Last Updated on : Sunday, October 7, 2012
Brethren In Christ
5. "MY CONSCIENCE IS BOUND"
In the 16th century Italy was not a united country; it was a patchwork of independent states, including powerful dukedoms like Milan and Savoy, the unspeakably corrupt papal states, and most resplendent of all, the Most Serene Republic of Venice, "consort of the sea", which lasted a thousand years.
Venice today is somewhat of a museum piece slowly sinking into the Adriatic, but in the mid-16th century it was immensely rich and one of the world's most powerful nations. Its university at Padua was considered one of the very foremost in Europe, famous for medicine, law and the arts.
Venice has two of the greatest archival collections in Europe: the state archives of the republic and the Marciana Library in St. Mark's Square (Plate 12). This latter contains many manuscripts, letters and other documents pertaining to the fortunes of the Brethren in Christ in Italy.
These documents indicate that the preaching campaign of the Brethren in the Tyrol from 1527 onwards, despite the persecution it aroused, was not in vain. As a result, groups of believers came into being in many of the Alpine valleys, and then in the towns and cities of the north Italian plain. Before another twenty years had elapsed, perhaps thirty or forty organized, active ecclesias were scattered through the Venetian Republic and other Italian states. The names of those who guided them are there in the record books of fraternal gatherings and in letters: Francisco Negri of Chiavenna; Francisco della Sega of Venice, an avid correspondent; Niccolo Buccella, professor of anatomy at Padua university; Girolamo Busale; Girolamo Speranza, learned elder from Vicenza; Bernardino Ochino, whose story has already been told; Valentino Gentilis and Giorgio Biandrata, about whom more will be recounted shortly, and many others. It is quite amazing how quickly a corps of mature Italian brethren, well versed in the Scriptures, developed in the years 1528 to 1545. They met for conferences, prepared literature in Italian, and hoped that they would be spared the ferocious attacks which had decimated and scattered their German-speaking fellow-believers.
It was not to be. This period was a brief spell of relative freedom, to be followed by ruthless suppression. Biblical Christianity was seen as a deadly threat to the power and influence of the papacy and its
PLATE 11: Recent photograph of the building in Venice which in the_ 16th century housed the headquarters of the Papal legation in that republic. Here records were kept on the activities of the Italian Brethren and orders issued for their arrest and trial by the Inquisition.
PLATE 12: The Doge's Palace, Venice. The building to the right of the campanile is the Marciana Library. The infamous prison and Bridge of Sighs leading to it are immediately to the right of the palace. The convent of San Francesco della Vigna and the Papal legation next door are at top extreme right.
hangers-on. The Inquisition, created in the first place to extirpate Jews, was turned upon those who "kept the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus Christ". Spied upon relentlessly by church and state informers, they were never safe. Time after time their meetings ended abruptly with the clank of a mailed fist.
A stone's throw from the Marciana Library is the Palace of the Doge. In its vast halls and marble stairways the arts and crafts of man are overpoweringly displayed. The guides proudly show off the various gilded rooms: the Hall of the Four Doors, the Philosophers' Hall, the grim armouries, the Hall of the Council of Ten (that ruthless politburo of papal Venice) and the Doge's guest-apartment with quaint old maps around the walls. Most of the Doge's guests would be merchant princes, ambassadors and officials from countries near and far. The breath-taking grandeur of the Hall of the Great Council echoed mainly to the political wranglings of the sixteen hundred magistrates who crowded into it for official functions.
But on a November day in 1545 a different kind of voice was heard in the Palace of the Doge, the voice of a very courageous man, Pier Paolo Vergerio. He was granted audience with Doge Francesco Dona and delivered an impassioned plea to the world's richest prince for him to moderate the savage persecution, by the Inquisition, of the Brethren in Christ and others whose only 'sin' was to read and believe the Holy Scriptures (see PIER PAOLO VERGERIO'S APPEAL TO THE DOGE OF VENICE, 1545).
The reaction of His Most Serene Highness the Doge is not on record. The papal authorities, however, did not relax their unremitting crusade against the least murmur of dissent. To peruse the court records and minute books of the Inquisition is a sobering experience (see Plate 13). Here are the secret police files of a bygone age. Fascinating, except that the evidence consists of what we as Christadelphians endeavour to preach and teach week by week! One could learn the Truth from these documents.
There is the case of Niccolo Buccella, the anatomy professor from Padua. It appears that he was "infected with the devilish errors of the Moravian Brethren". For his suspected heretical views on baptism and the person of Christ (among other things) he was imprisoned and then brought before the Inquisitor. Buccella's quiet, courteous defence before that fearsome tribunal has been preserved in part:
PLATE 13: Official document from the papal legate in Venice, Giovanni Antonio Facchinetti ordering certain Brethren to be charged with heresy before the Inquisition.
