Renaissance and Reformation Cardinal Giovanni Morone
Charles R. Keenan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0376


Perhaps more than that of any other individual, the life of Giovanni Morone (b. 1509–d. 1580) epitomizes the complicated relationship of the Catholic Church to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Born in Milan to a noble family, Morone found favor in the court of Pope Clement VII and was soon named bishop of Modena. For much of the 1530s and early 1540s, Morone served as a diplomat at the imperial courts in Vienna and Bohemia and at various diets of the Holy Roman Empire. His conciliatory attitude toward Protestants was well-known and was a position he also took in his own diocese, where sentiments in favor of reform were widespread. Elevated to the cardinalate by Paul III, Morone worked to ensure imperial support of the pending general council of the church. However, Morone’s even-handedness also brought him under scrutiny, along with other irenic figures such as Reginald Pole. Eventually tried by the Roman Inquisition under Paul IV and imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, Morone was only freed after the pontiff’s death. Despite such a checkered history, Morone would go on to become a leading figure in the Council of Trent’s final phase, negotiating with various factions and bringing the council to a conclusion. The rest of his life would revolve around the same themes: diplomatic expertise with German-speaking lands, attempts to implement Tridentine reform, and the specter of heresy that lingered from his trial before the Inquisition. Scholars have long debated how to situate Morone’s career within the larger history of the Counter-Reformation: whether he symbolizes a lost movement toward reconciliation with Protestants, or if he was the supporter of an aborted “Italian Reformation,” or a symbol of papal dominance over the Council of Trent, or something else entirely. The Italian historian Massimo Firpo has written extensively about Morone over several decades, and his scholarship remains the dominant interpretation regarding Morone’s life. More recent studies have questioned this view, alternately nuancing it or challenging it outright, while others have focused on periods of Morone’s life unrelated to his trial.

Biographies and Historiography

The earliest treatments of Morone’s life, such as Bernabei 1885 and Sclopis 1869, were heavily apologetic and sympathetic to the cardinal’s fate in regard to the Inquisition. Scaramella 2010 gives an overview of the various biographies of Morone. The dearth of biographies for much of the 20th century was partially addressed by the essays gathered in Firpo 1992 and Firpo 2005 (both cited under Massimo Firpo on Giovanni Morone), but Robinson 2012 was the first synthetic approach in over a century. Other brief starting places for the interested researcher include Firpo 2012 and Fangarezzi 1995.

  • Bernabei, Nicola. Vita del cardinale Giovanni Morone, vescovo di Modena. Modena, Italy: Rossi, 1885.

    An oft-cited biography of the cardinal (one of the few comprehensive sources written before the late 20th century), this work reflects a strongly apologetic approach to Morone’s life, minimizing discussion of his time before the Inquisition.

  • Fangarezzi, Riccardo. “Giovanni Morone una cronologia della vita.” Atti e Memorie della Deputazione di Storia Patria per le Antiche Provincie Modenesi 11.17 (1995): 223–252.

    The latter half of this essay offers, as stated, a detailed chronology of Morone’s life and travels. The introduction is especially valuable as an overview of the principal literature on the cardinal up to the early 1990s.

  • Firpo, Massimo. “Il cardinal Giovanni Morone tra Riforma e Controriforma.” Bolletino Storico per la Provincia di Novara 84 (1993): 27–47.

    Included in Firpo 2005. This brief essay provides an overview of Morone’s life, but equally important, it also offers an introduction to Firpo’s own interpretation of the cardinal’s career and its importance for understanding the Counter-Reformation more generally.

  • Firpo, Massimo. “Morone, Giovanni.” In Dizionario biografico degli italiani. Vol. 77. Rome: Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, 2012.

    The best, most concise overview of Morone’s life. The bibliography included at the end of the article is essential for any researcher. Available online.

  • Pastor, Ludwig von. History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages. 40 vols. Edited by Frederick Ignatius Antrobus, Ralph Francis Kerr, Ernest Graf, and E. F. Peeler. St. Louis, MO: Herder, 1936–1953.

    A translation of the classic treatment of the history of the Renaissance and Reformation papacy from the 15th century to the 18th. Pastor is sympathetic to Morone as an innocent victim of the Inquisition and mentions the cardinal in multiple volumes. Note that Volume 17 features the account of his trial before the Inquisition.

  • Robinson, Adam Patrick. The Career of Cardinal Giovanni Morone (1509–1580): Between Council and Inquisition. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012.

    An important intervention—not only the most thorough Anglophone treatment of Morone’s life, but also a critique of the dominant stance in the historiography taken by Massimo Firpo. The author argues against focusing narrowly on Morone’s imprisonment and conflicts surrounding the spirituali; instead, he highlights the complexity of the cardinal’s career as diplomat and pastor. See a response by Firpo 2012.

  • Scaramella, Pierroberto. “Una memoria non condivisa: L’immagine del cardinale Giovanni Morone da Frickius a Jedin.” In Il cardinale Giovanni Morone e l’ultima fase del concilio di Trento. Edited by Massimo Firpo and Ottavia Niccoli, 225–256. Bologna, Italy: Mulino, 2010.

    Perhaps the single best overview of the many biographies of Morone, providing a survey of the most important works from the 16th century to the 20th.

  • Sclopis, Frédéric. Le cardinal Jean Morone: Étude historique. Paris: Séances et Travaux des Sciences Morales et Politiques, 1869.

    An older overview to Morone’s life, from a sympathetic perspective. Focuses particularly on Morone’s diplomatic career, and omits much regarding his relationship with the Inquisition. Available online.

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