THE BIBLE IN ITALY – from the Council of Trent to the Italian Republic
I have heard Roman Catholics say that the Council of Trent brought great improvements to the church. If so, the improvements barely touched Italy, where the religious authorities continued to hide criminal acts and the Bible disappeared for centuries from the hands of the laity. In fact, at the conclusion of the council, the two Italian translations which were accessible at that time (Malermi 1471 e Brucioli 1532) became effectively outlawed.
Many Roman Catholic authorities believed that giving the Bible to the laity was like giving pearls to swine. The only acceptable version was the Latin Vulgate, which few could read, while the laity was left with the Roman Catholic Catechism, hagiographies of saints, and, at least until 1678, biblical summaries.
Things appeared to be changing in the 18th-century, when Pope Benedict XIV promoted a new Italian translation in contemporary Tuscan. The work was completed by Antonio Martini in 1771, but its diffusion was soon condemned by Pius VII, who officially banned all Italian versions in 1820.
Protestants abroad could use a translation from the original texts by the Italian-Swiss pastor Giovanni Diodati, first published in Geneva in 1607. The British and Foreign Bible Society (SBBF), founded in 1804, worked hard to bring these Bibles into Italy, in spite of the harsh condemnation expressed in a series of papal decrees by Pius VII (1816), Leo XII (1824), Pius VIII (1829), Gregory XVI (1844), and Pius IX (1846).
Once again, the main reason for this censure was fear of misinterpretation. Bible societies, Gregory said, labored “to make accessible to everyone, including ‘the chatty old woman, the delirious old man, the longwinded sophist,’ as long as they can read.”
A second concern was political in nature. Some of these societies, Gregory feared, “while declaring themselves innocent of instigating civil revolutions, confess that liberty of interpreting Scriptures and the ensuing freedom of conscience will spontaneously generate political freedom” – which he perceived as a serious danger.
“The very clever Biblical Societies,” Pius IX echoed two years later, “renewing the ancient art of heretics, don’t spare any expense in disseminating to the most uncultured men the books of the Divine Scriptures, translated in common languages against the holiest prescriptions of the Church, and often corrupted with perverse explanations, so that everyone, forsaking the divine tradition, the doctrines of the Fathers, and the authority of the Catholic Church, may interpret God’s words at will.”
In 1849, during the brief period of “Roman Republic” (when the government of the Papal States was temporarily replaced by a republican government), French pastor Theodore Paul commissioned the publication in Rome of 4000 copies of the Diodati New Testament. He encountered many obstacles, including the obstinacy of a printer who – in the excitement of the political upheaval – changed the biblical word “publicans” to “republicans”. By the time the bibles were printed, however, Pope Pius IX came back to power and ordered all these copies to be sequestered and destroyed.
The following years saw a wave of fierce persecution. In 1851, a Florentine couple, Francesco e Rosa Madiai, both serving in the home of a British family in Florence, were arrested for owning copies of the Bible. After ten months in prison, where Francesco’s health deteriorated, they were tried in the Supreme Court and accused of “being promoters of the so-called Evangelical Confession, or of the pure gospel, and of proselytizing, not so much by teaching, but rather through the circulation of books and printed materials to the damage and dishonor of the Catholic religion.”
Francesco was condemned to four years and eight months of hard labor and Rosa to three years and nine months of prison. They also had to pay all legal expenses. After serving their time, they would be released in provisional freedom, under police surveillance for a period of three years.
Thankfully, after a flood of letters of protest from the US and many European countries, their punishment was changed to exile the following year. The couple moved to Nice, France, where they worked for the Bible Society. They returned to Florence in 1859, thanks to a change in government.
This was only one of the most publicized cases. The list of arrests and exiles is too long to be included here. Even the unification of Italy in 1861 brought little change in this matter. A symbolic victory was obtained on September 20, 1870, when representatives of the Bible Society entered Rome with a cartful of Italian Bibles to celebrate the Italian army’s defeat of the pope secular power.