Another document, signed by Buccella on behalf of two prison companions, indicates that, although their inquisitors "got very tired of trying to show them their most serious errors, they wish neither to recant nor reform but remain immovable in their beliefs".
Buccella was fortunate. He left Italy as an exile, became the private physician of Stephen Bathory, king of Hungary, and ended his days in Transylvania (Romania) among fellow-believers there.
Others were not so fortunate. In the convent of San Francesco della Vigna - still a beautiful Venetian landmark -- lived a certain Girolamo who, like many of his kind, enjoyed life doubling as monk and spy. The archives indicate that one day in 1574 he reported at the office of the Inquisition (Plate 11) suspicious behaviour by two men, Cornelio Sozzini and Claudio Textor, living in a house by the San Felice Bridge. The house was searched and "thirty seven incriminating books discovered in a big kitchen closet belonging to the owner, Gabriel the Greek". In short order, they were arrested, tortured and condemned to death. Judging by contemporary records, it was in a sad procession, with professional 'mourners' provided by a special guild, that the two were led down the infamous Calle do Morte to the quayside where they were "taken out in a gondola between the two castles and drowned".241
Probably no doctrines of the Brethren in Christ worried the Catholics more than the teaching that hades is the grave, gehenna a place of destruction and the devil wayward human passions. These struck at the very root of the horrible Romanist dogmas of eternal hell fire torments for the damned and the vast demonology with which the priests put mortal fear into their flocks.
Whenever things got too hot in Italy, fugitive members would head north to Moravia or Switzerland where their fellow-believers were ever ready to open their homes, perilous though this often was for both host and exile. There is no doubt that many letters between Brethren in Italy and in Moravia were intercepted by the Inquisition, and subsequently utilized to the full as incriminating evidence. One such letter by Francesco della Sega in Italy to his fellow-brethren in Moravia is illustrated in Plate 14; another -- Plate 7 -- is an interesting semi-official missive in the other direction, from the Moravian Brethren, referring to some brethren in Italy who must have been shaky in their understanding of the virgin birth and one or two other doctrines. Christ was begotten not "by the seed of Joseph", they warn, but "by the Holy Spirit, the power of God. He was the Word of God made flesh". "We want all of you in Italy to live perfectly in the Truth. We want you to understand the divine will, to the end that with sincere mind you may know Christ and embrace his righteousness and by it come to share in his fellowship eternally. . ."239
Valentino Gentilis was from Cosenza in the toe of Italy. He was suspected of asserting that "the Father alone is God of Himself,
PAGE 68 Inset: FROM PIER PAOLO VERGERIO'S APPEAL TO THE DOGE OF VENICE 1545
PLATE 14: Letter in German from the Italian Francesco della Sega to his fellow brethren in Moravia, concluding with a farewell to his family.
unbegotten, giver of essence to all other beings, but that the Son is of a derived essence from the Father and therefore not God of Himself".59 He deemed it expedient to cross into Switzerland, but found that he had only swapped a prison cell in Italy for one in Geneva. Calvin, who had no more patience with the Brethren than had the Roman Catholics, got the city court to pass sentence on him (see THE CONDEMNATION OF VALENTINO GENTILIS). Gentilis managed to escape and tried the canton of Bern instead. He soon realized that he had merely jumped from the frying-pan into the fire. The Bern government had already on its statute books some of the toughest legislation in Europe against the "pestiferous sect of the re-baptizers" (Plate 15). The poor man had barely crossed the border into the canton, and not reached anywhere near the city, when a police patrol grabbed him and marched him to Bern in irons. His baggage was, of course, searched and the papers were very incriminating, containing "many impious blasphemies". He was beheaded.
Giorgio Biandrata was Piedmontese, of aristocratic lineage (see INSET). His early years were spent in a region of the Alps which had been a refuge for the Vaudois (Waldenses) for centuries. There is no doubt that he was considerably influenced by the Vaudois, and in particular by a friend who belonged to them, Mattheo Gribaldi or Gribaud, who worried the authorities by his insistence on encouraging people to question many points of Roman Catholic doctrine. Biandrata himself fell foul of the Inquisition and had to flee to Switzerland in 1552 when he was thirty-seven years old. He managed to evade the clutches of a succession of governments whose spies were on his trail, and finally he wormed his way into the confidences of Polish and Transylvanian royalty. We shall meet this Giorgio Biandrata again, both in Poland and in Transylvania.
PAGE 71 Inset: GIORGIO BIANDRATA 1515-1590
PLATE 15: Cover page of the official copy of the Bern cantonal laws against the Brethren, Switzerland. It reads: Reminder and explanation of the previously and presently issued orders and decrees which were and are promulgated against the mischievous, dangerous and unsufferable sect of the Re-Baptizers and their followers and hangers-on. Titus 3:1 is quoted. These decrees were issued several times throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. They were often used as a model for other states throughout Europe.
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