Headley and John B. Tomaro, 31–46. Washington, DC: Folger, 1988.

    A synthetic and extremely informative introduction to the age of Borromeo that challenges the notion of Counter-Reformation and explores new dimensions of the post-Tridentine period.

  • Hsia, Ronnie Po-Chia. The World of Catholic Renewal 1540–1770. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    An overview of early modern Catholicism (1540–1770). Chapter 7 is dedicated to “Bishops and Priests” and inserts Borromeo in the context of the post-Tridentine episcopate, presenting the nuances and the contradictions of “a Renaissance prelate and a Counter-Reformation convert” (p. 112).

  • Jedin, Hubert. Carlo Borromeo. Translated by Roberto and Ingeborg Zapperi. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1971.

    This seventy-page book is a classic biographical profile of Borromeo. Although in many aspects this booklet is outdated, overall it is still a valuable and extremely useful portrait.

  • Jedin, Hubert, and Giuseppe Alberigo. Il tipo ideale di vescovo secondo la Riforma cattolica. Brescia, Italy: Morcelliana, 1985.

    The first part includes an Italian translation of an essay by Jedin on the “ideal model of a bishop according to the Catholic Reformation”; in the second part, Alberigo expands Borromeo’s biography and his career as a bishop, highlighting his crucial role as a model in the post-Tridentine episcopate.

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