An Illiterate Country
This event didn’t mark a sudden surge of Protestantism in Italy. Tradition was still strong, and the Roman Catholic Church had done little or nothing to defeat the country’s prevailing illiteracy. In 1861, 74.7% of the Italian population was illiterate (much like Spain’s 75%), a dismaying percentage, especially when compared to 31% in England, 20% in the US, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and 10% in Scandinavia. Even if people could obtain a copy of the Bible, few could actually read it.
These statistics testify of the efforts of the Protestant Reformation, which placed God’s written Word over visual images. Instead of stooping to the level of the illiterate by translating the Bible into arbitrary pictures, Protestants fought illiteracy by building schools and promoting education in order to enable the people to read Scriptures on their own.
One of the first Italian schools for the common people was opened by the evangelical Matilde Calandrini, a descendent of the Calandrini family who, in the 16th century, had attended Peter Martyr Vermigli’s church in Lucca, Italy, and had fled to Switzerland to escape persecution. She was, however, expelled from Tuscany in 1846.
Another problem was the language itself. Even if the Bible had been translated into Italian, few people in Italy spoke that language. After centuries of political division, each region (or, in some cases, each city), had its own language which was often quite different than the official Italian. Once again, efforts of educating the masses were discouraged. In 1868, the official Jesuit paper Civiltà Cattolica denounced any attempt to teach Italian to “droves of little uncivilized farmers,” comparing it to “washing a donkey’s head.”
In spite of these serious handicaps, Italian Bibles and tracts were distributed in the remotest regions of Italy by traveling salesmen called colportori. It was a dangerous task, because the Roman Catholic Church continued to oppose them, so much that most of the people considered the Bible a “Protestant” book. One of the worst incidents of persecution happened in 1866, when church officials in Barletta (in the heel of the Italian boot), encouraged the local population to raid the homes of evangelicals and drag them in the streets. Six evangelicals died that day.
Religious repression continued during the Fascist era, when proselytizing was forbidden and speaking against the Roman Catholic Church was a punishable crime. Things improved slowly after WW2. In 1948, the Constitution created by the new Italian republic allowed freedom of religion, while the Roman Catholic Church remained the official state religion until 1983.
I grew up in Italy in the 1950’s and remember the word Protestant being barely mentioned, as teachers warned children against this “heretical religion”. In public schools, we had a weekly hour of religious instruction (taught by a priest), which was mostly a reiteration of the catechism we learned for our first communion. Even at church, priests would only read small portions of the Bible in Latin, following an annual cycle. The only things I remember from church were the public confession of sins (because we had to beat our chests) and the Mass.
Things changed partially with the Second Vatican Council (1965), when the altar was turned toward the congregation and the Italian language was allowed to be spoken in churches. I read a few pages of the Bible for the first time in my teenage years but still found few priests willing to explain those portions (giving me uncertain and contradictory interpretations).
Some things are improving today, but centuries of religious repression are hard to erase. Granted, a few things changed for the better after the Council of Trent, especially regarding the education of the clergy, but it has been a long, protracted progress which was mostly restricted to some regions. To all those who believe the church’s claims of impressive progress after Trent, I encourage you to read a few pages of Italian history, or travel to the beautiful Italian country-side and see what most people – even today – know about the Bible or Christ.
 Pope Gregory XVI, Encyclical Letter, Inter Precipuas, 1844, https://w2.vatican.va/content/gregorius-xvi/it/documents/encyclica-inter..., my translation.
 Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Letter, Qui Pluribus, 1846, https://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-ix/it/documents/enciclica-qui-pluribu..., my translation
 Giudizio della Suprema Corte di Cassazione, Florence, 1852, pp. 140-141, my translation http://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/de/fs1/object/display/bsb10394378_0...
 Civiltà Cattolica, 19.2.7 (1868), quoted in Tullio de Mauro, Storia Linguistica dell’Italia Unita, Bari-Roma: Laterza, 2017, p. 45, my translation.
 Using the official Roman Catholic translation (CEI), which was first published in 1971.